a paint roller spreading purple paint on a wall

Top Coat

Originally contributed by Jeff Butler • last updated 1/22/2021

The terms top coat and a clear coat often get used interchangeably, but is there actually a difference? It seems, the term clear coat most commonly refers to the clear finishing layer that goes over a base layer of paint to protect it and create a shine, whereas...


The term top coat can refer to the last layer (or coat) of paint or other finishing materials applied during the painting process. The term is also sometimes used for the last layer of finishing material in the bathtub reglazing process. The top coat is often used to seal the underlayers of paint and primer, and to protect the surface from things like scratches, chips, stains, and weather.  In some cases, a top coat is applied to provide a certain gloss, texture, or effect.

Important Things To Know About Top Coats

Understanding top coats and knowing when to use them can be a bit challenging at first, but knowing some basics can make it much easier to get the job done right the first time:

  • Applying a top coat isn’t always necessary. Depending on the type of material being painted, the type of paint being used, and the location and purpose of the object being painted can all be factors in whether or not a top coat is needed.
  • Besides a final layer of paint, there are several dedicated top coat materials that can be applied to achieve different functional and design elements, including polyurethane and furniture wax.