Have you ever looked at your car or motorcycle and wished you could change the color? Or maybe the clear coat has become so oxidized and faded over time that it needs to be completely redone? Removing the clear coat can allow you to take your paint job down to the bare surface so you can change colors, fix issues underneath, or prepare for a wrap or new paint job.
But how exactly do you fully remove clear coat?
The process involves using a chemical paint stripper to dissolve the clear coat layer, scraping it away, then sanding to feather and smooth the surface. It takes time and elbow grease, but following the steps below will allow you to strip the clear coat while avoiding damage to the paint underneath.
In this detailed guide, we’ll cover:
- Reasons you may need to remove clear coat
- Supplies needed to strip clear coat
- Step-by-step instructions for safe removal
- The pros and cons of stripping clear coat
- Frequently asked questions
Let’s start by understanding more about clear coat and when removal is necessary.
Table of Contents
What is Clear Coat and Why Remove It?
Clear coat is a transparent, protective layer applied as the top finish during the painting process. It provides a smooth, glossy finish, protects the paint from damage, and helps prevent fading and oxidation.
You may need to strip and remove clear coat for several reasons:
- To change the color of your vehicle. If you want to change from a white to black paint job, for example, you’ll need to take the finish down to the original paint so you can spray a new color.
- The clear coat is damaged or deteriorated. Clear coat can become dull, faded, oxidized, or start flaking and peeling over time. In these cases, you’ll need to remove it as part of a complete repainting.
- To fix issues with the underlying paint. Sometimes paint imperfections like runs, drips, or scratches only become noticeable when you look under the clear coat layer. You’ll need to remove it to fix the problems underneath.
- Preparing for a wrap. Vehicle wraps adhere best to a completely smooth surface, so the clear coat needs to be taken down to the base paint.
- Restoring a classic car. Stripping the clear coat on a classic vehicle restores it to its original paint and provides a pristine surface for a new clear coat finish.
Those are the most common situations where removing clear coat is necessary. It’s not an easy or quick process, but armed with the right supplies and techniques, it can be done safely without damaging the underlying paint.
Supplies Needed to Remove Clear Coat
Removing clear coat requires using a chemical paint stripper to dissolve the clear coat layer, which can then be scraped off. Gather these supplies before starting:
The most important supply is a high-quality chemical paint stripper. You have two main options:
- Solvent-based strippers contain harsh solvents like methylene chloride to rapidly break down coatings. They work quickly but require strict safety precautions.
- Citrus-based strippers use d-Limonene as the active ingredient. They contain no harsh solvents but work slower than solvent-based options.
For auto paint, a solvent-based stripper is usually the quickest method, but follow all directions to avoid hazards.
Tools for Scraping
After applying the stripper, you’ll need tools to scrape away the dissolved clear coat:
- A plastic paint scraper with rounded corners to prevent scratching
- A putty knife for getting into crevices and removing residue
To feather and smooth the surface after stripping, you’ll need assorted grits of sandpaper from 400 up to 2000 grit. Higher grits provide finer smoothing.
To prep the surface and remove any stripper residue, have paint thinner, mineral spirits, and chemical-resistant gloves on hand. A clay bar may also help remove embedded contaminants.
Masking Tape and Plastic Sheeting
To keep stripper off areas you don’t want to remove clear coat from, use masking tape and plastic sheeting to cover trim, chrome, windows, and other surfaces.
Since you’re using caustic stripping chemicals, be sure to wear chemical-resistant gloves, eye protection, and work in a well-ventilated area for safety.
That covers the key supplies needed. Now let’s look at the complete process step-by-step.
Step-by-Step Guide to Removing Clear Coat
With your supplies gathered, follow these steps to safely and effectively remove clear coat:
1. Prep the Surface Area
Start by properly preparing the area you’ll be working on:
- Thoroughly wash and dry the surface to remove dirt and contaminants stuck on the clear coat.
- Use masking tape and plastic sheeting to cover any areas you don’t want to strip, like trim pieces, rubber seals, chrome, glass, and windows.
- For vehicles, remove any exterior trim pieces that could get damaged or be difficult to mask off.
- Give yourself adequate room to work around the full area you’ll be stripping.
Proper prep prevents issues later in the process.
2. Generously Apply the Paint Stripper
Follow the product directions to mix and activate the paint stripper. Spread a thick, even layer over the clear coat using an old paintbrush or plastic applicator.
Leave the stripper sit for 10-15 minutes or as directed. Apply a second coat on stubborn areas where the clear coat appears unaffected.
Tip: Resist the urge to spread the stripper too thin – apply a nice thick layer so it can fully penetrate the clear coat.
3. Scrape Away the Clear Coat Layer
After letting it dwell, use a plastic paint scraper with rounded corners to gently start peeling up the clear coat. It should come off in large sheets or strips if the stripper has done its work.
For any remaining clear coat residue, switch to a putty knife and carefully scrape to remove it without damaging the underlying paint. Take your time and be thorough during this important step.
4. Sand Away Remaining Clear Coat
Inspect the surface closely and feel for any remaining clear coat left behind. Use 400 grit sandpaper to gently wet sand and remove any remnants.
Work up to 1000 grit or higher to further feather and smooth the surface. Be sure to keep the surface wet while sanding to avoid burning through paint.
Tip: Inspect under bright light from multiple angles to ensure the clear coat is completely removed.
5. Clean and Degrease the Surface
With the clear coat removed, carefully clean the stripped surface using paint thinner or mineral spirits to remove any stripper residue.
For vehicles, a clay bar treatment helps remove embedded contaminants from the paint’s pores and provides a perfectly smooth, prepainted surface.
6. Prep the Surface for Paint or Wrap
Once you’ve confirmed the clear coat is completely removed, the surface is ready for paint, wrap, or other modifications.
For painting, you may need to apply a primer layer first for the new paint to properly adhere. Follow all paint manufacturer specifications for prep and application.
And that covers the complete process for removing clear coat! While labor intensive, these steps allow you to strip clear coat down to the original paint without causing damage. Now let’s look at some of the key pros and cons.
Pros and Cons of Removing Clear Coat
Before deciding to take on a clear coat removal project, weigh the following potential advantages and disadvantages:
- Change the paint color or finish. Stripping clear coat allows you to alter the vehicle’s color or paint type during a restoration.
- Fix issues underneath. Imperfections like drips, runs, or scratches can get buried under clear coat. Removing it provides access for repairs.
- Renew oxidized, faded paint. If the clear coat is too far gone to polish out, removal lets you start fresh.
- Required before painting or wrapping. For these applications you need to take the clear coat down to the original paint layer.
- Extremely labor intensive. Be prepared for a long, difficult project requiring patience and diligence.
- Potential to damage the paint. If you rush the process or are too aggressive, the underlying paint can get scratched or burned through.
- Hazardous chemicals. Paint strippers contain very harsh solvents that require caution and proper safety equipment.
- Temporary vulnerability. The paint is unprotected during the process and can get damaged if not careful.
- Surface prep for repainting. Removing the clear coat is only step one – proper sanding, primer, paint application techniques are also crucial for success.
As you can see, attempting to remove clear coat yourself is not a project to take lightly. But armed with information on the process, supplies, and techniques, you can achieve professional-level results.
Frequently Asked Questions
Let’s go over some common questions about removing clear coat:
Is it possible to just sand or grind the clear coat off?
No, wet sanding alone won’t remove clear coat down to the paint. The clear coat layer is too thick and durable for sanding to penetrate completely. Using a chemical stripper is required to fully remove clear coat.
Can I use a pressure washer or media blaster instead of stripper?
This is not recommended, as pressure washing and media blasting are too aggressive and can damage the underlying factory paint. Always use a chemical stripper specifically designed for clear coat removal.
What’s the easiest and most effective way to remove clear coat from a vehicle?
A solvent-based chemical paint stripper is the easiest and most effective method for removing automotive clear coat. Just be sure to take proper safety precautions due to the harsh solvents used in these strippers.
Can I just use sandpaper to smooth and re-clear coat over damaged clear coat?
If the damage is limited to oxidation, hazing, or minor scratches, wet sanding and re-applying clear coat can restore the finish. But if the clear coat is peeling, flaking, or generally deteriorated, full removal is needed before re-applying.
How do I know if I got all the clear coat off before painting?
Inspect closely under bright light from multiple angles, feel for any remaining texture, and use extra fine sandpaper to ensure the surface is perfectly smooth with no remnants of the old clear coat before painting.
Removing clear coat allows you to alter the paint color, fix issues underneath, prepare for a wrap, restore oxidation and fading, and more. But as you now know, it’s an extremely labor intensive process requiring the right supplies and techniques for safe removal without damaging the paint underneath.
While professionals may be better equipped for flawless clear coat removal, DIYers can achieve excellent results following the process outlined above. Just be sure to arm yourself with the right stripper products, tools, safety gear, and patience before tackling a removal project.
Taking the clear coat down to the original paint provides a blank canvas for your new color or wrap. So with some hard work, you can strip away years of fading, oxidation, and wear to revive the look of your treasured vehicle.
Does your car or motorcycle need a fresh look? Now that you know exactly how to remove clear coat, you can confidently restore, customize, or protect your ride’s exterior. Just be sure to follow all the steps and safety precautions closely throughout the process.