Lacquer was the industry standard for automobile finishes from early nitrocellulose to later acrylic formulas up until the early 1980's when increased environmental awareness caused attention to be placed on the switch to less harmful acrylic enamels. The 1980 Lincoln Versailles became the first car to offer metallic finishes in acrylic enamel. Not long after, acrylic enamels became the standard on all 1982 Chevrolet Corvettes. From there acrylic enamels have gained exclusive use by all US auto makers, and in large part by international manufacturers as well.

Does this mean the end of lacquer? Well, not quite. Lacquer maintains a strong niche market. The fact that acrylic enamel is now the industry standard means that the demand for lacquer has been greatly diminished, however the need for it still remains in restoration work and as an economical alternative to acrylic enamel. Major paint producers still catalog formulas for lacquer paints dating back to the 1940's and earlier. Even some nitrocellulose lacquers are still available from specialty companies. Eventually lacquer may be phased out of use entirely but certainly not anytime soon.

Enough about what was, is and will be with lacquers and enamels. The following text takes a closer look at what they're really all about, how they compare to one another, and what you should consider when using them.


Easier to work with. Lacquers offer simple formulas in a single stage format which require less work for the painter to mix, maintain and apply with consistency. This simplicity also makes custom paint work applications easier to perform.

Quicker drying time. This helps eliminate the problem of runs or sags developing while applying coats and lessens the chance that an airborne contaminant will attract and attach to the surface. If these problems do occur it isn't necessary to wait long before wiping or sanding imperfections away.

More economical. Lacquer materials are consistently less expensive on a one to one basis compared to automotive acrylic enamels.

Availability of factory original colors. Most all original paint colors applied to cars before acrylic enamels were standardized are not currently available in anything except lacquer formulas.


Environmentally unfriendly. Up to 85% of a lacquer paint's chemical makeup may be released into the atmosphere through evaporation while spraying and drying.

Lacquer dulls while drying. Buffing and polishing are required to bring out the gloss qualities of lacquer unless a clearcoat is specifically used.

Susceptible to damage from environmental conditions. This refers to weathering and exposure to sunlight that can affect the appearance of a paint finish. For the typical display model these conditions are not applicable.


Alkyd enamels are one-part paints that are now rarely used in favor of acrylic enamels. Although they dry glossy and are environmentally friendly, alkyd enamels are generally considered poor quality paints. They require wetter applications which make them susceptible to runs, sags and airborne contaminants, and they lack durability. In addition, alkyd enamel overspray is difficult to remove. Since alkyds are no longer commonly in use they will not be discussed in depth here.


Very durable and resistant to damage from environmental conditions.

Quick buffing time. The chemical reaction curing of acrylic enamel can allow a finish to be buffed within 24 hours after being applied.

Excellent gloss. The better flow properties and chemical makeup of acrylic enamel make it so.

Easier to repair. If flaws or damage occurs to the surface of the clearcoat it can be repaired easily without affecting the colorcoat beneath.


More difficult to work with. The required use of a hardening catalyst makes painting with acrylic enamels more time restrictive due to chemical reaction curing. Left mixed for too long, paint can harden within a sealed container or may even harden within an airbrush before spraying. This extra additive also makes mixing paint formulas more complex.

More toxic. Although acrylic enamels are safer for the atmosphere they can be more dangerous to living beings. Some hardening catalysts can fuse to the linings of the respiratory system if inhaled, potentially causing long term health problems, and some acrylic enamels contain isocyanates, a caner causing material considered to be the most toxic paint ingredient known.

More expensive. The materials alone cost more themselves, but the addition of having to use a hardening catalyst along with shelf life limitations of acrylic enamel materials only add to expenses.

This Tutorial was written for informational purposes only rather than as a basis to steer readers toward one paint over another. As you can see, each have their good and bad points. Overall, I personally consider lacquer's better balance of quality, performance and ease of use combined with a lower health risk make it advantageous for hobby use. That's why I use lacquer exclusively and recommend it over acrylic enamel.