Car Clear Coat
Fact vs. Fiction

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Like so many other areas of car ownership or car care, car clear coat is yet another topic full of bad information!

As a car owner you most likely have heard the term clear coat when talking about car paint, but may be uncertain as to what it is or why you should even concern yourself with it.

The fact is that most people understand what it is at a very basic definition, but due to product labeling and bad information repeated by good intentioned people, much confusion and misinformation continues to circulate. Follow along as we dissect this critical part of the car ownership process and what proper care really requires when it comes to auto clear coats.

What is Car Clear Coat

car clear coat

Since clear coat on your car paint is just that, clear, I cannot show you an actual picture of just exactly what clear coat is. The picture here does show you something called clear coat failure. Before we get ahead of ourselves, we need to start at the beginning and lay the foundation as to what clear coat is and why you need to understand its role in the car ownership process.

Car Clear Coat Questions and Answers

Darren's Note: This discussion is not meant to be an exhaustive dissertation regarding car clear coat. The fact is that within every industry, advances are constantly being made. When it comes to automotive paints, and clear-coats in particular, this is also true, so what technical information is true today may become obsolete tomorrow. Visit any of the car or detail forums and you will get bogged down very quick. These forums are filled with chatter of contradicting opinions from the many so called experts that seem to have more time than sense. So instead of regurgitating useless technical data regarding molecular make-up of modern clear coats, I have chosen to present the topic in a way that clarifies many of the myths, while teaching you the information that is both relevant and important when it comes to understanding car clear coat. It also happens to be more than enough information you need regarding clear-coats for 95% of you out there.

What is Auto Clear Coat

Clear coat is the top layer of modern day, factory paint jobs. Clear coat is just that; clear. Simply put, clear coat is paint without any color (pigments). Also referred to as 2-stage paint; color coat is first stage, clear coat is second stage. (officially there are more than 2 layers or coats to any factory paint job. There will be corrosion inhibitors, primer, and other layers or coats applied to virgin body panel first as part of the overall painting process)

Every car manufacturer is unique and each manufacturer employs a different overall method based on these foundational rules.

What is Car Clear Coat Made Of

Acrylic Urethane is the simple answer. Since this is multiple chemical ingredients, you are unlikely to find an explicit and straight forward answer to the exact chemistry of this. But approximately 80% of all car clear coat formulations are made using acrylic urethane.

What Is Two Stage Paint

2-stage paint is another way of describing the clear coat and base coat system. The color, or base coat is the fist stage. The top coat, or clear coat is the second stage.

Why Is Clear Coat Used

Clear coat serves (2) distinct and different purposes:

  1. Protection from UV rays
  2. Adds additional gloss and depth to the color coat

What Does Clear Coat Do

Aside from the (2) distinct purposes of car clear coat we just learned, it also aids in the world of auto collision repair in the ability to repaint a section of a panel with the color coat, then the entire panel can then be sprayed with clear coat. This helps in the blending of one repainted section into the original painted section.

It also aids as a barrier to other types of harmful elements of life such as, but not limited to: bird droppings, acid rain, industrial fall-out, water spots, etc.

Darren's Note: this is NOT to suggest that car clear coat or any other material for that matter, creates a truly bullet-proof shield against all or any contaminants. Like everything in life: everything has its limitations.

How Can You Tell If Your Car has Clear Coat

Every car has clear coat; at least virtually every car made since the 80's. I realize I just said the 80"s which leaves a very big window of 30 years, but the fact is that clear coat was introduced little by little based on the car manufacturer. First metallic paint jobs were cleared first, then solid colors. Some solid color paints were still left un-cleared into the 90's and beyond. Today it would be hard to find a car that doesn't have a clear coat as part of the factory paint job.

Virtually the only time you would need to question as to whether your car has clear coat or not is in these (2) case:

  1. Your car has been repainted (or some section of your car). Which still won't make much of a difference as you will still be doing the same required steps of care you would if clear coat was present everywhere on your car.
  2. You have a white car or truck that is older than 5-7 years. In very few exceptions, I will come across a white Toyota truck that has not been painted as a 2-stage paint from the factory. This is rare and the exception to the rule. As I said at the beginning, car manufacturers introduced 2-stage paint jobs slowly. Metallics first, then certain solid colors, with certain solid colors being the last to be cleared. White was one of the very last colors to be cleared and each car manufacturer started making it standard at different times when compared to other manufacturers. (It was possible to still have single stage paint on white Toyota's and Mercedes Benz' into the late 90"s) If you are fortunate to have one of these single stage paint jobs, consider yourself unlucky, as they are definitely harder to work with than a clear coated car.

Do All Cars Have Clear Coat

No. There are still cars that will not have a clear coat as the top coat. In these cases (I am talking about factory paint jobs as opposed to after-market, collision repair, or custom paint) it will generally only be white paint that is left with no clear coat.

This is generally done as a cost saving benefit and largely only possible due to the forgiving nature of white paint in camouflaging paint defects, flaws, and the inability of the eye to distinguish the aging process of white paint, versus any other colored paint jobs.

Generally this is common practice on vehicles largely used for utility purposes like vans, trucks, etc. But for every rule, there are exceptions to the rule. Factory white paint that has any type of metallic (generally called "pearls" with white as opposed to metallic with other colors) to its formulation will be finished with a clear coat.

Darren's Note: if you have ever had your car painted at a franchised paint and body shop, they will often quote you a price to repaint your car using a single stage paint job as one price (a lower price) and a separate price (higher price) if you want a clear coat added.

Is There A Way To Be Certain Your Car Has Clear Coat

Yes. Use a clean rag with some polishing compound and rub with firm pressure in an inconspicuous area. If there is no clear coat, the rag will have color from the car paint on it. As we have learned, virtually all cars have clear coat so your rag will most likely only show signs of the polish as the clear coat has no color to it.

Do I Have To Use Special Car Wax On My Car

No. Any car wax suitable for paint can be used whether you have clear coat or not.

Does A Car With Clear Coat Require Special care

As a general rule, clear coated cars require the same care as any car without clear coat. Traditional methods of washing, waxing, and polishing would apply. Clear coat paint requires the same care and requirements of non-clear coated car paint.

What Are Clear Coat Safe Products

Since virtually ever car comes with clear coat, "Clear coat safe" products are a way for the car care industry to exploit the ignorance of consumers by labeling "clear coat safe" on the package labeling. If you are Johnny Consumer and stand there in the car care aisle at the retailer looking at two containers of car wax or car polish, one product says it is clear coat safe, the other doesn't. By default due to your ignorance, most people will choose the product labeled "clear coat safe" just as a precaution.

The manufacturer just put a level of doubt in your head with the power of suggestion; they suggest you need a product that is clear coat safe. The fact is that all products will be clear coat safe based on ingredients alone due to the basic fact that virtually every car will have a clear coat. This is not to say that any product could not be used in an unsafe manner; that is entirely different... which leads to the next question.

I Heard Some Car Clear Coats Are Very Soft

Once again, much ignorance and bad information exist. The fact is that any true expert will tell you that working on car paint is a case by case judgement call regarding product choice and technique. When it comes to washing and waxing your car, it really doesn't matter past common sense practices of car washing and waxing. When it comes to using car buffers, car polishes, or paint correction processes, then it matters, but this is in the hands of the person behind the polisher. Just like every other area of life, not all things are created equal. So you have all different formulations with regards to clear coats; some may in fact be what would be considered harder or softer clear coats. Any seasoned detailer will have to make a determination as to the best way to achieve the desired results and this detailer will have to choose the appropriate polishes, polish pads, speed settings, pressure, etc., etc. 

If you visit any of the car forums you will hear the endless debate regarding soft or hard clear coats and the opinions of these many "experts". The reality is that most car forums are filled with people giving advice with very little real-world experience.

What Is Clear Coat Failure

auto clear coat

Depends. (I hate that answer also) But it seriously depends and is a case by case answer. It happens to be a term that many people like to casually throw around because it has the "cool factor". Meaning, it sounds cool to refer to something mundane like clear coat in way that sounds more exciting and unique; hence, clear coat failure. So to answer the question, clear coat failure can be a number of things and can take on different appearances. Overall, clear coat failure is nothing more than an ambiguous label for a variety of problems:

  • Clear coat becoming so dry and weathered due to lack of proper care and maintenance.
  • Clear coat literally flaking and peeling due to faulty preparation as part of the painting process done at the factory.
  • Clear coat flaking or peeling due to unstable, poorly engineered primers, paints, clear coats, etc. If anyone of these layers is engineered with poor ingredients, it can cause a loss of integrity to the entire layered system of modern day paint finishes.

How Do You Take Care Of Car Clear Coat

As we have learned, clear coat for most discussions is nothing more than paint without color. With that said, how to take care of clear coat falls into the basic discussion of how to take care of car paint, and for most of you looking to do the basics, this will require very little:

  • Wash car regularly; every 1-4 weeks. Dirt and sun are the most harmful things as a general rule; you have less control over sun exposure, but much more control over how long you allow dirt to remain on your car. (washing is also a visual thing so if you are particular how your car looks, then washing more frequently will become important)
  • Use detailing clay regularly to remove pollutants that will attach and embed into the clear coat. (Since air quality is different and unique to any given area, this may be as little as once a year or as often as once a month.)
  • Use car wax or a paint sealant for protection and visual enhancement regularly. (many factors will ultimately determine durability and longevity of any given car wax or sealant. As a rule, car waxes and car sealants will only last around 2-3 months depending product, weather conditions, condition of paint, etc.)

Darren's Professional Tips:

Like I have said many places of this website, you could get bogged down very quick with the many opinions being circulated around the Internet, car clubs, car forums, or most anywhere in life. I am of the opinion that we are now in an era of information overload. The bigger problem is the amount of unreliable information any of us are required to sift through in order to come to an informed conclusion.

Car clear coat is simply one of innumerable topics of cosmetic car care that is filled with hype, ambiguous terminology, or contradicting terminology that confuses and often does more harm than good. So with that said, use the checklist below to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed to the point of inaction:

  • Car clear coat is standard for virtually every car; you would have a hard time finding one that doesn't.
  • Clear coat has the same basic requirements of traditional car paint: washing, waxing, polishing occasionally, use of the clay bar (detailing clay).
  • Don't get hung up on discussions about soft or hard car clear coats. This will not matter to 98% of you looking to perform basic car paint requirement.
  • The clay bar is safe for car clear coats; remember virtually all cars have clear coats.
  • Don't get hung up on people telling you that the clay bar can be used too often on car clear coat; just not true. (the better question is "does the clay bar scratch your paint or not?")
  • After claying, remember to choose a quality car wax or car sealant to create a protective layer and for visual enhancement of the car clear coat.

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