How to make your PWC look Brand New

There are few things better than a well-cleaned vehicle. Seeing it out on the water or road, glistening in the sun, is something truly beautiful to behold. Doing it yourself makes the experience all the better and brings you closer to the vehicle in the process.

How do you polish a jet ski? You can polish a jet ski in several ways, depending on the material involved. Whether you’re dealing with plastic or gelcoat, there are a few options to get it looking new. The key is to understand your craft and apply persistent effort and patience to its renovation.

With personal watercraft (PWC) this is very much the case. Aquatic craft are some of the hardest vehicles to maintain, and it makes the renovation of these even more important to get right.

So, if you’re looking to spruce up your ride, then here’s some of the available options to get your personal watercraft out on the water and looking great.

Understanding your Personal Watercraft

When it comes to fixing up your personal watercraft the first step is to understand exactly what materials are involved.

Different models of these craft have been outfitted with different materials that make up the hull and outer layers. The primary types of material you will encounter are plastic and gelcoat.

Each of these materials obviously require different methods of repair and renovation. Learning about these helps provide the best level of care to your personal watercraft.

What is Gelcoat?

Let’s start with the more popular gelcoat layer that many PWCs currently utilize.

This is the glossy surface layer that you will likely be familiar with on many of these types of craft. Gelcoat is a modified resin or epoxy that is cured to form crosslinked polymers (source).

Combined with polyester resin and fiberglass this creates the sturdy shell of many personal watercraft.

There’s a lot of fancy words up there but all it means for you now is that there is a thin layer of this shiny, sturdy material placed on top of the base material of your personal watercraft.

Approximately 0.03 inches thick; this outer layer provides a good amount of protection to the craft. From harmful UV to water impacts, this durable material does a lot to shield the inner layers from the environment it will usually be around.

This will of course not be able to protect the craft from all things, and inevitably there will be scratches or cracks that form in the gelcoat through extended use.

These can dampen the beauty of the craft and require some level of restoration to return to new. However, the gelcoat material is a powerful and resilient one and with a bit of effort can be fixed up effectively.

Working with Plastic

Plastic is another possible material you will encounter on the outsides of personal watercraft. As you know, plastic is used in a wide range of things because of its flexibility and durability.

With these sorts of craft the result is no different. Forming a resistant and malleable outer shell, the plastic compounds used are designed to handle the majority of the strain you might experience with its use.

Unlike gelcoat, plastic is a little more susceptible to UV damage and can often experience faded colors and more from the unrelenting sun.

Due to its durability, though, there are ways of restoring this material and bringing it back to its more youthful state. Cracks and tears are harder to fix with plastic and may require replacement of the specific part.

Identifying the Situation

Now that you hopefully understand a bit more about the materials on your personal watercraft, it is time to start examining the restoration project in detail.

By doing this you can gain a scope for the size of the project. It is also a good time to properly decide if you want to handle this project yourself or get a professional to have a look.

First make sure you have a good place to work. You want something out of the sun but in an open enough space.

Mount your personal watercraft on something sturdy like a trailer which will allow you to get a good look at all parts of it. This will also allow for movement to help dry it off in the sun in between steps.

You should start by identifying the scope of the damage you want to repair or restore.

If it is all surface level, then a DIY project should do great. Again, if the damage does go deeper into the craft, and perhaps even affects the mechanics involved, then it may be best to take it to a proper repair place.

Scratches, faded colors, and small cracks in gelcoat are relatively easy to fix up but will require a handful of tools to properly manage.

On top of this the costs of wax, rubbing, and polishing compounds and more should be considered. Another important part of this renovation to consider is the time involved.

When you want your personal watercraft to be back out on the water is useful information to note because these repairs can take quite a while to get through.

Additionally, there is the option of quicker repairs that won’t last as long versus more involved repairs that ideally survive a greater extent of use.

Restoring the Shine

Ever had that experience where you clean something only to find additional nicks and scratches that were previously hidden beneath the dirt?

It almost feels regretful in a way, like it may have been better to have done nothing in the first place. Of course, after you’ve seen those scratches it’s impossible not to see them all the time.

If this is the case and you have a few scratches on your personal watercraft then it’s probably a good time to get those sorted too.

The objective is to get your craft looking brand new. The gelcoat is first up and likely easier to deal with for most.

Give Your PWC a Good Wash

Start with a good wash down. You’ve probably already done this during the identification phase above, but it’s worth mentioning again.

A good microfiber cloth and some soapy water will do just fine here. Marine soap will do best to bring out the shine.

After the wash use another cloth to dry the craft. The objective here is to prime the surface for anything that comes after. I’m also big on using the Master Blaster air dryer.

It filters the incoming air, and has low cool setting as well as a faster fan with heated air. I use it on my daily drivers, our sports cars and our boats. You can also inflate tubes and air mattresses with it.

A friend uses an electric leaf blower for the same work. Only one speed, and it doesn’t filter out dust that can scratch surfaces.

A quick run down with microfiber and then blow out the nooks and crannies with a Master Blaster to prevent streaks and water spots. Besides, who doesn’t like a power tool option.

Now let’s discuss the scratches. If you’re looking to work on your gelcoat then there are probably going to be a few scratches involved.

Most likely these will be faint, shallow scrapes or cracks which can be touched up pretty easily.

Prepare Your PWC for Touch Ups

To start with it’s a good idea to tape off the area you want to work with. This will give you a little more freedom and help protect the rest of the craft. Next you want to determine the depth of the scratches.

Feel the area you’re dealing with carefully; you want to gauge how much gelcoat has been stripped away.

If you can barely feel the scratches you should first try using some rubbing compound. This is essentially abrasive suspended in liquid (source).

This is one of the more essential components to any of these sorts of renovations. Much like sandpaper, the rubbing compound can be a range of grit, from coarse to very fine.

Rubbing Out Small Scratches

With the very small scratches or discolored patches of the gelcoat, using a good rubbing compound should be able to smoothen it out and remove the outermost layer.

Use a very fine grit for this as you don’t want to wear away too much of the gelcoat. The ideal way to apply this compound is with a buffer or drill using a similar extension.

The reason a power tool is very useful here is because the speed of the rotation allows for an even and extensive application.

You are trying to create the smoothest possible surface, and a buffer does this well. For the very faint scratches using a microfiber cloth and some elbow grease should also do a reliable job applying the rubbing compound.

You should notice a result rather immediately, especially if using a buffer. After working out the scratches you will be left with a rather dulled patch of clean gelcoat. Now comes the polish to bring out the shine.

Applying the Polish

This stage is rather straightforward. Once the area of gelcoat has been smoothened out it is just a matter of applying the polish. Here you will see the area begin to return its luster.

Again, a buffer would be preferable, but a good result can be achieved with some persistent rubbing.

If you’re polishing by hand, then use a microfiber cloth and rub the area using small, circular motions.

Apply a good amount of pressure here and work the polishing compound into the area. After a bit of elbow grease, you should notice the area start to shine again.

Gelcoat responds well to a bit of heat, which can be applied with the right amount of friction.

This is why a buffer or rotary polisher is useful. It will allow you to target the necessary areas and work the polish deep into the gelcoat.

If you’re using a very fine polishing compound then it’s advisable to use a rougher buffer pad or cloth (source). This will help with the required friction.

Work in small areas and try and apply an even coat across the whole craft.

This also helps keep the polish from getting too dry before you rub it in properly.

This is probably one of the more satisfying parts of this sort of renovation because you see all your work come together before your eyes.

Wax for Added Protection

Once your personal watercraft is looking good it is a smart idea to add some wax to the finished product.

Wax helps protect the craft from some of the damage it will face during use. Applying a regular coat of wax is probably a good habit to develop, especially if you use your personal watercraft often.

There is also the option of sealants in this regard, which could provide a more long-term protection than wax.

However, these are generally more expensive and not so necessary if you can apply wax at regular intervals.

Additional Gelcoat Damage

We’ve covered the simplest of fixes for a gelcoat restoration. Maybe you have some more extensive scratches on your craft and rubbing compound alone won’t help.

If this is the case, then it’s time to get deeper into the gelcoat. For this you will need to use a sanding tool.

For the most part simple sandpaper should do well. The important thing to remember here is the grit of the paper you’re going to use.

Each type of sandpaper will come with a grit value, the higher the grit the finer the sandpaper.

Depending on the feel of the scratches you will want to go from a coarser grit to a very fine one.

You are essentially trying to do the same thing as with the rubbing compound, only on a deeper level.

The objective is to smooth out the area as much as possible. If the scratch is deep you will also need a gelcoat repair kit to restore the gelcoat you remove with the sandpaper.

For most deeper scratches you can start with a grit of around 600 and work up to 1000 or higher if needed.

Tape off the area to avoid sanding too far, and work in stages to make sure you’re on the right track. Once you’ve smoothened the area you can apply the gelcoat.

Follow the instructions on the gelcoat repair kit and try and get the colors that match your personal watercraft. After the application, allow to dry for the recommended amount of time.

Once the gelcoat has set you can use a very fine grit sandpaper to smooth out any unevenness on the area.

Follow this up with some rubbing compound much like you would for the smaller scratches, and then apply the polish.

This will blend the area in with the rest of the craft and bring out the shine. For more on how to repair scratches in gelcoat check out this article. There are a few more videos in there with specific guides.

Restoring Plastic to New

We’ve covered gelcoat restoration in quite a bit of detail now, but perhaps you are dealing with plastic on your personal watercraft instead.

For this there are some unique differences to the process. Most notable is the use of a heat gun.

Heating things Up

To start with, first clean the area you want to restore. Again, it’s best to use marine related soaps for this sort of thing, but car soaps will do just fine if that’s all you have.

Make sure there are no particulates embedded in the plastic as this will make the next step more complicated.

If you’re experiencing faded plastic on your craft, the best fix is to use a standard heat gun and lightly melt the surface layer (source).

This removes the oxidation layer of the plastic and restores the color from beneath. This can be a time-consuming process and if you don’t have a heat gun then it can be a bit costly to set up.

Whether you rent, buy or borrow a heat gun, the next step is to lightly go over the faded area using a medium heat.

Use your best judgement here, you want to be gentle on the plastic and not damage it any further. The upside here is that the results will be noticeable quickly so you can use this to guide your efforts.

Try and provide an even heat across the whole area, creating a uniform color. Once the plastic has returned most of its color then it’s time to get out the rubbing and polishing compounds again.

Shining up Plastic

The heat will have done most of the work but applying a rubbing and polishing compound really brings out the shine. This step is much the same as the closing steps of a gelcoat repair.

Apply the rubbing compound first, using a fine grit and a microfiber cloth. With this application you can do just fine without a buffer, but you will still need to apply a good amount of pressure.

This will create an even and uniform surface to apply the polish on top.

With the polish, do much the same, rubbing it into the plastic with circular motions and a decent amount of pressure.

There are of course a variety of different types of polish and some will perform better than others but for the most part they will all help bring out the shine.

And there you have it. Hopefully at this stage your personal watercraft is looking good as new.

If there are any other parts of the craft that you want to work with, find out as much as you can about the material involved and go from there.

Seat Cleaning

When cleaning your personal watercraft, you’ll likely want to fix up the seat too. The material used to make these seats is usually a form of vinyl.

This is rather easy to clean and just requires the right sort of cleaning agent to do so. Most vinyl cleaners will work but it is important to read the instructions carefully and follow them properly.

If the damage to the seat is beyond superficial it may be best to get the whole thing reupholstered.

The reality is that these parts of your craft are going to see a good deal of wear and tear. This means that continuous maintenance and care is essential in keeping it looking good.

Personal Watercraft Risks

Now that you’ve restored your personal watercraft and it’s looking better than ever it’s time to talk about preservation.

One of the worst things is working hard on repairs and renovations only to have them ruined by avoidable accidents or careless maintenance.

On top of this there are environmental concerns to be wary of while cleaning your craft.

Things to Avoid

There are several risks to your personal watercraft during use. There are also several ways to reduce these risks.  

Underwater Obstacles

Regardless of where you take your personal watercraft there will be obstacles hidden beneath the water that can cause significant damage.

This can do more than just superficial damage, so it is important to be wary of these risks.

The best way to avoid these sorts of accidents is to ride in areas best suited for marine vehicles.

On top of this, ensure you do not ride your personal watercraft in shallow or murky waters as these hold the most risks.

Essentially, just be careful where you operate your craft and you should be able to avoid significant unnecessary damage.

Water Impacts

One of the most common types of damage is the cracks formed from high water impact.

This can be caused by riding in water that is too choppy or from jumping wakes and waves. At the right speeds water can be as hard as concrete and can cause significant damage to your personal watercraft.

Due to the nature of the sport, this sort of water damage is rather inevitable over the long term.

However, by using your personal watercraft in a sensible manner and ensuring you are riding in areas designated for this sort of craft you can avoid the majority of these impacts.

Docking and Beaching

Docking and beaching can also damage the craft. If left in the water and against a port or dock the waves can smack the craft up against nearby obstacles.

Beaching can also damage the underside of your personal watercraft.

The best way to avoid these sorts of risks is by using your craft in an area designated for these sorts of vehicles.

Along with this, there are various tools like an anchor bag that allow docking without need to attach the craft to something that could scratch it up.

Towing Risks

A high percentage of scratches are sustained during the towing process while the craft is out of the water.

On top of this, there are various bacteria and other organic materials that can cause damage if not removed after use.

Ensure you use designated launching areas to make the process easier and safer.

Wash your personal watercraft with freshwater after you take it out, especially in any nooks and crannies where organic material might have slipped in (source).

This will prevent most of the build-up that can affect the surface of the craft and more.

When you tow your craft make sure you strap it down securely so there is no wiggling or chaffing while you tow.

Where necessary use cloth or similar to create a buffer between the body of the craft and anything that could scratch it during transit.

Risks to the Environment

On a side note, it is important to respect the environment as much as possible during the use and cleaning of any aquatic vehicle (source).

Follow regulations, only ride in designated areas and generally try your best to keep in mind the marine life that is affected by your actions.

When it comes to cleaning ensure you do not allow any toxic runoff to make its way into the water.

This includes most soaps, all oils, and petroleum substances, and any other chemical that can negatively affect the living things in the water.

Avoid this risk entirely by cleaning your aquatic vehicles away from the water edge, preferably at home with an adequate draining system in place.

How to Maintain the PWC

After you’ve avoided as many risks as possible during the use of your personal watercraft, it is time to consider storage and maintenance.

This is a straightforward step but entirely crucial to keeping your craft in good condition.

Practice the habit of safe and secure storage. Where possible keep your craft in a shaded and sheltered area.

The sun and dust are chief culprits in storage damage to vehicles of all types and keeping these at bay goes a long way to keeping the shine.

Your personal watercraft often ends up spending a lot of time here, so it’s only fair to make it as comfortable as possible.

Regarding maintenance, the most important thing to consider is consistency.

Regardless of which wax or similar protective product you use, it is beneficial that you apply these throughout the storage phase.

When doing so, try and run through a cursory inspection to catch anything before it develops into a greater problem.

Final Thoughts

There we have it. From touching up plastic, gelcoat, or vinyl, to maintenance and protecting the environment, these are all the things you need to know to get your personal watercraft looking new.

Hopefully you’ll be out on the water in no time, showing off your beautiful work for everyone to behold.

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Tim Conner, M.D.

Tim Conner, M.D. started boating in 1974. He has been involved in recreational boating continuously since then. Dr. Conner has been active in boating and watersports safety education for decades. He rode his first jet ski in 1997, and rejoined the personal watercraft arena in 2012 with a Sea-Doo GTX 155, followed by 2 supercharged SeaDoos. Scuba certification came in 1988, and he and the family have traveled the world snorkeling and scuba diving for decades. The family has recently taken up paddle boarding. Click the photo for a lot more.

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