What are the Different Types of Auto Paint? (with pictures)

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.

A man painting a car.
A man painting a car.

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.

For auto body repairs, the body of the a vehicle must be properly prepared before paint can be applied.
For auto body repairs, the body of the a vehicle must be properly prepared before paint can be applied.

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.

The newest auto paint technologies are non-toxic and water-based.
The newest auto paint technologies are non-toxic and water-based.

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.

The four basic types of auto paint are acrylic lacquer, acrylic enamel, acrylic urethane, and water-based.
The four basic types of auto paint are acrylic lacquer, acrylic enamel, acrylic urethane, and water-based.

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.

Enamel paint may be used with spray guns.
Enamel paint may be used with spray guns.