Can You Paint Over Clear Coat or Existing Car Paint?

Author: Pat Freling | Updated: | Affiliate links may be present.

It is not uncommon for car owners to want to repaint their cars. The reasons for this can vary from repairing minor damage, adding bold contour pieces, or changing the color of the entire car.

It is possible to paint over a clear coat or existing car paint. The most important thing is to prepare the surface correctly. You will need to clean, sand, and prime before painting over a clear coat or existing paint.

By taking the right steps, you can avoid future touch-up jobs and easily paint over your car’s existing paint.

Things to Consider When Painting Over Existing Paint or Clear Coat

Before you start planning and prepping your car for its new paint job, it’s important to examine the condition of the current paint as well as what your plan is.

The Condition of Your Current Paint

If you are painting over factory paint with little to no surface issues, repainting your car should be fairly simple. You will only need to rough up the surface, usually by sanding, in order to give the new primer and paint something to grip and adhere to.

If your current paint shows advanced distress, such as excessive peeling or bubbling, you will need to strip down farther than the clear coat. Simply removing the clear coat and painting over already peeling paint will not fix the problem. The old paint will need to be feathered and fixed beforehand.

If you have previously painted your car before and the paint thickness exceeds 10 mils (or 10 microns), it may be necessary for you to sand off a few layers of paint before you add your new color. You can determine your paint thickness with a simple mil gauge.

If There is Any Rust Present

Don’t panic! It’s still possible to repaint a car that has rust on it. It just requires a little extra leg work. If there is a chip in the current paint that has allowed the metal to be exposed to the elements, it will rust.

If there is a small spot of rust, you will need to clean the area and sand away all the rust before moving forward. After you’ve sanded it, you will need to apply a rust-protecting primer to prevent further corrosion.

If there is an extensive amount of rust, remove as much as possible with sanding or a wire brush and consider using a rust converter primer which will check the chemical makeup of the rust to make it paintable.

If the rust damage is so severe that there is pitting or it has decreased the integrity of the piece, you will need to use an auto body filler or replace the entire piece.

Is This a Touch-up or a Full Body Paint Job?

While the process is similar to touching up small areas and changing the entire color of your car, the main difference is in the labor. Painting your entire car may require a professional paint and body shop since the process is arduous.

For small touch-ups, the trick is finding the color that matches your car, which you can usually find by contacting the manufacturer. You still need to sand, prime, and apply a clear coat for touch-ups.

The Process for Painting Your Car

If you’ve decided to do the paint job yourself, take care to follow the correct steps so that the end result is a paint or touch-up job that lasts.

Prep the Area to be Painted

First, you will need to tape off the areas of the car that are not being repainted. You can use regular masking tape or other low-adhesion tapes for this. Avoid using duct tape or any other strong-adhesion tape or you risk peeling off paint.

After taping, thoroughly clean the area with soap and water first, then wipe down with just water to remove any residue, grease, dust, or car wax.

Sand the Area

Use the appropriate grit sandpaper, a sanding block, or an orbital sander. At this stage, you want to remove the clear coat and the glossy shine from the current paint. If you are sanding rust, sand until all or most of the rust bits are gone.

If you are sanding around a paint chip, continue sanding until the existing paint edges are feathered. It should feel smooth when you run your finger across it. After sanding, wipe down with a cleaner or paint thinner to remove excess dust particles.

Apply Primer and Sand Again

Using your chosen auto body primer, apply 2 or 3 layers. Allow each layer to dry completely before moving forward with the next coat. Just like with painting a wall, if you don’t allow proper dry time, paint and primer can slough off or tack together.

Sand the primed area after it has dried and wipe off one more time with a small amount of thinner to get rid of any powder.


After your primer has completely dried and you’ve resanded the area, you can start applying your chosen paint. Auto paint is usually applied in 3 or 4 layers, but each layer needs to dry completely before proceeding to the next coat.

Apply Your Top Coat

Once the paint is completely dry, use 1 to 2 layers of lacquer or top coat. As always, give each layer a thorough dry time. Then, allow everything to cure for at least 48 hours before moving on to the final step.

Buff the Area

Once the paint has fully cured, buff and polish the area to add shine and help the freshly painted area mesh with the surrounding areas more seamlessly. Doing this step too soon can ruin all the hard work you’ve done and peel off the fresh paint.

Final Thoughts

By following the process above, including inspecting your car beforehand, you can easily paint over your existing auto paint. Small touch-ups can be done at home, but if the task seems too daunting, consider visiting your local auto body and paint shop.

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About Pat Freling

Pat has been into DIY painting since he was 14 years old. He's painted interior walls, decks, patio, and even the first car that he'd purchased at 18.

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