- Back to F.A.Q Index.
- Back to "How GTA In Detail does it!"
- Forward to "Washing F.A.Q".
- Forward to "Clay F.A.Q".
Clear Coat Explanation & Myths
The issue of clear coats comes up very often when you’re detailing cars. Over the years we’ve noticed that there are quite a few misconceptions about clear coats. This page will attempt to explain what a clear coat is, why it is important, and will discuss common myths regarding clear coats. In an effort to remain accurate this page will deal with very generalized information.
What is a clear coat?
Simply put, a clear coat is the same as pigmented paint, it’s just clear. Automotive paint is made up of a combination of products, solvents, fillers, resins, additives, and in the case of colored paint, pigments. A clear coat is just automotive paint without pigments. There are some minor differences (for example, UV inhibitors are often added to clear coat layers), but for the most part they are the same. The way “clear coat” paint is applied is simple – a pigmented layer of paint is laid down, then the clear paint is applied on top of it until the desired gloss is achieved. To illustrate, here is a rudimentary picture which demonstrates what 95% of today’s automotive paints would look like as a side profile under a microscope.
Do all cars have a clear coat?
No, not all cars have what is traditionally referred to as a “clear coat” – all cars do have some sort of enamel to protect them from oxidizing and fading however a small percentage have this enamel mixed right into the pigmented paint. This is called single stage paint. Paint with a clear coat (or the enamel on top of the pigmented paint) is called two stage paint. 95% of the automobiles sold in North America today have two stage paint, which means almost all cars being manufactured right now come from the factory with a clear coat.
Why is my clear coat so important?
Your clear coat is important for a few reasons. First of all, it protects the pigmented paint underneath it from oxidizing and fading. It also determines how much luster and gloss your paint has. Unfortunately clear coats are “scratch sensitive” which means they scratch easily and as light reflects through this clear layer of paint it backlights the scratches making them more visible. Most swirls and scratches reside in the clear coat of a vehicles paint, and would look something like this:
To remove this defect what a detailer must do is level the paint (in this case, the clear coat) so that the light no longer reflects off the ridges of the scratch. By leveling the paint it will appear smooth, more glossy, and like a mirror.
How do you level out the clear coat?
The clear coat is leveled by “buffing” the paint using a combination of an abrasive pad and an abrasive polish, also knows as a compound. These compounds have microscopic abrasives in them which break down as they’re heated up by the friction of the moving pad. As a super fine layer of the clear coat is removed it becomes level, thus removing the marring.
But if you remove my clear coat won't you damage the paint?
If too much clear coat is removed the paint can be harmed. It will oxidize more quickly and will be prone to fade and dye-back. Luckily most detailers are experienced and know how much clear coat is safe to remove. Some, like us, use a paint thickness gauge, which provides vital information about the overall thickness of the paint, and provides clues about how much clear coat is left.
So you can remove any scratches by buffing?
No – scratches that are through the clear coat into the pigmented paint or down to the metal cannot be removed safely by buffing. It is important never to buff through the clear coat; so scratches that are deep must be filled with a combination of pigmented paint and clear paint to bring them back up to the level of the clear coat. Any excess is then sanded down, and then ultra-fine sanding scratches are polished away to leave a perfect finish. Here is how the paint might look with a scratch that's through the clear coat:
...and after the scratch is touched-up we're left with a blob:
We then wet-sand the blob so it's level with the existing paint. We're left with an area that is level, but there are millions of microscopic scratches that dull the areas.
After we buff the area the all signs of scratches and damage are removed, and the paint is repaired.
What is the difference between removing and filling swirls and scratches?
The difference between removing and filling defects is the difference between eliminating a problem and hiding it. Filling defects is a temporary solution that hides the scratches and must be repeated often to maintain the appearance of the paint. Swirls and scratches are filled by using products like glazes and filler waxes; these products have oils in them which fill the scratches and hide them for a short period of time. When the glaze of filler wax is washed away the scratches and swirls will re-appear. Unfortunately glazes and filler waxes are often used unscrupulously to make a cars paint appear to be in better condition than it is.
So glazes and hand-waxes that hide swirls are bad?
Not at all. It is often unrealistic to polish/compound your paint every time you see a light scratch, so using a hand wax or glaze to fill them in temporarily is a common solution. Just be sure that when you visit a detailer or dealership that if they say they are removing the defects they are actually removing them and not just filling them in.
Single Stage Paint
Single stage paint is pigmented paint with the protective enamels of a “clear coat” mixed right into it. That means there is no layer on top of the pigmented paint, but it is still protected as if it was covered by a clear coat. These finishes can be buffed in the same way as a two stage paint job. Since the enamels move towards the top layer of the paint it is important to use the same kind of caution when buffing single stage paint as you would when buffing two stage paint. If you remove too much the paint will lose the protective benefits of the enamel and will oxidize. Here is an illustration of what single stage paint might look like up close.
Clear Coat Myths
My dealer told me my clear coat doesn't need to be waxed, is that true?
No, it is absolutely not true. As mentioned above, a clear coat is paint just like any other paint. If left unprotected it will be exposed to the sun’s UV rays, water spots, acid rain, acidic bird droppings, and so on. You do not have to polish any automotive paint, but it’s been illustrated clearly on this site that there are great benefits to doing so. Over time a neglected clear coat will look hazy and dull because it will be covered in fine scratches, water spots, bird drop etchings, acid rain etchings, rail dust, and other environmental fallout.
My dealer is trying to sell me a clear coat or 5-year paint sealant, what's up?
If your dealer is trying to sell you a "clear coat" it is likely s/he is either confused, or is trying to make some easy money. Dealerships do not sell “clear coats”, if they did they would be required to literally re-paint your entire car with layers of clear paint and then bake it to cure the paint. What they almost always mean when they sell you a “clear coat” is that they are selling you a paint sealant which will be applied over your clear coat. These are often called "5 year sealants" because they come with a 5 year warranty. These are the same products detailers apply when they seal or wax your car; however dealers often charge hundreds of dollars for them. These packages are usually accompanied by warranties, unfortunately most consumers don’t realize that these warranties require you to have the sealant re-applied every 6 months to a year, and prohibit you from polishing or waxing your car. Because consumers rarely, if ever, return to have the sealants re-applied, this is easy money for dealers. People often ask “but I got a dealer clear coat/paint sealant, why is does my paint look so bad?” because they are often left with the false expectation that a "paint protection program" will mitigate paint damage (swirls, etchings, acid rain damage) in some way and this is simply not true.