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What Type of Paint Can You Use on Plastic Models?

Updated April 17, 2017

While many recent model kits come decorated, complete with weathered paint and decals, part of the adventure in building traditional plastic model kits lies in the painting. The available choices in paints and finishes make the modelling project even more exciting. Your choice as to which paint to use is determined by the finish you seek for your model.

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Model Paints vs. Craft Paints

Model paint is designed for use on plastic models. It is formulated to hold tight to styrene, the most commonly used plastic for kit making. These paints are designed to be used with both an airbrush and a conventional brush.

Like model paint, craft paint will work on most kinds of plastic. While acrylic craft paints are generally less expensive than model acrylics, their consistency is much more suited to a conventional brush than an airbrush.

If your model features large areas that require painting, you might consider using model paints and an airbrush.

Enamel Paints vs. Acrylic Paints

Enamel paints for models are generally excellent paints. They dry quickly, adhere nicely to plastic, and cover very well. They are great for use in an airbrush. Gloss enamels can create beautifully shiny surfaces.

The drawback to enamel paints is that they are oil based and therefore require thinner to reduce them and to clean brushes. They carry a distinct odour and should only be used in well-ventilated work areas.

Acrylic paints, both in craft form and for plastic models, are generally excellent as well. They, too, dry quickly and in most cases adhere well to plastic. Plastic model acrylics airbrush very well, although most craft acrylics do not. While there are some gloss-finish paints out there, acrylic paints excel at creating exquisite matt finishes.

The advantage to acrylic paints is that they are water based, making cleanup and thinning very efficient. They don't always cover as well as enamels due to their water-based nature, and are not as effective at creating a gloss finish.

If your model requires a gloss finish, you will want to use enamels. If your final finish will be matt you might consider acrylic paints.

Enamels vs. Lacquers

Enamels are oil-based paints that can be airbrushed or conventionally brushed to produce a bright, glossy finished.

Lacquers are oil-based paints that are almost always airbrushed to create breathtakingly lustrous gloss finishes.

Where enamel paints can be buffed and polished to produce a realistically shiny finish for a car, lacquer paints will create a finish that has more depth and lustre.

Lacquers, however, generally require a higher degree of skill to use than enamel paints.


Most model kits are moulded in a type of plastic called styrene. Sytrene is slightly flexible and holds fine details extremely well.

Some kits, particularly small scale figures, are moulded in a slick plastic called polythene. This plastic also holds excellent details but has a greater degree of flexibility. Paints, as a result, tend to crack and peel off of polythene plastic.

Enamel paints generally adhere better to polythene than acrylics, but will eventually peel off.

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About the Author

Novelist, publisher and freelance writer John Reinhart began writing professionally in 1988. He brings more than 20 years of experience in customer service management, business journalism, marketing and education. Reinhart holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from California State University, Chico.

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