Gundam Tutorials

Clear Coating For Models Explained

The Coat: A Short Play In One Ridiculous Act

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!

7 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!

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