Top Coating When Painting: Everything You Need to Know

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  June 16, 2022
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A topcoat is a special coat of paint that you apply on top of the base coat to protect the underlying material. It seals the surface and protects the base coat from water, chemicals, and other aggressive elements. The topcoat provides a glossy finish and enhances the appearance of the base coat.

In this guide, I’ll explain what a topcoat is, how it works, and why it’s so important when painting.

What is a top coating

What’s the Deal with Top Coating?

Top coating is an essential step in any painting or coating system because it provides a protective layer that seals and protects the underlying material. Without a topcoat, the underlying layers of paint or coating can be vulnerable to damage from water, chemicals, and other aggressive elements. Top coating also helps to enhance the appearance of the surface by providing a smooth, glossy finish.

How Does Top Coating Work?

Top coating works by creating a seal over the underlying layers of paint or coating. This seal helps to protect the surface from damage by preventing water, chemicals, and other aggressive elements from penetrating the surface. Topcoats can be applied as a final layer or as an intermediate layer in a multi-coat system. The type of topcoat used will depend on the type of material being protected and the level of protection required.

What Types of Top Coats are Available?

There are many different types of topcoats available, including:

  • Varnish: A clear or tinted coating that provides a glossy finish and protects against water and UV damage.
  • Polyurethane: A clear or tinted coating that provides a durable, scratch-resistant finish.
  • Lacquer: A clear or tinted coating that dries quickly and provides a hard, glossy finish.
  • Epoxy: A two-part coating that provides a tough, durable finish that is resistant to chemicals and abrasion.

How Do I Apply a Top Coat?

To apply a topcoat, follow these steps:

  • Clean the surface thoroughly and allow it to dry completely.
  • Sand the surface lightly to create a smooth, even surface.
  • Apply the topcoat using a brush, roller, or sprayer, following the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Allow the topcoat to dry completely before applying additional coats.

How Does Top Coating Compare to Undercoating?

Top coating and undercoating are two different processes that serve different purposes. Undercoating is the process of applying a layer of coating to the underside of a surface to protect it from damage. Top coating, on the other hand, is the process of applying a final layer of coating to the surface to protect it from damage and enhance its appearance.

Exploring the Wide Variety of Top Coats Available

  • Flat: This type of topcoat provides a low sheen finish, which is perfect for a raw, natural look. It is also ideal for furniture makeovers, as it gives a vintage appearance.
  • Gloss: Gloss topcoats provide a higher sheen and are generally used for a more modern, sleek look. They are also highly resistant to chemical and UV damage.
  • Satin: Satin topcoats provide a finish that is in between flat and gloss. They are perfect for furniture that needs protection but doesn’t require a high sheen finish.
  • Pearlescent: This type of topcoat contains pigments that give a pearlescent effect to the underlying paint. It is perfect for adding a touch of glamour to furniture.
  • Metallic: Metallic topcoats contain metallic pigments that give a metallic effect to the underlying paint. They are perfect for adding a touch of luxury to furniture.
  • Transparent/Translucent: These topcoats are essentially clear and are used to protect the underlying paint without changing its appearance. They are perfect for protecting delicate finishes.

The short answer is yes, painted furniture needs a topcoat. Applying a topcoat to your painted furniture is essential to protect the paint and achieve the desired finish. Here’s why:

  • A topcoat helps protect the painted surface from scratches, dings, and overall wear and tear. It acts as a barrier between the painted surface and the outside world, making the paint last longer.
  • A topcoat can help resist tough stains and spills, making it easier to clean the furniture. Without a topcoat, the paint can absorb stains and become discolored over time.
  • A topcoat can help achieve the desired sheen and performance of the painted surface. Depending on the type of topcoat used, it can add a high gloss, satin, or matte finish to the furniture.
  • Applying a topcoat can also help remove any imperfections in the painted surface, such as brush strokes or bubbles. It can smooth out the surface and give it a more professional look.
  • Using a high-quality topcoat from reputable brands can ensure the longevity and durability of the painted furniture. It can also resist fading and yellowing over time.

How to Apply Topcoat to Painted Furniture

Before you start applying the topcoat, make sure that the painted piece is clean and dry. If you’re adding a topcoat to a piece that has been painted for a while, you may want to give it a little bit of a clean with a nylon brush and some water to remove any dirt or dust that may have accumulated.

Choose the Right Product

Picking the right topcoat for your painted furniture is extremely important. You want to make sure that the product you choose is compatible with the type of paint you’ve used and the material of the piece you’re working on. Some common topcoat finishes include polyurethane, wax, and oil-based finishes.

Understanding the Ingredients

Different companies use different ingredients in their topcoat products, so it’s important to read the label and understand what you’re working with. Some topcoats contain water, while others contain oil. Knowing what’s in the product will help you create the ultimate finish you’re looking for.

Application Time

When it comes to applying the topcoat, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Always work in a well-ventilated area
  • Apply the topcoat in thin, even coats
  • Use a high-quality brush or roller to ensure an even application
  • Allow each coat to dry completely before applying the next one
  • If you’re applying a dark topcoat to a light-colored piece, be sure to practice on a scrap piece of wood first to make sure you’re comfortable with the way it looks

Adding the Topcoat

Now that you’re ready to apply the topcoat, here are the steps you should follow:

  • Mix the topcoat well before applying
  • Apply the topcoat in thin, even coats, working in the direction of the grain
  • Be sure to mark the required drying time on your calendar
  • If you want a smoother finish, lightly sand the piece with a fine-grit sandpaper between coats
  • Apply a final coat and allow it to dry completely

Maintenance and Protection

Once the topcoat has dried completely, you’ll have a great finish that will protect your piece for a long time. Here are a few tips for maintaining and protecting your painted furniture:

  • Avoid putting hot or cold items directly on the surface
  • Use coasters and placemats to prevent scratches and water damage
  • Clean the surface with a damp cloth as needed
  • If you do need to clean the surface more thoroughly, use a mild soap and water solution
  • If you notice any scratches or damage, don’t worry! You can always touch up the topcoat to prevent further damage.

Applying a topcoat to painted furniture may seem like a big job, but with the right products and a little bit of practice, you’ll be able to create a beautiful finish that will last for years to come.

Choosing the Best Top Coat for Your Painted Furniture

Adding a topcoat to your painted furniture is important for protecting the finish and adding an extra layer of durability. It can also help to make the surface easier to clean and more resistant to water damage. Overall, a topcoat creates a smoother and longer-lasting finish, which is particularly helpful for pieces that will see a lot of use.

My Favorite Top Coat for Chalk Paint

As someone who loves using chalk paint (here’s how to apply it), I’ve found that my favorite topcoat is a clear wax. It adds a beautiful sheen to the finish and helps to protect the paint from wear and tear. Plus, it’s easy to apply and gives the piece a lovely, smooth feel.

Transform Your Chalk Painted Pieces with the Perfect Top Coat

Using a top coat provides a lot of benefits, including:

  • Protecting your piece from environmental elements and wear and tear
  • Increasing the longevity of your piece
  • Creating a smooth and polished finish
  • Making it easier to clean your piece
  • Providing a stronger and more durable finish compared to typical chalk paint

The Hype Around Top Coats

While some people may be hesitant to use a top coat due to the hype around it, we’ve found that it is worth the investment. Not only does it save you money in the long run by increasing the longevity of your piece, but it also provides a lot of benefits that traditional chalk paint alone cannot. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself using a top coat on every chalk painted piece you create!

Topcoat Painting: Your FAQs Answered

A topcoat is a transparent or translucent coating that is applied over a base coat to provide a protective layer and enhance the finish of the surface. It acts as a sealer and protects the surface from scratches, stains, and UV rays. Topcoats also add durability to the surface and make it easier to clean.

Do I need to apply a primer before applying a topcoat?

Yes, it is recommended to apply a primer before applying a topcoat. A primer helps to create a bonding surface for the topcoat and ensures that the topcoat adheres properly to the surface. It also helps to seal the surface and prevent any stains or discoloration from bleeding through the topcoat.

What is the difference between a transparent and translucent topcoat?

A transparent topcoat is completely clear and does not alter the color of the base coat. A translucent topcoat, on the other hand, has a slight tint or color and can alter the color of the base coat slightly. Translucent topcoats are often used to enhance the color of the base coat or to create a specific effect.

How do I prepare the surface before applying a topcoat?

To prepare the surface before applying a topcoat, you should follow these steps:

  • Sand the surface with a fine-grit sandpaper to create a smooth surface.
  • Scuff the surface with a scuff pad or sandpaper to create a rough surface that the topcoat can bond to.
  • Clean the surface with a damp cloth to remove any dust or debris.

What are some tips for applying topcoats?

Here are some tips for applying topcoats:

  • Apply the topcoat in thin, even coats to avoid drips and bubbles.
  • Use a high-quality brush or roller to apply the topcoat.
  • Apply the topcoat in a well-ventilated area to avoid inhaling fumes.
  • Allow the topcoat to dry completely before applying another coat.
  • Use mineral spirits or oils to clean up any spills or drips.

How do I apply a topcoat with a wiping rag or wool pad?

To apply a topcoat with a wiping rag or wool pad, you should follow these steps:

  • Pour the topcoat onto the rag or pad.
  • Wipe the topcoat onto the surface in thin, even coats.
  • Allow the topcoat to dry completely before applying another coat.
  • Use a strip of wool to buff the surface to a high shine.


So, that’s what a topcoat is. A topcoat is a coat of paint applied on top of another coat of paint to give a smooth finish and protect the underlying material. 

It’s important to remember to use the right type of topcoat for the material you’re painting and to wait until the paint underneath is dry before applying the topcoat. So, don’t be afraid to try it yourself!

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Tools Doctor, content marketer, and dad. I love trying out new equipment, and together with my team I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with tools & crafting tips.