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Detailing Guides--4 Choosing correct Sealant or Wax

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  • Detailing Guides--4 Choosing correct Sealant or Wax


    Once cleaned and polished, painted surfaces require protection against the elements in order to preserve the long-term quality of the finish. Protection comes in the form of natural carnuba waxes, synthetic sealants, and products that combine the two. Your choice of protection (commonly referred to as last step product) can dramatically affect the appearance of your car, as last step products typically offer varying degrees of gloss, reflectivity, slickness and durability. In this guide, we will define protection and how to measure it, describe different types of last step product and show how they can affect the appearance of paint, and finally demonstrate how to apply last step products.

    What is protection? Protection may be defined as an invisible barrier that sits on the surface of your paint and protects it against the elements. By elements, we mean water (which is the most powerful natural solvent on the planet), UV radiation, dust and grime, industrial fallout, tree sap, bug remains, bird droppings, etc. Any protection you apply to your paint, whether it be a wax or a sealant, or even a combination of the two, is subject to chemical and physical erosion by the elements. As such, it gets gradually worn away over time, necessitating reapplication if a high level of protection is to be maintained. Some forms of protection, i.e. carnuba waxes, also naturally evaporate from painted surfaces, meaning they lose their ability to protect more rapidly than other types of last step product.

    How do we measure or test how well our paint is protected? All types of protection create an invisible surface layer on paint that repels water and contaminants. This hydrophobic or water hating layer causes water droplets to bead on the surface, as shown in the images below. A high level of protection increases the surface tension on the beads, making them taller. The image below right is an extreme example of this - you can easily see that the underlying paint seems to be repelling the water droplets. Alongside beading, another measure of protection is slickness. Slickness refers to the degree to which water droplets slide off of painted surfaces under gravity, leaving behind no trace. If your car is well protected, you should expect to see tall beads on horizontal surfaces and very little water clinging to vertical surfaces when it rains.

    As we mentioned at the outset, last step products come in three different forms and offer varying degrees of gloss, reflectivity, slickness and durability. If you are new to detailing and have visited any of the forums we recommend on our links page, you may have been baffled by the meaning of terms such as glow, depth, clarity, wetness, etc, in discussions about last step products. In addition, you may be feeling overwhelmed by the broad choice of last step products on offer in our store. In the following section, we will define what these terms mean, and attempt to show you how your choice of last step product can dramatically affect the appearance of your paint - we hope that this information will enable you to choose suitable products and achieve the look you desire.

    When we first look at a car, the first thing we probably all notice is the colour of the paint. Colour is a subjective thing, as we all see colours differently, but one thing we can often agree on is how rich a colour looks. Richness affects how thick the paint looks, and thus the degree to which it appears to stand out from the underlying surfaces. Richness also affects our perception of whether paint appears to be warm or cold. The next thing we might notice about a car is how glossy the paint is. Glossiness is often referred to as wetness, because high gloss finishes often look like they have a thin sheet of water lying on them, making them highly reflective, like the surface of a mill pond on a bright winter's day. Less glossy finishes tend to have more of a diffuse glow, which enhances our perception of colour richness, but reduces the reflectivity of the paint. On the subject of reflections, two terms with related meanings are depth and clarity. Both refer to the extent to which you can see into reflections in the car, in terms of distance (depth) and colour (clarity). If we look at the two images below, we can see what all of these terms mean in reality. In the image on the left, we can see that the paint appears to be richer and wetter looking (i.e. glossier) than in the image on the right. However, in the image on the right, the paint appears to be shinier, and we can see much further into the reflections than in the image on the left. The differences between these images reflect the choice of last step product - a wax was used in the image on the left, while a sealant was used in the image on the right. We will now examine the differences between waxes and sealants more closely, showing further examples of how they affect the appearance of paint.

    Natural carnuba wax is derived from a tree native to Brazil, and is nature's hardest, purest and most transparent wax. Many show car owners and car care enthusiasts (we'll call them the purists) have long argued that natural carnuba wax produces a richer, darker, glossier finish than other types of last step product, particularly when used on darker coloured cars. A coat of carnuba wax always beads water nicely, and can help to mask minor defects in your paint. However, the durability of carnuba wax is quite low, as it evaporates in addition to being physically and chemically eroded by the elements. Under our climate in the UK, a coat of carnuba wax will typically last 30 to 90 days, depending on the season, mileage you do and whether or not you garage your car overnight.

    How do natural carnuba waxes affect the appearance of paint? We can answer this question by looking at the images below. Firstly, carnuba wax produces an extremely glossy finish, which in turn enhances the richness of the underlying paint - just look at how rich the red paint on the Honda Integra appears to be. A high degree of surface gloss also equates to a high degree of wetness, which is again perfectly exemplified by the red paint on the Integra. However, despite the gloss, if you look into the reflections in the red paint you soon realise that there is only limited depth, i.e. you can't see far into them, and there is little clarity. On lighter coloured cars where surface gloss shows up less, this lack of depth tends to result in the paint appearing to glow, as it does in the images of our silver Seat Leon.

    In contrast to carnuba wax, synthetic sealants are the product of modern technology, and comprise either polymer-based formulas or acrylic resins. Many car care enthusiasts (we'll call them the realists) have long argued that synthetic sealants are superior to other types of last step product, as they produce an ultra slick finish that is extremely durable. Under our climate in the UK, a coat of synthetic sealant will typically last 6 to 9 months, depending on the mileage you do and whether or not you garage your car overnight. However, the finish produced by sealants is typically much less glossy than that produced by carnuba wax, and can actually highlight defects rather than mask them.

    How do synthetic sealants affect the appearance of paint? We can answer this question by looking at the images below. Firstly, synthetic sealants typically produce an extremely shiny finish, which does little to enhance the richness of the paint. Consequently, it is not unusual for paint to look cold and sterile after having a coat of sealant applied. However, what is lost in terms of gloss and warmth is gained in terms of depth and clarity in the reflections. Just look at the reflections in the images below - they have massive depth (i.e. you can see a long way into them) and excellent clarity (colour definition). Carnuba waxes are incapable of producing such results.

    In recent years, a number of last step products have been released onto the car care market that comprise advanced blends of carnuba waxes and synthetic sealants. These products are typically marketed as offering the glossiness and warmth associated with traditional carnuba waxes and the depth and durability associated with synthetic sealants. In our experience, these claims are not far off the mark, and such products have certainly made it easier to achieve stunning results on lighter coloured cars. This is because lighter colours tend to mask gloss and limit reflectivity, but by using a blended product you can bring out depth whilst enhancing the wetness of the paint, as can be seen in the images of the Lotus Elise shown below.

    The same effect can often be achieved by layering carnuba wax over a synthetic sealant. The thinking here is that the sealant forms a highly durable base coat and the wax endows the finish with glossiness and warmth. In our experience this works well, but you have to be careful when it comes to layering products. Generally speaking, carnuba wax can be applied over amino-functional and acrylic resins without any problem, but problems can arise when it comes to layering carnuba wax over polymer-based sealants. In some cases, this may lead to the finish becoming cloudy, necessitating the complete removal of all wax and sealant layers before starting over again. Under no circumstances should a synthetic sealant be layered over a carnuba wax. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, sealants will not bond effectively to carnuba wax, meaning that they will be easily eroded away. Secondly, if you layer a sealant over a wax, the wax will not be able to evaporate freely. In time, this may cause your finish to become cloudy and dull. If you are unsure about what can and can't be layered in terms of waxes and sealants, please contact us and we will be happy to advise you accordingly.

    So far we have discussed how carnuba wax and synthetic sealants affect the appearance of paint mainly in terms of gloss, richness and reflectivity. However, some paint finishes have a complicating factor, namely metallic or pearlescent flakes. Under dull conditions, the flake may be hardly noticeable, but when the sun comes out, the flake can be made to explode out of the paint… providing you use the right products. In our experience, carnuba wax tends to mute metallic and pearlescent flakes, limiting the sparkle on sunny days. It is far better to use a pure sealant on such finishes, and restrict yourself to a top coat of a good quality carnuba wax only once you have applied several coats of sealant (or better still leave the wax on the shelf). The same goes for blended last step products - they too tend to mute metallic and pearlescent flakes, and are best avoided.

    When it actually comes to applying wax or sealant protection, the process couldn't be any simpler. All last step products fall into one of two categories; wipe on and wipe off, or spray on and wipe off. However, in each case it pays to read the label on the bottle, as some products are better left to dry to a haze before buffing off, while others give better results if they are removed whilst still wet. It also pays to check whether the product can be applied in full sun (if not work in the shade or undercover), and whether the product is trim safe. By this we mean whether or not it stains plastic and rubber trims - most of the products on offer in our store do not stain trims, but you should always check the label first (carnuba waxes are often bad in this respect, as they tend to leave white stains on trims). If you accidentally stain your trims, you can restore them to as new condition using an all purpose cleaner or a trim restorer.

    The final step in the cleaning process is to pack away all of the tools you have used, making sure everything is clean and ready for the next use. All towels and applicator pads should be washed in a washing machine at a low temperature using a gentle non-biological liquid detergent (avoid soap powders and detergents containing bleach or fabric softeners), before allowing everything to dry out naturally.

    Thanks to Rich at

  • #2

    Please Credit the guys at for all their hard work doing these guides!!


    • #3
      sticky sequencing post