If there’s one thing that gets anyone with a boating affliction pumped up, it’s a glossy shine on a fine-looking boat. But if you’ve looked down the polish and wax aisle at your local marine supply shop lately, it’s likely you’ve felt a bit intimidated at the choices. In fact, it was one of the most common questions I got asked in my 10-plus years working at a ship’s chandlery: “Which wax works best?” Stick around and I’ll attempt do demystify the whole ball of wax, so to say, by talking about what waxes can and cannot do, and when you need a “cleaner” versus a regular paste wax.
Now, we’re going to assume a few things about your gelcoat we get started. First, we’ll assume that the gelcoat on your boat is in generally good condition. If your gelcoat isn’t (but is not heavily oxidized), watch this informative video to see how to get your topsides tip-top before applying wax. Also, as an aside, if your boat has an Awlgrip, Imron, or other two-part polyurethane paint job, consult with your paint manufacturer on proper care. Certain waxes, cleaner waxes, and polishes can cause irreparable damage to those finishes.
Boat owners are generally looking for two qualities above all others in a marine wax: gloss and durability. Glossiness is nice because, well, it looks good, and durability is desirable because applying wax is generally a pain in the rear – no one wants to spend hours a season reapplying wax on their boat instead of being out on the water enjoying it. Once applied, the job of the wax is to repel salt, dirt, sun, and other elements that can harm your gelcoat.
All-in-One or Cleaner Waxes
Cleaner waxes work by incorporating a bit of mild abrasive with the wax to help polish away any dirt or oxidation while providing a protective wax coating at the same time. Think of it as an all-in-one rubbing compound and wax solution. People like these waxes because you can take care of compounding and waxing a surface at the same time (versus compounding, and then waxing).
While they’re good for slightly dirty or oxidized surfaces, they’re not a great solution for heavily oxidized gelcoat. Additionally, the trade-off for that all-in-one shine is longevity. You can get a nice shine from these cleaner waxes, but the longevity of the shine usually isn’t as good as what a pure wax provides. If your gelcoat is a bit dirty or oxidized, cleaner waxes are a good choice. Some boat owners even use a cleaner wax in the spring, and lay their boats up with an application of pure wax in the fall (or vice versa).
Some brands that I have used with exceptional success are 3M’s Cleaner & Wax, Collinite’s No. 870 Fleetwax, and Starbrite’s One-Step Cleaner Wax.
Paste and Liquid Waxes
What we’re talking about here are pure boat waxes in paste or liquid form. These waxes do not have a “cleaner” element to them—they’re comprised only of wax with no abrasive included. These are great for use on a new surface, or a surface that has already been restored to a full shine. “Pure” waxes generally have the highest gloss and durability of any of the waxes you may find at the marine supply store, but they really require a clean, shiny surface to work their best (they’re not good for use on dirty or oxidized gelcoat.)
My favorites in this category include 3M’s Ultra Performance Paste Wax, Star Brite’s Premium Marine Polish with PTFE, and Collinite’s No. 885 Heavy Duty Paste Fleetwax. All offer great shine and long durability.
What About a Really Bad-Looking Gelcoat?
If your gelcoat looks more like a chalkboard, or is has shamed you with its dirtiness, check back here soon. We’ll discuss how to restore your gelcoat to a glossy shine before applying wax. In the meantime, rest your elbows and stock up on elbow grease — you’re going to need both.
An earlier version of this article appeared in May 2014.