On any given day you will undoubtedly see someone either washing their car or getting it washed via an automatic car wash. Washing a car is the simplest and perhaps the single most effective way to enhance and maintain a car’s appearance AND it is the one thing that car enthusiasts do most often. Strikingly, however, the majority of people (and places) wash cars improperly. While there is no approved way to wash a car, there are a number of wrong ways! In this section we will cover, in detail, how to wash a car so as to minimize the creation of unwanted and unsightly paint swirls or cob webbing. Dark colored cars, in particular, require utmost care and patience. A properly washed car’s paint surface will easily last 1-2 years before requiring a pure polishing step to remove any slight paint imperfections imparted through washing.
Where to begin?
The first thing you will need to do is make a small investment in some products that will enable you to perform the best wash possible.
- It is essential that you use two buckets when washing your car – this is called the “two-bucket wash method”. Just think for a moment how most people wash a car (assuming they are not already using the two-bucket method). Most likely they get a single bucket, put soap in it, fill it with water, get a rag, spray their car down, and start washing – repeatedly putting the rag into the wash bucket, rinsing it out and getting more suds. Using a single bucket implies putting a rag into dirty water and using that dirty water/soap mixture to wash…slowly but surely imparting scratches in the paint. An easy and effective fix to this is simply to use two buckets. One bucket for water only (a rinse bucket) and the other bucket for a soap/water mixture (a wash bucket). 5-gallon buckets are highly recommended for this method as two-gallon buckets are simply too small. Go ahead, get two buckets, label them ‘Rinse’ and ‘Wash’ with a marker and you are good to go.
- It is also essential to invest in a nice wash mitt. A genuine sheep skin wash mitt is highly recommended and for the past few years this is all I have used. There are a multitude of wash mitts on the market and some of these are viable alternatives to sheep skin. Some of the more popular include microfiber wash mitts, foam sponges, microfiber towels, lambs wool, boar’s hair brushes, chenille, sea sponges, etc. Microfiber products are very popular and will be for quite some time as they offer car enthusiasts a very nice all around solution. The problem with microfiber products is that their quality varies significantly from vendor to vendor and microfibers do not release dirt very easily. There is no consensus on what type of wash mitt is best amongst detailers – the most popular seems to be sheep skin but quality sheep skin mitts are becoming very difficult to find.
- Another essential item is a nice, high quality drying towel. I highly recommend a ‘waffle weave microfiber towel’ as they are designed to absorb a lot of water and will not scratch the paint surface. Meguiar’s has a very nice towel and the Cobra drying towel is also very nice.
- Finally, you will need a high quality car wash soap. Your choice of soap is actually very critical. Unless you are doing a complete car detail where you will prep, polish, and protect your car’s finish in the same day, DO NOT use dish washing soap! Dish washing soap, such as Dawn, contains a number of surfactants and detergents that will quickly and effectively remove not only dirt/dust/oil/grime but also any existing sacrificial protection (e.g. wax) that you currently have on your car. Dawn is recommended if you are doing a complete detail, but that is the only time you should use it! You will find a plethora of dedicated car wash soaps on the market (a reputable detailing vendor lists no less that 28 different soaps!) – some better than others. A perfectly PH-balanced soap is highly recommended and a majority of the top product distributors (Meguiar’s, Mothers, Pinnacle, Optimum Polymer Technologies, Duragloss, etc.) produce high quality soaps. Make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how much product to mix. Using a 5-gallon bucket filled with 4 gallons of water provides a nice amount of water – usually the mixture is 1oz product to 1 gallon water (but you should verify this). Personally, I either use Optimum Polymer Technologies’ Optimum No Rinse (ONR) or Duragloss Car Wash Concentrate as my soaps of choice (PH 4-7). ONR is a very advanced polymer-based wash soap that is designed to be used as a ‘no-rinse’ car wash soap (see below) and Duragloss is simply a very high quality soap with a lot of lubrication.
- Optional, but highly recommended, is a set of Grit Guards. Grit Guards are pieces of circular plastic that fit into 5-gallon buckets to serve the simple purpose of keeping grit off your wash mitt – grit falls to the bottom of the bucket and the Grit Guard will prevent it from flowing back up into the water. In addition, Grit Guards prevent your wash mitt from going down to the bottom of the bucket where it will attract dirt.
Wash Method: Conventional Car Wash Soap
Washing a car is quite simple. For this reason many people engage in such activity. Product choice, as discussed above, is key. Your wash method is also key. For the moment, let’s assume you are using conventional car wash soap such as Duragloss or Meguiar’s Gold Class (and not ONR) and that you have already prepared your water/soap bucket and your rinse bucket.
Following these steps offers one possible way to wash you car that will minimize surface marring:
- Thoroughly rinse your car with a decent strength spray of water (not too hard as to grind dirt into the paint and not too weak as to not be effective) from a garden hose with a nozzle to remove as many initial contaminants as possible. Pay particular attention to the wheel wells and the wheels as these areas are breeding grounds for dirt/grime/oil/tar etc.
- Soak your wash mitt in the soap/water bucket and start at the top of the car and work yourself down – roof, front and back windows, side windows, front hood, trunk, the sides, front and rear, and then wheels, tires, and wheel wells. The reason for starting at the top is two-fold. First, the bottom of the car is the dirtiest and you want to minimize the possibility of dirt contaminating your wash mitt from the start (and at all!). Second, if you started at the bottom first then you would simply be rinsing dirt from the top of the car onto your newly cleaned lower surfaces. There is a debate amongst car enthusiasts on when to clean the wheels and tires. The majority starts with the wheels and tires since they are the dirtiest and require a lot of time and effort. In addition, starting with the wheels and tires first will minimize dirt overspray onto the car. It is also a good idea to use a separate, dedicated wheel brush to clean the wheels and tires. After you wash each major section of the car, you should rinse the soap off to prevent the possibility of the soap drying on the car and also rinse and hang your wash mitt.
- At this point, you should be in a position to dry the car. Keep in mind what you are trying to do…you are trying to remove the water from the car to avoid water spotting. You DO NOT need to apply a great deall of pressure to achieve this – your goal is to make the car look nice AND avoid marring the paint. Start at the top and work yourself down and around. Depending on the amount of water on the car, you might have to periodically ring out your towel. To minimize drying, you can sheet the water (see below Tips). Pay attention to regions where water tends to sit and hide – side view mirrors, fuel door, door guards, etc. Some detailers ‘pat’ the paint with the drying towel to minimize ‘dragging’ it accross the surface…others lay it on the paint and ‘pull’ it accross. Find a method that works for you – just don’t ‘push’!
Wash Method: Rinseless Car Wash
I normally only endorse a product if I find it to be truly remarkable. Optimum Polymer Technologies has a very nice product line and its Optimum No Rinse (ONR) car wash soap is no exception. Understanding when and how to use this product, however, is essential. If ONR is used as advertised, then it does a great job. ONR is a ‘no rinse’ product. This means that you do not need to initially spray down a car nor do you need to rinse the soap off of the car when you are done. Upon first sight, it doesn’t seem like this is possible and I was a big skeptic on the promised claims. However, after two years of use on a black car, I can attest to the fact that it performs as it is supposed to and always leaves an extremely clean surface – but it does require common sense! I would not recommend using ONR on a car that has an extremely dirty surface. For example, in regions where road salt is used heavily, and the majority of this salt ends up coating a car, I would not use ONR. There is a limit to its use and you will have to be the judge on where and when to use it. You can certainly use it as your only car wash soap and, for situations where the car’s surface is too dirty to warrant a no-rinse process, you can substitute it into the conventional method described above. To use it as advertised, i.e. as a no-rinse soap, the following process is recommended:
With ONR, due to its advanced polymer technology, you will notice that your wash mitt will get dirty…this is the way the product is supposed to work. After a few washes, it will be necessary to wash your mitt with a detergent-based cleaner.
- Don’t wash your car in the sun, if at all possible. There are a few reasons for this. The main reason is that the temperature of the paint’s surface gets very high (upwards of 150F) and this tends to ‘soften’ the paint. Washing and drying a very hot surface will increase the possibility of marring the surface. In addition, the hot car surface will significantly increase the creation of water spots. If you simply do not have shade and you live in a sunny area, you might consider investing in a car tent.
- When drying your car, the typical method is to wipe the microfiber towel over the surface – this has the potential of introducing some minor surface marring if you apply too much pressure. One method to avoid this is to completely open the towel, lay it on the surface of the car and ‘drag’ it across the surface without adding any pressure (except for its own weight). Another method is to ‘pat’ the car with the microfiber towel to avoid any and all dragging.
- Don’t let water dry on your car. Depending on the climate (temperature, humidity, sun, clouds, etc.) you may have to wash the car fairly quickly to prevent water from drying on the surface.
- After rinsing the soap off your car you will most likely have a lot of water beading. This occurs from polymers that are added to the car wash soap as well as the existing sacrificial layer that you have on the paint surface. As a result of this beading, your drying towel may become saturated too quickly (you can just ring it out). One way to circumvent this is to remove your spray nozzle from your hose and let the water from the hose ‘sheet’ the water beads off your car’s surface.
- The fact is that, while the intent is to minimize surface marring to a maximum, simply touching your car’s surface will impart some level of marring. Washing a car without touching the surface is not possible, even with a pressure washer (which is not recommended). Drying a car without touching the surface is possible, however, with a leaf blower – simply work yourself around the car continually blowing hot air over the surface.
- Be careful not to apply too much pressure on the wash mitt – you are trying to remove the dirt/grime from the paint surface without marring it. As such, while moving the wash mitt over the car’s surface, try to imagine that you are applying sun screen to badly sun-burned skin…light pressure is all that is necessary. For stubborn spots, let the soap soak a bit longer than usual – let the soap do its job.
- If you have a cloudy film on the paint surface after drying then you most likely used too much soap in your soap/water mixture – reduce the quantity of soap in the future to prevent the formation of a film. A measuring cup is essential when measuring the amount of soap to use.
- You should remove tags from all towels as these will mar the surface of your car’s finish.
- If you drop a microfiber towel to the ground, don’t ever, ever use it on your car until you have washed the towel properly. It is a good idea to have two or three towels available in case this happens.
- If you live in an area with hard water, you may want to invest in an in-line water filter for your hose.
- A comment about soap suds. The performance of car wash soap is sometimes based on its sudsing action – the more suds, the better the soap. Soap suds, however, can trap dirt particles that are lifted off of the paint surface that can then get caught between your wash mitt and the surface thereby imparting scratches.
- Most wash mitt gloves have a cuff…fold this cuff into the mitt and hold the mitt in the palm of your hand. The cuff is too abrasive and will mar the surface of your car’s finish.
- Weekly washing is not uncommon and is the best way to maintain your car’s finish for many years.
- You will undoubtedly encounter stubborn contaminants that will be difficult to remove such as bugs, tar, bird droppings, tree sap, etc. It is not uncommon for people to use harsh abrasives to remove these contaminants and, in the process, mar the paint. All of these contaminants have the potential to etch the clear coat of your finish, especially bird droppings. As such, it is important to remove these contaminants as soon as they occur – carrying a microfiber towel and a bottle of ONR mixed as detailer (or a quick detailer) is a good idea. In any event, if you are washing your car and you encounter these contaminants, car wash soap will most likely not remove all of them. Bird droppings and bug residue will come off easily but road tar and tree sap are very challenging to remove. The easiest way to remove these tough contaminants is to use automotive detailing clay.
- If at all possible, don’t use an automatic car wash. Two factors lead me to say this. The first is that the brushes used in these car washes are too harsh and will mar your paint’s surface over time. Secondly, the soap used in car washes is often too harsh. Remember, car wash owners want your return business and will do what they can to get your car clean – even if they have to use harsh chemicals. With this said, the chemicals used in ‘touchless’ car washes are even worse! Also, automatic car washes often offer the optional choice of tire dressings – these dressings are often silicone-based (see ‘Tires’) and will sling off the tire onto the paint as you drive thereby leaving a greasy film on the paint (as shown in the picture below).