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Car Paint: How to Choose the Right Type

Deciding on a new paint color for your vehicle can be exciting but also a little confusing. You’ll need to know the difference between waterborne car paint and solvent car paint. Then, you’ll need to consider whether to use a single-stage paint or a dual stage, also known as two-stage. Finally, you’ll have to decide on a color and a type of basecoat. With five different types of basecoats, there’s plenty of choices, from traditional to one that will turn heads as you pass.

In this article, we explain what you need to know before you purchase car paint. Whether you’re refinishing a classic car or giving your older vehicle a makeover, knowing what type of paint to use and the variety of basecoat options available can make a significant difference. From the wow factor of the overall look to how long that fresh appearance lasts, we cover it all.

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Waterborne Paint vs. Solvent Paint

Automotive or car paint is specifically intended for use on vehicles. Applied only by spray, it’s designed to bind to an automotive surface, stay in place, and weather the outdoor elements. These paints are made up of three general parts: the binder, or resin; the pigment, otherwise known as the color; and the carrier agent, which helps with application.

Based on the makeup of their resins, all car paints fall into one of two categories: waterborne or solvent. More traditionally used, solvent paint incorporates a solvent base of either lacquer, urethane, or enamel. The issue with solvent paint is the high level of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) released during application, which are potentially harmful to your health and the environment.

For this reason, waterborne paints have been gaining steadily in popularity. Waterborne paints, as their name suggest, are 90% water, with only the remaining 10% comprising solvents. This ratio of water to solvents dramatically reduces the quantity of VOCs released during application.

Single-Stage Paint vs. Dual-Stage Paint

When you go to buy car paint, you’ll be faced with the decision of single-stage or dual-stage paint, also known as two-step paint. While single stage may seem more convenient and less expensive, you may wonder whether you’ll get a long-lasting finish.

To better understand these two products and their distinct methods for painting your vehicle, we’ll first explain the three main components of painting any vehicle. Then we’ll compare the pros and cons of each type of paint.

The first step — and one that should not be skipped — to painting any vehicle is to prep the surface with a primer. If you’re taking the time to repaint or remodel your car or truck, you’ll most likely want the finished product to look flawless. Primer paint fills in and smooths imperfections, creating an ideal binding layer for your paint.

Next, you’ll apply the basecoat, which adds the color. Later in the article, we’ll discuss your five choices for basecoats.

car bumper painting
Image Credit: Dmitry Kalinovsky, Shutterstock

While the basecoat supplies most of the final look, it can’t hold up without the final application of a clear coat finish. Made from either urethane or polyurethane, the clear coat finish protects the paint, preserves its color from harmful UV rays, and adds that all-important shine.

Finishes are also available as an acrylic lacquer. These create the highest level of shine, but they don’t weather well. Acrylic lacquer is primarily used on antique, classic, or showroom vehicles, which aren’t regularly driven and benefit from that extra luster.

When you purchase a single-stage paint, the base coat and clear coat are combined. In one application over the primer, you’ll have a finished product. Conversely, with a dual-coat paint, after the primer dries, you follow a two-step process in which you apply the base coat and wait for it to dry. Then, you finish with the clear coat.

Single-stage paint saves you expense and time. If your paint project is a portion rather than the entire vehicle or you’re looking for a solid, basic final result, you’ll want to go with a single stage. However, if you’re interested in a more durable, lasting, and perhaps flashier finish, you’re better off taking the extra steps and spending the extra amount with a dual-stage paint.

Five Different Types of Basecoats

When it’s time to decide on a basecoat, you’ll be faced with determining the color and style. You’re likely to choose a solid basecoat, but you may want to consider other exciting choices, ranging from matte to chameleon.


As mentioned, most vehicles on the road have a solid base coat. Solid color choices typically tend to be either white, red, blue, or black. They look attractive and give your vehicle a polished look.


For an original appearance, you could choose a matte basecoat, which intentionally diminishes the shine. You’ll find a matte basecoat on certain niche cars. Generally, these basecoats are either grey or black.


As inferred from its name, metallic base coats have a small quantity of powdered metal added, usually an aluminum powder. The metal particles mixed into the paint add an effervescent and appealing shine. While you may not notice simple scratches or minor damage with a metallic base coat, it is more difficult to match should you need a repair. For this reason, metallic basecoats are typically applied to expensive sports cars and custom vehicles.


If you’re looking for a unique basecoat that shimmers, consider pearlescent. Mica crystals in the paint give a pearlescent basecoat its glistening quality. You’ll find this eye-appealing, sparkling basecoat only on flashy show cars.


Taking the pearlescent basecoat one step further, chameleon basecoats seem to glow and to change colors. You may notice a rainbow of hues depending on your vantage point and the lighting. Again, it’s doubtful you’ll ever see a car boasting this highly unique basecoat driving down your block, as it’s usually reserved for custom vehicles.

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We hope that you’ve learned the difference between waterborne and solvent paints, decided whether you need a single-step or dual-step paint, and determined which basecoat look you want. Now you’re ready to purchase car paint for your next automotive project. With the right paint, you can turn heads the next time you drive down your street or display your vehicle for show.

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Featured Image Credit: Pxhere


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