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Buffing and waxing a boat to recover its gel coat

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What is the issue?
A new boat's gelcoat surface is very smooth, mirror-like and pleasing to the eye. But as the gelcoat ages, it becomes porous. The more porous it becomes the more powdery it appears, and turns grey as dirt becomes embedded within it, which makes it stain more easily. The worse it looks the harder it is to clean.

Why address this?
Tired gelcoat that has that chalky drab exterior with plenty of staining, can be cleaned up as good as new with some work. Regularly waxing thereafter doesn't only ensure that the boat is pretty to look at for years to come, but it also preserves it's value.

How to address this?
Recover the boat's gel coat by a process of cleaning, compounding and waxing the boat.

Before you embark on this project you should be advised that this is no trivial task as pretty much every aspect of the surface of the boat will have to worked over half a dozen times. It is hugely demanding physical task that will take a little skill development. Before you embark upon the project it is worth considering getting a professional quote from a boatyard for this work. Once the boat has been restored it is easy to keep it in good conditions with regular waxing.

If you want to do the work, the compounding part is by far the most gruelling. In my opinion anything but the smallest boat is too much to do by hand (see videos below). An electric buffer will more than return on its investment in time-saved, and will help to keep the boat shining in the future. A disk sander, or a sanding pad chucked into a drill, is likely to do more damage than good to the gel coat.

Please select a variable speed buffing machine. This allows lower speeds to be used around objects such as cleats and railings, where a high-speed touch can cause a dangerous kickback. Machines which both oscillate and rotate, making it a lot safer and easier to operate are less likely to damage graphics or protruding hardware, and one with thumb controlled speed dials are generally viewed as the easiest to use.

An outline of the three stages required to buff and wax a boat is as follows:

  • Cleaning and degreasing Thoroughly clean the boat from stem to stern to remove salt, grime and stains. Use diluted oxalic acid or a marine oxalic acid based gelcoat cleaner product such as Y10, Star Brite Hull Cleaner, Silky Marine Bright and Chine Shine, to remove all the yellowing on boat's hull and to act as a degreaser - see removing rust marks and stains. This will remove all metals or tannins - that rusty orange discolouration you get from the ocean over time that attaches to the gelcoat - and brings back the white of the hull. Rinse the clean surface thoroughly with boat cleaning detergents afterwards and let it dry. If mildew is present you can add a cup of household bleach to a boat cleaning solution and wash down. It is essential to thoroughly clean the boat before polishing or waxing so that dirt is not driven further into the pores of the gelcoat.

  • Compounding The next step is to use a compound to buff the gelcoat and rid it of chalky oxidation and other markings. This is the most arduous part of the process with a badly faded gelcoat requiring extensive use of rubbing compound. Best results are had by going over the boat three times utilising the buffer.

    • First Stage: use a coarse compound to remove any remaining oxidation stains. The buffing pads come in varying levels of aggressiveness for the compounding and finishing steps so choose appropriately. Apply compound to the pad in a criss-cross fashion, not a circle so it applies evenly when rotating. Then bring the buffer to the hull firmly. Turn on the buffer and work it in sections of less than a metre square. Move the buffer back and forth, horizontally and vertically, using medium pressure on the right edge of the pad. Bare in mind that a compound is like liquid wet sandpaper so you should keep your pad damp at all times or you will burn or discolour the gelcoat, so keep it moving. A misting bottle filled with water for this can be useful but don't overdo it. Turn off and wipe it clean with a microfibre towel and start the process again on the adjacent section of the vessel until the boat is complete.

    • Second Stage: Repeat the process using a microfine compound to remove the swirl marks from the coarse compound.

    • Third Stage: Finally finish it with a glaze finishing compound to bring up the true colour. Many might consider this overkill but it will literally make the hull surface as smooth as glass removing any traces of 'swirl marks' and be hugely satisfying. Don’t throw out the pads. You can run them through your washing machine and reuse them whenever necessary.

  • Waxing: This is the application of a wax coating to seal and protect the polished gelcoat. This should be applied by hand in an even circular motion, allowing one section at a time to dry. Just wait for it to haze over to about 80-90% before before buffing off by hand with a Microfibre cloth which is excellent for this purpose.

It is easy to think that the wax is what makes a boat look pretty and shiny, but what keeps it shiny is providing the important layer of protection over the gelcoat. Using wax, or boat polish, with UV protection will also reduce sun damage. Wax twice a year to maintain the gel coat in excellent shape.
Please note

The buffer can only be used for compounding and cannot be used to apply or remove wax.It is not possible to compound a porous boat, the compound will just fill the holes and your boat will be the colour of the compound. Just enjoy the boat for what it is.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession.

How to Buff and Wax a Boat

How to properly clean, compound and wax your boat by hand

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