Updated: Nov 15, 2018
Ceramic coatings have taken the detailing world by storm in the last few years with seemingly impossible promises of protection, durability and longevity. We are here to help demystify the magic of nano-coatings like ceramic.
What is it?
Traditional paint protection products, like wax, sit on top of a painted surface, filling in the imperfections with a soft, organic compound which will inevitably be washed away. In contrast, nano-coatings form a strong bond with the surface, creating an intertwined, even layer of inorganic material. A microscopic barrier between the paint and the elements is formed which is very hard and durable as it is fused to the surface instead of merely sticking to it, think of it like comparing 2-part epoxy to a glue stick.
Small But Mighty
Although no more than a few nano-meters thick and invisible to the naked eye, as mentioned above, nano-coatings are very strong due to the use of chemical binding. As a result, there are some very unique properties to ceramic coating which are extremely beneficial for car care.
The semi-permanent chemical bonds create a sacrificial top layer that cannot easily be washed away by cleaning, rain or snow. Ceramic coating takes an extended period of time to break down and the life expectancy of a coating, with proper maintenance, is typically 3-5 years. Nano-coating manufacturers say that sanding is the only way to remove a coating before it has broken down.
Contamination Resistance and Hydrophobia
The more uneven a surface is, the easier it is for contaminants like dirt and road grime to find their way into tiny pockets present in the surface. When ceramic coatings cure, they seal up the pits and imperfections in the paint on an atomic level, creating a smooth, slick surface. It will significantly reduce the hiding places for road grime and instead of embedding in your paint, grime will sit on the surface harmlessly or roll off entirely. Thanks to this unique trait of ceramic, most of the road contaminants your paint may encounter will be unable to stick, keeping your car cleaner for longer.
Due to the same principle, ceramic is very hydrophobic. Without any little pits to run into, water turns into beads and runs off the paint very quickly, taking with it any dirt, as it hasn't been able to bury itself in the paint. Once your car is coated, it will take less water to wash it and very little time to dry it.
The glass-like smoothness and high density of a coated surface also means it has chemical resistant properties. Acidic and basic substances that may be harmful to your paint, such as road salt, are no longer allowed to access and damage the porous painted surface. Most ceramic products say they are resistant to chemicals between pH2 and pH12, which covers most of chemicals you would find on the road. Tree sap, bird droppings, tar and hard water spots are also much easier to remove.
Although beautiful and welcome, especially here in Alberta, the rays of the sun are not kind to painted surfaces. Prolonged sun exposure can cause noticeable oxidization presenting as faded, dull looking paint and sometimes, can even cause it to look like a different color all together. The "second skin" formed by the nano-coating dramatically reduces the effect of the harsh UV rays on the paint underneath.
You may have heard someone make mention of "hard" or "soft" paint in reference to automotive surfaces. Paint hardness is measured using the same scale as graphite pencils. For instance, your ordinary yellow pencil is an "HB," slightly on the soft side of the scale. The scale travels both upwards and downwards "B" being an indicator of soft and "H" being an indicator of hard. The image below depicts different hardnesses of graphite and how they transfer onto paper with light pressure. The softer the graphite, the more of it will transfer onto the paper and vice versa.
What do pencils have to do with paint and ceramic coatings?
Unfortunately, not all paint is created equally. Across manufacturers, years, and factories, paint hardness and depth change due to a number of factors such as application method and chemical make up. The average automotive paint is 3H-4H hardness. Most ceramic coatings on the market are said to have a hardness of 9H with a few specialty products boasting a 10H rating. By having a ceramic coat applied to your vehicle, you could be hardening the paint surface by up to three times the original hardness. This means up to three times the scratch resistance of your factory paint, helping protect against things like marring and swirls from cleaning and overly enthusiastic tree branches.
The Bigger Picture
As you know, nano-coatings work on a microscopic level to create a smooth barrier on vehicle surfaces. We must also take into account the bigger and more visible imperfections that likely exist in your paint. Unfortunately, because of the small scale ceramic works on, it will not erase very many visible imperfections. Just about every vehicle on the road suffers from minor scratches. From shopping carts to your own finger nails, there are risks for minor paint damage everywhere.
Due to the semi-permanent nature of the coating, we must take these into account before the coating. Most professional detailers charge anywhere from $500-$2000 for a ceramic application and this is for a few reasons; particularly, because a paint correction and polish is almost always necessary prior to the ceramic appointment. Paint correction can drastically improve the severity of small scratches and in some cases can remove them all together.
(Stay tuned for an article coming soon on paint correction to learn more!)
If a coating is applied to a scratched surface, those scratches and imperfections are sealed in for the next 3-5 years and the coating is not as effective. Ceramic products themselves are also quite expensive, sadly, nano-technology doesn't come cheap.
Finally, ceramic must be applied by hand. The process is labor intensive and time consuming as the coatings require you to work in small sections using a tool about 2"x 3" and then removing excess with a microfiber cloth immediately after. In addition, ceramic coatings are usually 2 or 3 layers thick, meaning your detailer is going around your vehicle two or three times with a tool smaller than a household sponge to complete the process, allowing at least one hour curing time between layers. The total time spent on the entire coating, including paint correction is usually between 5 and 8 hours.
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