Written by Bob Arrington
July 2020

Whether it is a labor of love or a necessary evil, most boaters spend a lot of time and money keeping their boats clean and waxed. The cleaning and detailing products isle is one of the largest in any ship supply store. Just behind engine oil and fishing lures, wax and cleaners are some of the most hyped products pitched to boaters. You would need to be a chemist to sort out the advertising claims from the truth.

Staying just short of Chemistry 101, in this issue of Smart Boater, let’s separate fact from fiction on waxes and finishes. We will also provide basic product descriptions to help make sense out of what can be a confusing category.


Wax is the oldest form of a polish and protectant. The most commonly used wax is carnauba, deriving its name from the Brazilian Carnauba palm tree. Wax manufacturers blend oils and proprietary ingredients with the natural carnauba wax to produce products with specific properties. Some may be compounded specifically for a fiberglass gel coat; some are customized for painted finishes. Carnauba is unusable in its original state, so question any product claiming to  be “pure” or “100%” carnauba. It must have additives to be suitableto apply a boat’s surface.

Boat waxing by Daniele Carbonelli | wax | marinalife
Boat waxing by Daniele Carbonelli

The biggest benefit of a natural wax is the luster it brings to a boat’s finish. A good wax brightens colors and fills small imperfections. Unfortunately for a boater, the color white gets the least benefit from wax’s reflective properties. A waxed surface has a much lower coefficient of friction, allowing water to bead and run off easily.

Natural waxes offer the richest shine but have the shortest life of any of the products described here. Natural wax is a very soft product, even the best quality carnauba waxes have a melting point between 160° and 180° Fahrenheit. The flag blue hull so popular on many boats today can easily approach those temperatures on a hot summer day. These temperatures significantly shorten the life of the wax. Some manufacturers have had success extending the service life of wax by adding synthetic polymers.

Polymer Sealants

Sealants are typically synthetic-polymer blends compounded to achieve specific results. They are excellent at providing durable long-lasting protection. Sealants generally provide better durability than a natural wax, with higher resistance to heat and ultraviolet degradation. Sealants come in a variety of compounds including acrylics, polymers and silicones. Some sealants may include small amounts of wax in their blend to help hide imperfections or improve shine.

Historically, sealants were inferior to wax at bringing out luster and shine, but recent improvements in technology have brought sealants close to wax’s brilliance in gloss and depth. What polymer sealants lack in shine, they make up for in durability, longevity and ease of application. Sealants provide strong hydrophobic characteristics and can fill in minor irregularities of gelcoat and painted surfaces. Sealants have better heat resistance for dark colored hulls and accent bands. Just like some waxes have polymers and some polymers have waxes, so too have the lines blurred into the next category of ceramics. Recent advances in technology enable blenders to include silica compounds into mixtures, creating a ceramic-like performance with a sealant’s easy application characteristics.

Ceramic Coatings

Waxing and Washing by Ross via Flickr | wax | marinalife
Waxing and Washing by Ross via Flickr

It is no coincidence that ceramic coatings are the most sophisticated technology and the least understood. The terms can be confusing with ceramic, silica and nano being used interchangeably and often incorrectly. Ceramic coatings start with silica compounds that are molecules of silica and oxygen. This combination produces a molecular structure that offers both stability and strength on paint or gelcoat. The molecules are so strong that their bonds resist all but the most aggressive abrasion without harm.

Some manufacturers have developed the ability to positively charge the molecules in their solution. When applied to the negatively charged surface of fiberglass or paint, the solution is pulled deeply into the surface’s microscopic cracks and crevices through positive to negative attraction. Applied properly, they generally outperform natural waxes and synthetic polymer sealants. While they are extremely durable, my experience is they rarely meet the long-term claims touted in their advertising. One of the biggest benefits polymer sealants and ceramics have over wax is the ease with which you can touch up an area that is no longer beading water.

Of the three product categories described here, waxes are the best at polishing. Some polymer sealants have minimal ability to polish a dull surface, and ceramics have no polishing properties. Ceramics only protect the surface as it exists — dull or polished. Products in all these categories continue to evolve with manufacturers offering improvements on existing materials and new technology. The coating market is an innovative sector with new products coming out regularly.

Careful attention must be paid to the application of some ceramic products with nanotechnology, as they will not adhere to a waxed surface. All old wax will need to be removed prior to the application of these products. If a surface needs to be polished prior to application of a ceramic, utilize a polishing compound which is free of wax or silicones.

Regardless of which product you choose, correct application is critical to achieving the desired results. There is a definite skill required in the application of all these products. Some materials require hand application, while some work better when machine applied. When using a rotary buffing machine, follow the manufacturer’s directions for the type of pad whether foam, wool or cotton, along with the recommended buffing machine speed. Too low of an RPM will leave residue, while too high of an RPM can burn some products.

Properly applied and maintained, coatings will pay for themselves in protecting your boat’s gelcoat or paint finish not to mention the pride felt pulling up to the marina in a shiny polished boat.