Before you select the type of paint you will use for your project, you should consider the following factors:

How is the painted project going to be used?

  1. For display purposes only.
  2. For use in a home environment.
  3. For use on an operating carousel.

The next step is to determine which paint is most suitable for the intended use.

  1. Display animals need not be painted with a high endurance paint. The paint must provide a semi-glossy or glossy surface to prevent the attraction of dust. This can be provided by a final clear coat.
  2. For home use, such as a rocking horse, it must be durable, washable, and safe for children. The paint can not contain any lead. It also should have a semi-glossy or glossy finish.
  3. For use on an operating carousel or outside display it must be durable, washable, weatherproof, and have a glossy finish. It must comply with safety requirements for use by children. It should also comply with being lead free as the paint will eventually be either sanded or removed. The hazardous materials can be inhaled as a dust (from sanding) or a dust-gas from chemical stripping or heat stripping.

Then, select the paint according to the above:

Water based paints: Water colors, tempera and poster paints are usually not suitable because they are not durable and not washable. It is feasible to clear coat them but is not recommended. There are water-based stains but a stain is transparent.

Acrylic paints: Soluble with water when wet, waterproof when dry. Very fast drying! Readily available, wide range of colors, tubes or pre-mixed tones or shades. Water base does dry out the wood, but does seal the wood from outside moisture. Do not weather well as to the variance in expansion and contraction vs. the wood. Not considered highly durable. New combinations of latex-polymer-alkyd combinations are more durable but are difficult to work with as they are "icky" to apply and get "tacky" quickly but dry slowly. They are great for some outdoor display applications.

Artist tube oils: Linseed oil based are lead free, compatible with wood. Non-toxic if the new alkyd (linseed oil) based types are used. The new formulas dry much quicker than early formulas. They do dry based upon color and medium used. Must cure out completely before clear coating, which may take as long as 3 to 6 months. Clear coat must be applied for durability and to seal.

Sign Paint or Japan Paint: Oil based and are more compatible to wood. Japan Paints were the traditional paint used on the early carved animals. Highly pigmented and dries flat and quickly. More expensive and not readily available. Some colors still contain lead. READ EACH LABEL CAREFULLY. Do not mix in studio application well but a ride range of pre-mixed shades are available. Must be clear coated for durability.

Alkyd enamels: (linseed oil based) The most durable of all paints, compatible to wood, and mixable with any of the other linseed based paints giving it a wide range of colors. Easily available at any paint or hardware store. For home use you can eliminate the final clear coat if semi-gloss or glossy types are used. Can be clear coated for an even more durable surface. When mixed with tube oils, it speeds of drying time and adds durability. Can be mixed with sign paint also.

The last factor which should be considered is the "smell". The acrylic paints do have a slight odor, the oil based paints use thinner for clean-up, etc. If this odor is a factor, you can either take measures such as ventilation and masks. If the acrylic fits into the other criteria it can be used.

Personal choices of the materials can also help in determining the paint selected. I personally do not like acrylic paint on anything bigger that 12" high. I also do not like the depth of color. I do like it for special effects and glazes. I am very familiar with all the paints but like my carrousel animals to have the "wow" that the oil based paints can give them. I may mix enamel, oil, and sign paint to achieve an effect or color that I want. I sometimes use the new water-based polymers for the final clear coat but it is not as durable and the regular varathanes or polyurathanes. It is just easier to apply.

Remember to always keep your paint in the same paint family...do not mix types. The exception is the final clear coat.

If you have any questions or comments, e-mail me by clicking Here.



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Bette Largent is a professional carousel horse restoration artist from Washington State, and the author of Paint The Ponies, a guide for those who are interested in learning the art of painting carousel figures.

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