Collinite, Heller Glänz, Meguiar's, and West Marine waxes, and Poli-Glow hull restorer, are the shiniest, but we have only just begun.
Gelcoat is not all it's cracked up to be. (And crack—or craze—is what it does when it's too thick or is wrapped around too-tight corners. But that's another story.)
Gelcoat covers up the rough fiberglass structure underneath. It does, of course, a bit more than just present a pretty face. Initially, it's a shiny, smooth surface that sheds dirt and is easy to maintain in pristine condition for a decade or more.
It chalks eventually, but even then the shiny look can be resurrected—meaning kept shiny—for additional years.
The key is wax. Applied annually to the topsides, it staves off for years the decision about whether to hand the boat over to a boatyard for an expensive professional application of a high-performance two-part paint like Awlgrip, or to try it yourself, maybe with a less expensive one-part paint. (See the lead story in the upcoming January 15 issue—we're devoted to topsides this month, every which way.)
If you go it alone, you'll find it demanding work, best done with two or three workers. Practical Sailor has painted several of its test boats (including a Tartan 44) over the years, and we've never—so far—found the results as good as a spray job done in a paint booth with a controlled atmosphere. Most people call the hand-done jobs "six-foot finishes."
So, to keep your baby beautiful, wax is important. What kind is best? And which lasts the longest?
There are many kinds of wax. Beeswax. Montan wax, a hard, brittle wax made from lignite (juvenile coal). Ceresine wax, from cactus. Paraffin wax (the petroleum derivative with which your grandmother sealed her homemade jelly and jam). Japan wax made from sumac berries.
The best one for waxing boats (and cars) is carnauba wax, which is made from the fan-shaped leaves of the palm tree. Carnauba is said to be the hardest, longest-lasting wax.
Practical Sailor collected no less than 25 kinds of wax. Most claim to be or to contain carnauba wax. (Silicone currently is a popular ingredient, too.)
In cans, spray bottles, tins, jars, etc., most of the 25 varieties are "marine" products, which generally means that you're charged extravagantly for what otherwise—for use on automobiles, kitchen counters, floors, and bicycles—would cost far less at your oh-so-friendly Wal-Mart store.
Several "non-marine" waxes were included. Among them are Collinite's Fleetwax (the favorite of private airplane owners and our own Nick Nicholson), Turtle Wax and Tre-Wax.
Also included is some stuff fancied by antique boat and car detailers. It's called Heller Glänz. You can tell the Heller Glänz is fancy because it has an umlaut.
Finally, we included Poli-Glow, a "hull restorer" product that we've reviewed before, very positively, in fact, and that we're in the process of evaluating again, against other products of its type. Stand by for a report on that in another couple of months. Meanwhile, we thought it would be interesting to stand one proven hull-restorer up against the waxes in this test, just for kicks.
The 26 products were applied very carefully, exactly as directed by the manufacturers, to a fiberglass panel whose gelcoat seemed about half weathered away. As shown in the photo, below right, 28 circles were created for the test. There are two extra circles that serve, along with intervening areas, as controls.
As finally readied for the test, the panel would equate to a boat hull that has been mistreated and/or neglected for perhaps five years. To "bring her back," you'd give the topsides a really thorough scrubbing or two (maybe with good old tri-sodium phosphate), rinse repeatedly, wiping away the water, and let the boat dry for several days. There might also be some stain removal or epoxy repair work; that's even harder work.
Cleaning was all that was needed with the test panel, to prepare it for the waxes. Finally, the 28 circles were defined with permanent ink.
To apply the wax from three spray bottles and one pressurized can, the sprays were confined with a metal cylinder that was washed and dried each time it was used. Controlling the mist avoided contamination of adjacent areas.
The liquids, creams and hard pastes were applied to the circles with sterile pads.
Both the liquids and the pastes were applied liberally, with no attempt to "stretch" them.
As an initial observation, it seems obvious that the hard paste waxes form a heavier coat than the soft pastes; that both go on heavier than the liquids; and that the sprays make the thinnest coats. It's simply a matter of thick and thin.
The paste waxes generally are more difficult to apply, only because they seem to require more rubbing. However, the very thin liquids are annoying to handle, and the sprays, like the thin liquids, run down the sides of the hull—which means you must work from top to bottom.
After allowing the 26 samples ample time to dry (except for three that directed the user to wipe and buff immediately), all but one circle were polished out with more sterile pads. Another exception was the Heller Glänz spray, whose instructions stated that no buffing was necessary. In exchange for no buffing (if it works), we're certainly willing to forgo an umlaut-free environment.
For three of these coatings—the Star brite Marine Polish, the Star brite Marine Polish w/Teflon, and the West Marine Teflon Boat Polish—the directions said to apply two coats 10 to 30 days apart "for best results." The suggestions were ignored out-of-hand, on the premise that as boat owners we regard cleaning and waxing the hull as annual drudgery, and that any wax on the market would benefit from a second such coat. The three will have to stand stark single-coated against the others.
Examining the Results
The shininess of each product was checked first with the naked eye. The five best and the five worst were selected.
The 16 products in between the five best and five worst were so close in appearance that a differentiation would be both difficult and dangerous.
The five best (shown on the chart as "excellent") were the Collinite paste wax, the Heller Glänz spray wax, Meguiar's Quick Spray, the Poli Glow and West Marine's Teflon Boat Polish.
It's interesting to note that all but one of the five best are liquids.
The five dullest (shown on the chart as "Fair") were three liquids and two of the pastes—Meguiar's Mirror Glaze, Seapower Super Poly, Star brite's Marine Polish, Star brite's Pre-Softened, and 3M's Marine Protective.
Confirming examinations were made with a custom-made reflective rule, and a third run-through utilized a Capital Model TK-79 reflective light meter (with a custom 1-to-10 scale) and a piece of black construction paper with a single hole, to isolate the light from each sample. The reflective rule and light-meter tests supported the initial eyeballing of the five best and the five worst; but they also failed to provide any remarkable differences in the middle 16 samples (marked "Good" on the chart).
No comparative "beading" test was done; all beaded up nicely. When water runs, rather than beads, on a waxed surface, it means the wax is gone. We'll check them in a few months.
The Bottom Line
These initial observations should be put in context. It's nice to have an ultra-shiny hull, but the more important objective is to protect the finish on the gelcoat for the longest possible time. The ideal would be to have the wax last for a full season in northern climes and at least six months in more tropical weather. For a boat that gets heavy usage, those goals might be difficult to attain.
For now, the test panel has been bored for a hanging cord, which was rigged so the panel can be turned 180° every week to even up the exposure and run-off of rainwater. Marked with the date, it was hung vertically outdoors to begin what seems destined to be a 12-month or more exposure test. The panel will be checked at 3-month intervals, to see what changes occur. If there are (meaning that some waxes fail early-on), Practical Sailor will publish short interim reports.
Also With This Article
Click here to view "Value Guide: Waxes."
• 3M, 877/366-2746, www.3m.com/US/auto_marine_aero/marine/com
• Boat Armor, 513/489-7600, www.boatarmor.com
• BoatLife, 843/566-1225, www.boatlife.com
• Collinite, 315/732-2282, www.collinite.com
• Dolphinite, 978/356-9834, www.dolphinite.com
• Heller Glänz, 800/414-3466, www.hellerglanz.com
• Meguiar's, 800/347-5700, www.meguiars.com
• Poli Glow, 800/922-5013, www.myboatstore.com
• Seapower, 562/923-0838, www.seapowerproducts.com
• Star brite, 800/327-8583, www.starbrite.com
• Turtle Wax, 800/227-9291, www.turtlewax.com
• Trewax, 800/527-5722, www.trewax.com
• West Marine, 800/262-8464, www.westmarine.com