Cleaning and waxing your boat is important to keep it looking nice and to protect it from the elements. However, knowing how to detail a boat can be a challenge since there are dozens of products available that sound similar. For example, should you use a boat wash or a hull cleaner? Both clean your hull, right? Actually, these items are very different and should be used in different circumstances. Same goes for boat polish vs. boat wax. Further complicating things are products designed to perform multiple steps to save time but add yet another layer of confusion.
In this article, we talk about the steps involved in detailing a boat and describe the types of products that are appropriate for each step.
Why Wax Your Boat?
Unlike cars that have a clear coat to protect the finish, fiberglass boats have gelcoat to shield the underlying hull from water intrusion and UV rays. It is the gelcoat that provides the shiny, mirror-like appearance. However, over time and with exposure to the elements, the gelcoat can degrade or oxidize creating a dull or chalky finish. In fact, nearly every boat has some degree of oxidation.
Waxes or sealants serve as a protective layer to deter oxidation from occurring. But, the wax will eventually wear off and needs to be replaced to continue its protective benefits.
Fortunately, most boaters understand this as approximately 8 in 10 wax their boat at least once a year. But, if your boat sits out in the sun or you use your boat often, waxing it once a year might not be sufficient.
Steps to Wash and Wax Your Boat
Below are the four major steps to clean and wax your boat. You might not need to do every step if your hull is in good shape. The “specialty” or “multi-step” product types that are applicable for each step are also listed.
Step 1: Wash Your Boat
For this step, the goal is to remove any dirt or scum that has accumulated on the outside of your boat. The set of products to use vary based on the “dirtiness” of your boat and what you plan on doing after you wash it.
- Boat Wash: If your boat is only mildly dirty AND you don’t plan on waxing it afterwards, look for a product labeled “Boat Wash”. These are typically pH neutral and therefore will not remove the existing wax from your boat.
- Soap & Water: If you intend to wax your boat after washing it, many use regular dish soap (Dawn) or pressure washer soap since these will help remove wax. Just ensure the soap doesn’t contain phosphates (Dawn does not) which could be harmful to waterways. Alternatively, some boaters add vinegar to their “Boat Wash” to help remove wax. This has the added benefit of also removing water spots.
- Hull Cleaner: If the boat wash or soap and water is unable to remove the stains or scum on your boat, then you will need to progress to a hull cleaner. These are mildly acidic and will remove wax to give you a good, clean surface to work with.
- Bottom Cleaner: Sometimes also called a “Hull & Bottom Cleaner”. Because these are highly acidic, bottom cleaners should be reserved for the toughest stains or growth on your hull. This is likely needed if you keep your boat in the water for an extended period. Use caution when using these to avoid spilling any onto your trailer, skin or clothes.
As a general rule, you should always use the least aggressive product you can get away with to minimize collateral damage to your gelcoat.
Step 2: Fix Any Defects
If your boat has stains, scratches or oxidation that you were unable to remove in Step 1, then you will want to repair those things before adding a wax or sealant. Oxidation Removers or Compounds are different names for products that largely do the same thing. These are an abrasive material to strip small amounts of gelcoat to remove stains or oxidation.
But not all compounds are the same. Think of it like grades of sandpaper. For moderate issues, use a medium “grit” or compound; for bigger challenges, you might have to go with the heavy grit. Here is an example of medium and heavy compounds from Star brite. As mentioned previously, it is important to use the least aggressive material possible to avoid prematurely aging your boat.
Step 3: Restore the Finish
If you used an oxidation remover or compound in Step 2, you ideally will want to use a “polish” to give it that beautiful shine. Polish, in this sense, is not a coating or protectant. Rather, it is a fine abrasive to remove small scratches or swirl marks. Again, going back to our sandpaper analogy, polishing your boat is using the fine or ultra fine grit.
What is confusing, however, is that some companies offer polishes that have very little abrasive material and therefore will not remove scratches or light oxidation. Instead, these are typically polymers or sealants that do largely the same thing as waxes. Star brite’s standard Marine Polish is the first (abrasive) type. Their Premium Marine Polish, on the other hand, is the second (sealant) type.
Step 4: Protecting the Finish
Your efforts to beautify your boat will not last long if you don’t apply something to protect the finish. This is where waxes and sealants come in. Waxes are a natural product and those made with Carnauba, like Collinite or Meguiar’s, can produce a very glossy finish.
Sealants, on the other hand, are synthetic materials or polymers. Though the finish might not be as glossy as Carnauba wax, it lasts longer than ordinary waxes (8-10 months vs. 2-3 months). If you want to “wax” your boat as little as possible, then using a sealant would likely be the way to go. Star brites Premium Marine Polish is one such example. However, as mentioned above, even though this item is labeled as a “polish”, it is really a sealant and therefore appropriate for Step 4 but not Step 3.
Another way to protect the finish is to use a spray “wax”. The Lucas Oil Slick Mist is a popular brand among bass boaters in our survey. However, this is technically a polymer sealant, not a wax, and is a quick and easy way to touch up your boat after usage. But, for long lasting protection, you are likely better off with a true wax or liquid sealant as described above.
What about Multi-Step Products?
The items described above are specialty products designed to do one specific thing. However, to save boaters time and potentially money, many manufacturers offer products to perform multiple tasks.
- Wash ‘N Wax: As the name implies, these products contain a soap and a polymer to both clean and protect your boat. This type of product is appropriate if your boat is fairly new and/or the hull is in very good shape.
- Cleaner Wax: These waxes or polymers contain some abrasive material to fix light scratches or oxidation as well as to protect the finish.
- Restorer Wax: This is similar to a Cleaner Wax but has more abrasives (heavier grit) for moderate defects or oxidation.
- One-Step Compounds: For even bigger issues, you can use one-step compounds to both fix the defect (remove moderate to heavy oxidation) and restore the finish. However, you will still need to apply a wax or sealant afterwards.
To identify quality brands to use to wash and wax your boat, please see the companion articles on “Best Boat Cleaning Products: Unbiased Review” and “Best Boat Waxes: Unbiased Review“.
Finally, if you found these boat detailing tips and procedures to be helpful, please share them on Facebook or other social media sites to enable us to continue to deliver objective and unbiased information for boaters. Also be sure to register for free on boaterinput.com to be notified of future research articles.
- BoaterInput survey of 250 boat owners, August, 2018.
- How to Make Your Fiberglass Gleam (https://www.boatus.com/magazine/2013/October/how-to-make-your-fiberglass-gleam.asp)
- What is gelcoat on Boats (https://www.getmyboat.com/resources/tips-for-owners/257/what-is-gelcoat-on-boats)
- Boat Wax: Beginners guide to waxing your boat (https://www.best-auto-detailing-tips.com/boat-wax.html)
Thank you for explaining that waxing a boat will help prevent oxidation! My father has owned a boat for a few years and tries his best to take care of it. However, the colors are starting to look more faded. I wonder if he should look into services that could detail or wax it to give it a little spruce up.
You are welcome Greta and thank you for your question. Yes, if the colors have faded, oxidation has likely occurred. But, depending on the severity, there is a good chance that you could restore or greatly enhance the finish with a bit of work.
If the problem is only minor, try a “cleaner” wax first to remove some of the oxidation and then follow that with a regular Carnauba wax (such as Collinite or Meguiar’s) or polymer (e.g., Starbrite Premium Marine Polish) to enhance the shine and provide additional protection.
If the problem is more moderate, you might need to start with a more aggressive type of wax such as a “Restorer” wax first before applying the Carnauba wax or polymer.
In the most severe cases, you would need to start with a compound. BUT, remember to always start with the least aggressive products you can get away with. Using something more aggressive than necessary will prematurely age your boat finish (because the abrasives strip away some of the old gelcoat surface).
Whether to do it yourself or hire a service depends on the severity of the problem, your available time, physical condition and budget. It will take a bit of “elbow grease” to scrub and remove oxidation (plus, it isn’t easy to craw around the boat to get to various spots on the hull). At the very least, I would use an orbital buffer which oscillates to prevent you from “burning” the surface. Check out my video where I walk through the process.
My suggestion is to pick up some “cleaner” or “restorer” wax and try it on a small and obscure section of the boat. If that doesn’t go well, then hire a professional. Best of luck!