Nothing Beats A Gelcoat Restoration Project to Make An Older Boat Look Brand New!

You’ve just taken delivery of your new boat. On the way to the water for the very first time you can’t help but glance every few seconds in the rear-view mirror to admire the gleaming magnificence of that fiberglass beauty you’re towing.

Now, fast forward five or six years, or perhaps ten or more into the future. That once incredible glistening gelcoat shine probably isn’t quite as dazzling as the day you bought it. Okay, so who doesn’t age a bit and some of us less graciously than others?

So, is there a secret to fooling father time? Can you really turn back the clock and make today look like yesterday? In spite of what fading Hollywood legends would like to believe, Botox, aroma therapy treatments and plastic surgery aren’t certain fixes. However, when it comes to reversing the aging process of your boat’s gelcoat, you most certainly can with a little elbow grease and the right combination of restoration products.

So there’s no better time than winter to tackle a relatively simple ‘do-it’-yourself’ restoration project. But before we get started, let’s explore why a fiberglass gelcoat finish dulls, fades and sometimes even yellows over time. The primary culprit is oxidation. Although gelcoat, which is the outer most shell of your hull, feels smooth to the touch, it’s actually a somewhat porous mix of polyester resins and various pigments which are under constant attack from the damaging effects of ultra-violet rays (sunshine), extreme heat and cold, salt, dirt and grime. When all of these elements are present, oxidation will occur, especially if the gelcoat finish is not protected with a chemically bonding protectant (either a carnauba or a polymer based wax, and more recently a hi-tech ceramic coating process) to slow down the inevitable process.

When brand new, gelcoat has a smooth flat exterior surface capable of reflecting light much like a mirror. But as sun beats down on the surface, the UV rays erode the gelcoat molecules and water washes out the minute particles which have broken away. This rougher surface now reflects light at undefined angles, losing the mirror-effect, thus making color look dull, cloudy and faded. The only way to reverse that result is with a serious restoration plan..

Fortunately, the marine industry doesn’t lack for quality gelcoat restoration options. Products from companies like Performance Boat Candy, Boat Bling, Xtreme Products, Ducky and many more offer great solutions to this universal problem.

Here’s a condensed step-by step DIY guide to help you on your way to bringing back that once glistening finish that you were so in love with just a few short years ago. However, if you find yourself short on motivation and allergic to a little physical labor, there’s always the option of dialing up a professional boat detailing service and making an appointment.

1. Don’t assume your gelcoat is a complete goner. In most cases, the use of a good cutting compound, polish and wax with the right power buffer and pads will do the job. Only the most severe cases of gelcoat deterioration and discoloration need to receive a wet sanding (should be handled by a marine professional) before the cutting compound, polishing and waxing steps.

2. Always thoroughly wash the hull before buffing. Contaminants (dirt, grime, etc.) left on the surface will only reduce the effectiveness of the compound/polish/wax and potentially do harm to the gelcoat during the buffing process.

3. Never work in the direct sunlight. Always find a shaded place, or indoors, when applying and removing compound/polish/wax.

4. Work slowly in small (about 2’ x 2’) defined areas and then move on.

5. Keep the power buffer pad flat to the surface and moving with even, overlapping strokes. Select a moderate buffer rpm (about 1000 to 1500 is a good place to start).

6. Don’t forget to wax. Unprotected gelcoat is highly susceptible to oxidation. Without a quality polymer or carnauba wax, you’ll soon be back to square one.
Now it’s time to get started!


Never underestimate the 'power' of the right power tool. Buffing is far less taxing with a good orbital/dual action (left) or rotary power buffer at your disposal. If you don’t happen to have these in your tool chest, check with a friend or neighbor, maybe you could borrow them for a day or two. Remember, rotary buffers are best suited for heavier, higher friction cutting while orbital buffers are the choice for final finish steps.


It's always recommended to have an assortment of buffing pads on hand. Soft- buff foam pads (left) are best for light-duty and finish work while wool pads get the initial, heavy cutting jobs done best.


You can't really evaluate gelcoat condition until you've thoroughly washed all the dirt, grime and wax residue build-up off the hull.


To get the surface really clean, use a good dishwashing soap (like Dawn) with a degreasing agent to help strip away old wax and any surface contamination.


After a thorough wash and dry, this gelcoat exhibits significant oxidation. The once charcoal/black color is now badly faded and dull as are the shades of blue and gray. This is considered to be a heavy-duty job. A portion of the transom will be taped off to more effectively show the 'before and after' results.


Because of the heavy degree of oxidation, we're starting with a wool pad on a rotary power buffer. To start the process, mist the pad slightly with a couple of squirts of water from a spray bottle, then apply the cutting compound.


When applying the compound, use it sparingly (about ten pea sized-drops will do in most cases for a 2’ x 2’ area), making a thin ribbon around the outer perimeter of the pad.


Here's a handy tip. If you have deck hardware (cleats, gas caps, nav lights, etc.) within the area to be buffed, it's a good idea to mask (tape) off the hardware so as not to accidentally harm the metal finish with the buffing pad


Before turning on the power buffer, it's recommended to dab the area to be buffed with the pad first. This will prevent the compound from flying off the pad on to clothing and other objects not intended to be buffed.


It's best to work a 2' x 2' square area at a time. Begin buffing at about 1,000 rpm, making slow, continuous overlapping passes using approximately 5 to 10 pounds of pad pressure on the gelcoat surface. Remember to keep the pad flat on the surface. If it doesn't appear that you're making enough progress, you can increase the pressure or rpm of the buffer slightly. Do not allow the buffing pad to stay stationary in one location which may cause excessive surface heat and damage the gelcoat. Work slowly, a little bit at a time. Don’t forget to clean or change to a new pad frequently. Using a saturated buffing pad will only hinder the desired uniform end result.


Make as many passes with the buffing pad as needed until the compound has become translucent. Then, wipe off the excess by hand with a clean microfiber towel and inspect the progress. At that point evaluate the condition of the gelcoat and decide if it's ready to use a milder compound for the next step.


If you're ready to switch to the next compound, either attach a new clean pad to the power buffer, or simply clean the original pad. A really helpful tool to have is a "Pad Washer" which eliminates pad clean-up mess and does the job in seconds.


Repeat steps 8 thru 13 using a milder compound and then the polish which has very little abrasive. Remember, avoid direct exposure to sunlight, and do not allow the compound or the polish to dry completely on the surface before wiping clean.


It's now time to put away the power buffer and apply some wax to protect and preserve that newly created shine. Without the wax, the oxidation process will start again and the gelcoat will return to its dull finish in a short period of time.


Simply take a clean rag, add a small amount of the polymer based wax and apply in an overlapping circular motion. Once the wax is applied evenly, take another clean microfiber towel and wipe clean.


You can see the difference, the center gelcoat section of the transom has been restored to virtually full luster and shine while sections to both the left and right remain dull and faded.


One final demonstration. Pour a little water on the hull section that has just been restored. Notice how the water adheres to the oxidized surface while the restored gelcoat portion repels it.


Here’s another example, this time a different hull that is only moderately oxidized.


Because the degree of oxidation isn’t as severe in this case, the most extreme compound isn’t needed, so we use only a three-step process starting with the mild compound, then the polish and finally the wax.


Another impressive restoration done. Although the hull is nearly 45 years old, the gelcoat now appears as bright and vibrant as the day it was delivered to the owner.