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Wax On, Wax Off

Remember “Wax on, wax off?” It was Mr. Miyagi’s discipline-building anthem in Karate Kid. For years, I figured it was merely a figment of some movie maker’s imagination—it couldn’t be applicable to boat detailing, right?

Wrong! As part of my campaign to do my maintenance chores myself, I recently detailed my trawler Betty Jane and made her literally sparkle. But I had to cheat. Having produced only swirls and streaks while working single-handedly the week before, I hired an adviser for the second onslaught: Mike Hance, proprietor of Craft Clean, a boat-maintenance outfit out of Panama City, Florida. He outlined a do-it-yourself detailing regime for gelcoated (as opposed to painted) boats.

The process starts with choosing the right products and tools. After experimenting on a small, inconspicuous area of Betty’s freshly washed exterior with various products, Hance concluded that what I’d previously used (a mild 3M finishing material called Finesse-It II, Collinite’s No. 885 Paste Fleetwax, and a 4-amp Porter Cable polisher with 61⁄2" automotive-type foam-wool compounding and polishing pads) had not been robust enough. Instead, he specified 3M’s Marine Cleaner & Wax (which removes light-to-medium oxidation), Collinite’s Heavy-Duty Fleetwax (in liquid form for easier application), and a faster, more powerful 10-amp Porter Cable 7428 polisher with a 9" double-side, screw-on (as opposed to hook-and-loop) wool 3M Superbuff compounding pad. To that he added a same-size Superbuff polishing pad.

Hance and I donned particulate masks and rubber gloves to nix chemical sensitivities, applied the Cleaner & Wax with terry cloth rags to a small (2'x2') section with a modicum of pressure and rubbing, and began work on Betty’s shaded side. (Always avoid detailing in direct sunlight.) We let the stuff set up but not completely dry, an important point. Allowing even light compound to dry (which takes about a minute, depending on temperature and humidity) may make removal a gummy mess.

Then came the hard part. We began removing the Cleaner & Wax from our 2'x2' section with the polisher after affixing the 3M Superbuff compounding pad. I set the machine at low speed (1500 to 2000 rpm) so as not to burn the gelcoat, tilted it at a 45-degree angle to the surface, and carefully went back and forth in narrow swathes like I was mowing a lawn. Once finished, I went back with the whole pad (flat this time) to finish, using light pressure to keep from making swirl marks. Stopping occasionally as I continued doing one small section after another was necessary to remove product buildup on the pad. I did this by simply freespooling the pad at slow speeds against a hefty screwdriver held sideways to it.

Then, working from small section to small section once again, we applied the Collinite wax with clean terry-cloth rags (way better than using those streaky sponge applicators, says Hance) and let it dry, and with the compounding pad swapped for the polishing pad, fired up the Porter-Cable. I used a lower speed (1000 rpm) this time, an extremely light touch, and kept the pad flat. A quick swish with a clean cloth and wow, stunning results!

June Checklist: Getting That Flawless Look

1) Washdowns...............Use boat soap to remove dirt. Dishwashing detergents can damage wax and varnish.

2) Streaks.....................Remove black marks with soap; stubborn ones can be nixed with biodegradable Orange Goop (with Citrus) without damaging wax.

3) Brushes........................Go soft! Stiff brushes damage wax.

4) Drying...........................Optimize the sheen by chamoising windows first, metal second, and fiberglass last.

5) Waxing..........................Cover bare wood with varnishing tape when waxing. It saves hassle and cleanup time.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.