New boat owners commonly wonder what products and techniques they should be using to clean their boats. A trip to the marine supply store isn’t likely to answer their questions. There are rows of shelves lined with a plethora of specialized boat cleaner products. Every different surface on the boat seems to require a different and expensive magic potion.
Do you really need all of those products? Is cleaning and detailing your boat all that hard? Let’s look at the best techniques and products to use for cleaning your floating home inside and out.
What Does Boat Detailing Mean?
Professionals usually refer to the job as detailing. Just like in the car world, you can have your car washed–or you can have it detailed. Detailing is more involved than just splashing some soap, doing some work lathering it, and giving it a final rinse. It implies a complete clean–that all the nooks and crannies are getting cleaned and that it will look close to new as possible.
When it comes to boat detailing, most boaters assume you’re describing something you will have done professionally. Who talks about detailing their own car? You clean or wash your car, but you have someone detail it for you when you want a deeply cleaned, like-new vehicle. It’s the same with boats.
But don’t let that discourage you. Hiring a boat detailer is extremely costly. For a large vessel, it might cost thousands of dollars. Liveaboard boaters may not have that much money to invest, or perhaps they’d rather save the money for a bigger project they need help on. Detailing is easy once you know which products to use and how to use them, so if you have the time and desire, anyone can learn how to do it.
Basic Supplies You Should Have for Boat Detailing
Before getting to the how-tos, let’s look at a few things everyone needs to have on hand.
For basic washes, you should have a long water hose with a water-saving spray nozzle. Like everything in boating, little details make all the difference.
For example, most boaters use the white garden hoses that you can use for potable drinking water. These are available from RV suppliers for much less than they sell for at the marine store. It’s easier to only deal with one hose on a boat, and you’ll want the white one for filling your tanks.
Most spray nozzles you find at the local garden center corrode quickly in saltwater environments. So instead, find a very sturdy plastic one, if you can.
For soap, always use environmentally-friendly biodegradable boat soap. It will all be washing off into the water. And, believe it or not, it works just as well as regular soap. You can find it from West Marine or Star-Brite brands, plus many others.
You’ll want a long-handled brush. Most boaters like to use one handle that doubles as a boat hook. Shurhold makes the best ones, and they are well worth the money. They come in fixed lengths or extendable versions. They have a snap-on head that accepts a wide range of different cleaning brushes, boat hooks, fishing nets, and many other accessories.
If you want to dry the water drops off when you’re done, consider getting a mop head for your handle. These absorb water and prevent water spots, which is handy after rainstorms too.
Seasonal waxings are made easier if you use a spray-on wax product after washes. This is especially true on the deck, which gets direct sunlight, lots of dirt, and all the traffic. The best spray wax is Woody Wax, which is also a great way to keep up non-skid deck surfaces.
Waxing and Compounding
If your boat’s surface has lost its shine and no longer beads water, it’s time for a good application of wax. But before you dive in, you’ll need the right supplies.
First, waxing a boat is a big job. Yes, it’s possible to do it by hand. But for professional-level results, you really need a power buffer or polisher. It won’t save you just a few hours, it will save you days. Again, some of the best for the job are made by Shurhold. This is a great tool to have for many boat detailing jobs.
There’s nothing extraordinary about boat wax, but they do work very well. Pastes waxes are best, but they are also the most difficult to use. Compounds have grit, and when used properly, they can restore the shine to a dull gel coat. RV detailing products often work as well as marine ones do.
Exterior Hull Cleaning — Smooth Fiberglass Surfaces
All boat jobs have to be broken down by the type of surface you’re dealing with. Basic cleaning of smooth fiberglass surfaces is one of the easiest–just wash with a soft brush and boat soap. Then rinse with plenty of clean water.
New gel coat is a beautiful, glossy, and smooth surface. But with improper care, it can easily be damaged. Gel coat finishes aren’t very hard, so never use abrasive or powerful methods to clean it.
A thick coating of wax is essential to prevent stains and grime from soaking in and to protect it from UV rays. Once the wax is worn off, the gel coat itself begins to wear away. Therefore, if your cleaning method removes the wax job, you should reapply it.
Slight stains can be removed with lemon juice, while oxalic acid is needed for deeper stains. This is the primary ingredient in the best hull cleaners, but it’s also found in many toilet bowl and general cleaners like Bar Keeper’s Friend. Oxalic acid removes wax, so be sure to rewax wherever you use it.
When the hull no longer beads water, you’ll need to wax it. If the fiberglass looks chalky, you’ll need to compound it. Apply wax to dull fiberglass only seals in the grime and chalkiness.
Compounding and waxing a boat hull is a huge job. The sides of the hull, in particular, are grueling since they require you to hold the polisher over your head for hours at a time in some cases. So always do these jobs in the boatyard when you can, and then hopefully, you’ll only need to do touch ups on the water.
Use caution when using compound or wax and a powerful polisher. If you leave the pad grinding in one spot too long, you can leave swirl marks or even damage the gel coat, leaving horrible streaks. Use consistent strokes and keep the polisher moving. Here’s an excellent how-to video from Shurhold with the best technique.
If you’re compounding to polish your boat’s finish, begin your cleaning preparation by washing to remove all loose debris on the boat’s surfaces. Then apply the compound as directed, in small patches. Once the entire hull is compounded, start applying protective treatments, specifically lots of boat wax. Then polish the wax to a mirror-like hard finish.
Cleaning and Waxing Fiberglass Decks — Non-Skid Gel Coat Surfaces
The deck is comprised of smooth fiberglass and textured non-skid gel coat. The smooth areas are treated just like the rest of the hull, but the non-skid can be challenging to clean. These spots seem to really attract the dirt particles!
For one thing, you’ll likely need to use a stiffer brush to clean it. If regular boat soap doesn’t do the trick on more stubborn dirt, special non-skid cleaners with PFTE work very well and require just a little scrubbing.
Care must be taken when waxing the no-skid, as you don’t want to smooth out the texture and make it slippery. You can use brushes on your polisher to apply regular compound and wax. In between waxes, a liquid wax like Woody Wax will keep the shine going.
Cleaning Exterior Surface Teak Decks
Many classic boats have teak or wood decks that require special attention. They’re beautiful and feel fantastic underfoot, but without proper care, they can deteriorate rapidly.
Standard boat soap and frequent washings are your primary weapons. When washing teak, remember that it is actually quite soft. Use only soft-bristled brushes and scrub across the grain, not with it. Never use a pressure washer on teak decks. And if you notice any caulking chipping away, patch it up immediately.
If your teak has built-up grime or has turned grey, you can restore it to looking new with a bit of teak cleaner. Like fiberglass, these cleaners have oxalic acid in them. Bar Keeper’s Friend makes a wonderful substitute, just don’t scrub too aggressively and let it sit for a few minutes before rinsing.
Marine Canvas Cleaning
Canvas is best washed with—you guessed it—regular boat soap. Sunbrella is the most common name brand of marine canvas, and it’s hard-wearing and easy to clean.
The most common problem with any canvas is when the waterproof coating wears out, and a damp environment allows mildew spots to form. You can find the best advice for cleaning these fabrics can be found on the Sunbrella website. They have advice for everything from wine spills to bloodstains!
Cleaning Other Miscellaneous Surfaces
With the tips above, you should narrow down what it is you need to clean and how to do it. There aren’t many other surfaces on a boat.
Metal surfaces are usually be kept clean with soap and water. With the right polishing tools, you can keep them shiny.
On the interior, once you get into the living space below decks, cleaning isn’t much different than cleaning a house. Standard hardwood floor cleaners, multi-surface cleaners, dusting, mopping, and sweeping will meet nearly all of your needs. Carpets and upholstery can be cleaned with a steam cleaner if heavily soiled. Vinyl seats can usually be wiped clean with soap and clean water.
Do remember that everything you put down the drain of a boat winds up in the water—so avoid the use of toxic chemicals.
Tips for Success — How Do I Detail a Boat?
Once you’ve learned how to treat all of the various types of boat’s surfaces, the difference between a simple wash and full detailing is all about the level of, well, detail!
A professional will take the time to clean the small areas, like the gaps and edges of every hatch and doorway. They will clean the insides of the lockers. They’ll get in all the little nooks with tiny brushes, soap, water, and wax. In other words, the difference between washing your boat and detailing your boat is measured in hours and days. Where most owners call the job complete, most services have just begun.
When Should You Hire a Professional Detailer?
Like all calculations that boat (or home, or car, or RV…) owners make, hiring a professional detailer is a matter of time and money. If you’ve got money and no time, hire a pro. If you’ve got no money but lots of time, do it yourself. But, of course, that only works if you have the right tools and the know-how to complete the job.
How Much Does it Cost to Detail a Boat?
Boat detailing cost varies greatly depending on geographic area and boat size. In some areas, you might be able to find a boat handyperson that will do the job for less money than a professional detailing company.
No matter who you hire, though, you’re bringing on someone for a significant project. Unless they show up with a team of workers, it will take several days of solid work. Expect to be paying for 40 hours or more of labor.
Professional detailing services charge anywhere from $10 to $40 or more per foot.
If there’s one rule in detailing your boat, it’s to start gently and work your way up. Many finishes, like gel coat surfaces, require care. Reserve the most aggressive treatments for only the most severe situations and stains.
There’s no reason that you can’t detail your boat no matter your boat’s size. It’s not a hard job. It’s just time-consuming. But, with the right tools and a little know-how, you can get the roughest hunk of junk looking like a flashy luxury yacht.