Acrylic vs. Enamel Paint for Scale Models

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Painting scale model cars is an enjoyable pastime, especially as you see your progress develop. But it takes some work and thought. Paint types, application methods and finish treatments can vary depending on the specific model car you're dealing with. While the process is fun for people of all ages, many enthusiasts express confusion over which options to choose when painting their scale models.

So what's the best paint for plastic models? People most often ask questions about acrylic vs. enamel model paint. Which is the best paint for scale models? What are the differences between acrylic and enamel paint? 

As you enjoy the process of assembling and painting, you should ensure you're using the best paint for plastic models. Choosing between acrylic and enamel paint for scale models depends on you and your preferences. As you continue reading, you'll learn about the differences between acrylic and enamel paint for scale models, as well as the best paint for plastic models, so you can better decide which type to use.

Acrylic Paint: Pros and Cons

Acrylic Paint for Plastic Models: Pros and Cons

Acrylic paint is an excellent option for painting your plastic model cars, and it has seen an increase in popularity in recent years. But is it the right choice for you and your current needs? Here's what you should know about acrylic paint for scale models.

  • Quality: While some people in the model car community prefer to use enamel, you can enjoy fantastic results when you paint your model car with acrylic. Painting scale models with acrylic usually requires starting with a coat of primer. After that, you may need to use several coats of acrylic paint to get the coverage you desire. With the right care, you can get an impressive outcome with acrylic paint. 
  • Skill level needed: Many model car enthusiasts consider acrylic paint to be a better option for beginners. It's easy to apply, inexpensive and emits fewer harmful fumes than enamel paint. And since it's a breeze to clean up acrylic paint — you'll only need warm water or alcohol — beginners can paint with confidence. As you start painting model cars, there's bound to be some spillage or drips here and there. A little spilled acrylic paint is much more manageable than an enamel paint spill. 
  • Soluble: Acrylic paint is water-soluble. That means you can use water to thin acrylic paint, which is useful for spraying. You'll have to mix your acrylic paint with water to get it to spray, making it safer and more environmentally friendly than chemical-soluble options. Being water-soluble also helps with cleanup, since you can use water or alcohol to clean your brushes and other tools when you finish painting for the day. Using water makes acrylic paint an easier option to manage. 
  • Drying speed: If you want your work to dry as soon as possible after your painting session, choose acrylic paint. Acrylic paint could be dry to the touch within 10 to 15 minutes of application and finish curing within a day or so. If drying speed is essential to you, acrylic paint is your ideal option. You can worry less about accidental smudges in the hours and days after painting when you use acrylic paint. 
  • Color selection: Since acrylic paint is water-soluble, manufacturers can create more colors, thanks to pigments' ability to dissolve more readily in water than in other substances like oil. If you plan on doing detailed work with a rainbow of colors for different designs and textures, choose acrylic paint. You'll have plenty of colors to select from for your model car painting project. 
  • Color hold: When using acrylic for models, you should expect the color to fade a little bit over time. Acrylic paint provides excellent, long-lasting results, but the colors can lose their vibrancy as the years go by. This fading effect is more evident if you leave your model car exposed to direct sunlight. You'll have to take some extra precautions to preserve your acrylic paint's good looks, but the many benefits could make this slight shortcoming worth it. 
  • Durability: Many people believe acrylic paint lacks durability because it is water-soluble. When it dries, acrylic paint hardens into a durable finish that offers decent protection for your model car's plastic components. Though you can wash acrylic paint off your brushes and tools with warm water, it becomes waterproof after drying. Despite this, acrylic paint may not be the best option if you plan on handling your model car after the paint dries. Human touch can remove the finish over time. 
  • Toxicity: Since acrylic paint cures through water evaporation, it's much less toxic than enamel paint. This quality means you can use acrylic paint indoors with minimal ventilation, and you won't have to worry about any dangerous side effects from inhaling the fumes. It's always healthy to have adequate airflow in the room where you're painting your model car. But with acrylic paint, you don't have to worry about headaches or the health of your pets or other family members who might pass through as you work. 
  • Finishes and brushstrokes: Acrylic paint will look the same way when it's dry as it does when you finish painting. You'll need to be careful to apply an even coat since acrylic paint doesn't self-level. When you use acrylic paint, you'll also have to be cautious about brushstrokes. It's easy to leave behind visible signs of the brush you used when painting with acrylic. When the paint dries, you might see the brushstrokes in the paint's finish. 

Enamel Paint: Pros and Cons

Enamel Paint for Plastic Models: Pros and Cons

Now that you know more about acrylic paint, you can compare acrylic vs. enamel differences for scale models.

  • Quality: Enamel paint has a reputation for high-quality results in the model car community. Enamel paint is thicker than acrylic and relies on a chemical reaction with the air during its curing process. That contributes to its high-quality consistency and results. You can apply fewer coats of enamel paint than acrylic to achieve full, rich coverage. Most of the time, you can skip the primer for enamel paint on scale models and start painting your model car. 
  • Skill level needed: Enamel paint involves a few more considerations than acrylic paint, making it better suited to more advanced model car enthusiasts. As you'll learn, painting with enamel is not as simple as painting with acrylic. You could get some great results, but you need to know what you're getting into before taking on an enamel painting project. 
  • Solvent: Enamel paint uses an oil-based solvent to absorb its pigment and cure on your plastic model car after application. If you want to thin your enamel paint for different application purposes, you'll have to use something other than water. Water and oil do not mix, so be sure to use mineral spirits or another manufacturer-recommend paint thinner when spraying enamel paint for models. You'll use the same paint thinner to clean your brushes and tools. 
  • Drying speed: Enamel paint takes much longer than acrylic paint to fully dry. After applying, you should put your freshly painted model car somewhere safe where it can cure for one to three days. This curing period will give the chemical reaction between the oil and the air adequate time to happen. 
  • Color hold: Enamel paint is one of the best options on the market for holding its color. With the correct application, curing time and prolonged care, enamel paint can maintain its rich color and beautiful finish for many years. It may take longer to cure than acrylic paint, but many model car enthusiasts trust enamel paint as the best choice for longevity. Your model car can show your beautiful painting work for years to come. 
  • Color selection: As you consider acrylic vs. enamel paint for model cars, you should look at the available color selection. As you learned above, acrylic paint has plenty of colors to keep you busy and inspire your next model car design. Enamel paint might have a slight edge in quality, but it offers fewer color options than acrylic paint. You'll still have lots of choices to work with, but if you prefer a broad selection, enamel paint might leave you wanting more. 
  • Durability: The durability of acrylic vs. enamel paint on scale models is a paramount consideration as you approach the process of painting your model car. Enamel paint resists peeling and discoloration, so you can show it off to your friends or admire the work you put into it for many years. And you can even hold your enamel-painted model car with confidence since it is resistant to human touch.
  • Toxicity: Enamel paint relies on a chemical reaction between its oil-based solvent and oxygen to cure, which means you're going to deal with toxic fumes when working with enamel paint. While acrylic uses water evaporation for curing, enamel paint will send harmful chemicals into the air you breathe. You'll need plenty of ventilation to keep your pets and loved ones safe from these fumes as you work. This toxicity is a deal-breaker for many, especially those who have respiratory problems. 
  • Finishes and brushstrokes: Enamel paint has a self-leveling quality that helps it achieve a smooth, even finish. You can worry less about leaving behind brushstrokes when you paint enamel. As the enamel cures, it shifts slightly to give an even coat and fill in slight imperfections. For this reason, many people choose enamel paint for complete coverage of their model cars. 

Tools You Need to Paint Your Model Car

Tools You Need to Paint Your Plastic Model Car

Assemble all the tools you'll need to paint your model car beforehand. The last thing you want is to start the painting process and realize you are missing a specific brush or lack another tool to get the job done. Here are some of the main tools you should have on hand before beginning your model car painting project.

  • Paintbrushes: You'll need a wide range of paintbrush sizes. Small, fine-tipped brushes are ideal for detailed work, and broader ones can help you quickly cover expansive areas. You'll find a use for every size in between as you paint your model car. 
  • Spray cans: Spray cans are excellent for complete, even coverage. You can buy your favorite type of paint in a spray can if you want to do parts of your project without dealing with brushstrokes. 
  • Paint sprayers: A paint sprayer is an upfront investment, but over time, you'll save money by having one instead of purchasing spray cans. Be sure to thin your paint based on the manufacturer's directions. 
  • Dropcloths: Use these to protect the surrounding area from paint droplets and sprays. It'll save a lot of time during cleanup. 
  • Tape: Use tape to keep paint off parts of your model car that you want to leave bare or use another color on. Painter's tape can help you create sharp, straight lines without leaving a sticky residue behind. 
  • A model holder: You'll also want something to hold your model car while you're painting it, which will keep your hands clean and protect the model car from fingerprints. 
  • Sandpaper: Use high-grit sandpaper to sand down your model car before painting and between layers of paint. This step is essential after applying primer when using acrylic paint.

How to Store Your Model Paint

Whether you choose acrylic vs. enamel for plastic models, one thing remains the same — you'll need to store the paint when you finish your project. The paint used for plastic models can be hazardous to the environment in the absence of proper storage or disposal. It's always a good idea to read the paint's label for storage information, but we've included some tips here to help you know what to do when you finish painting. 

  • Keep all your leftover paint together: Your leftover paint can become a treasure trove for inspiration the next time you want to paint a model car. Keeping all your leftover paint together will help you see at a glance what colors you have and which you'll need for your next project. 
  • Buy or make an organizer: Upgrade your paint storage situation with a holding container. This solution can be as simple as a plastic box to hold your small paint cans and bottles, or it could be a large shelf where you keep quarts and gallons. A paint organizer can also keep your paint safe from pets or children at play. 
  • Take it to a hazardous waste site for proper disposal: If you decide you want to get rid of your paint, take it to your local hazardous waste disposal site. You should never throw paint away with your regular garbage or dump it down the drain. Call your municipality or do online research to determine the best way to get rid of paint in your area. 

Get Your Model Car Hobby Started With Auto World Store

Get Your Model Car Hobby Started With Auto World Store

Whether you're new to model cars or have enjoyed them for years, Auto World Store is your source for anything you might need. We have a range of exciting products for you to add to your collection and bring back warm memories of days gone by. And we're always getting new items in stock, so be sure to stay up to date on our website for inspiration. And when it's time to paint, we have an extensive paint selection for you to choose from.

The good old days live on with Auto World Store products. Browse our website or contact us today for more information, and happy painting!