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What Are the Different Types of Auto Paint?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 17, 2024
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Auto paint has changed dramatically since the late 1800s, and today’s market offers no less than four different types to choose from. Let’s take a quick look at the different kinds of auto paint and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The four basic types of paint available today are: acrylic lacquer, acrylic enamel, acrylic urethane and water-based. We’ll drop “acrylic” and simply refer to them as lacquers, enamels, urethanes and water-based.

Lacquer-based auto paint was popular between the mid 1920s and 1960s, and is still available today, though it has become illegal in certain areas. Lacquer paint is cheap and goes on easy for the inexperienced painter, plus it provides a nice high gloss. However, it also chips easily being a relatively “soft” paint, and it doesn’t stand up well to UV and chemicals, making it a short-lived paint job. Lacquer auto paint is available in aerosol spray cans and for use with spray guns, but is not generally recommended.

Enamel paints dry to a hard shell making them tougher than lacquer paints. Professional shops bake on enamel paint in heated bays or "ovens," but enamels are also available in aerosol cans and for use with spray guns. Enamels, while tougher than lacquer, do not lay down as easily as lacquer paint, making them trickier for the Do-It-Yourselfer (DIYer) to apply. This translates to more finishing work. Some enamel colors require a clear topcoat, known as a two-stage system, while others can be used alone, referred to as a single-stage system.

Urethane paints are newer than enamels, are more expensive and more trouble, but they lay down easily like lacquer while having the toughness of enamels. This auto paint requires three products: the color, a reducer to thin the color to the right viscosity for the spray gun, and a catalyst used to accelerate drying time. Once the paint is mixed, it must be used quickly and unused paint must be discarded. Urethane auto paint is highly toxic, and though a facemask is standard for all paint jobs, gloves, coveralls, and a respirator are mandatory for working with urethane auto paint.

Like enamels, urethanes can be used alone or in multi-stage paint systems that utilize a final protective clearcoat. A two-stage urethane paint system is the most recommended system as it provides easy-on paint, minimum finish work, and optimum results: a paint job that, with a little care, can look brand new year after year. Urethane clearcoat is also purchased as three products: clear, reducer and catalyst to be used with a spray gun, though there is form of urethane clearcoat available in an aerosol can.

The newest auto paint technology has brought us non-toxic water-based paints. These paints are the most versatile of all, able to be applied to metal, primer, or to an existing paint job. Water-based auto paint is especially popular for use in adding graphics to a vehicle or motorcycle, but can also be used to paint the entire vehicle. Being non-toxic this choice is perfect for the DIYer to use in the home garage, however it does require a topcoat of clear urethane to protect the paint.

Water-based paint is no doubt the future of the auto paint industry, however the line of colors is still expanding. If looking to add graphics or change your vehicle’s color, water-based auto paint is an option. If looking to re-paint a panel with a need to match factory paint, you might have to wait for the introduction of pre-mixed factory colors, or let a professional shop do the job for you.

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Discussion Comments

By anon319246 — On Feb 11, 2013

Not much point in forcing everyone into going water based, like they did in the US in January 2013, if it still requires deadly urethane anyway, is there?

The whole point of solvent based paints is so you don't need sterile laboratory conditions and a gazilion dollar downdraft setup like water based requires.

Remember the General Motors nightmare from using water based paints, with paint peeling off in sheets at a time? Well, it is water colors!

I know several friends who have tried Dupont Cromax water and hated it. Just another government ploy to shaft the little guy.

By anon267287 — On May 09, 2012

With the onset of water-based auto paint how does one care for it? Can you use conventional petroleum-based cleaners, wax, bug and tar remover, or does one have to go to some other type of car care materials, like synthetic waxes and cleaners?

By anon163581 — On Mar 28, 2011

Personally, I prefer the lacquer paint. It goes on easy. And to retain much of its gloss for years, you simply apply a clear coat of lacquer. It is, in fact, a softer paint, but not by much.

Factor this in: How can the other (harder paints) withstand stone chips, bird droppings that will eat at any type of paint, door dings and etc? The only thing I can think of here is that I have repaired a lot of door dings because body metal is thinner, to the point of very lightly scuffing the newer urethanes. Meaning that you can buff them out. But the ding still stays.

To repair the ding, you have to open the paint, fill the ding, and repaint! At this point it does not matter what type of paint was used! Bottom line: Lacquers are just getting hard to purchase.

By anon145001 — On Jan 21, 2011

i painted my old truck with straight spray paint (primer/base/clear) and it looked terrible within a year. recently purchased entire automotive paint system and love the way urethane lays down and holds up.

By anon136084 — On Dec 21, 2010

Water-based auto paint is not glossy in itself. You still have to put a solvent based urethane clear over the top to get a glossy and durable finish. Urethane basecoat/clearcoat is best to use overall.

By raresteak — On Jul 19, 2010

Overspray is usually a negative in auto detailing. Overspray is the term for when drifting paint gets on cars, buildings, etc. accidentally while painting with aerosol. There are businesses created just to clean overspray off surfaces.

By anon74216 — On Mar 31, 2010

Great info.

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