a paint roller spreading purple paint on a wall

Top Coat

Originally contributed by • last updated 3/8/2021


When it comes to painting, there are a lot of industry specific terms and phrases that can be confusing and frustrating for anyone just getting started. For example, the terms top coat and clear coat often get used interchangeably, but there are actually differences between the two. It seems, the term clear coat most commonly refers to the glossy protective layer that’s applied last in automotive paint, whereas the term top coat is used in a more general sense.


The term top coat typically refers to the final layer of paint or finishing material that gets applied at the end of a paint job. The term can also sometimes be used in other applications, such as for the last layer of finishing material in bathtub reglazing or the final coat of protective gloss in nail polishing. These final layers are often used to seal the underlayers of paint and primer and to protect the finished surface from things like scratches, chips, stains, and weather. In some cases, it is applied to provide a specific sheen or gloss, texture, or effect, as is the case with techniques like sponging. The term clear coat is sometimes used to describe the same thing but it is more typically reserved for the final layers of automotive paint.

What Are Some Different Materials That Can Be Used As A Top Coat?

Knowing how and when to use a top coat can be a bit of a challenge if you’re not already familiar with more advanced painting techniques. However, understanding a few basics about some common finishing materials and their uses can make it much easier to get the job done right the first time:

  • To start with, applying a top coat isn’t always necessary and should only be used under certain conditions. It’s important to consider things such as the type of material being painted, the type of paint being used, and the location and purpose of the object being painted. Each of these can be big factors in whether or not you’ll need one.
  • 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. Planning out your project in advance will allow you to select the appropriate materials to finish your paint job.