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Car Detailing Basics: All About Paint Layers

A car’s paint is a huge part of what makes it so attractive. When you’re looking at cars in a dealership, that glossy shine is one of the biggest things that grabs your attention and makes you want the car in the first place.

Every good detailer knows that a car’s paint job is done in layers, but there are perhaps some new or just-starting-out detailers who perhaps aren’t aware of what each layer is. That’s what today’s blog is all about. Below is a practical and educational summary for all aspiring detailers: what layers does a car’s paint have?

Black shinny Porsche

Paint Layers

In short, there are three main paint layers, namely:

  • Primer

  • Base coat

  • Clear coat

What is Primer?

Just as any building needs its foundations, a car paint job needs primer. As you know, under all the paint of any vehicle is the bare metal of its chassis and frame. Paint can’t stick directly to this metal, so we have to create an adhesive layer using something that will stick to the metal. That’s what primer is.

Primer --- sometimes also called “sealer” --- is applied directly to the metal surface. Without it, paint would simply bead off and make a mess in the workshop. Primer generally doesn’t have a particular color, but its shade will alter the raw metal look somewhat, indicating that it’s now ready to have the next coat applied.

What is a Base Coat?

The base coat is the paint that gives your car its main color. Once the primer is ready, base coat can be applied and it will adhere evenly and smoothly to the primer coating. Since the primer is essentially colorless, we can say that the base coat is the first visible paint layer that goes onto your car, and it’s with the base coat that your car’s color starts to take shape.

What is a Clear Coat?

The final paint layer is known as a clear coat, a layer of colorless polyethylene paint, and it’s what gives your car that irresistible shine that initially drew you in. Clear coat is applied at a thickness of about 1.5-2 mils (35-50 microns), bringing the total thickness of the paint to about 4 mils (100 microns). It creates the attractive glossy effect we all love, but also acts as a “first line of defense” against oxidation and other problems that would otherwise affect the paint.

What Did We Do Before Clear Coating?

The base coat and clear coat combination wasn’t widely used until around the 1980s, which explains why older cars sometimes lack that lustrous sheen that we all love. Before clear coatings, a process known as “one-stage” painting was used, which only included primer and paint. This left paint open to threats such as oxidation and other problems, and yet there are still so many examples of older cars that are lovely and shiny. How did we manage this?

The answer to keeping older cars in a glossy state was mainly found in polishing. By polishing and waxing older cars, it was possible to create a similar effect to clear coat. Of course, the difference was that it wasn’t lasting like that of modern car paint jobs.

If you’ve ever polished an older car, you might have noticed that your polishing pads quickly become stained with the color of the car. You might have thought this was strange the first time you saw it, but it’s actually a natural result of there being no clear coat. When you polish a modern car, you’re getting the clear coat on your pads, thus little to no color contamination. The same can’t be said for older cars with no clear coat.

Paint Layers: A Detailer’s Duty

As a detailer, it’s your duty to keep the paint of your customers’ vehicles looking at its very best. Using polishing and compound processes, you can achieve this, even when a vehicle is seemingly covered in surface scratches and abrasions (see our other blog on paint correction for more on this).

For this task, you have three key weapons in your arsenal:

  • Wax - to generate stunning gloss and shine, but not for offering robust protection

  • Sealant - a midway product offering a degree of shine and degree of protection

  • Ceramic coating - a high-end and long-lasting solution that helps a car shine and offers decent protection against scratching

On the other hand, a good detailer is also practical and realistic. There are ties when you simply can’t “correct” your way to a good paint job. For instance, if someone has keyed your client’s car and the scratch has gone all the way through the clear coat or even through the base coat, then the only thing to be done is a repainting of the car --- and that can be expensive.

However, surface scratches caused by general wear and tear can be corrected with your detailer’s kit, including swirl marks, etc. Know your paint layers and understand how much you can do for your customers. The likelihood is that they don’t realize just how much good you can do with your polishing kit, restoring a car covered in swirl marks back to its original showroom quality.


For more information on the best methods to take care of your vehicle and book a detailing service with our specialists, don't hesitate to contact us.


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