Car Washing Basics

A new car is an expensive investment that can potentially serve you for many years. If you want to get the maximum possible enjoyment out of it, though, you need to wash it properly.

Why is it so important to wash your car properly?

  • It preserves your car’s appearance and keeps its value high
  • It protects the clear coat that deters rust and sun damage
  • It minimizes scratches and swirl marks from dirt
  • It prevents your car’s plastic and rubber trim elements from fading

An additional benefit of having a car that looks great is that it says something about who you are. It says that you value the way you present yourself to the world and are willing to do what’s necessary to ensure that you always put your best foot forward. For better or worse, people will make snap judgments about you based upon the appearance of your car — so it’s worth the effort to keep your car looking great. Let’s get started!

Washing and Drying the Body and Glass

Getting Ready to Wash Your Car

The most important part of washing your car is removing dirt safely so it doesn’t have an opportunity to scratch the clear coat. Dirt trapped under a rag can scratch the clear coat and leave persistent swirl marks. To avoid swirls, you’ll need:

  • Two large buckets – one for soapy water and another for rinsing
  • A grate for each bucket to allow dirt to settle to the bottom
  • A washing mitt with a thick weave that pulls dirt away from the car and traps it
  • A car washing fluid that’s strong enough to remove dirt and road grime but won’t strip the car’s clear coat
  • A hose with a nozzle that allows you to direct the spray
  • Several clean microfiber towels for drying

Fill one bucket with soapy water, fill the other with clear water and place a grate in each bucket. The grate keeps dirt at the bottom of the bucket and prevents you from picking it up when you rinse your wash mitt.

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Pre-Rinsing Your Car

Begin by rinsing the car thoroughly with your hose. Plain water removes some surface dirt and lubricates your car’s body to help prevent scratching when you wash. If your car is very dirty, you can attach a foam cannon to your hose. A foam cannon allows you to mix soap with water when spraying your car to remove more dirt than you could remove with water alone.

Washing Your Car

If you don’t have a foam cannon, get your car sudsy by wringing your wet washing mitt over the car’s entire body. Always start at the top of the car and work down because most of the grit that’s stuck to your car will be near the bottom – you don’t want to bring that grit to the top of the car where it can potentially scratch the paint.

Wash the car with your soapy mitt by rubbing gently in short, straight lines. Avoid rubbing anything on the car in a circular motion because doing so can create paint swirls. Rinse the mitt frequently in your clean water bucket. After washing the entire car, empty and refill both buckets if you need to do a second pass. Make sure that you’ve rinsed all the grit from the washing mitt before you wash the car again.

Rinsing and Drying Your Car

Rinse the car with fresh water from your hose. Work from the top to the bottom in case any surface grit remains. When you’re certain that you’ve removed all the excess soap, dry the car by pressing gently with microfiber towels. Wring the towels periodically to remove excess water. Pressing with the towels, as opposed to rubbing, further reduces the chance of scratching the paint. Reserve one dry towel to remove the last streaks of water.

Cleaning the Tires and Rims

The most important thing to remember when washing your car’s wheels is that you should do so separately from the rest of the car because the wheels are often the dirtiest parts of the car. If you wash your car’s wheels first – which can be wise because you wouldn’t want to spray dirt on your car’s clean paint – you should empty and thoroughly rinse your buckets before continuing with the rest of the car.

To clean your wheels, you’ll need the following in addition to the items listed above:

  • Two dedicated sponges or a sponge and soft brush
  • A cleaning compound that isn’t corrosive and is safe for your car’s wheel type
  • Tire gel to keep your car’s tires looking shiny and black

As above, use separate buckets with grates for your cleaning solution and clear water. Rinse your wheels before washing them, and use a straight motion to avoid swirls. After rinsing, apply a bit of tire gel with a fresh sponge.

Body Waxing

When waxing your car, the most important thing to remember is that the wax isn’t what makes your car shine, the clear coat is. If your car’s clear coat isn’t intact, wax won’t give your car a glossy appearance. Wax protects the clear coat from dirt, oxidation and sun damage.

To wax your car, you’ll need:

  • Car wax, polish or paint sealant
  • A dedicated foam sponge for applying the wax
  • A dedicated microfiber towel for buffing

You should always wash and dry your car thoroughly before waxing it. Since the wax bonds to the paint, and the waxing process involves buffing, the car’s body must be completely free of dirt. Keep the car in a shady area when waxing to prevent the car from taking on a cloudy appearance.

Using the applicator, apply a light coat of wax to the car’s body using straight motions. Wait about 20 minutes for the wax to cure. When the curing process is complete, the wax will appear slightly dull and powdery. With straight motions, use the microfiber towel to buff the wax and remove any remaining residue.

To further enhance your car’s appearance, you may want to go through the waxing process twice. Doing so gives your car a deeper shine and ensures even protection of the clear coat.

Manual vs. Automated Car Washing

At this point, you might be asking yourself whether washing your car manually is really worth it when almost every city has at least one automatic car wash. Despite the hands-off approach, automatic car washes do have their benefits. They’re inexpensive, convenient and fast. Automatic car washes have become more modern over the years. They are much gentler on clear coats today than they were decades ago.

The primary problem with an automatic car wash is that it can never wash your car with the same attention to detail as an actual person. When you wash your own car, you know if the car needs a second rinse because there’s still a bit of dirt on the paint. When the rinse cycle at an automatic car wash is over, it’s over – so paint swirls are more likely to result from automatic car washes.

An automatic car wash also can’t replace the process of applying, curing and buffing wax. Many car washes will spray liquid paint protector on your car, but the result isn’t the same as what you would get with a proper polish.

Detailing the Interior

Properly washing and polishing your car has many benefits, but the interior of the car is where you’ll spend most of your time — so it’s worthwhile to give it a good detailing occasionally. To detail your car’s interior, here’s what you’ll need:

  • An auto detailing vacuum with attachments for cleaning vents and other tight spaces
  • A few clean microfiber towels
  • Cleaning products such as stain remover, vinyl cleaner and leather cleaner

If your car’s interior is free of stains, detailing it will require little more than time and a vacuum with plenty of attachments. Remove your car’s floor mats for cleaning. Shake them away from the car to dislodge pebbles and coarse dirt. Vacuum the mats thoroughly to remove fine dirt. When you are finished, you can vacuum the rest of the car. Use the vacuum’s tools to clean inside the vents and between seams. If you have leather seats, vacuum them carefully to avoid scratching the leather.

You can clean your car’s vinyl and plastic interior components with a slightly damp microfiber towel. If your car has upholstered seats, you can remove stains with a mild detergent. Test the detergent for color fading in an inconspicuous area first. If you have leather seats, you can clean them with a mild leather cleaning solution.