One of the long overdue projects we completed on our boat, Quantum Leap, this past summer of 2014 was restoration of the Gelcoat on the topsides (the deck areas). This post talks about how we did it and describes a fairly easy and relatively long lasting way to restore old faded Gelcoat to a better than new shine.
In addition to the specialized products marketed for this type of restoration, I am also going to tell you where to get a much more cost effective alternative.
The restoration technique described applies to boat’s, RV’s (that do not have full paint) or any other “older” Gelcoat product (such as molded fiberglass bathtubs, etc.) that would be difficult or impossible to restore via traditional methods. The process described here is not recommended for new or well maintained Gelcoat. It is not a permanent fix but with basic maintenance it should last several years. Also this process will not repair crazing, cracks or other physical damage, but it will make a dull, chalky Gelcoat finish shine beautifully and it will make any underlying repairs less obvious.
Here are the symptoms that led me to this restoration approach: Quantum Leap is a bit over 30 years old now and in our case the prior owners had unfortunately neglected to take proper care of her Gelcoat. In 2005 when we acquired her, the deck surfaces were faded, dull and chalky. A white powdery substance would be deposited on your skin or clothes if you were to touch the deck. When washing the boat, the powdery residue would slough off and you could see clouds of it in the water! This is the Gelcoat oxidizing and literally wearing away! It was so thin in some areas that compounding it to bring back the shine was just making matters worse. Stains and dirt tended to be “absorbed” and it was very difficult to keep clean.
Gelcoat – a definition: You can read a descriptive definition here, but basically it is a smooth topcoat on a fiberglass product that gives it its color and pleasant sheen. It is an epoxy or polyester based formulation and resistant (but not impervious) to chemicals and UV. The color goes all the way thru the Gelcoat layer, so small scratches can be sanded out (or patched and sanded) and it is fairly easily polished to a brilliant shine. However, if not kept sealed, either by waxing or other techniques, it will quickly begin to degrade (oxidize). Oxidation results from exposure to Oxygen, UV, pollution and other aspects of nature.
How to seal the Gelcoat without repetitive waxing: We have seen many, many boats and RV’s with unsightly old and faded Gelcoat, yet for the past decade (or more) there has been a non-wax, no rub or buff solution that will restore the dull chalky look to a brilliant shine and provide a year or more of protection. It is basically a wipe on, water based Acrylic coating that is applied in four or more thin coats that will build to a brilliant shine. Think of it as a process similar to clear coat finishes used in the automotive industry. The paint color underneath the clear coat on a car is flat and dull when it goes on, its the clear coat itself that makes it shine. Same thing with this Acrylic coating for Gelcoat, it doesn’t matter how dull it is – the Acrylic provides the shine.
Why not just compound and polish? In my experience most waxes will simply not hold up anywhere near as long as the Acrylic, particularly if you wash the surfaces regularly. So there is more labor involved with waxing – this is probably why there are so many RV’s and boats with bad looking Gelcoat! Also, it will be very difficult to achieve the same level of shine, particularly for older problematic Gelcoat. On Quantum Leap, my first attempt to restore the Gelcoat was just that – to compound and polish. I had some good quality buffing equipment from the days when I was building acrylic (e.g. Corian) countertops (yes Acrylic countertops are polished with compound and glaze exactly the same way you polish a boat, RV or car). Well this worked, but in some areas the Gelcoat degradation had thinned it to the point where the compound cut right thru and exposed the underlying fiberglass! A different solution was therefore needed for my project. But even if you have a solid base of older Gelcoat, sealing it with Acrylic may still be a superior option both in regard to the end result as well as the reduction in labor.
What about paint? Absolutely! That is surely the way to go for a beautiful and long lasting result. Today’s paint products are extremely durable and will hold up very well in the harsh marine environment. Many boat builders are moving in that direction, particularly if you want a dark color. In fact the hull on Quantum Leap is paint – a two part polyurethane called Awlgrip and needs very little maintenance to keep it looking good. Also, in the RV industry, builders have offered “full paint” as a premium option for many years now. Both our current Entegra coach as well as our 2006 Fleetwood came with full paint and it holds up beautifully.
One downside to paint vs. Gelcoat is that scratches are more difficult to repair. But the biggest issue with paint is the cost – a paint job for just the topsides on Quantum Leap would run at least $8-10K! Ouch. It would probably be around the same or more to paint a typical RV, not including any fancy graphics. And most people (myself included) don’t have the indoor facility, specialized equipment or skills to do a proper paint job themselves. The Acrylic solution costs next to nothing, can be done outdoors and requires very little expertise to get a great result. The Acrylic sealer may be a great interim solution while you save up the dough to get a proper paint job!
Does the Acrylic really work? Yes! In our case it made a dramatic improvement! However, like any worthwhile endeavor it will take some up front effort, but nowhere near as much as compounding and polishing with a buffer. For only about the same effort as an ordinary wax job you can establish a foundation that will require only a simple annual or bi-annual refreshing to maintain the good looks. While it is not as durable as paint, once the initial base coats have been completed, refreshing with one or two new coats once or twice per year will keep things looking good. And its still a lot easier than waxing! After several years, it is possible you will need to strip the Acrylic down to bare Gelcoat and reapply.
So what is this Acrylic sealer product? In the marine market there are products like PoliGlow which claim to restore Gelcoat – and they do! They really don’t tell you much about what they are or how they work, but essentially it is a water based acyclic coating. Similar coating products are found in water based “varnishes” for wood, such as Minwax Polycrylic and believe it or not high gloss floor finishes! I have used Minwax Polycrylic for years on many of my home improvement projects, particularly clear wood moldings and wood floors. I liked that I can easily put on 3, 4 or more coats in a day because it dries super fast, leaves a hard finish, never yellows and is easy to clean up. It is a thin milky white liquid with a distinctive (though not unpleasant) odor.
I began using PoliGlow years ago on previous boats and feel it is a great product, but more recently was put off by the cost (about $47/quart) considering the large area of Quantum Leap’s deck. Based on my extensive familiarity with Minwax Polycrylic I had always suspected PolyGlow was the same or similar – it looked the same, smelled the same and behaved the same. Then again Minwax Polycrlic isn’t cheap either and it is specifically formulated to be a coating for wood.
The alternative revealed! When researching options I found forums where boat and RV owners were substituting a commercial hard floor finish for PoliGlow and its brethren. Many have reported a year or more of service on their Gelcoat with performance results equal to PoliGlow. So far (several months) we have seen excellent results as well and plan to refresh it with one or two coats at least every spring. The currently favored and easy to find alternative product is marketed by ZEP, called Step #3 Wet Look Floor Polish. It is sold in Home Depot for about $25/gallon ($6.25/quart!). There may be other brands as well, but this brand/model has specifically been referenced by a number of forum posters as what works for them and it is what we used too.
As with the Minwax Polycrylic, it looks, smells and behaves virtually identically to PoliGlow. If you aren’t convinced that a floor polish that costs 8 times less will do the same job, go ahead and buy the PoliGlow kit and make your own comparison. This might not be a bad idea anyway, the kit will provide the PoliGlow finish, preparation chemicals, the application tools as well as boat/RV specific instructions and support. You can find detailed instructions and a video on the PoliGlow web site. The ZEP product tells you nothing about how to use their product on Gelcoat and does not come with any application equipment.
Should it ever be necessary to remove the Acrylic, you can use ZEP #1 Heavy Duty Floor Stripper (about $10/gal) in lieu of the PolyPrep or PoliStrip products. I also found it did a good job during the initial prep process of removing the oxidation. Be careful with it though, this is very concentrated and may damage other surfaces on your boat or RV – read the label carefully. You may want to just use a marine store brand of Gelcoat oxidation remover or the PoliPrep product. Bar Keepers Friend (contains Oxalic Acid) is also helpful for removing stains from unsealed Gelcoat.
The things I would emphasize regarding application of the Acrylic coating are:
- Restoration with Acrylic is for old, abused and otherwise problematic (i.e. thin) Gelcoat. It may not make sense to use it on new or well maintained shiny Gelcoat.
- Invest the time to do a careful prep job. Get off all the oxidation and get everything clean. The Acrylic will seal the Gelcoat as well as any dirt or other flaws you leave behind during prep. I used a Scotch Brite pad (and if needed Bar Keepers Friend) to get out stubborn stains – don’t worry, the dull flat finish it leaves behind will soon be bright and shiny!
- For dark colored Gelcoat you must get the color to be uniform in appearance before sealing it with the Acrylic – If oxidation removers won’t do the job you may need to wet sand.
- Put on THIN coats, don’t let it pool, puddle or drip. Don’t load up the applicator too heavily. Wipe it on in one direction only. It dries very fast so resist over working it.
- It will take at least 5 THIN coats IMO. The first 2 or 3 will not look good, don’t despair! By coat 4 you will be seeing the shine come out. The coats go on fast because it dries so fast, by the time you complete a section you can go back to the beginning and start the next coat.
- If you have a big project, do the application of the Acrylic in manageable sections. On Quantum Leap, it took me 8 days to get thru the entire deck structure, working about 1-3 hours per day on specific parts of the boat (Cabin Top, Stbd Cabin Side, Port Cabin Side, Foredeck, Stbd Catwalk, Port Catwalk, Aft Deck, Swim Platform). For each section I applied five or more coats. Some sections took longer than others due to a large number of obstructions and/or curved areas. I had no problems blending one section with the next.
- If you have non-skid go ahead and apply the Acrylic right over it. On our boat the Acrylic treated surfaces do not seem to be any more slippery than the original naked Gelcoat and it is definitely not as slippery as wax. Just don’t apply so much that it puddles in the low spots of the non skid texture. You may need to use a different applicator like a foam brush or even a bristle brush if you have aggressive nonskid.
- If you have very large flat areas don’t worry about lap marks too much, but don’t leave ridges of material, taper it out along the edge you will be adding on to.
- I like the applicator material that came with my PoliGlow kit. It is basically a chamois. I use the wood block with foam pad and chamois wrapped around it for smooth flat areas and a small folded piece of chamois for curved sections and working around obstructions. Just wash these out thoroughly when you are done for the day – don’t let them dry out if you take a break! Re-hydrate them and squeeze out the excess water before you begin the next application. Note that the 2014 PoliGlow kits are coming with a microfiber mitt which may be an improvement. I use a shallow plastic pan to hold the acrylic material and dip the applicator into it.
- The first few times I used Acrylic, I masked off all the adjacent surfaces before beginning the application (stanchion posts, rails, etc.). This took far more time than the actual application. Now I don’t bother. It doesn’t hurt or show much if you get any Acrylic material on those surfaces and if necessary the material is easily removed with a razor blade.
- Go right over any vinyl graphics you may have – it will brighten (and seal) them too! Quantum leap has a faded vinyl blue stripe that now looks considerably improved.
- In my experience, horizontal surfaces take much more abuse (mostly from the sun) than vertical surfaces. The decks will begin deteriorating long before the cabin sides. It may be wise to put extra coats of the Acrylic on these areas. And be sure to refresh the Acrylic on these high abuse areas more frequently – a mid season application is probably in order.
- Don’t let your newly shined up project go too long before you apply a refresh coat or two or you may need to strip it all off and start again. Much easier to add a refresh coat once or twice per year.
- NEVER wax it! This defeats the purpose. If you do, you will need to strip off the wax before you can add a refresh coat and you will probably take off some of the Acrylic in the process.
- After you have applied the Acrylic, avoid products with ammonia or that claim to remove or soften paint (such as Krud-Kutter). Wash with mild non abrasive products only. Since the Gelcoat is sealed most of the dirt will slide right off.
- If you do damage the finish in an area, clean it up and refinish it as soon as possible. Blending should not be a problem.