Gelcoat is the decorative surface found on fiberglass parts such as boats, bathtubs, and restaurant seats. This outer layer is needed for aesthetics and protection of the underlying laminate structure. Chemically it is unsaturated polyester/vinylester resin that is unreinforced but heavily filled with a complex variety of additives. These additives are used to determine its color, UV stability, and chemical resistance.
The manufacture of fiberglass parts typically requires a gelcoat layer to aid in the release of the parts from the mold. The parts that will be painted also are manufactured with gelcoat but it is a “sandable” variety. These parts are often automotive-related, and may include pickup truck toppers, fiberglass kitcar bodies, and other aftermarket add-ons such as running boards or hood scoops.
The unsaturated polyester/vinylester gelcoat is directly compatible with resins and laminate of the same chemistry. Gelcoat can be used with epoxy resins but requires a tiecoat for adhesion because of the chemistry difference.
Gelcoat is applied at 18 to 25 mils (thousandths) and will lose thickness as it cures. Typically when it is dry on the part, it can be down to 12 to 18 mils. This is a lot thicker than a painted surface. One of the disadvantages of gelcoat is that it can be more difficult to repair, especially with color matching. The thickness typically allows for sanding out scratches and blemishes, but going through can be painful and will require a respray. The outer layers of gelcoat will likely discolor over time due to UV degradation, and sanding and buffing into the underlying gelcoat may cause discoloration as the layers are different colors depending upon the depth.