What Does Tri-Coating a Car Mean?

by Scott Levin
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Few things bring a car to life quite like a fresh paint job. When doing it yourself or getting a basic paint job from an auto center, a single or double coat is typically used, and the quality varies depending on your budget. But if you want to produce the best color and durability, a tri-coat may be used. This involves using a base coat, midcoat and clear coat.

Base Coat

The base coat of paint in a tri-coating procedure goes directly on a car prepared with primer or a previous paint job. The base coat is the actual color you want your car to be. The two main types of base coat paints are urethane and polyester. Polyester base coat paints are generally considered less durable than urethane, but they provide a wider range of color.


The midcoat layer of paint is what separates a tri-coat paint job from other, more basic options. The midcoat is a semi-transparent paint that combines with the base coat to produce vivid colors. For example, use of a midcoat helps produce pearl, chameleon and candy paint jobs that show off a glitter-like appearance. Midcoats typically feature a similar makeup to that of base coats.

Clear Coat

The final step in the tri-coat process is the clear coat. A clear coat layer on top of the previous coats ensures durability and resistance to fading and chipping. A clear coat also adds an additional gloss to the car's new color. Generally, clear coat paints feature a polyurethane composition, and there are many options within the polyurethane family depending on your needs.


Learning how to apply a tri-coat of paint can be difficult for someone with no previous experience, and it may be best to leave it to the professionals. If you are painting on bare metal, a primer should be applied first and allowed to dry. Several thin layers of base coat go next, and these should be sanded to create a smooth surface. Allow several hours for these to dry before applying the midcoat. Practice spraying a midcoat on a surface other than your car to ensure you achieve your desired color. When this layer has dried on your car, the final clear coat can be applied. Many layers should be applied, and each layer should be allowed to dry before the next coat is sprayed on. A rubbing compound added at least three days later can produce a smooth, shiny appearance.

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