Gundam Tutorials

Clear Coating For Models Explained

The Coat: A Short Play In One Ridiculous Act


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The Scene: A downtown cafe… a man sits at a corner table, enjoying his coffee. A friend walks in through the front door…

Man 1: “Hey, how are you? I haven’t seen you in a while!”

Man 2: “Hey! Wow, it has been a while! Mind if I join you?”

Man 1: “No, not at all, not at all. Please sit down.”

As Man 2 walks over, Man 1 notices that he is wearing a long, heavy coat, despite the very warm summer weather outside.

Man 1: “So, I must ask… what’s with the heavy coat?”

Man 2: “What? The coat? It’s a coat.”

Man 1: “Yeah, but… it’s a really warm day. Are you feeling well?”

Man 2: “Couldn’t feel better.”

Man 1: “Yeah, that’s great… so… the coat….”

Man 2: “Well, before I left the house, my wife noticed I wasn’t dressed for going out. She said ‘You need to put something on’, so I grabbed this coat.”

Man 1: “But you’re sweating profusely. That can’t be comfortable.”

Man 2: “Oh yes, it is very hot. Quite dreadfully so, in fact.”

Man 1: “So why didn’t you just put on a t-shirt, or something lighter?”

Man 2, looking puzzled: “What do you mean?”

Man 1: “You know – put on an outer garment that is appropriate for the conditions. You’re not just putting it on for no reason. Your choice of garments should be made with purpose. In the summer, you put on a t-shirt. In the winter, a coat. In the fall, you might use a sweater.”

Man 2: “Wow… that’s some pretty advanced stuff there. So I’m not putting something on simply for the sake of putting something on, but rather for a purpose?”

Man 1: “Exactly.”

Man 2: “That is enlightening. Well, I am very warm in this. Let me shuck this coat off…”

As Man 2 takes off his long coat, Man 1 comes to a horrible realization.

Man 1: “PANTS! You’re not wearing pants! Put the coat back on!”

Fade….

Ok, I’ll admit, that is a rather silly scenario. Yet I think it’s important to illustrate a basic point – applying a clear coat to your scale model is for a purpose, just as your choice of clothing (human clear coat!) is for a purpose also. As ridiculous as it seems to wear a long, heavy coat in the summer, if you aren’t comfortable with why a clear coat is needed on your model, you may be making a choice that is just as silly – even if you don’t intend it to be silly at all.

Of course, asking the question “should I clear coat” can be answered in so many ways. The responses received in groups and forums throughout the interwebs may not always be helpful. Many times some of those well-intentioned folks answering actually have no idea what they’re talking about. (I mean, c’mon… any monkey can publish a blog and… wait. Never mind. 🙂 ) In my own experience, it can be difficult to even ask the right question if you’re not familiar with a subject.

Hopefully, I can help sort out the why, when, and what of clear coating, so you won’t (figuratively) walk around on a hot summer day with a long coat on. And no pants underneath. 🙂

Why bother clear coating?

Clear coating in and of itself is nothing magical. The purpose of a clear coat is to accomplish something else, some intended purpose. So adding a clear coat will generally fall under these categories:

  • Protection– You may want to protect work already finished. It could be sealing it from damage, or against later applications of paint, weathering, etc. An example would be to protect the base paint against another coating, such as a wash.
  • Preparation– Some clear coats are applied to prepare the surface for a particular technique to follow. An example would be the use of a gloss coat to prepare parts for decals.
  • Protection AND Preparation– Many times, a clear coat application accomplishes both of the previous reasons at the same time.
  • Finish– Some clear coats are applied as a final step in the build process, to achieve a certain overall surface finish, such as a matte coat to take away the shine on a model.

While there are certainly a great range of answers to the “why” of clear coating, most will fall under those four categories. Of course, now that we’ve established why a clear coat is applied, that moves us on to…

When do you clear coat?

Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. Knowing when to clear coat is of critical importance. Applying a clear coat just any old-time can be a waste of money, time, and even create problems in the later steps of finishing a model.

While there are certainly more nuanced reasons for the “when”, here are some of the most common times to apply a clear coat:

  • Prior to decals – Most decals will adhere better to a glossy, smooth surface than to a matte, rough surface. A gloss clear coat, applied before you add your decals, will help them adhere much better, and avoid silvering.
  • After decals – the best way to seal your decals after application is – another clear coat. This will protect them from staining after applying a wash, or damage from handling.
  • Prior to using a wash/filter – While an explanation of applying filters and washes is beyond the scope of this article, it is essential generally to apply a coat over the part or model prior to using these techniques. In most cases, a gloss coat is applied, though a matte coat may be desired to achieve a particular effect.
  • After a wash/filter has been applied – Many times I will apply a clear coat after a wash/filter to make sure they stay in place. (Make sure the wash/filter has completely cured!)
  • Prior to a coat of a similar medium – Let’s say you wanted to apply an enamel filter over your model, to give it a bit of a tint, and add subtle streaking and shade variations. Once that was applied, you may want to then apply a panel line wash, using enamel washes. If there is no barrier between the filter and panel line wash, the thinners in the wash may reduce or remove the filter already applied. By clear coating the filter, you protect it against the panel line wash.
  • When a technique requires a different surface texture– Gloss coats are great for decals, but not so good for drybrushing and edge highlighting. So you need to evaluate what surface texture a particular layer in your finish process requires, and apply that.
  • When you finish your model– I like all of my models to be ultra-matte. Sometimes you may want a glossy look, or even a satin look. While that is certainly a matter of personal taste, it is generally a good idea to do some form of clear coating at the end of a build, both to achieve the final finish that you desire, but also to seal it all in for protection. (This can be especially critical for Gunpla builders – all of those cool action poses require a lot of handling! This final coat is often referred to as “top coating”.)

Just as with the “why”, the number of answers for “when” can certainly vary from those above. Those are some general cases, of course, but for most builders, the instances listed cover the majority of scenarios a model builder will encounter.

So with the why and when sorted, that brings us to…

What do you clear coat with?

While the previous two sections could certainly generate varied opinions, experiences, and observations, this one can often be a very hard-line for many people. You may hear someone say “never use that gloss clear coat”, and someone else say “always use it!’ And you are left wondering which one is right.

Frankly, neither. At least not in a 100% sense.

As with any product you use in modeling, the “what” can vary by product availability, region, personal skill level, past experience, and even climate can play a small part. So to try to state, categorically, that XYZ Gloss Coat or ABC Matte Coat is the best ever would be dishonest. You may have to experiment a bit. With experience, you’ll likely find a group of products that work best for your needs. But as with the other topics we’ve examined, here are some general categories.

First, there is the type of clear coat to consider:

Acrylics– Generally, these clear coats are water based, easy to apply, and in most cases are sufficiently durable enough for most modeling uses. While they are not particularly odoriferous, when airbrushed, they are not safe to breathe, so always use proper ventilation and wear a mask. They are friendly to almost anything they are applied over – other acrylics, enamels, or lacquers.

Enamels– As you would likely guess, these types of clear coats are enamel based. They tend to be very durable, but their odor can be strong, and many find them unsatisfactory for that reason. If applied carefully, they can be used as a clear coat for most mediums, though I have seen cases where a heavy-handed application reacted with previous enamel coats in a bad way.

Lacquers–  No surprise here, these use lacquer based thinners as their carrier medium. They tend to go on very, very smooth, smell awful, and of the three types discussed here, generally have the highest probability for a bad reaction with previous layers if you’re not experienced in their use. (And they can eat Bandai plastic alive if you’re not really, really careful.) Having said that, in my experience, they are very durable when fully cured.

In addition to the types of clear coats, we need to examine the finishes they offer:

Gloss– Shiny and smooth, though with some qualification. If your base coat is rough and textured, your gloss coat on top of that may not be as shiny or as smooth as you hoped for.

Matte– Dull in finish (as in not shiny… I’m sure given the opportunity they have quite the engaging personality 🙂 ), these can range from reasonably smooth to a bit grainy, depending on what is under them, how it is applied, and the type of product being used.

Satin– This is the finish that can’t make up its mind. While it is something between gloss and matte, it’s often best utilized to impart a more realistic “shine” to a finish. For example, when viewing a real object – say an airplane – from a distance, it may not necessarily be glossy, but you can still see reflections in its surfaces. That’s more of  satin finish.

So evaluating what you should use to clear coat your model with involves two basic questions – what is the purpose of the clear coat (wash? decals? flat finish?), and what is under the clear coat.

The decision of gloss or matte is generally easy – decals, washes, and similar applications do best with a gloss coat, while drybrushing, heavy oil staining, and a final flat finish call for a matte coat.

What type of coat – acrylic, enamel, or lacquer – is a more critical issue. Applying a very “hot” clear coat, such as a lacquer based one, over an acrylic, for instance, can lead to bad results. The decision here is very subjective, as it depends highly on what type of paint you use most often. Ultimately, opt for the least reactive choice.

Wrapping up

As with anything in building scale plastic models, a good understanding of clear coating will take some practice, and probably making a few mistakes. But with a bit of practical experience, you’ll find that there really is no mystery to clear coating – it’s simply a tool to use in your finishing process.

A few basic questions to keep in mind may be helpful:

  • What is going ON the clear coat?
  • What is UNDER the clear coat?
  • What will come after that?

Evaluating your build in those terms will help you understand why you’re clear coating, when to do it, and what to do it with.

Finally – my own personal experience… for what it is worth.

For paint, I only use acrylics. I employ filters and panel line washes that are both acrylics and enamels. I only use acrylic clear coats. For gloss coating, I use Future/Kleer, and for satin and matte coats I use Vallejo acrylics varnishes. In over 290 model builds over the last decade, these have served me well with no problems. I say that not to advocate for what you should do, but simply to pass along what I do.

Clear coating is a great technique to employ for a wide variety of purposes. With practice, you’ll be a master clear coater in no time!

23 comments

  1. Excellent write up! For the Vallejo perspective do you use the “regular line” or the polyurethane? For some reason matt coats have been a nemesis especially the acrylic ones.

    1. Thanks Martin! I appreciate it!

      For satin and flat, I like to use the Vallejo Mecha Color bottlings. Shoots great right from the bottle!

      I apply them in light coats, going for the point where the gloss is gone, but not so much as to get chalky build up.

    1. That could be it. While a good gloss coat is usually self-leveling, and thus benefits from a “wet” approach, satin and (especially) matt coats tend to benefit from a “dry” application. I usually shoot them from just a couple of inches away. I know I am “in the zone” when I can’t actually see anything coming out of the airbrush – but the surface of the model is turning flat. I sometimes think of it as my “gloss eraser”.

      Thanks Martin!

  2. I am laughing reading this as I was trying to avoid exactly that 🙂 “I can’t actually see anything coming out of the airbrush” No wonder I have issues!

    Thx!

  3. Jon,
    Love your site. Thanks for all the great content.
    I was wondering what you use to clean FUTURE out of your airbrush?

    1. Thanks Michael! I appreciate it!:)

      I usually start by blowing a color cup full of plain water through it. I then follow up with a couple of color cups of alcohol. That usually does the trick for me. If I find it sticking, I run a little Mr. COlor Leveling Thinner through it, which clears it up.

      Hope that helps!

  4. Thanks. I used to use Future a lot, and cleaned with acetone. I may have to go back and give Future a try again.
    I’m really liking the POLYURETHANE versions of Vallejo clears right now.

  5. I used tamiya laquer clear on my Bandai star wars models. I used acrylics for the paintwork, there doesnt seem to be any problems with laquer, seems to work fine. And I am pretty new to modelling. Thanks for your helpful information here, it helped clear up most of the nonsense out there.

    1. Thanks for visiting the site Neil, and for leaving a comment! I’m so glad you found this information helpful. Please do share it! 🙂

      I do use the Tamiya lacquers from time to time. Very durable and very shiny!

      Enjoy your modeling adventure! If I can be of any assistance, please do feel free to contact me.

  6. Hi Jon, great article. Do you have any tips about sealing decals on clear plastic (like racecar windows)? I would like to seal them on but am worried about fogging. Thanks

    1. Thanks Greg!

      Anytime I’ve brushed or airbrushed clear coats on clear plastic, it’s always left it a bit grainy or foggy. However, when I was building aircraft, I’d often dip my canopies in Future Floor Polish. (Now called Pledge.) I’d hold it with tweezers by one edge, dip it into a small cup or bowl until it was fully covered, then pull it out and let it drain off, After it had drained, I’d touch the downward most edge to a piece of paper towel to get off any excess. Then I’d set it on a saucer or other very smooth surface, and cover it with a bowl to keep dust from settling on it. A few hours later – it was crystal clear, even more than before.

      Give that a test on a spare piece of clear plastic, and see how it works for you. HTH

  7. I have a question I was hoping you would answer.
    Do you top coat over metal parts? Either etching or metal parts on gunpla?
    I’m thinking of using some IC socket pins as metal antenna. The outer material is tin. Should I top coat that and is I should what should I use?

    1. Hi Manuel! Thanks for visiting the site and leaving a comment.

      The best I’ll be able to do is give you a politician’s answer”… it depends.

      If you plan to paint over the parts, then you’ll definitely want to add some sort of primer, whether it’s a modeling primer or a metal etching primer.

      If you plan to leave it metallic, and you like the sheen is presents in its unfinished state, then I’d not put anything over it.

      As with other surfaces, it will really depend on what you plan to put over the top of it, and if you need to alter its finish.

      I hope that helps!

      1. Hi Jon

        Thanks for getting back to me.
        If I plan to paint the metal part, I’m prime it for sure. Sorry but I’m still very much a noob at all this.
        I always top coat my models (flat or gloss depending on what look I’m after.)
        If I follow your reply correctly, if I want the metal pieces to be unpainted and keep their original shin, then I can glue them in place after the final top coat? Which I think would be a nice highlighting effect if the rest of the model has a flat finish.
        Thanks for your help. I appreciate it. Have a great weekend.

        1. Yes- you are correct! If you want the metal parts to retain their original look, adding them after all other clear coats are replied works well. Use your glue very sparingly though – you don’t want it to “squish” out from underneath. If you are using super glue, consider getting some super glue debonder to do any necessary cleanup.

          Please don’t apologize for being new to the hobby! Everyone starts with model number one. You’re asking good questions – keep pursuing it and you’ll have even more fun with it. 🙂

          Thanks again for visiting my site and commenting! I am grateful.

  8. I recently painted a car model using acrylic craft paint. I mixed 50% paint and 50% pledge. I allowed it to dry and cure. I then applied Bare Metal Foil. I want to clear coat it with a gloss. I was going to use Deco art Dura gloss polyurethane craft gloss, as it is acrylic. Would it be ok to use the Pledge to thin it so I can airbrush it? Or should I use airbrush thinner? Also on another model I used the 50 50 mix, and plan on BMF and applying decals. Should I apply the pledge to seal the decals before applying the Deco art Dura gloss clear coat?

    1. Hey Dan,

      Thanks for visiting my site and leaving a comment! I am grateful.

      I’ve never used the Deco art product you mention, so the best I can tell you is to test it on something and see how it works. My guess is that Pledge would make a good thinner, as it is acrylic. Airbrush thinner will break downthe acrylic a bit, so thinning an acrylic with an acrylic is a better option.

      Not knowing how the Deco art product works, I’d say it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do a spot application of Pledge over the decals to seal them in.

      As always though, when trying a new thing – test it on something before applying it to the main work. HTH!

  9. Hi Dan,
    I was wondering if you help , I am working on my 1/350 scale tos enterprise and i have my base color on the hull which is tamiya acrylic . i want to clear coat it gloss so the decals go on nice. But i don’t want the final surface to be gloss . will clear coating with matte after decals work with little issue. Thanks in advance ..

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