Nano ceramic coatings promise the ultimate gelcoat protection. Does it live up to the hype?
When I was 11 or 12 years old, my dad sold the last of his many lapstrake wooden runabouts and bought a fiberglass boat. I thought that meant the end of springtime drudgery, the end of wearing the skin off my fingers sanding places, like the underside of the strakes on the outside of the hull and the tops of the strakes and around the frames on the inside, that Dad couldn’t reach with his sander. Hey, I was a kid, and gullible, and the messiahs of reinforced fiberglass, the latest and greatest boatbuilding material, were saying it never needed maintenance. They even claimed you didn’t have to paint the bottom, since barnacles couldn’t cling to the shiny gelcoat surface. What could be better?
Then, on a warm Saturday in early April, Dad handed me a bottle of boat soap, a can of wax and a bunch of rags and pointed me towards the boat resting on its cradle in our backyard. As we all know today, although you don’t have to maintain fiberglass to keep it from disintegrating, if you don’t clean and protect the gelcoat, it’ll get chalky and look like flat paint. And it can get darn dirty and stained, too. (Those #$@%&* seagulls!) So rather than sand and paint every year, I washed and waxed—and it seems like I still am, not with actual wax anymore, but with some kind of polymer concoction that promises to seal the gelcoat for at least the whole season. Sometimes it does, but usually it doesn’t, and if you’re into maximum shine, August finds you doing it again. I’m not a super-shine guy, so I don’t wax/seal as much as some people, but I don’t like chalky gelcoat either, so I haven’t thrown away the buffing pads quite yet.
But now there are nano ceramic coatings that promise a truly long life, that are measured in years in some climates, not months, at least according to the manufacturers. Are these the same guys who forgot to mention you had to wax gelcoat, all those years ago? Maybe not: According to folks who use ceramic coatings, they do indeed have a much longer life than the other potions I just mentioned, and they are pretty easy to apply once you’ve got the hang of it. They’re way more expensive up front than polymer sealants and waxes, but that’s offset by their longevity. Only thing is—there’s always something—you have to do a lot of grunt work to make the surface as perfect as possible before applying the first coat of ceramic. You pay one way, or you pay another.
Nano Ceramic Application
The primary ingredient in most ceramic coatings is silicon, one of the most abundant elements in the universe and one of the hardest, almost as hard as diamonds. Silicon is used to make mundane products like glass, ceramics and Portland cement, and sophisticated ones like optical fibers and semiconductors—some folks say we’re living in “The Silicon Age” because of its importance in the manufacturing of modern technological devices. (Maybe you’ve heard of Silicon Valley?) Silicon often combines with oxygen to form silicon dioxide, or silica, the primary component of quartz and, when it’s crushed, beach sand. Nanoparticles of silica added to an appropriate binder (some kind of polymer) creates a coating that will adhere to and protect gel coat, paint, metals—almost any hard surface. Heck, there are ceramic coatings formulated for natural and synthetic fabrics, too. You can coat your whole dang boat with this stuff.
Not all manufacturers specify that their products are silicon-based—some use different nomenclature, like silicium (the original name for silicon) or Si-14 (silicon’s atomic number is 14), or even, simply, quartz. But the bottom line is, “ceramic” boat coatings are essentially microscopic particles of sand suspended in a medium. A solvent keeps the coating liquid until it’s applied to the surface; once the solvent evaporates, what’s left is a hard, durable, glossy layer that will cling to the surface until it’s abraded off; protect against UV radiation; withstand extremes of heat far greater than your boat’s surface will encounter, unless it’s on fire; repel dirt and stains; and outlast conventional waxes and polymer sealants while requiring only minimal maintenance, mostly washing.
So, what’s the downside? One is cost: I checked the prices of several different brands of ceramic coatings, and they were all wallet-numbing compared to conventional sealants. For example, a 250-milliliter (about 8.5 ounces) bottle of Glidecoat’s Marine Ceramic Coating, enough to apply two coats to 315 square feet of surface (enough for the topsides of a 30-foot boat, according to Glidecoat), costs $295. A complete restoration kit, including a bottle of Marine Ceramic Coating; the appropriate washes, polishes and surface wipes to prep the surface; medium-cut compound to remove the existing wax or polymer coatings; the sponges and microfiber towels to apply the ceramic coating; and, most importantly, directions on how to use all this stuff properly costs $395 for the same 30-footer. All you need is the buffer.
The lifespan of ceramic ameliorates the sticker shock somewhat. Glidecoat’s CEO, Paul Westhorpe, told me that a properly applied and maintained ceramic coating will last 24 to 30 months in Florida (Glidecoat is located in West Palm Beach), and he has clients on the Great Lakes whose boats still shine after more than five years. Westhorpe said that treating the surface with a soft polymer spray—Glidecoat’s is called Marine Shine & Shield—every few months extends the life of the coating. “You just spray it on and wipe it off,” he said. “It adds a sacrificial layer on top of the ceramic.” When it’s time to reapply the ceramic, there’s no need to remove the old coating. Just give it a light polishing and clean the surface, he said.
Wax On, Wax Off
Nano ceramics produce a mirror-like shine on gelcoat while repelling water and dirt—water beads on ceramic, or sheets off; when it stops doing either, it’s time to recoat—but they don’t hide imperfections. Whatever’s on the surface when the ceramic’s applied is locked in until you strip it off. That might be years down the road, so it’s important to make the surface as perfect as you can beforehand. Like any refinishing job, this one is 90 percent preparation. Cut corners, and they’ll haunt you later on. First thing you have to do is remove every trace of the old wax or sealant; if you don’t, when it lifts—and it will—it’ll take the ceramic coating off with it.
Wax is the main enemy of ceramics. Most manufacturers offer kits for switching over from wax-based to ceramic coatings; the Glidecoat kit mentioned above is typical. It’s important to clean and de-wax the surface before buffing the gelcoat to restore shine. If you try to buff off the wax, the heat of the buffer wheel will drive it deeper into the gelcoat. Even new boats should be cleaned and de-waxed, since there’s often mold-release compound and other imperfections on the surface. “Look closely at a new boat’s gelcoat—hold the light on your phone four or five inches from the surface,” said Westhorpe. “You’ll often see water and swirl marks which will show up under the ceramic.” Even if you de-wax carefully, you can still get stung, since some buffing compounds contain wax. While there are many products that will do a good job at prepping the surface, Westhorpe said it’s safer to use the products suggested by the manufacturer because you know there’s no wax in them. And always apply two coats of ceramic; the first coat fills and seals the gelcoat, and the second coat provides the gloss.
Hire a Pro
A lot of time- and patience-consuming prep is required when restoring tired gelcoat no matter what sealant you plan to apply, especially if you’re working on the deck or cockpit with myriad corners, nooks and crannies you can’t hit with the buffer. Stubborn stains often have to be wet-sanded out, and if the gelcoat’s really bad, it might take two, three or even four go-rounds with buffing compound to bring back its shine. Pros even do the insides of ice- and fishboxes, which get stained with food, blood and gore. This is mind-numbing work, but ceramic coatings demand a bigger cash investment, so it’s wise to throw in a bigger investment of time and elbow grease, too. If you’d prefer to do the whole job with your checkbook, as I would, most manufacturers of ceramic coatings can set you up with qualified detailers in your area.
Hiring professionals often has another advantage: The manufacturer will sell them products that take more skill to apply but contain a higher percentage of nano particles. Logic suggests this will create an even more durable ceramic finish. Westhorpe said Glidecoat’s pro ceramic coating contains 68 percent silicon versus 60 percent in the DIY product. It’s a two-part product, ceramic plus catalyst; the DIY coating is single part.
“The pro ceramic flashes off really quickly,” he said. “You have to work fast, on a small area, maybe 2 feet by 2 feet, and wipe it off immediately; don’t wait even five seconds, or you’ll get streaking you can’t buff out.” The pro coating fully cures in eight hours; the DIY ceramic requires 48 hours. But the DIY product gives you more working time and is self-leveling (so it’s less apt to streak), and its slower cure means errors can be polished out and recoated the next day.
Mix Your Own
Besides Glidecoat, there are many other manufacturers of nano ceramic coatings; a quick Google search will turn up at least a dozen, all making similar claims. One that’s a bit different is Permanon. Permanon sells its silicium-based (if you’ve been paying attention you know that’s another name for silicon) Yacht Supershine as a concentrate that the user dilutes with water to whatever strength needed. Usually that’s 10 percent for the first coat and 5 or even 3 percent for maintenance coats. Mixing your own saves quite a bit of money: Combining 100 milliliters of concentrate ($24) with 900 milliliters of water (free) produces a liter (just over a quart) of 10 percent solution, enough to cover about a 320-square-foot surface. Permanon sells a 500-milliliter (roughly 17-ounce) reusable spray bottle for $25.
After prepping the surface as described earlier, simply spray on the Supershine and wipe it off right away with a microfiber cloth. Don’t let it dry or you’ll get water spots. As maintenance, just clean it with a detergent boat wash or, says the company, Dawn dishwashing liquid, and reapply Supershine at a lower concentration when water stops beading on the surface.
Although a 10 percent solution is enough for most surfaces, for maximum UV protection, Yacht Supershine can be mixed at any concentration up to full strength. The company says that a 100 percent concentrate is necessary only for old gelcoat and/or surfaces that are “extremely sensitive to prolonged exposure to UV radiation.” If you’re using it neat, Supershine has to be “wiped in,” rubbed with a microfiber cloth to crush the silicium particles together so they will adhere to the surface, and then dried off. I’d try the 10 percent solution first.
So, what’s the scuttlebutt on ceramics? Well, switching to ceramic coatings doesn’t come easy, or cheap, but it’s easier than waxing, and you don’t have to do it as often. And it sure beats the daylights out of sanding, whether you’re a gullible kid or not!