Protecting a car’s paint

 

“They sure do have a lot of products!”

Anonymous, 2011

There are hundreds of products available to protect a car’s paint…in the detailing world we generally refer to these as “Last Step Products” or “Last Stage Products” (LSPs). LSPs (commonly a wax or sealant) are so called because they are the last product that you apply to a car’s paint to protect it from the elements (industrial fallout, acid rain, bird droppings, bugs, tar, etc.). An LSP is actually a ‘sacrificial barrier’…it ‘sacrifices’ itself to protect the paint.

Before discussing the types of LSPs you may come across, let’s briefly discuss why there are so many. In some sense one can attribute the plethora of products to the fact that companies want to make money…any new product that enters the marketplace and proposes something ‘new’ and/or ‘novel’ will sell. Of course, one has to also keep in mind the fact that companies like to keep their existing product lines as well as introduce new product lines – this is important for keeping loyal customers and attracting new customers. Finally, there are improvements in technology…although not as many as companies would like you to believe. Regardless of the number of LSPs available, I can assure you that there is no ‘magic’ LSP that will offer a car’s paint ultimate protection (contrary to what your last car salesman told you!). To keep a car look pristine, the paint needs to be properly prepared, protected, and maintained. I can also assure you that choosing an LSP will be frustrating and confusing…and eventually rewarding! In the end, I doubt that you will end up with one LSP but an assortment of LSPs to suit your taste, needs, budget…and hopes!! As you will find, some of them are excellent and some of them are a total waste of money…ahh, the joy of detailing!

Types of LSPs:

If you spend countless hours reading, searching, perusing store shelves, buying products, testing products, etc. you will eventually walk away with some basic, broad (and probably confusing) information. Of the hundreds of LSPs available, you will be able to ‘categorize’ them as waxes, sealants, or hybrids (both a wax and a sealant in the same product). You will further be able to categorize them into ‘types’ such as cleaner waxes, finishing/final waxes, nano-sealants, cleaner sealants, all-in-ones, etc. and then even further into their ‘form’…i.e. paste, liquid, and spray products. And then there are products with different application techniques…wipe-on/wipe-off, wipe-on/haze/wipe-off, wipe-on/cure/wipe-off, wipe-on/walk-away, etc. And then you will find waxes and sealants that are labeled as polishes (even though they’re not), sealants labeled as waxes, finishing creams, glazes, and the list goes on and on. I know…it’s a mess. So, where does one begin?

Factors to consider when choosing an LSP:

Let’s start at the two fundamental reasons why detailers use LSPs…protection and looks. It would be nice to achieve these at a reasonable cost and without too much effort. Therefore, ‘durability’, ‘looks’, ‘cost’, and ‘ease of use’ should drive your decision making. Let’s look at each of these before we look at the technical aspects of the products.

  • Durability: Here I will let out a big ‘sigh’. Each and every product will claim some period of time during which the product will remain durable…but will rarely, if ever, live up to that claim (I will say, however, that Dodo Juice, a company that makes waxes and sealants, is one of the most honest companies when it comes to claims about durability). Expect 2-6 months (and in most cases, less)…that’s it.
  • Looks: Looks are so subjective – what looks good to you may not look good to someone else, and vice versa. You may be able to ‘see’ the difference between waxes, sealants, and a wax/sealant…but other than that, use what looks nice to you.
  • Cost: This is a big one. Are you detailing one car or a thousand cars? LSPs range in price from a few dollars to thousands of dollars. Spending a thousand dollars on a can of wax is not going to make the protection much better than spending tens of dollars. If you have the money and want to spend it then by all means, spend it…just be aware of the fact that it will not offer you much more (if anything) than a product that you can buy for much less.
  • Ease of use: This is another big one. After spending 10-20 hours detailing a car I can assure you that the last thing you will want is to put an LSP on a car that is hard to apply, hard to remove, streaks, sweats, dusts, stains trim, leaves residue, etc.

Product cost is easy to find…when you want to buy a product, the price is usually prominently displayed. Ease of use comes from experience…hopefully you can gain some of that by reading this page and some of the detailing forums found on the Links page. Durability also comes from experience – I can at least provide some general guidelines in what follows. Looks depend on your tastes. In some cases you might want to sacrifice looks in place of durability, and vice versa. In what follows, we will discuss the various types of LSPs and address some of these factors throughout our discussion.

Waxes, Sealants, Hybrids, All-In-Ones (AIO), and Nano-coatings

A small assortment of waxes, sealants, hybrids, and AIOs

Waxes

Waxes are familiar to most car enthusiasts. I remember as a child that “a good coat of wax” was all my father needed to assure his car was ready for winter. Waxes have been used to protect paint finishes for over one hundred years! But just to be clear, let’s begin by ‘defining’ what we mean by a ‘wax’ – and what the detailing community should mean when they talk about a ‘wax’ (unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an accepted technical definition and this has created a great deal of confusion).

If you look up the word ‘wax’ in various dictionaries you will get definitions that more or less state:

“…a natural, oily or greasy heat-sensitive substance consisting of hydrocarbons, esters of long chain fatty alcohols, and fatty acids that is solid at ordinary temperatures, insoluble in water, and soluble in non-polar organic solvents.”

Whoa, that’s a bit of a mouthful but, in essence, does indeed capture what a wax is. Important for us is the fact that a ‘wax’ as defined above is a natural product…and this is what differentiates a ‘wax’ from a ‘sealant’ or a ‘nano-coating’ or an ‘AIO’ (which are synthetic (man-made) products). In all of our discussions, and those you will find in the detailing community, a ‘wax’ should refer to a naturally-occurring product. Unfortunately, marketing of products has led the community to call waxes by other names and sealants by other names – and this is simply frustrating.

     Types of waxes used in the protection of automobiles:

Beeswax, paraffin, carnauba, jojoba, montan, and candellela are some of the more common naturally occurring waxes you will come across in detailing circles. The most popular car wax, by far, is carnauba wax. Carnauba wax, however, is not the end all be all wax…and the other waxes are often combined with carnauba to achieve lower cost, greater durability, enhanced looks, and ease of use (wax manufacturers will often lead you to believe that their product is 100% carnauba – and this is false advertising at its best (put dodo link)).

I am not going to describe the differences between the naturally occurring waxes…what’s more important to a detailer is what the wax is going to ‘offer’ them…and, ultimately, the paint.

     Using Car Wax

Should you use car wax? That’s completely up to you and what you like. I will state upfront that, independent of the strengths and weaknesses of car wax, ‘waxing’ a car is not that simple. Putting the wax on should be a piece of cake…putting it on thinly and uniformly, however, isn’t. In addition, getting the wax off is another issue…and getting the car to look perfect is even a bigger issue (by the way, I am anal when it comes to detailing and I am rarely satisfied with how a waxed car looks – especially a black car!). Waxes used for cars actually contain wax, solvents, oils, water, petroleum distillates, etc. – this is because natural wax is not liquid at room temperature and in order to make wax suitable for use, manufacturers have to add solvents to convert the wax into a different form. These additional ingredients make car waxes inherently sensitive to ‘climate’ – humidity and heat alter how a car wax cures…and what works for one person doesn’t often work for another due to differences in climate. A lot of discussion on various forums revolves around the issue of how to wax a car to avoid ‘virtual holograms’ or ‘wax sweating’ or ‘smearing’ or ‘hazing’. All of these arise from a car wax not being fully cured prior to removal. Car waxes, especially higher-end carnauba-based waxes, contain a lot of oils and these oils tend to remain on the surface of the paint for a long time. In addition, if not applied thinly and uniformly, you will end up with areas with higher oil content that will look like wet spots. So…while I fully understand that people like the ‘look’ of a waxed car, I have to side with Sal Zaino (the owner of Zaino Bros) when he states that there really isn’t a need for car waxes when it comes to protecting a car’s paint…sealants are often the clear winner. Even with that said, let’s look at the strengths and weaknesses of car wax and then we will discuss sealants, nano-coatings, hybrids, and AIOs.

     Strengths:

  • This may sound silly…but there is probably nothing better than the smell of a car wax…especially one with high carnauba content. There is something pleasing about waking up on a Saturday morning, parking your car in the shade, and spending a couple of hours ‘waxing’ your car. Waxing a car is like an old pastime – simply something that is enjoyed.
  • A waxed car often has a deep, glowing look. The look is subtle but after you have protected enough cars you will often be able to see the difference between a waxed car and a car protected with sealant.
  • That’s it…those are the strengths…car wax smells good and gives your car a ‘glow’ with a lot of paint ‘depth’…oh, and it does offer some protection and can be cheap…but, other than that, there isn’t really much more that a straight car wax will offer you.

     Weaknesses:

  • Car waxes can be difficult to apply uniformly and thinly.
  • Car wax can be hard to remove.
  • Car wax often streaks, hazes, sweats, and/or leaves virtual holograms.
  • Lower-end car waxes tend to leave white residue.
  • Car waxes are not as durable as sealants, hybrids, nano-coatings or some AIOs.

[By the way, virtual holograms are ‘holograms’ that appear on a paint’s surface after waxing – they are called ‘virtual’ because they are a result of the wax and not ‘real’ holograms imparted into the paint due to physical marring of the surface.]

Sealants

A sealant, at least in detailing, refers to a synthetic (man-made) chemical compound – it is not naturally occurring like a wax. For most people, the word ‘sealant’ conjures up images of something being ‘permanent’. Well, in the detailing world, car sealants are not permanent…they are just man-made. If you have two products side by side on a store shelf and one is labeled ‘sealant’ and the other ‘wax’, I can assure you that the ‘wax’ product will sell more than the ‘sealant’ product (as this is what most people feel more comfortable with). For that exact reason, manufacturers often will label a true ‘sealant’ as a ‘wax’ [e.g. Meguiar’s NXT Tech Wax (although labeled a wax, it is actually a sealant)]! But, be careful, sealants also come under the guise as ‘polish’ [e.g. Zaino Z2 Polish (although called a polish, it is actually a sealant)]! A true ‘polish’ is used to remove the appearance of defects from paint…so, don’t confuse the two! It often takes a bit of digging into what a product consists of in order to determine whether it is a sealant, a wax, a hybrid, etc…manufacturers should do all they can to help avoid confusion and not add to it!

Whew, now that I got that off my chest…I love sealants – they are easy to put on (although they still need to be put on thinly and uniformly), they are easy to take off, they last long, look nice (but perhaps a bit shiny or plastic looking), and cost about the same as a wax. So, why not simply use a sealant instead of a wax? Got me!

So how does a sealant offer its protection? And why is it different from a wax? Sealants mainly contain polymers, solvents, oils, petroleum distillates, gloss additives, etc. Like car waxes, many car sealant formulations are highly proprietary.  You will find, however, that polymers are often the main ingredient in car sealant formulations.  Polymers are simply long chains of repeating structural units (molecules) held together by covalent chemical bonds…when applied to a car’s paint, the molecules will ‘crosslink’ to one another thereby increasing the strength of the sealant AND form a covalent bond to the paint (imagine atoms linked together like a chain-link fence). This is the reason why car sealants are more durable than car waxes…car sealants actually bond to paint whereas car waxes ‘sit’ on paint. This is also the reason why you can ‘layer’ a sealant with a wax but not layer a wax with a sealant…a wax will ‘sit’ on top of sealant much like it ‘sits’ on top of paint but a sealant can’t bond to wax like it bonds to paint. Sealant bonding to paint provides ‘more permanent’ protection than a car wax will provide but neither offers permanent protection.

Oh, by the way, before we move on, I should state the cons of using a sealant…shouldn’t I? There aren’t actually too many…let’s see, they smell like chemicals, on rare occasions (if not applied in a thin. uniform layer) they may streak, and some people don’t like the ‘shiny’ look. But that’s really it. Am I trying to sway you one way or the other? Not really. From my many years of detailing, and in my experience, car sealants offer more to ‘me’ than car waxes do. But in the end, you have to choose what works for you and what you like!!

Hybrids

A hybrid product contains both a sealant and a wax – it is a mixture of synthetic and naturally occurring chemical compounds in the same product. The idea of a hybrid is that it gives the best of both worlds – you get the warm glow of a wax and the durability of a sealant. This is a personal choice…some people like hybrid products, some can’t stand them!

Cleaner waxes/sealants/hybrids (or All-In-Ones)

A cleaner wax/sealant/hybrid is a wax, sealant, or hybrid product that also contains chemical cleaners and sometimes mild polishing abrasives…in the detailing world these are referred to as all-in-ones (AIOs). I will be honest…I am not a huge fan of cleaner waxes/sealants/hybrids as they have no place in my arsenal of products. BUT there are times when an AIO will allow you to clean, polish, and protect a car all in one step. And, there are some very good AIO products on the market. The reason why I don’t care for AIOs is because I am convinced they don’t perform as well as dedicated cleaners, polishes, and LSPs…they are a cost-effective way to achieve an ‘ok’ look but will not achieve the ‘best’ look, ‘best’ preparation, or ‘best’ protection of the paint.

Nano-coatings

Nano-coatings are fairly new to the detailing world. It seems that everyone wants ‘permanent’ protection and that’s what nano-coatings portend to offer. Purchasing some nano-coatings is actually difficult as some manufacturer will only sell them to ‘professionals’. This is because they are, in some cases, extremely hard to apply – and the manufacturer does not want to be blamed when the product fails and/or doesn’t look good. Will they survive in the detailing world? I Imagine they will but probably not so much among enthusiasts or the casual user. Why? Because people that like to detail cars actually ‘like’ to detail…if you put a more permanent product on the car then there is not much else to do but wash it. Also, the products are fairly expensive. But, more importantly, they don’t offer ‘permanent’ protection. If the clearcoat suffers from exposure to the elements, I can assure you that a nano-coating will. In the end, think of a nano-coating as a car sealant on steroids. They are expensive and challenging to apply correctly and, yes, they offer more protection but they do take away the ‘fun’ of detailing unless you are a professional and want to offer your customers the absolute best. If you want to try a coating you can look to Carpro, Optimum, C.A.R. Products, or some of the coatings on Autogeeks website.

Paste, liquid, or spray?

Along with the hundreds of waxes, sealants, hybrids, AIOs, and nano-coatings on the market you will undoubtedly notice that these products often come in different forms…pastes, liquids, and/or sprays. Which one should you use? In a lot of ways, this is based on preference and what you are trying to achieve and how you are applying the product. Some car waxes are designed to be applied by bare hand. Some paste car waxes are really hard and will soften with the warmth of your hand. Applying car wax by hand actually wastes a lot of product…but if that’s what you enjoy, by all means, apply the wax with your bare hand. In general, however, it seems that pastes last longer than liquids and liquids last longer than sprays. Liquids are really nice when you are using a buffer to apply the product. Sprays are really nice when you just want to maintain the look of a car…sprays are often called ‘booster’ products as they portend to boost the protection that is already on the paint and extend the life of the LSP that you already applied. Sprays are the quickest and easiest to use but generally offer the least amount of protection. Pastes take the longest to apply and are harder to apply than the other forms but tend to be more durable. Sooo…again, we are left with trade-offs. What you use depends on what you are trying to achieve and the time you have. I rarely use paste products…this is because I almost always apply LSPs using a buffer – that seems to be the only way I can achieve a thin, uniform application and waste as little product as possible (this also reduces wear and tear on my body). But there are also the times when I just feel like using a spray product…spray products are just too easy and quick so I generally will use a spray product after every wash. There are some spray products that are awesome…just awesome…and will leave durable protection with good looks. I will discuss some of these below.

Choosing an LSP

After all I said above, you are left with the choice of which LSP to use? Well, that depends on a number of important factors and what you are trying to achieve. You should choose an LSP that will allow you meet as many factors as possible…looks, durability, cost, ease of use. The best LSP is one that meets all factors but you will have to compromise. You may want durability over looks…you may want to spend as little money as possible…you may want the easiest product to apply. Choosing an LSP is not that easy! I would suggest that you purchase a few and see which ones you like the best…if you are like me, you will quickly go overboard and purchase way too many products…but what you will find is that you often use the same ones. What I noticed early on was that while I had about 7 different paste products on my shelf, I never used them. I also noticed that I use spray products a lot. I also noticed that I always reach for a sealant. So, for me, just my natural tendencies helped to narrow down which LSPs to use. Of course, that’s after many years and hundreds of dollars spent…sigh.

LSP Application

This is one area that I will leave up to the manufacturer. There are too many products and too many methods of application to list them all here. What I will say is that if you follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how to apply the product you are using…then it will often work as designed. I will discuss some of my favorite products below and tell you how they are applied, but I can’t do more than that without sticking my foot in my mouth.

Product Recommendations

OK, I will succumb to the question most often asked, “What do you use?” I generally don’t like to recommend products because I then find that the person using them doesn’t get the same results as I do. But I do know that this is the most oft asked question so I will answer it.

     Sealants

The liquid sealant that I use the most is Menzerna Power Lock. It is just an extremely easy sealant to apply (I use a buffer with this product), it leaves an amazing look, it is very easy to remove, it offers decent protection, and it isn’t that expensive. I also use Menzerna polishes…so one could argue that I am a bit partial to Menzerna. The spray sealant that I use the most is Optimum Polymer Technologies Opti-Seal. This is an amazing product – it is clear like water, applies super easy, and a whole car takes about 5-10 minutes. Those are my two favorite sealants. I have others and use others…but those are the two I use the most. And, of course, I won’t leave out Zaino. Zaino Z8 is a great sealant spray and Z2 and Z5 are great liquid sealants (although labeled as polishes).

     Waxes

Well, I don’t use any at the moment. I have used products from all the major manufacturers…I really like Dodo Juice products but you can also find nice waxes from Meguiars, Mothers, etc.

     Hybrids

It often difficult to tell if a manufacturer has added wax to a sealant product…they don’t often advertise this. For example, one of the most durable LSPs on the market is a product made by Collinite called Collinite Insulator Wax. When asked for the most durable wax, people in the detailing world will often refer to Collinite. BUT, Collinite Insulator Wax is actually a hybrid product. Another example…Optimum Polymer Technologies has a very nice Spray Wax. Again, this is a hybrid product. Some manufacturers advertise their waxes as having a wax plus a polymer. What they are generally saying is that the product is a hybrid. So what do I use? I have used Collinite in the past – it is a very nice product. I have used Optimum Spray Wax – it also a very nice product. But in general I don’t use hybrids…although I use them more than waxes (which I don’t use at all).

     AIOs

I don’t use any AIOs at the moment. The only AIO that I have used is the one by Zaino. But, when people ask on the various forums for a recommended AIO the one most often recommended seems to be the product by Klasse.

     Nano-coatings

Carpro, Optimum, Pinnacle Black Label, C.A.R. Products, GTechniq, 22ple…etc.

     Recommendations…Summary

  • Sealants: Optimum Opti-Seal; Menzerna Power Lock Polymer Sealant; Zaino Z5, Z2, Z8; Meguiars #21, Juice Boost from Garry Dean’s line of products
  • Waxes: Any from Dodo Juice, Meguiars Carnauba, Poorboy’s Natty Blue, Pinnacle Souveran Liquid Wax
  • Hybrids: Collinite Insulator Wax #845, Optimum Spray Wax

Tips/Comments

  • Marketing hype has led many companies to advertise their waxes as having “100% carnauba”. Well…be careful with this statement…what it means is that of the wax contained in the product, it is 100% carnauba…it does not mean that the wax container is 100% carnauba wax. Proof? Well, 100% carnauba wax is flaky and hard…see the picture below and this great discussion by Dodo Juice.

100% carnauba wax – flaky and hard. This is not something you want to put on a car in its natural form!