What is Clear Coat on a Car?

  • By: Sean Cooper

Paint is an essential part of the exterior of a vehicle. Without it, the metal is exposed to the environment, which is detrimental to it. The metal needs to be protected in order to be useful. Therefore, paint is used as the most common method to accomplish this task. Since the paint alone doesn’t serve the purpose, the whole process involves other layers as well, in order for it to be more effective. One of those layers is a clear coat, but what is a clear coat on a car and what does it do?

How a clear coat (left) protects paintwork

Commonly, there are three types of layers, or coats, as you may call them, used for automotive applications. The first one is called a primer, which prepares the surface for the succeeding paint layer. The second one is the actual paint layer called the base coat. The last is the clear coat. It is called clear because it is usually transparent. And since it is the last layer, it has decorative purposes too. The clear coat makes a big contribution to the depth and shine of the paint you see.

Application of clear coat is an extremely common practice, but if you have difficulty understanding, like most people, and your question remains unanswered, read on.

What is a clear coat?

For simple understanding, think of it as the best form of protection for the paint job. Clear coats work as the first defensive line against attacks on the paint from the environment.

Although protection is the primary purpose of the clear coat today, that wasn’t the original intention when it was first used. Back then, the paints used in automotive applications were oil-based and used many different heavy metals that were detrimental to the environment. So instead of applying paint for the whole thickness, only a thin layer of colored paint was applied and then a clear or transparent layer was applied to make it safe. This reduced the application of colored paints that were harmful, and reduced cost, but other uses of clear coats were later discovered.

The material used in the clear coat is nearly the same as the actual paint, but without color pigments. It is essentially an acrylic-based resinous paint. It usually has polyurethane, a tough polymer that is durable and usable in many forms, either oil-based, water-based, or water-borne.

Usually, when applied, it is glossy and transparent, and almost reflective like a mirror. The lack of any color pigments makes it colorless. Now it has become common practice to have a clear coat on top of the base coat of paint. And if not already coated, the surface of metals, especially in cars, is guaranteed to be coated. If not protected by a clear coat, the paint is easily damaged by water, dirt, debris, and even excessive sunlight. All of these can combine to result in accelerated degradation of paint.

Most of the old and vintage models don’t have a clear coat because it was not common practice back then. Since it is a relatively new practice, if you have a vehicle without it, it is advised to get it clear coated. It is the first preventive measure and should be treated as such. If you shun a clear coat to retain the authenticity of a classic vehicle, be prepared for an awful lot of ongoing care and maintenance that you wouldn’t have to bother with if you had your paintwork clear coated.

Clear coat peeling (left) and after being reapplied (right)

What does a clear coat do?

The clear coat protects the underlying base coat of paint. It helps preserve its color, texture, and appearance. The clear coat’s main function is to act as a barrier, and because of the interaction with the external environment, it has to be durable enough in order to bear the roughness of its surroundings.

This roughness includes rain, dirt, fragments, and much more. Most importantly, UV radiations are stopped from making the paint fade because they are the main culprit of destroyed paint, and its prevention is not something paints themselves can do. It’s also the surface layer, so its finish matters greatly in determining the look of the vehicle as it assigns gloss, depth, and shine to the paint job.

In the unfortunate event of a damaged sheet metal surface, rather than repainting your entire car, which is a costly process, you simply get it re-clear coated. As simple as that, you have prevented a significant loss. But if unfortunately, the clear coat is penetrated the metal is susceptible to further damage if not treated.

If you watch TV shows like Fast ‘n’ Loud or other shows that restore old vehicles, they often keep what’s left of the original paintwork even if a lot of it is degraded or gone completely. This is called the “patina.” However, to preserve the desired look, they still apply a clear coat.

Does a clear coat prevent rust?

The job of preventing rust is done by paint. But paint itself is prone to easy damage. So the clear coat protects it. Indirectly, the clear coat protects the metal from rust, and this is the reason manufacturers are applying it by default now. Having multiple durable layers extends the life of metal before it gets eaten away by rust. And if taken care of properly, the same metal can serve for decades without a single speck of rust.

In the end, the prevention of rust is the ultimate goal achieved with the help of a clear coat. However, there are additional benefits such as keeping your paint looking good and protecting the resale value of your vehicle. If you didn’t have a clear coat and your paint faded badly as a result, how much do you think that would knock off the resale value of your car?

If you’re as old as me you’ll remember how relatively new cars many decades ago used to start to rust relatively quickly. Unless a car built in the last 20 years or so has been scratched or dented and not repaired, it’s almost unheard of to see rust these days. The quality of modern clear coats is largely responsible for making rusty door panels and fenders a thing of the past.

Is a clear coat harder than paint?

The clear coat is harder than the paint to make it resistant to oxidation. But this hardness does make it susceptible to scratches. That also doesn’t mean that it is immune to oxidation. Once there is a deep enough scratch, oxidation can still prevail. You have to be careful about what your car comes into contact with. And as ever, prevention is always better (and usually cheaper) than a cure.

This is why it’s so important to get damage to bodywork fixed as soon as possible. If you don’t the damaged area will soon begin to rust and the longer you leave it the more expensive it’s going to be to sort it out.

Does a clear coat last forever?

No, never. It is not bullet-proof and is vulnerable to aging. The clear coat layer is prone to easy damage from contact with rough surfaces and water. It gets hazy and dull over time, signaling its oxidation. All the dust, chemicals, and sunlight it has endured wear it thin. As a result, patches of the decolored area appear on the body panels.

Fortunately, these defects can be easily cured with a wax treatment of the clear coat. This polishing process restores its appearance, if not severely damaged. But this method only works until your clear coat is so thin it essentially peels off and fails. When a clear coat gets so thin that it’s largely ineffective or it’s gone completely, you have no choice but to reapply the clear coat.

In conclusion, the life of a clear coat totally depends on how you maintain the car and how harsh your environment is. Timely recovery of clear coat is also essential so as not to leave the paint job unprotected.

The clear coat is great protection for your car’s paintwork, but it’s certainly not infallible. That’s why you shouldn’t park your vehicle in places like under trees. Tree sap can eat away the clear coat if left, and bird droppings can be as bad or even worse in some cases. Keeping your car clean isn’t just about it looking nice. Staying on top of cleaning your vehicle can extend the life of the clear coat and paintwork and helps retain the vehicle’s resale value.

Even apparently bare metal can benefit from a clear coat

How long does a clear coat last?

Usually, a clear coat, if maintained properly, lasts about nine months to a year before you need its wax polishing treatment. But if you are a caring person, even regular upkeep of the car will be enough and you might not need the polishing for some extra time.

If the vehicle is maintained properly, it will require a re-clear coating in about 15 years. That’s a long time, considering that there is still the actual layer of paint beneath it. If you buy or lease a new car every three or four years you should never have to worry about the clear coat unless your bodywork sustains some sort of damage.

However, if you are spending a decent amount of cash on a vehicle that may be 10 years old or older, it will pay dividends to look after the exterior with regular cleaning and polishing.

Does a clear coat make a difference?

Of course, the application of a clear coat greatly improves your car’s paint and bodywork lifespan. Your car will look like it has been cared for and will make a difference in a lot of different ways. If it is a vintage, it makes a difference when reselling and/or auctioning.

If you saw two cars next to each other on a production line and one had been clear coated and the other hadn’t, the difference between the two would be staggering, even if the paint was exactly the same color.

Is a clear coat worth it?

The clear coat is totally worth it. Regardless of whether your plan is to resell your car or you plan to keep it for a long time, either way, you will need to make sure its paint is protected. The clear coat is worth every penny if you want to save cash in the long run. Paint jobs are expensive and heavy on the wallet. As the saying goes, “Prevention is better than cure.”

Unfortunately, the need for a clear coat these days is partly responsible for how expensive it can be to get damage repaired. If the shop decides you need a new fender after an accident, the cost of the actual fender could be less than you are charged for it priming, undercoating, painting, and clear coating.

Are clear coats necessary?

If you have read all of the content above, it should be pretty evident that a clear coat is essential these days. Almost 95% of automobiles today are clear-coated, and I’d like to think that you understand why if you’ve got this far.

It’s definitely advised to get your car clear coated if you haven’t already, as it will save you a lot of cash in paint damage as time goes by. Not only that, it will retain the effectiveness of paint, prolonging your car’s life and potentially its resale value. A rust-free car is always looked for when buying a used car.

Also, aesthetically speaking, different effects can be produced from paint using the clear coat; matt, dark, and shiny to name a few. But these are only visual gains.

Clear coat peeling

What is the cost of a clear cost?

The cost of a clear coat depends on the area of the patch you want to get clear coated. If there is a small patch that needs reapplying of clear coat, it will cost you around $500-$1000 depending on your location.

if your whole car’s clear coat is peeling off. Then you will need your whole car to be clear coated. It will cost you as high as $10,000. These prices are just to give an idea, as the true price will greatly depend on the circumstances and extent of coating at the time.

Of course, these numbers are for production cars. If you watch those repair and restoration TV shows you’ll probably know that a custom paint job can cost an absolute fortune. In those cases, several layers of clear coat can be added to add depth to the paint job. Every additional layer adds extra expense for materials and labor.

Conclusion

You don’t need in-depth knowledge of clear coats to understand that it pays to keep your car clean. But if you now have a better understanding of your vehicle’s paintwork after reading this article and you are now going to look after it a little better than you have done in the past, writing this article will have been a good use of my time.

And regardless of what a clear coat does and doesn’t do for your vehicle, a clean car looks better than a filthy one anyway. Keep your car clean folks. It makes sense on many different levels.

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