How to Tell If Your Car Has Single Stage Paint

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The other day, I had a conversation with a friend about the paint on an Acura Integra Type R he’s currently restoring. We were discussing how much life could be brought back to the car with a paint correction. Based on the paint’s dull and faded appearance, my first instinct was that it was single stage and didn’t have a clear coat. He mentioned that he witnessed clear chunks of paint fly off the bumper while pressure washing it (the car really needs a complete, proper paint job) which led him to believe it had base/clear paint.

Despite the rather caveman-esque proof that there was a clear coat on the car, I maintained that most of it was still the original single stage. Why was that? Because he had also performed an easy, yet effective test without even knowing it. He had tried using a cleaner wax on the rest of the car and noticed the towel turning the color of the paint. This is key evidence that you’re dealing with single stage paint.

Later that night he went home to google it and found out that Pheonix Yellow Integra Type Rs were indeed sprayed with single stage paint. The bumper with the clear coat flaking off was likely repainted by a low-end body shop at some point.

Ways to Tell If Your Car Has Single Stage Paint:

Luckily, there are a few easy ways to figure out whether you have single stage paint or not. The first way is to simply eyeball it. If your red car looks pink, that’s a pretty good sign that it’s single stage.

Another way to tell if you have single stage paint is to google your specific car and color. It’s quite possible that you’ll find a forum post or some kind of information online telling you if it has a clear coat or not. Professional detailers love to share their work online and sometimes they’ll tell the story that goes along with the job. Doing a quick search should reveal this information if it’s a common vehicle.

The downside to trusting the internet is that even though it might tell you the manufacturer used single stage, your car might not be wearing its original paint. It’s always possible that a vehicle has been in an unreported accident that you didn’t know about. This could mean 1 or 2 panels have been resprayed, or it could mean the entire car now has a modern base/clear paint job in the original color.

Single stage paint vs. clear coat

With that in mind, the absolute best way to tell if your car has a clear coat is to physically test it yourself. You can use any type of abrasive compound or polish on a towel and rub the paint with it. A mild cleaner wax like this one will do the trick as well.

Choose an inconspicuous area to test like a door jam, inside a wheel well or the lower part of a bumper. Apply one of these products by hand and see if the towel stays clear or turns the color of the car. If it remains clear, you have a clear coat. If it changes color, you have single stage paint.

Now, it’s worth noting that I’m not coming at this post from an auto body background. This is purely from a detailer’s perspective. I’ve done paint corrections on many cars over the years (most of them clear coated), but my own personal Toyota MR2 still wears its original single stage paint. This article is intended to share how I identify, work on, and protect these 2 different types of paint systems.

What is single stage paint?

In short, single stage paint is like any other paint job – but without a clear coat on top. Clear coated vehicles may be referred to as “Two Stage” because they have a separate base coat (color) with a clear coat on top.

Single stage paint is most commonly found on older vehicles, although certain colors offered by certain automakers are still single stage to this day. For example, white Toyota trucks often still use single stage paint.

Possible reasons for them to use single stage on their white trucks:

  • White is the color that shows any oxidation the least
  • Many trucks ordered in white are purchased as work trucks and will likely be covered in graphics or even repainted to match the company’s branding. Single stage paint could be used to save money

I can’t say for sure why some companies still use single stage paint on their modern vehicles, but these reasons make sense to me.

Single stage paints were very common on Japanese cars in the 80s and 90s. Non-metallic colors like white, black, red and yellow were often single stage. These paint jobs also tended to be softer and easier to scratch than today’s vehicles that wear harder clear coats. This is of course just a generalization and there are many exceptions. Some single stage paints are hard, and some brand new vehicles have soft clear coats. But that’s a topic for another day.

Clear coat vs. no clear coat

Most of the differences between single stage paint and base/clear are related to the painting process. And since I’m not an auto body guy, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on that.

But once the paint has been applied to a vehicle, there are really only 2 differences that will affect the average car owner:

1) Single stage paint is more likely to become oxidized if it sits out in the sun unprotected for a long period of time. Oxidized single stage paint has a very dull, chalky look and feel. Usually, when you come across a pink vehicle that used to be red, you’ve found a case of unprotected single stage paint.

Timberland MR2

Clear coat can also oxidize, it just isn’t nearly as noticeable to your eye. Why is that? Because the top coat is intended to be clear. So when it gets dull, white, and hazy, the contrast of how it looks and how it should look isn’t that big of a difference. On the other hand, the top layer of yellow single stage paint is just that – yellow. So when it gets dull, white, and hazy, it’s a very noticeable difference.

2) Single stage paint bleeds color on buffing pads and towels (or anything used as an abrasive). You will know immediately whether you’re dealing with single stage paint or not as soon as you begin polishing it. At that point there’s no more guessing – it’ll tell you every single time!

Is it safe to polish single stage paint?

This is a common misconception about single stage paint. Although it may be scary at first, it is 100% safe to wet sand, compound, and polish (provided there’s enough of it still on the vehicle!) The thing is, it can really surprise someone if they’re unfamiliar with it, or not expecting to see it. I can understand why it would shock them…

Because the biggest warning sign that you’ve burned through the clear coat is exactly the same as a regular day when polishing single stage. The color shows up on your buffing pad and towels. If this happens when you’re polishing a base/clear paint job, it’s catastrophic. It means you’ve gone way, way too far – you’ve removed all the clear coat and have now touched the base (color) coat.

You might want to bring some coffee or donuts to your local body shop because they’ll be the ones fixing your screwup!

It’s perfectly normal for the color to bleed onto your polishing pad when you’re working on single stage paint. There’s no doubt that it’s alarming if you’re not used to it though. In the case of my red MR2, my garage looks like a bloody crime scene when I polish it!

Single stage paint vs. clear coat

I think people’s biggest fear when polishing single stage paint comes from the fact that they can see the paint they’re removing. This doesn’t happen when doing a base/clear paint correction. The paint you’re removing is clear, and a lot of the time the product you’re using to compound or polish is white as well. So if you’re using a white polish, on a white polishing pad, you likely won’t notice all of the paint residue and spent product loading up on your pad.

But make no mistake – it’s there. You will remove the exact same amount of paint when polishing a clear coat as you will with single stage. You just don’t see it. People with paint correction experience will be able to tell when a pad becomes loaded or dirty by other factors, such as the way the paint is cutting, or the amount of dust coming from the pad. The untrained eye, however, will think no paint has been removed.

I think a certain level of healthy fear is needed when doing a paint correction. Once you’ve polished single stage paint and realize just how much paint is removed in the process, you’ll have a new-found respect for the job. Being overly confident when polishing your car is the fast lane to some serious trouble. What you can’t see WILL hurt you!

Are all new cars clear coated?

As mentioned above, not all new vehicles have clear coats. Most of them do though. It’s becoming more and more rare, but occasionally you’ll find a white or black vehicle that has single stage paint.

There is a confusing 3rd type of paint out there that some modern automakers are using: tinted clear coat. This isn’t all that common and is usually only found on some of the more “specialty” paint colors. Lexus and Ford are just two of the manufacturers that have been known to use tinted clear coats. They use this to really fine-tune the depth of a color or to provide somewhat of a candy appearance.

When polishing, tinted clear coat can be easily mistaken as single stage paint. It’ll show up on your buffing pad just the same. I’ve already told you that there’s nothing to fear when polishing single stage paint. However, there is cause for concern when working on a tinted clear coat.

Tinted clear coat is much more dangerous to polish than single stage or regular clear coat. The reason is that the tinted clear plays a large role in the actual color of the car. For instance, let’s use a candy red painted vehicle as an example. This color is absolutely gorgeous. It’s deep, glossy and even has a nice metal flake in it. You need to be very careful when polishing it though.

Because the clear coat is “tinting” the shade of red, removing too much of it will actually change the color of the car. This is bad if you’re doing a consistent pass across the whole car. This is horrible if you’re only trying to buff out a scratch in a specific area. You run the high risk of leaving a patch of paint with a completely different shade of red. So if you’re polishing a tinted clear coat, use caution.

How to care for single stage paint

Caring for paint without a clear coat isn’t much different than any other paint job. You can feel free to use your favorite waxes or sealants on it. They’ll apply the same way and perform the same way.

I spoke with a sales rep from my favorite ceramic coating company, Gtechniq about using their coating on my MR2. He told me that it’s perfectly fine to use the ceramic coating on single stage paint. The only drawback is that buffing off the excess or removing high spots can be a bit more tricky than it is when dealing with a clear coat.

In my opinion, it’s always important to protect your vehicle’s paint. But it’s even more important to protect single stage paint because of the chance of oxidation we talked about earlier. Remember, unprotected paint + sitting in the sun = oxidized paint. If your prized possession wears single stage paint, keeping it in a garage and using at least a high-quality paint sealant would be a good idea.

So is not having a clear coat on your vehicle a bad thing?

In the end, it’s not as big of a deal as people make it out to be. I’ve read comments online from owners of certain vehicles that are horrified to find out their beloved car has single stage paint. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t mean that it’ll be easier to scratch. It doesn’t mean that it’ll be less shiny. It’s just a different type of paint, from a different era. I personally enjoy working with single stage paint because the before/after results can be really incredible.

I’ll leave you with one final piece of advice: if you’re going to be polishing your single stage paint, wear old clothes!

If you found this article helpful, let me know!  Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or leave a comment below. 

One response to “How to Tell If Your Car Has Single Stage Paint”

  1. John Leichty Avatar
    John Leichty

    clear coat is a cheap way to make you think cheap paint is better , clear coat on most imports will begin to crack and peel , if they would have use nonoxidizing primer and enamel paint it would stay geatt and not crack and peel in a few years ….. look around and see it

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