Written by our fellow member, Thomas Powers.
Ceramic. Glass Coating. TiO2. SiO2. 9H. Ceramic Spray. Ceramic Wax. Spray Coating. In recent times, “ceramic” coatings and various products derived from their core silicon/titanium dioxide ingredients have taken the automotive world by storm. These products are often sold as an alleged miracle solution to car cleaning.
“Better than wax!” “Lasts years!” “Enhanced gloss!” “Chemical resistant!” “Easy to wash!”
With promises like these, it would seem foolish to buy or use anything other than a ceramic coating or “ceramic” products on your car. However, coating services (and coatings themselves) come at a premium price. So, what’s the deal? Why do they cost so much? Is the up-front cost worth the supposed “long-term” benefit?
The fact of the matter is ceramic coatings are NOT the end-all be-all miracle product they are aggressively pithed (and priced) as. Like anything in life, there are pros and cons to coating a car. That said, let’s ditch the sales pitch and discuss ceramic coatings and the cas they’re put on objectively. This will get technical, but it should clear things up (particularly for consumers interested in the topic).
To simplify, I’ll divide the entire market of paint-protecting car-care products into two categories:
1. True coatings: products with permanent characteristics that commonly come in 30-50ml bottles. These must be applied methodically, though not necessarily by professionals, in reasonably controlled conditions (e.g. Gtechniq Crystal Serum Light, Kamikaze ISM, Kamikaze Miyabi, Carpro Cquartz, Shine Supply Beadlock).
2. Not coatings: waxes and sealants with both organic and inorganic compounds. If it’s not in a tiny little bottle, it belongs in this category (e.g. Paste Wax, Carnauba Wax, Spray Sealant, “Spray Coating,” “Ceramic Wax,” etc.).
In this article, we’re only talking about true coatings and considering their most commonly marketed traits:
1. Ease of cleaning
2. Increased Shine
You can read about each of these from a variety of sources. Thankfully, many educated detailers seem to be debunking the exaggerated performance of coatings. I advise watching a YouTube video for a more thorough explanation.
In short, coatings do make washing easier by making surfaces “slick,” flat, and hydrophobic. They do increase “shine” by filling imperfections (which results in improved clarity and reflection). Coatings themselves are hard, but they are only as scratch resistant as the substrates they are applied to. In other words, “9H” coating hardness doesn’t really mean anything if your vehicle has soft paint to begin with. Any scratch “resistance” that results from a coating is mostly attributable to the fact that contaminants can be knocked off the surface without scrubbing. As for “durability,” coatings are nearly impossible to break down with chemicals. Common coating life-spans range from 1 to 5 years (waxes & sealants, in contrast, last 6 to 12 months). Once applied, a coating essentially becomes part of the car. If properly maintained (i.e. decontaminated with ferrous metal dissolvers and refreshed periodically with a topping agent of some kind), the coating will perform like-new for its advertized life-span. Unlike a wax that can be removed chemically with specific soaps or a panel prep solution, a coating can only be removed by compounding or polishing it away. Therefore, a coating makes it more difficult to “start fresh” when a vehicle inevitably requires polishing and a new coating of substantial renewal of what is left on the surface. Oh, and by the way, anyone selling a coating on the fact that it can “withstand temperatures up to 2200°C” is full of it. The stuff in the bottle may melt at 2200°C when cured, but steel melts at 1370°C. So... the metal your car is made of would literally liquify long before you were worrying about the paint. “2200°C” is just absurd marketing schmoozery.
Anyways, you are now up to speed and more educated on coatings than the vast majority of consumers and even some professional detailers. With this new knowledge in mind, let’s talk about various car-care use-cases for coatings. I’ll simplify by putting all cars/trucks into three categories:
1. The abused: a work truck/track car/daily-driver (F-350, gutted e36 M3, Accord).
2. The weekend joy-rider: a car that is stored indoors and maintained meticulously, but is regularly enjoyed as a driving machine (GT350, GT3, Miata).
3. The museum piece: a car that spends most of its life sitting still behind ropes. It should be nothing less than perfect, but kept in a condition as original as possible because of its significance to the owner or its significance to the history of automobiles. If such a car is ever driven, it is probably at Goodwood or Pebble Beach (F40, 959, 250 GTO, McLaren F1 GTR Longtail, a Le Mans-winning GT40, etc.).
Everything I’m about to say goes against what many “professionals” in the industry “recommend.” As you can tell by my strategically applied quotations, I’m tired of the claims. Why? Because coatings do not make sense for everybody. Allow me to explain. For the abused, a coating (not necessarily the $1500 paint correction sold with it) makes a great deal of sense. For the weekend joy-rider, it may or may not make sense. For the museum piece, a coating does not make sense.
The abused: this car should be easy to clean and should stay as clean as possible for as long as possible between washes. It is difficult, nay, nearly impossible to keep a car in this category perfect because it sees things like morning commutes, hunks of molten rubber at triple digit speeds, soccer practice, off-road adventures, shopping carts, and more. This car may even be run through gas station car washes on occasion because the owner is just too busy to wash it by hand. For such a car, a coating’s multi-year durability, imperviousness to almost all chemicals, dirt rejection, and washability are desirable. The owner does not care if this car is scratched and swirled to death. For example, I have a friend with a daily-driven, black E92 328i with over 90,000 rapidly climbing miles. He would benefit tremendously from slapping a coating on his very imperfect paint (sorry Rob, you just fit this scenario so well) as his car would stay much cleaner for longer.
The weekend joy-rider: Coatings or waxes make sense for this vehicle depending on the owner. No matter who the owner is, however, it is certain that someone cares about how this car looks and, unlike the abused car, looking “not disgusting” is not good enough. If the owner is planning to replace the car in a few years, polishing and coating it makes sense. It will be easy to clean for the duration of ownership (likely less than 5 years) and the owner will probably enjoy doing periodic maintenance on the coating (decontaminating and refreshing it with specialty products) to keep it looking and performing like new. As it is washed (properly) and driven, the paint will still develop minor imperfections. Even so, these are likely tolerable to the owner and, by the time the coating needs to be removed and reapplied, the owner will have his sights set on a new car anyways (yes, car-enthusiasts are insatiable). Conversely, the owner may love the car and intend to keep it for many years or pass it on to future kin. In this case, the owner is also likely so obsessed with the car that a wax & sealant rub-down every 6-12 months is a treat (I personally fall into this category). If the vehicle is not coated, the owner will also be able to perform “spot corrections” when the paint becomes somehow scratched or scuffed. This is ignored on the proverbial coating sales-floor. Spot correction is not possible with a coating because many coatings do not bond to themselves. Even those that do bond to themselves need to be applied in uniform layers to prevent funky hazing and distortion. For this reason, damage of a coated panel necessitates the compounding and polishing of the entire panel (to remove the coating along with some clear-coat and, of course, the defect). As you can imagine, doing this for years will have you unnecessarily thinning large areas of your clearcoat.
The museum piece: This car may or may not be driven, but it should not be ceramic coated. This is counterintuitive. You’d think that the more significant the car, the “better” you’d want to protect it. Not so. Cars of collector-quality or significance tend to be kept perfect. As we just discussed with weekend joy-riders, coatings are an obstacle to spot correction of defects; you always want to be able to do spot correction on “museum pieces.” Additionally, the idea of adding something permanent to the paint of an irreplaceable car should not sit well with collectors/owners (particularly the flagrantly fastidious Ferrari people). It is an insult to originality. Additionally, because these cars spend most of their time in climate-controlled buildings and bubbles, the durability and marginally improved washability provided by a ceramic coating are unnecessary. A wax or sealant will do more than enough and can be easily removed for spot corrections.
So, what have we learned? All ceramic coatings are permanent to some extent. This sounds like an advantage, but permanence means that they are not easy to remove and that it is essentially impossible to guarantee that a car, once coated, will ever be coating-free.
Some businesses have leveraged the permanence of coatings to sell hugely expensive, specialized, and time-consuming paint correction services to vehicles and owners that don’t need them. The logic of the sale is this:
“Coatings last for years and are scratch-proof. This means that they basically freeze a vehicle’s condition in time. If the vehicle’s condition is frozen in time, you should polish it to perfection before coating it. By doing this, your car will stay perfect for years.”
This argument is built on exaggerated claims. Coatings are not scratch-proof and they require maintenance as they become contaminated by things in the environment. Your car is not frozen in time - it just rejects dirt and water better. If you are coating a car in the “abused” category, ask yourself whether or not the coating will be maintained and if the car will be washed properly for the foreseeable future. If you intend to care for it (and you value defect-free paint), pay for the polishing. If the car will well and truly be abused, you can still get the coating, but save your Benjamins by skipping the paint correction altogether. If you are coating a “weekend joy-rider,” you likely value defect-free paint and intend to wash the car properly. You should absolutely pay for paint correction prior to coating because the coating will complicate future attempts at paint correction.
All in all, coatings have legitimate benefits that make sense for many consumers - some who are enthusiasts and many who are just car-driving commoners. Not all coatings are marketing gimmicks or “snake oil.” However, when considering a coating, don’t be dazzled by the marketing claims and sales pitch. Recall, I mentioned Gtechniq Crystal Serum Light, Kamikaze ISM, Kamikaze Miyabi, Carpro Cquartz, and Shine Supply Beadlock. These are just a few top-of-the-line coatings from great companies. The fact that you’ve maybe heard of one of these is highly indicative of the fact that the public has been aggressively sold (not educated) on ceramic coatings. Above all, sellers of coatings need to understand what they are working with and buyers of coatings should do their best to purchase what is right for their budget, goals, and vehicle.
P.S. “Self-healing” coatings have rather recently entered the market and present possible exceptions to the rules/suggestions you just read. These products are different enough from general coatings that they warrant a separate (albeit much shorter) article. Stay tuned!