A clean car is a happy car. That applies to the inside and outside of your car. You want your car to be happy, right?
(as excerpted from https://www.motorauthority.com/news/1128017_how-to-wash-a-car-like-a-pro)
The idea of cleaning your car may be an unpleasant one, but for some (raises hand), it’s a therapeutic exercise and an outlet for one’s obsessive nature. Whether you love it or hate it, the hardest part about cleaning your car is getting up and doing it.
Cleaning the exterior of your vehicle has a wide range of benefits, from increasing resale value to prolonging the life of your vehicle. Did I mention it makes your car happier?
A few hours, or less if you are efficient, with the right equipment and processes can result in a shiny, happy vehicle. From more than 25 years of cleaning vehicles (and boats) along with six years of professional detailing experience, here are my recommended steps to properly clean your vehicle. Pedantic OCD Feder sold separately, some exclusions apply.
The following steps are the best way to ensure your vehicle’s paint is clean, protected, and doesn’t get marred or scratched while being washed. It’s far superior to taking your vehicle through an automated touch car wash where the paint will be scratched, swirled, and marred by the dirt on the brushes (sometimes not even cloth, but plastic) from the previous lineup of vehicles.
Like I tell my kids, safety first. Any time you touch your paint, no matter what, you risk scratching it. We want to minimize the risk.
Take off every single piece of jewelry before starting. Yes, that includes your wedding ring. No, it doesn’t matter if your wedding ring is made of rubber or moon stones: no jewelry. Belts with buckles are a hazard, but if your shirt covers the buckle, it can be acceptable.
Make sure your work area is prepped and everything is ready and in place, from the chemicals and towels to the buckets and hose. You don’t want water to dry on the vehicle, especially if it’s hard water, and risk etching the paint.
Pro tip: If you organize your garage and know where everything is by heart you can minimize the organization step down to simply getting the hose and buckets ready. Yes, buckets; you’ll need two.
You’ll need two 5-gallon buckets, one for soapy water and one as a dirty rinse bucket with a grit guard at the bottom, so the dirt won’t make it back onto the paint.
Pro tip: The 5-gallon buckets and grit guard can be bought for a few bucks at Menards or other home improvement stores. No need to pay an arm and a leg from detailing supply websites.
In some situations no running water is available, and while not ideal, that’s alright. AMMO and Griot’s Garage sell hand frothers that can be used with a hoseless wash solution. With these two products you’ll be able to safely wash the exterior of your vehicle without a hose and running water in a pinch. For those without access to a hose there’s also slick spray detailers that can be used as a lubricant with microfiber towels. Examples include Wizards Mist-N-Shine or Griot’s Garage’s spray-on car wash solutions.
It’s smart to wash the wheels first with a wheel cleaner to avoid water drying on the paint. In my experience, products from AMMO, Wizard’s, Meguiar’s and Griot’s Garage do the best job without possibly ruining wheel finishes. Using a wheel brush––I like a foam brush with a removable microfiber sleeve so I can wash the sleeve for reuse––clean both the front face of the wheel and inside the wheel’s barrel. Make sure to clean the dirt, brake dust, and debris from the wheel brush after each wheel (or mid wheel depending on the level of dirt) in the dirty water bucket, then use the soapy water bucket to wet the wheel brush. Rinse each wheel after finishing.
Dump the water from the buckets and refill both (one just water and one soapy water) to wash the vehicle itself next.
Remember, every time you touch your paint there’s a risk of scratching it as the dirt is moved. It’s essential to remove any and all large pieces of dirt and debris from the paint before touching it to minimize this risk.
Start by foaming the entire exterior of the vehicle with a foam gun or hand frother. This will allow the dirt to get wet and loosen from the surface. If the car is merely dusty or there is no running water available, use the hand frothers and hoseless wash solution as the wash itself. Skip right to the protect-and-finish step after wiping off the hoseless wash with a clean microfiber towel.
Most cars will need a full wash. I prefer using a pressure washer, though with a caveat. Don’t use a 0-degree tip as that could damage the paint; I use a 40-degree nozzle for a wide spray. Rinse the foam and any loose, large dirt, pieces of debris, and or dust from the paint.
The car is now wet and all major dirt and debris is cleared from the paint. Time to wash. Using a microfiber wash mitt and extremely sudsy water from the soap bucket, clean the vehicle using a side-to-side motion, never circular motions, at the roof, then windshield, and then hood, working your way down. After each panel or half panel, depending on the panel size (roofs are large, hoods are large), put the mitt into the “dirty water bucket” with the grit guard and use your hand to agitate it to get all the remaining dirt off the mitt. Pull the mitt from the dirty water, squeeze all the remaining water off the mitt, then dunk the mitt into the soapy, sudsy bucket to get fresh water and suds on the mitt. Repeat the side-to-side wash motion on the next panel. Wash the vehicle from top to bottom, roof to lower sides, as vehicles are dirtiest at the lower third because that’s where dirt and debris are kicked up onto the paint.
Move quickly and efficiently so neither the water or soap dry on the paint. Ideally, you don’t want to wash it in the sun because it dries quicker and leaves damaging spots on the paint. But, washing your car in the sun is one of life’s great American cliches, so you do you, just do it efficiently. Sometimes it’s necessary to rinse each panel as you go to keep the car wet.
Once the entire car, including the wheels, has been washed, it’s time for a final rinse. Using the pressure washer make sure to rinse all the soap off the vehicle top to bottom.
An easy way to dry the vehicle is to use a leaf blower to get most of the water off the paint. For those without a leaf blower, it’s best to use soft, clean microfiber towels. A large “guzzler” towel that can absorb a lot of water makes the job quick and easy. If a full detail isn’t on the to do list after the wash, I recommend spraying a quick detailer. In my experience, Wizard’s and Griot’s Garage quick detailers seem to produce satisfying results while keeping things lubricated and protected as you dry the rest of the car.
Once most of the water has been dried off the vehicle it’s time to remove the hidden water. All the vehicle badging, door sills, gaskets, grilles, spoilers, and cladding retain water. Use a hand-held blower (Pro tip: You can tell your spouse you need one of these to help dry your pet after a bath, if you happen to have a pet, to justify the expense) to blow all the hidden water from every nook, cranny, and crevice around the vehicle. You’ll be surprised how much hidden water is retained that will later drip out from its hiding spots and leave etched water spots on your paint.
Protect and finish
It’s a good idea to give the exterior––and interior––glass its own dedicated cleaning to ensure a crystal clear, streak-free view. Use a clean microfiber towel (or high-end paper towel in a pinch, the cheap stuff leaves behind lint) with an ammonia-free glass cleaner such as Sprayaway Glass Cleaner or Stoner Glass Cleaner.
It’s also important to keep things clean under the hood, but don’t use a product that is going to attract dirt, such as Armor All. A plastics cleaner and conditioner from AMMO, Meguiar’s, Wizard’s, Griot’s Garage, or 303 will work well and keep the engine bay clean of debris and the plastics looking new.
To give the paint an extra level of protection from the elements, I recommend wiping it down again with a clean microfiber towel and spray detailer or wax. I have had positive results with products from Griot’s Garage, 303, Wizard’s, Meguiar’s, and AMMO.
How often your vehicle needs to be washed will vary depending on factors such as location, weather, and lifestyle, but a bi-weekly or monthly cleaning will keep your car clean and protected.
Now, go clean your car and make it happy.