Ceramic Coating Application – Professional Detailer vs DIY

Are ceramic car coatings something you can apply yourself?

byMichael Febbo|
Cars 101 photo

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Ceramic coatings and sealants are the current state of the art in automotive paint protection. They outperform traditional and synthetic wax in just about every metric – from scratch resistance, blocking UV light, and especially longevity. While some ceramic sealants are sold alongside traditional consumer detailing products and marketed as DIY “wipe-on, wipe-off,” the best products are considered to be either prosumer or full professional level products. The application of these should be left to professionals or at-home enthusiasts with better than average skills.

For this article we worked with Gtechniq, manufacturer of an entire line of ceramic coatings and related car care products. The company provided insight into the technical aspects of coatings. To get a more frontline perspective on ceramic coatings, we talked to Gram Short, owner of Bulldog Auto Detailing in Texas. Bulldog has four locations, contracts with local dealerships and most importantly is applying and servicing cars with ceramic coatings on a daily basis.

 CSL & Exo - This combo provides 5 years of protection, Gtechniq

What are automotive ceramic coatings?

Previously, we took a deep dive into ceramic coatings with the experts at Gtechniq; you can find it here. For a brief refresher, traditional car waxes are usually made from carnauba, sourced from palm trees. It looks great but requires a couple of applications per year. More recently, synthetic waxes were the state of the art. Comprised mostly of man-made polymers they sacrifice some of the warm, rich look of carnauba in exchange for longevity and easier application.

The term “ceramic” has become a buzzword in the car care industry. Walk down the aisles of your local big box store today and you’re likely to find more bottles labeled ceramic than carnauba. They likely do contain some amount of silicon, but all ceramic products aren’t the same. Gram explains, “The ceramic products we use are professional grade and take up to a week to fully cure. The spray ceramics you see are typically comparable to a spray wax. There isn’t anything wrong with them but the durability is minimal and chances of them having ceramic in them is minimal too. It is used as more of a marketing gimmick.”

A high-end ceramic coating is comprised of silicon oxides and provides a tough glass-like finish that repels water, dirt, and UV light. The best performing ceramics bond to a car’s finish with covalent bonds and require the most care in application. You will likely pay more for ceramic products up front, but it will balance out with longevity and superior protection.

Does my car need a ceramic coating?

Like so many new detailing products, Ceramics have been overhyped as being everything from lifetime protection to completely scratch proof. There is nothing you can put on your car that will act as a forcefield. If your intention is to find a product that will allow you to neglect your car’s finish, they don’t exist. 

Ceramic coatings will outperform waxes on virtually any car but are ideal for the owner who drives their car regularly or even daily, and takes better than average care of their finish. This is not a zero-maintenance product. Owners will still have to be diligent about careful hand-washing and using high-quality products. Water spots and swirl marks, while less likely, are still possible. A ceramic coating will however make it easier to correct those problems, often corrected at the level of the coating and not the clearcoat.

Gram talked about the toughness of a properly cared for ceramic coated car, “The only vehicles I have had to reapply Crystal Serum Ultra to were vehicles that were either not properly cared for which the customer admitted to, or vehicles that were damaged. We do around 10 coatings a week so we have vehicles that are in wrecks that we need to reapply after the repairs are done.”

How hard is it to apply ceramic coatings yourself?

The application of a ceramic coating isn’t necessarily that hard to do, it depends on the product. A company like Gtechniq offers a full line and as Managing Director, Rob Earle explained, “C1 is the easiest to apply and the most forgiving if applied incorrectly, i.e., it can be applied to a large area (over a square foot at a time), regardless of temperature, and if there are high spots you can go back within 12 hours and re-apply C1 over the top. This will reconstitute the high spots and they can then be buffed off with a microfiber cloth.” 

A professional and even a prosumer-level ceramic coating is intended to be a long-term solution. This means it will stand up to environmental abuse for years. This also means, if you make a mistake, it will be hard to correct. Again, Rob explains, “CSU requires great care in application, variation in temperature and humidity affect how the product cures and it needs an experienced detailer to understand how the coating behaves. If there are issues, they can only be removed by wet sanding the car, this is why CSU is for professional use only by accredited detailers.”

How important is prep work before applying the ceramic coating?

The successful application of a ceramic coating is 80% preparation. The coating may become the new surface of your car’s exterior but it won’t hide any trouble spots beneath. Everything from swirl marks to paint contamination can not only be seen through the coating, but can also prevent it from bonding to the finish. This is why the labor from preparing the paint may comprise the bulk of the cost of an application. 

If you want to avoid that cost and are thinking about tackling it yourself, this is the point to honestly assess your skills. We asked Gram for horror stories, but in deference to detailer/client confidentiality, he wouldn’t get into specifics. He had this to say, “The worst case I have seen, we ended up having to wet sand most of the car due to a lot of high spots. What would have been a $1200 job by us turned into a $3500 job.” 

Skills aren’t all that separates the pros. We asked Gram about the difference between a pro detailing shop and a well-equipped home shop, “We try to keep the best equipment in our shops. We have 15 Rupes polishers, we have a few Flex machines as well, we have LED lights to help expose paint defects better, we have good step stools to help keep balance better when working on bigger vehicles, we have very good air compressors as well to use with a lot of our tools, climate control is a game changer in Texas. Coating a vehicle in the AC on a 100-degree day helps a lot, a dehumidifier can help on humid days as well.“

How much will it cost to have my car professionally ceramic coated?

Detailers dislike the idea of giving a general estimate as prices can swing anywhere from $1,500 for a car with a near perfect finish to over $5,000 for something that needs serious attention. For some owners, this is quite a shock. Keep in mind, a product like Gtechniq’s Crystal Serum Ultra, when applied by an accredited detailer, carries a 9-year guarantee.

According to Gram, even a basic application will take a shop 10 hours to complete, that’s with all the equipment and years of experience. Only you can put a value on your free time, but if you consider you will likely invest at least 15 hours on the same job, plus all the products you will likely have to buy, you may very well end up richer, happier, and shinier letting a professional handle it.

Ultra on Porsche provides a 10H paint protection layer, Pikes Detail Co.