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Polishing Fiberglass

1986 Bayliner 255 Cierra

Polishing Fiberglass

We have an old (1986) Bayliner Cierra cabin cruiser which is in almost new condition. One of the reasons that it is in such good shape is because David keeps it polished and clean at all times.

David is an old hand at maintaining fiberglass. He has been surfing since he was six years old and built his first surf board when he was only 8 years old. This year he will celebrate his 68th birthday so he knows what works and what doesn’t.

Although he hasn’t surfed much in the last 7 years or so, he still knows how to keep fiberglass looking and performing like new. To do that, make sure the fiberglass is undamaged and kept to a high shine. Nothing does that better than a good polish at least three times a year.

The slick surface prevents things attaching themselves to the glass, reduces the effects of solar degradation, preserves the color and, you have to admit, just makes it look really pretty. Your Corvette or fiberglass bodied Cobra will go faster with a shine on it, your boat will slice through the waves with less resistance and your surfboard will definitely slice those waves with a really high shine on the surface.

When we are talking about boats, most of the outer surface of the boat’s hull is going to be gelcoat. It adds a protective layer to the fiberglass of the hull itself and contains the color that you see. Gelcoat, over time, will oxidize and turn chalky. Regular polishing will keep the degradation of the gelcoat to a minimum.

As exotic as spending the weekend polishing your Cobra or spiffing up your yacht may sound, your fiberglass bathtub can use a good polish two or three times a year, too.

On any fiberglass (or gelcoat) surface, the first step to maintenance is to clean it thoroughly. Scrub the surface with a tablespoon of good general detergent (like Dawn dish washing detergent) added to a gallon of water. If you are fighting mildew, add one cup of household bleach to the water and detergent. At this point, you want to be wearing those ugly yellow gloves to protect your hands from the bleach.

Scrub the surface with a sponge. If the mildew resists removal, apply the solution and let it stand for at least half an hour. Repeat until the mildew is gone. Persistent stains in the fiberglass (like fish blood or rust) may require special stain-removal solvents. Apply those first and then clean with the detergent and/or bleach as needed.

Always rinse the surface after cleaning with just clear water. Let it dry completely before waxing.

Degrease the surface – and especially gelcoat — with MEK (methyl ethyl ketone aka butone) or acetone. Either require use in an extremely well ventilated area. Best practice is to use them outdoors and be upwind of them. Always use rubber gloves with these chemicals.

If you don’t have access to either acetone, butone or MEK, use a good degreaser. An especially good degreaser is the purple one from Home Depot. It is inexpensive, very effective and easy to use. But again, wear gloves. The stuff is horrible on your skin. We had a stove hood that was so covered with grease after years of use and no cleaning that we were going to just rip out the hood and replace it. You know how difficult that kind of grease is to get rid of. In a last-ditch maybe-it-will-work-and-maybe-it-won’t attempt, we sprayed it with the purple degreaser, let it set for 30 minutes or so and were able to wipe all the great off with a soft cloth. I kid you not. It was amazing.

So now we are washed and degreased and ready to wax. Maintaining a good waxing schedule from the time gelcoat is new is the best way to maintain the surface. However, that is rare. The good news is that waxing has great regenerative powers.

When waxing, of course, you need to use the best quality wax you can afford. Fortunately, there are lots of them available at very reasonable prices. 3M Marine, Meguire’s and Mother’s a just a few of the brands that offer excellent waxes for fiberglass. Marine applications will differ somewhat from automotive applications so simply pick the one that best suits your circumstance.

Apply the wax in a circular motion with a cloth or a pad and let it dry to a white haze. Follow the instructions that come with the wax of your choice. If you let the wax dry too long, it will frequently be more difficult to buff off. If the wax does not dry completely, it will leave streaks so pay attention to how long you leave the wax on the surface before buffing.

Polishing, whether you are polish your car or polishing diamonds, is a abrasive process. There are little tiny particles in the wax that are filling in little tiny pits in the surface that you are polishing.
One factor is a certainty: Polishing requires elbow grease or a really good electric polisher.

Most of us are not professionals and will use a single head polisher. That’s fine. The single head goes in one direction and may need a couple of extra passes over a surface to get a high-quality shine. Professional, dual-head polishers use the “wax-on/wax-off” principle of reciprocating polishing heads. One head goes clockwise while the other rotates counter clockwise.

Dual-head polishers start around $300 while a single head polisher will set you back a good $26 at WalMart. We need to consider economics here.

Go tell your wife you just paid $350 for a dual-head polisher for the boat and she’ll make sure that she washes your tighty-whities with the bright red negligee you gave her for your anniversary making sure you are wearing bright pink briefs for the next six months. Or worse.

How many does your boat sleep?

Just sayin’.

So you’ve got the boat waxed. Looks great, doesn’t it? Nice and shiny with all the color refreshed. It was really worth the effort.

Now go to your computer, your Day-Timer or your phone calendar and schedule the next clean/wax/buff for three months from today. If you commit to doing it regularly, it will be half as much work the next time. And you won’t see the degradation that comes with neglect.

Fiberglass really needs to be properly maintained. It’s not hard. It just takes a little discipline to do it on a regular basis. Plus it gets you out of the house and into the open air. Take a deep breath, grab that polisher and make it shine!