There’s little more satisfying to the eye than a well-maintained boat that shines and sparkles under the sun. Hey, there’s a reason certain aspects of boat maintenance are called “brightwork.” But getting your boat uber-clean and keeping it that way can be a challenge, especially if you’re a first-time boat owner. There’s no need to worry, though, because we’re here to clear up all the myths and mysteries about the best way to keep your pride and joy looking great. Whether you’ve got chalky gelcoat that’s in need of some TLC, grimy canvas, or your teak is dingy and gray, read on for some great tips.
How to maintain your boat
- Fiberglass and gelcoat, which needs to be regularly cleaned, waxed, and polished for both protective and cosmetic purposes. Not only will keeping your gel coat shiny make your boat look good, but it will also prevent oxidation, which makes fiberglass dull and chalky.
- Marine canvas and Eisinglass or Strataglass, which deteriorate quickly without proper treatment. You'll need to regularly use the correct polishes and protectants, or canvas will grow leaky and clear canvas will become cloudy.
- Upholstery and vinyls found on boats. These need to be cleaned several times a season—but if you use the wrong type of cleaner, you can accidentally destroy the materials in a single season.
- Brightwork, which includes all wood surfaces and trims that are exposed to UV rays. They require quite a bit of upkeep, to keep them in good shape. We'll show you how to refinish dull-looking wood, and describe the seasonal maintenance you'll need to do every spring.
Ready to dig in and learn the ins and outs of basic boat maintenance? Let's get started.
Gelcoat, Waxes, and Polishes
If you own a fiberglass boat, the chances are quite good that you’ve got gelcoat maintenance to contend with, both on deck and with the hull sides. Gelcoat—in good condition—is that tough, glossy exterior finish that protects the underlying fiberglass from salt, sun, and everything else Mother Nature can throw at it. In poor condition, it’s usually a hazy, chalky mess. The good news? You can generally bring that faded gelcoat back from the dead with the right compounds and a healthy dose of elbow grease.
If your gelcoat is in good condition you’ll want to spend time maintaining it throughout the course of a season. Essential gelcoat maintenance begins with waxing and/or polishing. What’s the difference between wax and polish? Waxes are designed to protect and seal gelcoat, with a coating that repels water, dirt, salt, and the harmful rays of the sun. Polishes, on the other hand, generally contain a cutting agent to remove oxidation from the gelcoat and make it shine. Other products, called cleaner-waxes, contain both a polish and a wax. These combo products work well on gelcoat with light or moderate oxidation. As you may have guessed, the myriad of available waxes and polishes at your local marine supply store can be confusing. Before you break out the buffer and rags, try reading Boat Waxes and Polishes for Making Your Gelcoat Shine. Here, you’ll find a selection of products we’ve personally tested.
Once you’ve got your gelcoat clean and in tip-top shape, it should be maintained with a coat of wax at least twice a season. Consider performing this task before you launch in the spring, and prior to putting your boat to bed for the winter. That way you can make the most of your boat during the season instead of being burdened by maintenance work.
During the boating months, however, washing away salt and grime with a gentle but high-quality boat soap—after each and every outing—is imperative. While harsher soaps and cleaners can do a better job on tough stains, they also remove that protective wax and eventually lead to a dull gelcoat shine. Use them sparingly, only as necessary. Whenever you scrub gelcoat, make sure you use a soft brush or sponge on the smooth areas to avoid scratching (Yes, a stiff-bristle brush can actually create tiny scratches in the gelcoat). Non-skid surfaces can be cleaned with a more aggressive brush if needed.
Pro Tip: Liquid or spray-on carnauba wax doesn’t have great protective properties, but creates an excellent shine and can be applied quickly and easily. Use it for mid-season touch-up wax jobs, to maintain a blinding shine.
For additional detailed information on keeping your gelcoat looking great, here’s some light reading on all sorts of gelcoat maintenance and repair. Before you know it your boat will be the envy of your local launch ramp or marina.
- 10 Tips to Keep Gelcoat Gleaming
- Topside Maintenance: Paints, Polishes, and Wraps
- Getting Tough Stains Out of Gelcoat
- How to Restore Slightly Faded Gelcoat on a Boat
Maybe you’re in the unlucky camp of having a boat with faded gelcoat. Thankfully, even the chalkiest gelcoat can almost always be brought back to a high gloss. The bad news is that you’re going to have to invest a lot of time and energy to get it that way. Generally speaking you’ll need to use a machine of some sort, such as a large angle grinder with a soft buffing pad, and some polishing compounds of varying degrees of aggressiveness. Head over to our sister site, boattrader.com, and read these articles to get step-by-step instructions on how to restore faded gelcoat and fix damaged gelcoat.
- Restoring Gelcoat Like the Pros: Elbow Grease Required
- How to Fix Light Gelcoat Scratches
- How to Fix Gelcoat Gouges
Marine Canvas and Eisenglass or Strataglass
Though not made like the thick, rough fabric of boating days gone by, “canvas” is the generic term used for the durable fabrics used to create cockpit and console enclosures, Bimini tops, boat and sail covers, line and gear pockets, and more. You may have heard the trade name “Sunbrella” used to describe some of these materials as well. “Eisenglass” or “Strataglass” are trade names for clear polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used to create the see-through panels in marine canvas components. Whichever combination of these materials you have on your boat, proper care is the key to keeping them look good and lasting longer.
Keeping canvas clean is an essential first step, but don’t wash or dry your canvas in a household washer or dryer; doing so will destroy the fabric very quickly. Instead, use a light brush, mild soap (Woolite, Dreft, or Dawn), and lots of fresh water to remove dirt, salt, bird droppings, and other abrasive materials. This helps keep the fabric’s UV and waterproofing components intact and also prevents mildew from taking up residence in the fabric’s weave. If your marine canvas has lost some of its waterproof qualities, consider treating it with a product such as 303 Fabric Guard, which restores its ability to repel water.
Pro Tip: Don’t try to stretch on your canvas in the spring until the temperature is over 65 degrees; the material does not stretch below this temperature, making it prone to tearing.
One of the peskiest parts of caring for marine canvas is dealing with the aforementioned clear PVC used to create windows in enclosures, covers, or Bimini tops. These components are a problem because many boat owners use all the wrong products to keep them clean, sometimes ruining them in the process. Whether you’ve got Eisenglass, Strataglass, or some other PVC material in your canvas, never, ever—and we mean ever—clean them with an ammonia-based product such as Windex. The ammonia will break down the plastic, yellow it, and make it brittle over time. Instead, use a quality spray polish designed specifically for use with clear PVC, such as 210 Plastic Cleaner and Polish. Properly cared for, these PVC panels should remain clear and last for years.
The zippers and snaps that hold everything together need regular maintenance, too. Zippers and snaps should be lubricated at least once a year with a lubricant specifically designed for them. Lastly, invest in a snap puller. It’s a small, inexpensive tool that helps reduce wear and tear on your marine canvas every time you snap or unsnap it from your boat. Any good marine supply or canvas shop will carry it.
A final habit you should get into is removing all of your canvas and storing it inside during the winter months. This adds years to the material’s life since it’s not being exposed to the elements for a full 12 months out of the year. Canvas can be folded, but clear PVC panels should be carefully rolled up with a layer of butcher paper in between. This keeps the clear plastic from sticking to itself. If you’re short on time, many canvas shops also offer winter services that include removing the canvas from your boat, cleaning it, storing it, and then reinstalling it come springtime.
You can get a jump-start on understanding marine canvas and its care by checking out the features below. They include an introduction to the basics on marine canvas components, a video on properly caring for your clear PVC panels and canvas work, and an article that you’ll find helpful when replacing an old enclosure.
- Marine Canvas Enclosures: What’s What and What’s New
- How to Clean and Care for Isinglass and Canvas
- Replacing an Enclosure: Five Design Tips
Upholstery and Vinyl
There used to be a time when most boats had only a few stray cushions aboard, situated in strategic relaxation points around deck. Today, even small boats often come replete with a huge complement of comfy seating cushions, upholstered with all sorts of high-tech fabrics and materials. What’s the best way to care for these expensive pieces of handcrafted comfort?
The most common material used for exterior seating and furniture components is vinyl, which has been around for decades. It’s a tough and extremely durable material, but using the wrong cleaners can ruin it. Routine cleaning can be done with a sponge and a bucket of mild, soapy water, followed by thorough rinsing. Never use strong cleaners that contain bleach or ammonia. While they can produce immediate and pleasing results—especially on vinyl with mildew stains—these chemicals will break down and ruin the vinyl over time.
Deep cleaning can be done with a purpose-made vinyl cleaner and followed with the application of a vinyl protectant. Once you’ve restored your dirty vinyl you should repeat the aforementioned light cleaning and protecting process about once a month, especially for vinyl components that are permanently exposed to the elements.
At some point, you’ll likely have to contend with mildew staining on your vinyl, no matter how well you maintain it. If you do have mildew staining, consider lightly scrubbing in a solution of Oxy Clean diluted in hot water, as this will not stain other fabrics on the boat. There are also mildew removers available at your local marine supply shop, but we’ve had varying levels of success with them that are not at all consistent.
Pro Tip: As a last-ditch effort for severely stained vinyl, try using bleach diluted in water or cleaners containing bleach. But make sure you don’t get any of the solution on any canvas or other fabrics on your boat; remove the offending pieces from the boat and clean them at home, if you can.
The easiest way to make vinyl last is to keep it covered or stowed away. If you’ve got exterior cushions that can be removed, stow them in a locker or belowdecks at the end of the day. Permanently exposed vinyl fixtures such as captain’s chairs, benches, and console seats can be protected with canvas covers, and while these custom covers can be expensive, the protection they provide is well worth it in the long run.
Other exterior boat furnishings are often covered with marine canvas such as Sunbrella, discussed in the Marine Canvas and Eisinglass or Strataglass section, above. The care for these pieces is generally the same as we described earlier. Many other high-tech fabrics with all sorts of textures and comfort features have come on the market over the last few years, especially for use in pontoon boats. If you’re in doubt as to how you should properly care for any exterior fabric on your boat, make sure you ask the manufacturer before proceeding. Using the wrong cleaner or protectant can prove to be a costly mistake.
Though it’s less and less common these days, lots of boats—especially older ones—still have some woodwork to take care of. Common woodwork you might find on a boat includes handrails, toerails, caprails, steps, and decking.
Most of these components are made of teak, a durable tropical hardwood. Left in the sun teak will grey out and last for years, but it still needs occasional cleaning. Other owners prefer their woodwork to give off the warm, golden glow a good varnish, oil, or sealer provides. Which one you chose will depend on how much upkeep you’re willing to do.
The easiest solution is to simply leave uncoated teak uncoated and let it develop a silvery gray patina. Still, even uncoated teak deserves a good cleaning at least once a season. Otherwise, you’ll likely find black mildew ruining that patina at some point down the road. There are all sorts of teak cleaners promising many different miracle results, but you’ll want to choose the mildest one that will do the job. We like powder-based cleaners containing oxalic acid. You can step up the aggressiveness of the cleaners based on your teak’s filth factor, but we do recommend trying to stay away from the truly potent two-part cleaning systems you’ll find in many marine supply shops. They’re not only harsh on wood, but any other surfaces they drip onto.
When you do get down to the dirty work, the single most important thing to remember is never to scrub your teak with the grain. Doing this will remove the softer pulpwood between the grain and create ugly ridges in your wood. Instead, lightly use a soft bristle brush or soft-grade 3M pad and go across the grain until the wood is clean. Trust us, you’ll be tempted to dig in and go with the grain, but don’t do it. Once your wood is clean, an occasional light washing with mild soap and soft brush or pad should keep things looking tiptop. Boat owners who have vessels with entire decks of teak will want to give The Care and Feeding of Teak Decks a read.
Other boat owners prefer the rich, distinguished look of a boat with wood that’s been treated with varnish, oil, sealers, or hybrid coatings. These products are designed to protect the wood and make it look brand new. While there’s a lot of prep work involved in a start-from-scratch project of this sort, properly applied teak coatings such as varnish or Cetol generally only need reapplication once a year in northern latitudes, and twice a season south of about 32 degrees.
If you’re interested in getting your teak looking as sharp as possible, here’s some required reading:
- Exterior Marine Wood Finishes: Part One, Traditional Varnishes
- Exterior Marine Wood Finishes: Part Two—Oils, Sealers, Hybrids
- Teak Trimming Tips
- Teak Oils Tested
No matter what your taste, brightwork maintenance on your boat need not be a nightmare. Simply investing a weekend or two a year can go a long way toward making your boat’s wood look great year-round.
Lay Back, Relax, and Enjoy the Shine
Phew, tired yet? While all of this work may seem daunting, none of it is insurmountable. Your real take-away should be that consistent, regular cleaning and brightwork maintenance is the best way to prevent your boat from becoming a list of endless projects. And, there’s nothing better than kicking back, relaxing on the water, and enjoying the beauty of your well-maintained machine.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in March 2016, updated in May 2018 and March 2020.