Restoring Vinyl Windows: DIY or Hire a Pro?
If your vinyl dodger windows are more than five to seven years old and looking tired but your canvas is still looking good, it’s likely time to breathe some new life into them. Vinyl-window restoration can remove surface oxidation, plasticizer residue, imbedded dirt, scuffs, and very shallow scratches; it also can provide a durable coating to seal the surface, which will be more porous after buffing. Smaller window restorations can be handled by the do-it-yourselfer, but for big—or particularly gnarley—jobs, you may want to consider hiring someone to do it for you.
Window restoration is not easy work. Good results require attention to detail and some physical exertion. The dodger or enclosure must be removed, inspected for broken fasteners and worn zippers, canvas must be masked off, and the fine compound must be worked over both sides, followed by polishing both sides. Finally, the canvas must be reinstalled, which is often a battle because it has shrunk. Fortunately, there are services that will come to your boat and do it for you.
Most local detailers generally offer this service, though they usually just buff it in place without dodger removal or repair, and local canvas shops often will restore old windows.
Florida-based EisenShine, maker of the Best Choice compound in this test, has a mobile service for restoring dodger windows. We watched the EisenShine crew restore a discarded dodger panel and learned some valuable of the tricks of trade.
The panel they were working on started out useless due to yellowing and plasticizer bleed, but it was restored to about 80 percent clarity (five restored layers were similar to 1 untreated layer). Though we used the same products on the same vinyl panel, we were never quite able to match their results, which were superior thanks to their experience and persistence.
If you hire professionals to do it for you, you can expect to pay about 20 to 25 percent of the cost of a new enclosure, depending on any other repairs required and the design. Is it worth the cost? We think the do-it-for-me option makes sense for the non-DIY sailor with vinyl that is no longer clear, but is neither cracked nor severely yellowed.
You can expect another three to five years of life out of the windows after restoration. Additional advantages include expedience and convenience.
If you’re more the do-it-yourself type and don’t mind a little physical work—or don’t have the budget for a pro restoration—here are some tips we’ve gleaned over time and practice.
If you’ve never polished soft, clear vinyl before, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask your local canvas shop for an old, discarded dodger to practice on. Just play with the compound and buffer for an hour, trying different things. It took us a few hours before we felt ready to work on our beloved dodger. Attention to detail is required, and no product will perform at its best if applied poorly.
First, clean the windows with a mild soap and fresh water; it would be heartbreaking to ruin your windows with a bit of unseen sand or rust. Take the dodger off the boat, lay it on a flat work area, well-padded with clean towels.
Tape off the canvas around the windows, and be sure to mask nearby gelcoat, especially if it will be painted in the near term. Vinyl sealant and protectants can act as a release agent and cause some serious paint problems. Extra care needs to be taken with machine application to keep compounds from being flung off a pad.
Compounding by Machine or by Hand: Start with plenty of clean cotton or microfiber cloths and clean polisher bonnets, so you can change them frequently. Select a polishing-grade wool bonnet and be sure to clean it between uses.
Both hand and machine application are practical, but for small areas, there really is no need to haul out the buffer, and it is easier to control the process by hand. If the goal is deep cleaning and grime removal, with little need for scratch removal, hand polishing works very well on areas up to about 10 square feet. You’ll be working hard, and your arms will feel it.
For larger areas, or if you want to remove fine scratches and scuffs, a buffer can save a lot of physical wear and tear and can give better results. Testers used both rotary and orbital buffers, and a variable-speed drill for small areas. Anything in the correct RPM range will be fine.
Some run the electric buffer up to 1000 rpm, but we liked using it at 500 rpm because the bonnet throws less compound, overheating is eliminated, and it seems more compatible with the delicate vinyl, which is very heat sensitive. At about 140 degrees, its surface softens and smears, resulting in a marbled look. When using an electric buffer, use only light pressure and taper off to very light; keep moving, and only work an area small enough that you can keep it wet. Keep a spray bottle at hand, particularly in warm weather, and moisten the work area before it dries; this greatly reduces wasteful additions of compound, burning, and over compounding.
Do not try to get everything perfect on the first go. Instead, give the surface a light overall compounding and buffing, then look for areas that could use a little more work, and concentrate effort on them. Finish with a light overall buffing, wash off any remaining compound, and dry.
Restoring deteriorated vinyl is less about removing scratches than it is about removing plasticizer residue, imbedded dirt, and scuff marks. Scuffs and very light surface scratches can be removed with extended buffing at light pressure, slow speed, and with patience. Don’t expect—or even attempt—to remove deep scratches; you will only make things worse. If you can feel them, they are not removable.
Fine vs. Coarse: Some compounds are more effective than others. A coarse-grit compound cuts faster but can cause damage. Heavy-duty, coarse-grit compounds are designed more for removing scratched from acrylic and polycarbonate windows, which are thicker and harder than vinyl, and can tolerate the additional buffing. Vinyl-restoration professionals we talked with explained that applying these compounds to vinyl windows will create damage that the fine-grit compounds can’t remove; we confirmed this during tests. Save the super-coarse grits for hatches.
Applying a compound with a very fine grit or no grit at all will remove scuff marks with lots of patience. The risk is that a more aggressive compound will increase the panel porosity, potentially increasing fogging and weathering over time.
Makers often promote their protectants’ and restorative products’ ability to replace the vinyl’s plasticizers that have leached out, restoring softness to stiffened vinyl and sealing the plasticizers in. However, we haven’t seen any evidence of this ability. Restored panels do feel softer and more smooth, but when we measured resistance to bending, we saw no change in stiffness. Stiffening and weakening also result from UV damage to the PVC itself; this can’t be reversed.
Early in our investigation, we learned that using scratch-polishing kits on new or even relatively new materials always made things worse. We compounded a new panel of Regalite 30 to a fair shine with one of the products that performed well, but without a protective wax, it hazed more than any other test sample in high humidity conditions. We repeated this test with every other test compound and got the same result. This finding, along with the fact that all of the products produced a hazing finish after buffing, testers concluded that compounding leaves the vinyl porous, and it must be sealed.
Too Far Gone
What cannot be fixed, even by the experienced hand? Buffing will remove yellowing due to plasticizer bleed and the grime imbedded in that layer, but yellowing that is deep in the vinyl is permanent. Distinct scratches cannot be removed, though scuffed areas often can be restored. As a general rule, if you can feel it with your fingernail, it is permanent.
Vinyl cannot be made more supple. We tested panels before and after and found no difference in flexibility. They may feel more supple, but it is a false impression caused by the new smooth surface. The risk of the panel cracking in cold weather is not changed. Will they last longer, now that the surface is polished and sealed? Our long-term test will tell us.