There are several ways to attack the buff-and-wax ritual, and I would
not say there is one right way for everyone. However, some approaches
do get better results than others. I would categorize the types of wax
jobs like this:
The quick-and-dirty boat wax job, for the
full-time cruiser who just wants to protect the boat's gelcoat from
further degradation, prevent gelcoat stains, and make boat-cleaning jobs
The perfectionist wax job, for the sailor who wants all of the above, plus wants the boat to look its glossy-best.
The in-between wax job, for the sailor who wants
his boat to look good, but not at the expense of adding an extra day to
his haulout or lay-days.
And certainly, the condition of the boat has a big impact on how you
approach the project. If you're bringing a boat back from the dead, the
quick-and-dirty wax job is not really an option (although some makers of
"miracle products" would lead you to think differently). You must be
prepared to put in some elbow grease.
No matter which category you are in, your waxing job will have three basic steps:
Cleaning: This includes getting rid of salt,
dirt, grease, mold, stains. You could break this down into various
stages, depending on the condition of the hull, general cleaning and
Polishing: This creates the smooth glossy surface
to be protected. If you have an old hull, there could be several stages
to this process.
Waxing: This is the application of a thin polymer or natural wax coating to seal and protect your polished gelcoat.
The important thing to remember is that if your hull is not clean
before you begin polishing or waxing, you might drive dirt further into
the pores of the gelcoat. Not the end of the world, but you won't get
the best results.
Your biggest investment will be a good polisher. We've looked at
various options, ranging from el-cheapos to mid-priced powertools aimed
at the automotive market, to higher-end tools geared specifically for
use on boats. Lately, for polishing, waxing, and buffing, we've been
using a Dewalt variable-speed polisher, the DeWalt DW849, with a 3M
3M-05705 Superbuff Polishing Pad and the 3M-05710 Superbuff Adapter
(used to fit pads on any standard 5/8-inch shaft slow-speed polisher).
Two other products worth looking at:
An inexpensive variable speed from Chicago Electric
This one rattles and and hums, but it works. Ours is still working,
but it gets used only twice a year. Harbor Freight also has 7.5-inch
wool buffing pads to match for much less than the 3M versions.
There is also a marine-tailored, small-diameter, dual-action polisher from Shurhold
This one helps avoid swirl marks and is relatively lightweight. It's good for micro-finishing.
It has some nice features (like a built-in breaker, in case there is a
fault in the circuit), and is sized to take the smaller 3M Finesse-It
pads that 3M recommend for the Finesse It step below. Shurhold also
makes its own buffing compound, Buff-Magic.
I generally apply the compound and wax by hand, using a basic
microfiber round waxing pad. I then use the Dewalt to compound and
remove wax. The key is to go very light at a low-RPM. I often will buff
again with one of those really soft "lambswool" buffing pads, or a
microfiber cloth by hand. Good polishing products will designate the
RPM-range that is suitable. Start at the low end of that range.
Wash thoroughly, removing all oil and grease. We haven't tested boat
soaps, but if you want to get rid of the old wax, keep in mind that many
boat soaps are mildly formulated not to remove waxes. For this stage of
cleaning, Nick likes Simple Green. He dilutes as needed. You could do
the same with one of the recommended cleaners below in our multipurpose
cleaner test, which includes some eco-friendly choices.
For serious stains, spray your chosen cleaner undiluted. Note that ALL of the spray cleaners in our last multipurpose cleaner test
For mildew, chlorine is the ticket. Outdoor Clorox works well. You can also try some of the best products in our last mildew cleaner test
, which included some more eco-friendly solutions.
If grease or exhaust soot is the big problem, then a degreaser
will also work.
Serious Hull Stains
Mild acids are very effective at attacking serious stains that don't
respond to the above treatments. Used incorrectly or in strong
concentrations, acid cleaners can harm gelcoat, so use it sparingly and
follow directions. Do a test patch first, and be sure to rinse
thoroughly. Also, be sure to cover a trailer well as it will take
galvanizing and even paint off. Keep away from paint and varnish.
Clearly, it is better to do all of your hull cleaning before painting
Nick liked the Davis FSR gel, here's our complete report on on 22 different hull-stain cleaners
For a softer, more eco-friendly cleaner check out RidLyme
The above multi-purpose cleaners should have eliminated any grease or
dirt that would interfere with polishing and waxing, but some, like Don Casey
, mention solvents. I personally don't do this step unless I'm painting, but there is nothing wrong with taking the extra step.
Casey recommends MEK over acetone. Interlux 202 Fiberglass Solvent
Wash is another one that we've used. It seems to evaporate a little
slower down here in Florida.
Also, we are looking at some "green" dewaxing solvents now from RPM technologies
although these appear aimed at the industrial market.
Once you are assured you won't be driving grease and dirt deeper into
the hull, you can begin polishing, or compounding. Be sure to wear
goggles and a dust mask while doing this step. This process also removes
any remaining old wax. Many wax manufacturers have a specific product
that also includes a cleaning component (often petroleum-based) to get
rid of grease and dirt. Collinite's Boat Cleaner 920 is an example.
How aggressively you want to polish your hull will depend on the hull
condition. On a badly worn hull, you could wet sand with 800 grit
wet-dry paper, followed by finer grits and then polishing compounds. If
you've been waxing your hull regularly, and see no signs of oxidation,
you might not even want to buff and skip to micro-finishing or waxing.
Or, you could combine the buff and wax process into one with a one-step
cleaner wax. The idea is to start with the least aggressive compound you need.
We haven't tested buffing compounds, although they all work basically
the same way, they contain a mild abrasive suspended in a liquid or
paste used for polishing the hull. The current trend is toward
water-based products like Aqua Buff
which contain no petroleum distillates. I have had good luck with 3M
Imperial Compound and Finishing Material, which does. Whatever compound
you use, start with the mildest (highest # grit) that you need.
For what power tools to use, see the power tool details above. In
addition to the Superbuff pad mentioned before, I have also used 3M
hook-It Velcro pads for polishing. In any case, I smear polish on the
hull with a foam waxing pad and go VERY LIGHTLY at a low RPM. 3M
recommends 1,000-1,500 RPM for its Imperial Finish. Keep the polisher
moving to avoid heat buildup or over-polishing.
Many people skip this step, but I find it produces a better gloss if you
do it, particularly when trying to restore the gloss to an older boat.
We have not tested this product category. Essentially, this is an even
finer polish than those used for compounding. For this, I use 3M Finesse
It II. Several of the automotive-oriented waxes in our liquid wax test
have similar products. On a small boat, you can apply it by hand, but I
do it by machine. Again, apply light pressure and use a slow RPM, being
careful to follow the instructions. Do a small area at a time.
Now that your hull is shiny, it is time to protect it. We've tested
dozens of liquid waxes and paste waxes. Generally, the pastes offer
harder protection that lasts longer and the liquids are easier to apply
and last almost as long. I generally stick with the Collinite 885 paste
wax. Contributing editor Frank Lanier, who waxed his hull by hand, found
it too much work and was quite happy with the Collinite. A number of
readers swear by the Nu Finish.
I usually use the the same tools I used for compounding, although I
change to a clean pad. I usually apply the wax by hand using a foam
microfiber pad, and then buff with the machine. Working in small areas.
Don't let the Collinite 885 dry too hard, or it becomes hard to buff.
Also, don't lay it on too thick. If you work in cooler temperatures,
this can be a tough product to apply, but you can warm up the can
slightly to soften it up. Usually, I have to go over the hull twice to
get the shine. Sometimes I'll switch to a very soft buffing pad for this
Jamestown Distributors has a pretty good video on refinishing an old
hull using the 3M system. It's pretty heavy on the 3M products ads.
Often, you can do just as well with products from your local Finish
Master or similar auto-refinishing place. They also have a pretty good
polishing kit that has everything you need, including the polisher.