Maintaining a Glossy Gelcoat Finish

Keep your boat boat's coat looking brand new with these tips

marine wax
Applying marine wax to your boat’s gelcoat three to four times yearly helps keep it glossy and creates a barrier to protect the finish from contaminants and sun.Jim Hendricks

I’ve always worked hard to keep my boat’s gelcoat as close to showroom-glossy as possible. Yet despite all the sweat equity, I have noticed that the finish has dulled slightly over the years. To find out what I could do to restore the shine and maintain it in the future, I talked to companies that offer boat-care products. In the process, I learned that I had been doing some things correctly and other things incorrectly.

“While anglers love their boats, most would rather be fishing than waxing,” says Tom MacDonald, sales and training specialist for Meguiar’s marine and RV division. “Yet a little extra time spent caring for the boat’s finish can make a major difference.”

Following these five basic steps will keep your gelcoat ­looking good for years.

Step One: Wash Your Boat Correctly

Proper washing starts with the soap you use. “Use a mild pH-balanced boat soap,” MacDonald advises. Avoid using dish soap (a mistake I had been making), as harsh degreasers and other chemicals can strip the wax from the boat’s finish. A boat soap preserves the wax but also cleans, though you might need to scrub a little more on dried fish blood. Avoid bleach, which can damage gelcoat.

It’s important to first rinse gelcoat surfaces with fresh water. This loosens salt and prevents scratches. If there’s a lot of salt, you can rinse with Star brite Salt Off.

Use a soft wash mitt such as the Star brite Reggae, made from microfiber, to pamper the gelcoat. After washing and rinsing with fresh water, wipe down the entire boat with a cotton, microfiber or water-absorbing chamois towel. I had been neglecting this step, and as a result, corrosive mineral deposits were ­degrading the finish. Now I know better.

Step Two: Clean the Boat's Surface

This step after washing might prove unnecessary on new boats with pristine finishes but can improve aging gelcoat that has lost its glossiness. First evaluate the condition to determine how aggressively you need to approach restoration, says MacDonald. “Start with the least aggressive product,” he advises. “If that doesn’t work, move to the next level.”

Meguiar’s No. 50 Cleaner Wax and Star brite’s One-Step Heavy-Duty Cleaner Wax remove light oxidation to restore the finish to like-new condition. These products also add wax protection, allowing you to skip Step 4 in this gelcoat-care program. To remove heavier oxidation, ­however, you need a compound such as Meguiar’s No. 91 Power Cut Compound, Star brite’s Color Restorer or Yacht Brite’s Buff Magic. Applied with a foam pad, these formulas are less abrasive than traditional rubbing compounds. Buff out with a clean microfiber towel.

To make the job go faster, consider an electric applicator such as those offered by Meguiar’s or Shurhold. Dual-action polishers won’t burn finishes or leave swirl marks like traditional buffers do, and the small pads let you reach tight areas. With Meguiar’s dual-action polisher, use the red pad for compounds, yellow for polishes, black for waxes, and beige for buffing.

For extremely chalky surfaces, a new product can cut the work in half. Meguiar’s No. 771 Heavy Oxidation Scrub is applied to a wet surface with a soft-bristle brush, then rinsed away with fresh water. One professional detailer using this product found that a gelcoat-restoration job he bid for three days took him only one and a half days. It’s also great for hard-to-clean nonskid soles and gunwale tops.

Step Three: Polish Your Boat to a Luster

While compounds remove ­oxidation, they don’t bring back the shine completely. For that, you need to follow up with a marine polish such as Meguiar’s No. 45 High-Gloss Polish, Star brite’s Premium Marine Polish or Yacht Brite’s Pro Polish.

These products also restore valuable oils that nourish gelcoat finishes. You can apply and buff out polishes by hand or with a dual-action polisher. Read the directions carefully before applying any marine polish, however, because some polish formulas must be wiped away before they dry.

Step Four: Protect with Wax

Today’s top marine waxes protect gelcoat finishes with synthetic polymer formulas that create a barrier between the finish and contaminants. Waxes such as Meguiar’s Flagship Premium Marine Wax add UV protection to help prevent the sun from dulling gelcoat.

As with compounds and polishes, you can apply marine wax by hand or with a dual-action polisher, but avoid waxing your boat in the heat of the day or in direct sunlight. This can result in incomplete coverage or leave swirl marks as the wax quickly dries. The wax can also cake, making it difficult to buff out.

Shurhold dual-action polisher
Shurhold’s dual-action polisher combines a small polishing pad with an oscillating rotator to prevent swirl marks as you apply and buff out compounds, polishes and waxes.Jim Hendricks

Step Five: Maintain the Boat's Shine

Applying a coat of quality marine wax three or four times a year will help keep the gelcoat looking good. I’ll confess to less frequent applications — more like once or twice a year. But I plan to be more diligent.

Between applications of wax, boat‑care experts suggest using a boat soap such as Meguiar’s Marine Flagship Wash-N-Wax. Another good choice is Star brite’s Sea Safe Wash & Wax. These augment the wax protection you already have on your boat. Spray waxes such as Star brite’s Boat Guard Speed Detailer & Protectant also protect gelcoat between wax jobs. Meguiar’s No. 143 Rinse Free Wash-N-Wax spray cleans and waxes. You can apply it to dry or even salty surfaces to clean up the cockpit while you’re out fishing and have no access to fresh water. Just spray it on and wipe away dirt and grime.

Thanks to boat-care products from companies such as Meguiar’s, Star brite, Yacht Brite and others, keeping your gelcoat finish in tip-top shape has never been easier.

Meguiar's Premium Marine Paint Polish & Protectant
Meguiar’s Premium Marine Paint Polish & ProtectantJim Hendricks

Bonus Tip: Painted Boat Finishes

An increasing number of new fishing boats feature painted finishes, and these require more delicate care than does gelcoat. One product designed specifically for linear polyurethane and other painted surfaces (such as outboards) is Meguiar’s Premium Marine Paint Polish & Protectant. This product removes mild oxidation and water spots to deliver a durable high-gloss finish.