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March 22, 2023
Water- vs. Alcohol-Based Acrylics
containers of various colors

Many model painters and figurine enthusiasts wonder about the difference between water- and alcohol-based acrylics. When painting with acrylics, artists want to know that their final product will come out smooth and covered, rather than watery or clumpy. Learning the differences between and the uses for alcohol- and water-based acrylics can help you purchase suitable paints.

What Are Water-Based Acrylic Paints?

What is water-based acrylic paint, and what is it useful for? Water-based acrylic paints are non-toxic and safe without any smell or harmful fumes. They are considered one of the safest paint types and are often used in scale modeling due to their variety and availability of colors. You can find hundreds of colors, from pastels and basics to metallics and neon.

Water-based acrylics use water to thin out the paint and create a clean finish. Some manufacturers will also offer their own thinners better suited for various applications like hand painting or airbrushing. Using a brand-name thinner may offer paint improvements, making applying easier.

This type of acrylic paint performs well when used in modeling. Water-based acrylic has a great baseline but dries quickly. Keep its fast drying abilities in mind when airbrushing, as paint could dry on the tip of the airbrush, resulting in a poor application. However, you can use retarders, needle lubrication or flow improvers to reduce the acrylic's drying time.

Due to their fast drying time, water-based acrylic paints may be challenging to weather or blend. It might falter when it comes to long-term durability. Water-based acrylics are better suited for beginner applications and uses, such as basic painting and detail work. While beginners can easily use water-based paints, advanced painters prefer them for many applications, meaning they fit all skill levels.

What Are Alcohol-Based Acrylic Paints?

Alcohol-based acrylic paints, also known as solvent-based paints or acrylic lacquers, use a mixture of alcohols acting as a solvent. These kinds of acrylic paints may behave very differently than water-based paints.

Alcohol-based acrylics also have a strong smell, and you must work in a ventilated area if you paint with them. Ensure you take the proper precautions to protect yourself, such as using a spray booth, buying a respirator and wearing thick gloves. 

Many model painters use alcohol-based acrylics when airbrushing, as they can pair them with lacquer thinners for high performance and smooth application. These acrylics usually have a vibrant finish but still dry quickly, like water-based acrylics. This means brush-painting with alcohol-based acrylic paints may be more complex than other applications like detail work or basic painting.

What Are Lacquer Paints?

Besides acrylic paints, many model hobbyists use lacquer paints for various applications. Lacquer paints are a kind of paint that uses cellulose-based solvents. However, lacquer paints are not a safe material due to their base, meaning you'll have to take several measures to protect yourself and others from the potent smell, toxic fumes or harmful chemicals. 

Only use lacquer paints in a well-ventilated room or invest in a quality spray booth. You should always wear a respirator and thick nitrate gloves when using lacquer. Keep in mind that lacquer often eats through plastic, paint and decals. If you plan to paint with lacquer, it is best practice to use a thin coat or spray at all times. Slowly building up layers can help protect each coating as you paint. 

Another thing to note about lacquer paints is their fast drying times, making it hard to do basic smoothing, blending or brush painting. This is why many hobbyists use lacquer paints for airbrushing, as they fit well with the application and perform well when sprayed in light increments. Unlike alcohol- or water-based acrylic, lacquer paint won't build up on the airbrushing tip, meaning you can efficiently work for long periods.

Lacquer paints are known for their durable finish, making great primers for models you want to last a long time. You can find lacquer paints in a variety of metallic and basic colors.

Enamel paints have strong vapors

What Are Enamel Paints?

Other model enthusiasts enjoy using enamel paints when painting their figurines. Enamel paints were first designed for model kits and figures, making them a classic choice for hobbyists. These paints use an alkyd binder and acrylic resin to create a solvent with a petroleum base.

Enamel paints have a strong vapor and smell, similar to lacquer paints. You'll have to use them in a well-ventilated area while wearing a respirator. You can also invest in a quality spray booth to ensure the smell and vapors do not spread.

Enamel paints are the longest-drying paint of all these options. The enamel uses a unique curing process to create a chemical change, ensuring the paint dries into a durable, hard shell compared to other paint finishes. However, you'll have to remember that the surface may seem hard, even when drying is still underway.

Model and figurine hobbyists like to use enamels for brush painting, as the slow drying time allows them to clean up mistakes, self-level and even out brush strokes. You can also reactivate the enamel long after the paint has become dry to the touch.

Enamel paints can be thinned with various materials, including mineral spirits, white spirits, petroleum-based products, xylene, turpentine or odorless oil thinners. Remember that using an enamel thinner could cause brittle plastic, pooling the paint on your model's surface.

What Is the Best Type of Acrylic Paint for Models?

Many model painters and figurine hobbyists wonder about the best type of acrylic paint for models. Choosing the right model paint for your application will depend on the material and available paint types for scale modeling on the market. Most hobbyists agree that water-based acrylics are better for figurine painting, while alcohol-based acrylics work well with model painting.

The kind of paint you choose may also depend on what application you'll use. For example, airbrushing works better with model vehicles than figurines. Alcohol-based acrylics work well with an airbrush because they don't require priming and dry quickly. Use water-based acrylic paint to free paint, brush or work on details. Airbrushing with water-based acrylics may be more challenging and require retarders or lubrication, while alcohol-based paints spray smoothly and clean easily.

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Browse Our Paint Options at Auto World Store

Auto World Store offers many products for model-painting enthusiasts and figurine hobbyists. We are your one-stop shop for hobby-related items, like slot cars, model kits, race sets, diecast vehicles and accessories. Auto World Store offers a wide selection of high-quality paints from reliable brands. Working with top licensors, we provide American muscle replicas, various model kit lines from popular companies and limited edition exclusives you won't find at other businesses. Contact us today to speak to a representative if you have any questions.