by Dick Coffey
Aircraft owners arent immune to bright and shiny objects, especially airplanes, and especially if shiny airplanes can get that way with minimum elbow grease. But airport ramps are just hell on even the best aircraft paint. If it hasnt oxidized to dust from the sun and airborne chemicals, windblown sand will blast away whats left.
Wax and polish is supposed to provide some protection against paint erosion and fading. There are literally hundreds of wax and polish products, primarily aimed at the automotive market. The choice for aircraft owners is far smaller but there are at least a dozen polishes marketed specifically for aircraft use. Some carry the appropriate price, too, which is to two or three times the price found on the automotive stuff.
Are they worth extra money? And how do these waxes perform in general? What do you need to know to pick one over the another? To a large degree, wax and polish performance is in the eye of the beholder. One mans high gloss is another mans satin. Nonetheless, some waxes are easier to use than others and may hold their sheen longer.
Time was when you could wax and buff an airplane with an old t-shirt and a can of Turtle Wax. Not in the 21st century. Today, microfibers, low-linting cloth and space-age wipes have replaced retired boxer shorts in the cleaning kit. Alternative software includes terrycloth towels and thats what we used for the test that follows. Good quality towels were mentioned by every pro that we talked to and they all reminded us to use one towel to apply the wax and a fresh towel to buff, so thats what we did.
To separate the winners from the losers, we recently bought 13 brands of waxes and polishes and put them to work buffing up the fair-to-middling paint on an older Bonanza. In this report, well examine application issues and offer an assessment on how the waxes look after an initial treatment and, a few months down the road, well see how they held up to a Minnesota winter.
Polish or Wax?
Theres a big difference between polish and wax. Polish is a paint cleaner that uses abrasives and chemicals to remove oxidization, light scratches and environmental deposits such as bird droppings and the dirt and grime that makes the painted surface rough. A wax is simply a protective coating applied to a polished surface.
Wax is a non-abrasive, highly reflective, protective coating and may be a natural product, like Carnauba, or a man-made polymer. Many aircraft products are a combination of polish and a wax or a polymer and others are combinations of a polish-which is what produces the gloss, or shine-and some kind of sealant that protects the surface.
Scott McLain, consultant to the Rolite Company and the director of sales for Lake Country Manufacturing, makers of buffing pads, described the process of producing shine as a three-phase operation that begins with compounding or leveling the painted surface, often with a power buffer, to remove scratches and oxidation.
Achieving a shine is a matter of leveling a surface to the point that light refracts. An oxidized or otherwise rough surface diffuses light, scatters light rays, which makes a surface look dull. So its important to clean or level the painted surface first.
The second phase, according to McLain, is polishing, which refines the leveling process, removes swirls and microscopic scratches.
McLain describes the third phase as sealant, often an ethylene-based polymer sealant that protects the shine achieved by the previous leveling steps. Most of the products we tested are combinations of polish and sealants, which perform the last two phases as described by McLain.
But we also tested cleaner/waxes. Brian Phillips, founder of Aero Cosmetics, which was an airplane cleaning service at one time but now manufacturers Wash Wax All products, said that after 1987, when the EPA shut down airport wash racks, the industry looked for ways to dry-wash airplanes.
The products developed by Aero Cosmetics are aimed at pilots who need to clean the airplane and apply a protective coating without access to plumbing. We use a cleaner that removes the environmental debris and then protects the cleaned surface with a polymer or man-made wax, Phillips told us. He says that as paint ages, it loses its ability to retain oils and that polishing an aircraft eventually removes layers of paint.
Frequent polishing is a cycle that doesnt end, Phillips explains, you abrade the surface and finally wind up with bare rivet heads and dead spots that will never shine.
Cody Fulcher, president of Jetstream Products agrees that a product that cleans and then protects the surface is the best way to keep an aircraft finish fresh. Jetstream Speed Wax is a combination cleaner and carnauba, a natural wax. Carnauba is a hard wax that comes from the leaves of the carnauba tree in Brazil, Phillips said, and we believe a natural wax produces a deeper shine and holds up well against UV and the environment. Fulcher says that the condition of the underlying paint decides how much shine any wax will produce. You cant get a shine if the paint is dead, he said.
Some products include silicones and Teflon and claim additional paint protection. Silicones however, bind with aluminum and make problems for paint shops when the airplane is stripped.
A sealant with Teflon, or polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), is controversial. Some believe Teflon in a polish is just marketing fluff while others claim that Teflon polishes withstand environmental impacts effectively. One of the products we tried, Starbrite Aircraft Polish, contains Teflon with the promise of easier bug and exhaust removal.
There are casual wash/wax products and there are serious polishers. We tested both. The casual products can be considered after-flight touch-up featuring easy application and good protection. Serious polishes are designed to level oxidized/contaminated surfaces and require real effort.
The industry is making it easier for an aircraft owner to walk through the steps; Arrow Magnolia, for example, produces a three-bottle line: a cleaner, a rinse and a polish; Aero Shells Flight Jacket series includes a cleaner, a polish and windshield care. Most, like Starbrite, Eagle One and Aero Cosmetics, produce a cleaner, a polish and a wax in one bottle.
Consumers want brilliant results for the least effort and lowest price. Some pilots are attracted to automotive waxes and polishes where marketing departments are just as likely to call their magic potions a polish when in fact theyre a wax or vice versa. Retail shelves and catalogs are filled with hundreds of products that promise a shine and everlasting protection for little effort. The key is to read the directions on the can or bottle carefully to find out if youre buying a wax or a polish.
The good news is that aviation polishes and waxes are often designed by pilots who are in the cleaning industry and understand aircraft metals, lacquer and urethane paints. Aviation products may be more expensive than automotive waxes and polishes, but are at least compatible with aircraft surfaces.
We selected 13 commonly used exterior care products, some advertised as waxes, some as polishes, most advertised to be polish with sealants. We washed the test aircraft, read the directions and applied the product.
We made a map of where we applied the wax/polish on the wing with the intention of exposing the airplane to normal use for six months after which we would report on the durability of the application. All of the products were advertised to provide shine and paint protection.
Arrow Magnolia Poly-Glide
Poly-Glide is a polish that comes in one-gallon bottles-anticipating fleet applications-and is one of a suite of three aircraft care products (a cleaner, a wash and a polish) made by Arrow-Magnolia. Poly-Glide has become an industry standard for fleet wash and polish operations and its billed as a simple-to-use polish to protect an aircrafts exterior finish and reduce drag.
We found application easy once we transferred some of the product to a spray bottle and wiping the resultant haze required the lightest rub. Because Poly-Glide is a polish, you will find some paint residue in the cloth. The results look and feel clean and the product produced a soft shine, which for $5 a quart is an economical way to protect an airplane, in our estimation.
Eagle One calls their product a wax and asks that you apply it to a wet surface after washing the airplane. The product is a spray and we found it easy to apply evenly, the water sheeted as advertised and after wiping with a terrycloth towel the finish was brilliantly shiny. Because Wax-As-U- Dry is a wax and not a polish, you wont pick up paint in the towel and the resultant shine depends on the health of the paint. A lot of products like this have been sitting on a shelf for a while so be sure to shake the contents well. As with any wax or polish, spray a light coating rather than a flood of product. A thin coat of wax yields a better shine.
Aeroshell Flight Jacket
The Flight Jacket series has just arrived on the market this past year and includes a cleaner, a polish and a windshield care product. We used the Flight Jacket polish and applied it evenly across a small area (a six-inch circle for starters) and used a firm overlapping motion during application, as directed. A haze quickly appeared and we buffed.
Since this product is a polish, we noted a slight paint residue on the applicator. The resultant shine was not remarkable, but we found that minute scratches, oxidation and stains produced by water spots and bugs removed easily.
Flight Jacket Polish costs about a dollar an ounce so its pretty expensive, as are most aircraft polishes. Generally, polishes arent touch-up products, but are intended as paint rejuvenators and surface levelers. They will require a day of hard labor to polish 400-square feet of aircraft surface.
Starbrite is a cleaner and a polish that has been around for a while and has a good following. Our hangar neighbor has used it because it produces a good shine for about 50-cents an ounce. The directions informed us to rub the compound while the polish was still damp and it took additional rubbing to remove the haze.
The polished surface was moderately slippery and quite glossy. Starbrite contains no wax and is recommended by the manufacturer for use on windows and windshields as well as painted surfaces. The product contains Teflon, which is supposed to aid future removal of bugs, fuel and exhaust stains.
We like the one-step and multi-purpose utility of Starbrite and because its not a wax, we would expect the product to stand up well in hot weather, when waxes tend to soften and attract dirt.
Rolite Red Baron Formula
Red Baron is a wax-free polyethylene polymer that promises long-lasting protection. The Red Baron formula is a polish that removes fine scratches and light oxidation and would follow an application of Rolite Supra 90 compound during a complete surface restoration, but might otherwise serve as a surface touch-up.
The product applied easily with a damp cloth, took a bit of elbow grease to buff, but produced a brilliant shine. Polishes, like the Red Baron Formula, are available and useful as standalone products but may actually be one of a series of compounds designed for intense restoration.
Astroshield is not a wax but a glaze and polishing treatment. Because its a glaze, Astro Shield is designed for non-porous surfaces, which means you ought to remove any wax, stains or badly oxidized paint before you use the product. A single application is fine, but the product may be applied in two coats (wait four hours for the first coat to cure) for optimum results.
We applied one coat and the resultant haze was easily wiped away, which left a surface that was moderately shiny. Astroshield can be applied to a large area before buffing. The point of a glaze is to create a thin film of additional protection, which the company says will last for six months.
Aero Gloss is a well regarded aircraft surface restorer used by the airline industry that doesnt claim to be a polish or a sealant, but performs in a similar way. It removes bugs, fuel stains and dirt quite well and a thin application covers a lot of surface.
You have the option to apply the compound and leave the slight haze or buff the surface to achieve a modest glow. This stuff is obviously a cleaner and surface protector and not a shine producer, but we liked the way it worked and the feel of the surface after application.
Wash Wax All
We have used Wash Wax All Heavy (now called degreaser) as a cleaner under the airplane and liked its cleaning ability and light waxing behavior. Wash Wax All Regular is a topside cleaner/protector treatment that quickly rids the surface of light dirt, environmental film and bugs while coating the paint with a heavier dose of wax.
This do-everything product can be used daily without a waxy build-up-its a man-made wax, a polymer-to remove bugs and dirt on wet or dry surfaces and protect against daily accumulations of dirt, fuel and bugs. The product is easy to spray on and wipe off and it leaves a clean-looking glow, if not a shine.
This is a do-it-all polish, shine and surface protector in an aerosol can designed for vehicles, boats, bikes and airplanes. The product applies easily on surfaces where the can is held vertically, and we wiped immediately as directed. A remarkable shine and a slippery feeling resulted. There was slight paint residue on the terry towel, a clue that the polish was working.
The key to effective aerosol applications is to spray a small amount of product over a limited area and overlap the next spray. Since spray application is so effortless, its easy to spray too much product, which will result in streaking or dull areas that need heavy rubbing to shine.
This is the kind of polish that showroom people use to perk up dull or fingerprinted surfaces so durability may not be a strong point.
Dri WashN Guard
Another popular do-everything dry wash thats advertised to clean, polish, and protect with a polymer ingredient called Poly Guard-3. There is no Teflon or silicon in the product; it applied easily and produced an average shine. Be sure the surface youre treating is dry. This product wont cut heavy layers of bugs on the leading edge of the wing.
The directions suggest you can re-apply in 24 hours for an unbelievable shine. We tried Dri WashN Guard on an unwashed section of airplane and the product removed dirt and fresh fuel stains. We couldnt get it to remove dried bugs, however. This is another product where a light coat of product is important to a rich shine.
We applied too much polish initially and had to work that spot for a while to even out the appearance. The company suggests working a 2 to 3 square-foot area. The product comes with an annoying spray button that plugs up-invert the bottle and spray to clean it -but otherwise the application was trouble free.
This is another space-age formulation that defies classic distinctions and isnt the easiest to apply. But it produced brilliant surface; the best shine of the bunch for about a dollar an ounce. The section of wing where we applied Top Gun contrasts remarkably with applications on either side. The paint appears cleaner.
We noted paint pick-up on the applicator, which suggests a strong polish that really removes oxidized paint and apparently levels the surface well, which enables the protective coating to produce a brilliant gloss.
Application is simple if a small amount of product is squirted on a terry towel, applied to a small working area and rubbed in small circles until the haze disappears. Top Gun promises good protection from future bug collisions, UV light, routine ramp dirt and it may be used on aircraft glass.
Race Glaze Polish Sealant
Billed as a cleaner, a polish and sealant, Race Glaze dabs on smoothly, dries quickly and buffs to a nice but not spectacular shine without much rubbing. A poly acrylic coating promises protection from the sun, wind and ramp debris and its polish did remove light fuel stains, watermarks and bug remains.
Raze Glaze is not a wax and therefore can be reapplied frequently for a deeper gloss without yellowing. Although Race Glaze is a cleaner, the airplane should be washed first and dried and the product applied with a slightly dampened applicator or towel.
Jetstream Speed Wax
Jetstreams Speed Wax is the only carnauba wax product in the group and you can actually feel the difference as you apply it. Application is easy with a spray that controls the amount of product applied. As a natural wax, Jetstream buffs into a deep, rich shine, but not glossy like the man-made glazes and acrylics.
In fact, the Speed Wax application and results reminded us of hard wax applications of former times. Jetstream Speed Wax is a good example of a product that will disappoint if you dont read the directions. You cant wait for this stuff to haze. Wipe right after application and do small sections at a time (1-foot square will keep you busy). A decent shine results and a hard carnauba finish, which advocates of natural wax suggest is long lasting in intense environments.
Turtle Wax Super Hard Shell
We snuck an automotive wax into the mix at the last moment, because it has been our wax of choice over the years and it has always performed and shined, if modestly, and if for only a few months of exposure to sun, rain and ramp grime.
As usual, we applied a thin coating of paste wax to a freshly cleaned wing surface, waited for it to dry and haze and then using a clean towel (something we didnt do in the past) we buffed the surface and got a shine. The shine and the slippery surface compares well to most of the aviation products we used, but the depth of color and the squeaky clean aspect achieved with aviation products was missing. Automotive waxes are designed to finish contemporary clear coatings and not aircraft lacquers and urethane paints, so they may be a bit brutal on softer paint.
Only a couple of these popular products actually advertise that theyre an aircraft wax. Most are billed as polishes, sealants and glazes, although all of the products produced a shine of sorts. That said, these products are not pitched as shine producers, but as protection against the environment, UV and dust, dirt and bird droppings. Overall, we thought they largely worked as advertised. In a future article, well summarize how these products held up to the weather.
We found one standout. Top Gun produced the best gloss by far, in our view, as judged by the method shown in the photos (see sidebar). In general, in selecting one of these products, we think a pilot ought think through the objective. If a spectacular shine is desired and the aircraft has good paint, any carnauba automotive wax will do the job. If the paint is good, but oxidized-feels gritty, looks dusty-then a polish is necessary.
If you do this yourself instead of farming it out to a shop with electric buffers and a lot of experience to bear, we would recommend any of these products: Rolite, Astroshield, Aero Gloss, Top Gun or Race Glaze.
Read the directions carefully, work small, blending each with the other before moving on. Polishing, even with these space-age products, is work. Obviously, polish in the shade, make sure the aluminum is cool to the touch and get a fat supply of terry towels- youll use a dozen, easily.
Aero Cosmetics Brian Phillips told us that a terry towel that feels smooth enough to wash your face is okay for an airplane surface. When you wash terry towels, dont use fabric softeners or anti-static cloth in the dryer-both contain sizings that can scratch aircraft paint.
If you have a decent shine and you want to maintain it without water washing, take a few minutes after a flight and apply Eagle One Wax As-U-Dry, Wash Wax All or Protect All, or Dri Wash N Guard when the airplane is dry.
If the airplane is clean and you want to protect the surface and apply the lightest of waxes for an average shine, use Arrow Magnolia Poly-Glide, Wash Wax All or Jetstream.
For touch-ups after a flight, or a light waxing of leading edges before flight, Jetstream seems to perform well, as does Poly-Glide and Wash Wax All. Cutting through both the grime and the clutter, however, if we were buying just one product it would be Top Gun.
Aeroshell Flight Jacket
Startbrite Aircraft Polish
Sportys Pilot Shop
Red Baron Formula
Super Gloss Ultimate
Aircraft Spruce and Specialty
Wash Wax All
Jetstream Avation Products
-Dick Coffey is editor of The Aviation Consumers sister magazine, IFR Refresher. He owns a Bonanza and is based in Mora, Minnesota.