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How to Detail Your Boat Like a Pro

Whether it’s a 40-foot yacht or a nimble bass boat, you want your prized waterborne vessel to shine. But nature will wreak havoc with time, from algae blooms to barnacle build-ups and unrelenting UV rays.

The good news is with a bit of know-how, the right products, and some good old-fashioned elbow grease, you can restore her lustrous sheen. Our go-to boat detailing guide covers how to do just that.

 

What You’ll Need

First off, gather the tools of the trade. You won’t necessarily require all these items—it depends on your specific detailing needs.

  • Two buckets and a hose
  • Aluminum marine cleaner or fiberglass boat soap
  • Gloves and goggles (if using aluminum cleaners)
  • A scrubbing pad and a wash mitt or a soft-thistle brush
  • A soft cloth or a polishing pad with a buffing tool (for waxing)
  • A water-line stain remover (if required)
  • Acetone (for black rubber marks)
  • Wire brush, rust converter, anti-rust topcoat, sealant, and rust shield (only if rust work is required)
  • Buffing or polishing compound
  • Wax or polymer boat sealant
  • Extractor soap, glass cleaner, vinyl conditioner/protectant, metal polish (for the interior)

1. Rinse

Give your boat a good spray with fresh water to rinse off any loose dirt and debris. A regular gardening-style hose will do, but using a power washer is ideal for a deeper cleanse. 

Remember to start at the top and work your way down. Otherwise, you’ll end up dripping dirty water into the bits you’ve already sprayed.

Fiberglass boat owners should note regular rinsing is crucial for keeping the gel coat intact. Aim for a weekly spray down if you can.

However, the opposite applies to soap; only break out the suds when needed.  

2. Wash & Clay Treatment

Now you’ve hosed her down, it’s time to start scrubbing. The cleaning process differs between fiberglass and aluminum boats.

Aluminum Boats

For aluminum-hulled boats, you’ll need a specially formulated marine aluminum cleaner to oxidize dullness and remove water-line stains. Choose wisely. A harsh everyday cleaner can chemically scour the surface, resulting in permanent unsightly blotches.

  • Pop on protective gloves and goggles, as aluminum cleaners have a high acidic content.
  • Fill a bucket with lukewarm water and the recommended (as per label) cleaner dosage.
  • Use your scrubbing pad and clean from the bottom, working your way up in small sections.
  • Rinse each section with fresh water; don’t allow the cleaner to dry.

Fiberglass Boats

Use a paint-safe boat soap instead when cleaning a fiberglass surface.

  • Fill a bucket with lukewarm water and cleaner (following the recommended dosage) and a second bucket with freshwater for cleaning your mitt.
  • Starting from the top on the inside, gently scrub small sections using a non-abrasive wash mitt or soft-thistle brush (don’t scrub too hard, or you’ll scratch the gel coat).
  • Immediately rinse each section when done, as dried boat soap can leave an unsightly film.
  • Use a water-line stain remover to remove stains as required.
  • If you see any black rubber smudge marks (common when moored at the docks), use a small dab of acetone on a white rag to scrub them away.  

3. Check for Rust

The metal in your boat is prone to rust as it bobs in the water or soaks up the salty sea air.

Whenever you wash your boat, carefully check all the metallic components for the tell-tale signs of surface rust. Like cancer, the sooner you can treat it, the better.

Treat surface rust by scrubbing it off with a wire brush, applying a rust converter, and then painting over it with an anti-rust topcoat.

Applying a rust shield product can help prevent corrosion from occurring.  

4. Apply a Buffing or Polishing Compound

Now you’ve got a squeaky clean boat, it’s time to spruce up the fiberglass surfaces. The natural elements gradually oxidize your gel coat, which is the thin outer film that gives fiberglass its lustrous sheen. 

To restore its former glory, you’ll need to remove any chalky oxidation with a buffing or polishing compound.

  • Use a soft cloth or a polishing pad on a buffing tool to apply the compound gently in circular motions.
  • Work slowly around the boat, buffing small sections at a time.
  • Stop once the surface adopts a nice shiny, glassy finish.

Remember: buffing and polishing compounds are abrasive. Work slowly, and don’t go overboard with the elbow grease.

5. Waxing & Buffing

Waxing prevents oxidation, which results in a dull, chalky appearance and can make fiberglass vulnerable to water intrusion (it’s not just about looks). Aim to wax your boat every six months to maintain a deep, glossy finish.

It’s crucial to choose a wax suitable for your specific boat. Contact the manufacturer if in doubt.

  • Use a soft towel or terry cloth bonnet on an electric polisher to apply the wax in a circular motion (following the label).
  • Work in small sections around the boat.
  • Allow the wax to sit for 5-10 minutes until it looks hazy.

With a cloudy coat of freshly applied wax at the ready, it’s time to start buffing. Follow the same process as above using a clean polishing pad or soft cloth. You’ll know you’re done when the haze transforms into a nice shiny finish.

6. Paint Protection

A polymer boat sealant can protect your paintwork for anywhere between 6-12 months. You can choose to follow these steps instead of waxing, though they won’t quite achieve the same glorious glossy results.

As always, take great care to ensure your preferred product is suitable for the surface you’re working on.

  • Shake the bottle and apply small dabs to a polishing pad.
  • Apply the product as directed and wait 10 to 20 minutes for it to dry and become hazy.
  • Use a microfiber towel to buff the sealant off and restore its sheen.

7. Deep Clean the Interior

It’s no good to have a pristine hull if your interior is a dirty, grimy mess. Conduct a deep cabin clean when needed, including the seats and storage compartments.

Follow the instructions on the label for each product. 

  • Use an extractor soap for spot cleaning stains on your carpet.
  • Use a glass cleaner to clean your acrylic and glass windows.
  • Use an appropriate conditioner to prevent vinyl seats from fading or drying out.
  • Use metal polish to restore shine to metallic surfaces.

The Final Inspection

Congratulations, you’ve just saved a ton of cash by forgoing a pricey professional detailing service—some charge up to $15 per square foot. Take a step back and admire your handiwork and complete any final touches. Now all that’s left to do is pop on a cover and put your precious vessel into storage.

Not sure where to store your boat? Check out our comprehensive guide to indoor boat storage.

View Boat Storage Guide