What You Need to Know about Matte FinishesLast Updated August 8, 2023 | Meghan Drummond
In recent years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in cars sporting matte paint. Matte paint is starting to come as a factory option on many vehicles, especially luxury vehicles or upgraded trim packages, but matte paint can be added to almost any vehicle.
Depending on how it’s applied, a car with matte paint can either be incredibly striking or look like it’s been spray-painted in primer.
It may be tempting to rush out and paint your car matte after seeing some of the awesome builds at SEMA or your local car show. Before jumping into the deep end of the matte-finish pool, there are a lot of things to consider. Different matte finishes require different types of upkeep, but if you are prepared and know what to expect you’ll be able to keep your matte car gorgeous for years to come.
What Creates the Matte Finish?
Whether a paint job on a car is matte or glossy depends almost entirely on the clear coat applied to it. The high gloss that we associate with a new or recently cleaned car is because of its clear coat. The clear coat fills any dips or divots in the car’s base coat to create a smooth surface. That clear coat is then buffed and waxed to further smooth and perfect the car’s surface.
After a traditional clear coat has been added, a car is reflective and shiny.
A car with a matte finish will have a clear coat that creates tiny dimples in it to prevent it from reflecting light. This gives it a flat finish that stands out and can be incredibly attractive.
Because the matte finish is in the clear coat, not in the paint itself, any color can be matte. Though most matte cars are black, really every color in the rainbow is an option.
Caring for a Matte Finish
Dealerships who are unfamiliar with matte finishes tend to be overly cautious about the recommended care. Some have gone as far as to say that matte cars cannot get wet or be washed. This is totally untrue.
The myth about not being able to wash matte-finished cars likely stems from the number of car washes that use “shine-boosting” substances in their mixtures as a kind of “pre-wax.” Matte cars cannot be waxed or pre-waxed for obvious reasons.
Using a wax product on a matte car won’t make them turn glossy, but rather will just make them look like a very ugly and uncared for matte vehicle.
There are a lot of car soaps available without shine-boosting additives, but you will have to be disciplined about reading the back of your car soap purchases. Some matte finish aficionados claim to have great success with little more than homemade mixtures of dish soap and vinegar.
For the less daring, there are “matte paint” specific car washes available.
Matte paint’s sensitivity to some car soaps means that the automated car wash isn’t recommended, but most auto enthusiasts recommend going in for a hand wash anyway if you care about the appearance of your car. Car washes have a reputation for scratching up car’s paint, and matte does look a little uglier with a scratch.
Instead of using wax to protect a matte car’s clear coat, a matte paint protectant is recommended. Applying the paint protectant should be done about as often as waxing should be, and for exactly the same reason. The protectant creates a buffer between the outside world and the clear coat, buying you a little bit of time before your first unsightly scratch appears.
Despite rumors to the contrary, bird poop and dead bugs don’t destroy matte paint. If a bug splatters on their hood, drivers don’t need to pull over their car to wipe it away frantically before it can stain. Though matte paint can pick up stains, just like any car paint, as long as it’s washed regularly it shouldn’t stain.
Unfortunately, the one lasting rumor about matte paint that is accurate is that you can’t buff out minor scratches yourself. A shammy and love aren’t going to cut it when it comes to buffing out scratches on your matte finish. To be fair, that didn’t actually work with your glossy car either; when surfaces are that shiny they can hide a lot of minor imperfections, especially when applying touch-up paint. The only real way to remove scratches is by having a body shop repaint the area. Matte paint should present no additional work for a skilled body shop.
Types of Matte Finishes
There are a lot of different ways to go matte, whether you’re more interested in a true flat matte or just want something to take a bit of the shine off.
A true flat matte finish is what most people think of when they think of matte paint. This type of matte finish looks almost grainy, with no sheen. Though you’ll see shadows, you won’t see reflections at all. Many people choose to go black with a true flat to accentuate the stealth look.
With a true flat, it’s important to avoid the look of a car that’s just been primed and is still waiting on its real paint. You can do this by adding parts that accentuate your vehicle and create a complete look with its finish.
For many people this means going true blackout, which is definitely a great look for a lot of reasons, but there are other ways to polish your appearance and make it uniquely yours. Part of the great thing about using matte paint is that your car is guaranteed to stand out, so make sure people have something great to look at.
Satin is a beautiful midway between a true flat matte and gloss. The best word for the way a satin paint finish reflects the light is “sheen.” Satin paint has a sheen to it that reflects the light without turning it into the reflective surface of gloss.
Most of the factory-available matte options fall into this satin category, and there is something about it that reflects a more professional and less stealth effect than a flat matte finish. There are two ways that auto painters achieve a satin finish. The first is by using a clear coat that is specific for satin. This clear coat will have the sheen built right in.
Others argue that the best way to achieve a true satin color is to lay down the base color like normal but then use a regular clear coat and flattener combo to reduce the high gloss of most clear coats.
Until recently, most satin cars were also black, but satin finishes are now available in a wide variety of colors.
Semi-gloss is the shiniest of the matte-options but is still less reflective than most cars. It’s different from a satin finish in much the same way an eggshell is different from white plastic.
While satin still has the pebbled look of matte, semi-gloss smooths over these tiny dimples ever so slightly, creating a surface that’s subdued. Semi-gloss is one of the most popular ways to get a look unique enough to stand out without incurring additional upkeep costs. Other than avoiding wax, clay, or other shine-enhancing substances on a semi-gloss car, it can be cleaned and maintained with regular soap.
Try a Matte Finish Without the Commitment
One way to try out a matte look without increasing the challenge of upkeep is to use a matte vinyl wrap.
Vinyl wraps are one way that people dramatically change the look of their vehicle without damaging the factory paint. Vinyl wraps are available in a lot of looks, from the extremely radical to the very tame. Matte vinyl wraps are some of the most popular vinyl wraps because they allow people to achieve the look of matte paint without the maintenance.
Vinyl wraps were originally used as a way to put advertising on vehicles. Professional car wrappers have many different strategies they use to stretch and apply the vinyl to achieve the desired look.
Everyone has an opinion on Plasti-Dip, the wrap in a can that has changed the car mod world by making paint modifications so easy you can spray them on and peel them off. Plasti-dip is heat resistant as well, so if you want to try out matte wheels you don’t have to worry about heat causing the Plasti-Dip to peel off.
Plasti-Dip has a variety of matte options and though they’re easy enough for beginners, real Plasti-Dip pros can create incredible looks out of this material, from clean finishes that look like professional paint to creative splatters and ombre shades.
There are lots of different matte looks for cars, each with its own appeal. Though maintenance and upkeep are required to care for a matte finish, the same can be said for any vehicle no matter which paint option you select.