Car Detailing Tips – A Guide to Protective Coatings

Car Detailing Tips – A Guide to Protective Coatings

Part of the value of detailing is its restorative effect to the overall look of your car. It’s more than a simple washing off of the surface dirt. It’s the deepest-possible clean that puts your car back as close as possible to how it looked on that showroom floor.

A big part of the success of detailing is how to deal with the outer paintwork. Washing it gets rid of the obvious dirt. Applying a detailing clay bar will help remove the most deeply embedded contaminants from the paint. Is that enough? If you just want “clean,” then perhaps. If, on the other hand, you want protection against future dirt, contamination and even some forms of damage to the paint, then you need more than that.

Protective Car Coatings

The best way to treat, protect and bring out the best in your car’s paint is to apply some form of protective coating. These come in many forms, many of which we will be exploring in today’s article. The three main groups of products we will be examining include:

  • Natural Waxes
  • Sealants (synthetic waxes)
  • Ceramic Coatings

For each, we’ll tell you the unique properties and composition of each, along with tips on application and the specific benefits each one brings to your car.

Natural Car Waxes

Many of the most popular wax products out there are made from natural ingredients. Probably the best-known among them is carnauba wax, which is taken from the leaves of a specific palm tree native to Brazil. If you look for it in a car care supply store, you’ll likely encounter it either in a yellow or white form. The former is more expensive, since it contains a higher purity of carnauba.

Composition – Once successfully derived, the carnauba is combined with another substance, such as beeswax or turpentine. Its most common form is that of a paste, which is stored in a screw-top plastic jar. Popular brands include Meguiar’s, Griot’s, Turtle Wax and many others.

Application – Among the waxes, natural waxes in their paste form are typically the most challenging and time consuming to apply. They don’t require as much specialist attention as ceramic coating (see below), but it is more physically intensive and can take a longer time depending on the size of your car.


The process of applying the wax, as with any other form of protective coating you may want to use, starts with proper preparation. This means first performing a thorough cleaning of the car. You must remove any and all contaminants that you can before you apply a layer of any protection, including natural wax. A clay detailing bar is a nice addition to get a really deep clean and remove the most stubborn dirt clinging on in those tiny cracks in the paint surface.

Once your car is clean, you should use either a foam or microfiber applicator to put the wax coating onto the car’s surface. Work methodically and patiently, first dabbing the applicator into the wax jar without applying too much pressure. After that, rub a very thin layer of the wax on in even straight-line strokes, making sure not to apply it too thickly in one area compared to another. When you’ve finished applying to one section, move on to the next.

After you’ve applied wax to the whole surface, the first section you did should now be ready for removal. To check, gently run your finger along the surface and see if the wax smears. If it does, then it’s not quite ready. If it doesn’t, then you can go ahead and use a separate, clean, soft microfiber towel to remove the wax and be amazed at the effects.


Benefits & Limitations – Perhaps the chief reason behind the popularity of natural waxes is the incredible warm, almost “glowing” shine that it offers. When you are focused more on the aesthetic of your car, then there really is no substitute for this kind of natural paste wax, especially the yellow carnauba wax. As coatings go, however, it isn’t the most protective. Synthetic products comprised of man-made polymers offer more rigorous and lasting protection. Carnauba will still offer a basic protection from the elements, however, and can last for up to 4 months per application. You can also combine some waxes with sealants (see below) for a “best of both worlds” scenario in terms of shine and protection.


Car Sealants (Synthetic Waxes)

Sealants or synthetic waxes are those made chiefly with man-made polymers as the base ingredient. These were initially designed to augment the protective qualities of natural wax, as well as lengthen the period between which applications are needed. The result is a huge selection of products, including those under famous brands like Meguiar’s, Mothers California Gold and many more.


Composition – The chief ingredient of these paint sealants is a variety of man-made polymers that are designed to bond closely with the paint. This is the secret to their more robust coating and more lasting protection. A sealant typically comes either as a bottle of liquid or a spray bottle. Both of these are relatively easy to apply and are much less intensive physically. Spray, in particular, makes it easier to apply an even coating over the surface area of each car paint section.


There is some crossover in the world of sealants, particularly in the liquid-form synthetic waxes. Many of these products still contain natural items like carnauba as their principal shining ingredient, and are then augmented with the aforementioned polymers as a way to increase paint protection.


Application – The relatively simple application of these synthetic waxes makes them a popular choice for anyone without the will or ability to dedicate so much time to their car’s wax job. The fact is that natural paste wax takes more time to apply and remove. Liquids and sprays are much faster, especially the sprays. Furthermore, you can use many of the same tools as the paste, so there’s no need to splash out on further equipment. Some professional detailers may get an applicator machine to make use of liquid wax, but in most cases there’s no need.


As with natural waxes, the first step of application has to be to thoroughly wash and dry the car’s paint surface before applying the wax. For liquids, use clean and fresh applicators to apply a layer of the wax as directed by the specific product guidelines. Wait for the appropriate amount of time (typically 3-5 minutes) and then remove with a clean and soft microfiber towel. With liquid wax, since it dries much faster, many choose to wax on and wax off one section at a time instead of waxing the entire car before removal.


A spray bottle makes the process even faster and easier, and are perfect for when you want to either boost an existing layer, or just get a quick much-needed shine. Drivers should remember the main rule of thumb at this point — when it comes to waxing, increased convenience typically means greater limitation in some respect, be it in longevity or shine.


Benefits & Limitations – The most obvious benefit to this type of coating is the speed and ease of application when compared to natural wax. Beyond that, however, the presence of the man-made polymers has a marked effect on the longevity of the product as it does its work. Where the sealants lack the brilliant shine of things like pure yellow carnauba wax, they make up for it with protection lasting up to 12 months in some cases. Sprays, on the other hand, while certainly the easiest to use, are very limited in how long they last.


One more benefit of modern liquid waxes is that many can be applied in direct sunlight, meaning you don’t have to guarantee a covered or otherwise shaded space for your car, as you would be recommended to do with natural wax. This makes it more accessible to drivers in locations where such shade may be difficult to come across. You can always find more knowledge about different wax types from videos like this one on YouTube


Ceramic Coatings

Ceramic coatings are touted by many as the “ultimate solution” to your paint protection needs. Combining a fierce shine with incredible protective and hydrophobic qualities into the coating has helped to make the reputation of this product as a cutting-edge protective coating that could be worth the investment it requires.


Composition – Similar to the synthetic waxes and sealants mentioned earlier, ceramic coatings are formed from special polymers that bond with the clear coat of your car’s paint. The effect is to create a kind of tough skin across the paint’s surface that deflects dirt, water and just about anything else that attempts to cling to the paint on contact. The polymer layer of a ceramic coating, when professionally applied, forms a bond stronger than any synthetic wax.


Application – Initially, ceramic coatings were an option that you would seek a professional to carry out. While some consumer DIY products have more recently become available, their effect and ease of application still varies greatly. The professional-grade process involves first priming the paint with a thorough clean and performing any paint correction work that needs to be done. The coating is then steadily applied by qualified pros in a process that can take up to 5 days depending on the level of protection you want. Application costs and time will depend on how long you want the protection to last. In short, the longer period of protection you want, the more it will cost. Professional application can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on the same factors.


DIY ceramic coatings are applied in a similar way to the synthetic waxes, but they simply don’t offer the level of protection offered by a professional “9H” level of protection. Some come in liquid form, others as sprays. The range on offer is always growing, and the price point is perfect for those who want protection on a budget. While they may not match up to the pro level of protection, some careful research and understanding of what’s on offer can give you a pleasing result for a relatively small sum of money.


The fact, is, however, that new products are emerging all the time, and their application may soon allow the DIY process to catch up to that of the professional standard.


Benefits & Limitations – Ceramic coatings come with a number of advantages of natural waxes and synthetic sealants. Waxes are principally designed to improve the aesthetic of your car, and sealants build on that with UV protection, corrosion resistance and greater stain protection. Ceramic coatings, on the other hand, not only offer these things to the maximum degree, but also oxidation resistance, scratch resistance, greater durability and a fantastic gloss finish.


The main limitation for many is the prohibitive cost of application. Consumer DIY products are still relatively new, and as a relatively new field of paint protection, it’s hard for people to get the information they need. This leaves only the pro-grade option, which can cost thousands of dollars that some simply don’t have.


Other Car Protective Coatings

One other product that has made its way to market is wax with color pigment. The idea is that you can have waxes that will work as a remedy for paint defects as well as bringing out a lovely gloss finish. It makes sense on paper, but the reality is different according to many professional detailers. They are quick to point out that the idea of pigmented wax is meaningless when you consider that the design of modern paintjobs now involved a transparent (IE colorless) clear coat. This seems to defeat the object for many users.


Conclusion: Protection means Preparation

At the end of it all, the key to an effective paint protection job is to be thorough in preparation. A car needs to be cleaned and detailed thoroughly before any layer of wax, sealant or another coating is applied. The success of the process depends on the firm bond created between your coating product and your paint’s clear coat. Such a bond requires a clean surface from which all contaminants have been removed.


To that end, follow instructions on your individual products carefully, and look to great (and free) online resources like YouTube for further advice and application tips. The world of information is out there, and coating your car in protective layers is now easier than ever.

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