How to Wash a Car: The Art & Science of Hand Washing
Regular car washes are one of the most important things you can do to maintain your vehicle's appearance, resale value, and ultimately your pride of ownership. This seems fairly obvious, but what may come as a surprise is that there are good and bad ways to wash a vehicle. Many factors affect the ultimate outcome, including products, technique, environmental conditions, and even the individual characteristics of the vehicle. Car detailing products and tactics have changed a lot in recent years and we want to help guide you by sharing some lessons learned over 15 years of professional detailing.
Hand Washing vs Automatic Car Washes
One of the most common questions we get from clients is, “what are your thoughts on automatic car washes?” It’s a good question. Driving your vehicle through an automatic car wash at a local gas station or a dedicated car washing facility is a tempting short cut to vehicle maintenance. It seems inexpensive, fast, and convenient - but like all shortcuts there are tradeoffs. We always caution people for a few reasons. First of all, these washes hammer your vehicle with harsh chemicals and/or rough brushes to dislodge dirt and debris from your paint surface, and over the long run can do more damage to your paint than not washing at all. Second, most automatic car washes use brushes that spin to scrub your paint leaving light scratches and swirl marks that can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars to fix. Lastly, automatic washes do a poor job at thoroughly cleaning bugs, tree sap, and bird droppings which can cause lasting paint defects if not properly addressed. This is why hand washing is a better way to maintain the look and finish of your car, truck, or SUV.
Hand washing affords much more control in every aspect of the cleaning process versus an automatic car wash. You get to choose the products, chemicals, towels, brushes, and ultimately the final outcome much better. More importantly, nobody will care more about your vehicle than you, and with very little effort you’ll likely do a much better job washing your car or truck than if you brought it elsewhere.
How to Get Started Washing Your Car
First things first, you need to have the place and space to wash your car. Ideally, we would all have a 4 car garage that is heated in the winter and air conditioned in the summer, but that is not the case for most. The next best thing would be a personal driveway with access to running water. Washing and cleaning your car, truck, or SUV without running water is still possible but it requires more experience and specialized products to do well. If washing outside the environmental conditions are critical. We always recommend washing your car out of direct sunlight, but when that is not possible suggest the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is not at its peak. The sun beating down on your car can cause havoc and stress during the wash process. The sun increases the surface temperature of your vehicle’s paint, glass, and trim which will evaporate water more quickly and greatly increase the probability of water spots and staining from water and cleaning products. Additionally, your space should be clear of trees and other obstructions that might drop leaves, twigs, sap, or bird droppings onto the vehicle. You also do not want to get water or cleaning supplies on anything that may be fragile or could get damaged. Once you have an ideal space you will need to gather the tools, detailing products, and accessories to make it all come together. We make this part easy with curated detailing kits and monthly car care subscription boxes that are packed with high-end shampoos, wheel cleaners, wash mitts, towels, and everything else you need to get the job done.
What Supplies & Tools Do You Need to Wash Your Car
There are some simple things that you'll need to wash your car. Here is the quick and dirty list with more information to follow:
- Hose and sprayer
- Wash mitt or sponge
- Drying towels
- Wheel & interior brushes
Just like any DIY project, washing your car is no different when it comes to balancing skill, experience, tools, and patience. So even if you don’t have a lot of experience, you can easily learn by following some general best practices for products and tools you should use for the job. The first item you will need is a hose. Water is the most common and widely used solvent for washing. To get the water to your work area we recommend a high quality hose with brass fittings and a durable body that won’t puncture, leak, or kink. Hose problems can be extremely annoying but luckily you do not have to spend a fortune to get a quality hose. Just as important as the hose is a good quality spray nozzle that allows you to adjust the pressure of your water. A hose without a sprayer will not deliver the consistent pressure needed to dislodge dirt, grime, and debris. The next thing you should purchase is three different buckets. Why three buckets? Simple.
- Bucket 1: Soapy water
- Bucket 2: Fresh water for rinsing
- Bucket 3: Wheels and tires
This setup is safer for your paint as it separates contaminated water with dirt and debris floating around in it from the fresh suds that are used to clean your vehicle.
Next up is the actual physical washing of the vehicle. We recommend using a high quality wash mitt or sponge made from microfiber. Microfiber helps remove contaminants while reducing the chance of scratching your paint from dragging dirt across the surface with your wash mitt. After you have washed your vehicle you need to dry it. You will need a nice drying towel to easily mop up the water so you do not have water spots left on your car. A drying towel is almost like a bath towel but made from soft microfiber materials but larger than a standard 16x16” microfiber. Many microfiber drying towels are very large and almost the size of a bath towel so you can easily dry a whole vehicle with one towel. Some large SUVs or a pickup may require the use of multiple drying towels. Next you will need some dedicated detailing brushes to clean your wheels and tires. We recommend having a few brushes in varying sizes and various stiffness. Having brushes that can go between spokes or in and around lug nuts and center caps is great but you also may need a longer brush that can reach into the barrel of the inside of the wheel as well as the inner fender wells. Last on the list of supplies you need to clean your car is chemicals. At the very least you need a high quality car shampoo that is pH balanced for your paint and won’t harm or dull your finish. Ignore the old wive’s tales about using dish detergent - kitchen and other home detergents are very rough on paint and will strip protective coatings leaving the paint surface more susceptible to fading and dulling. We also recommend an all purpose cleaner that you can dilute in a spray bottle for cleaning stubborn wheels, grease, tar, bird droppings, bugs, and much more.
How to Take Your Car Washing to the Next Level
There are a few optional tools that professionals use to make car washing easier and less time consuming. The first is a power washer. A gas or electric pressure washer amplifies the force of water that your hose can spray and will help dislodge bugs, tar, brake dust, bird droppings, and just about anything else. The next item we recommend is a foam cannon. A foam cannon attaches to your hose or pressure washer and is filled with car shampoo and water to deliver a soapy foam all over the vehicle. This is a “touchless” way to break down dirt and grime without laying a finger on the vehicle. It can save a lot of time and is also a blast to use. Lastly, tire jam eliminators like these from Jax Wax will prevent hose kinks as you maneuver around the vehicle to fully rinse away the suds.
What are the Best Steps in Washing Your Car
While washing a car is not rocket science, there are a number of helpful tips we’ve picked up over the last 15 years that can improve your car wash regimen.
The first is to start your wash process with the wheels and tires. This is the most filthy and caustic part of the vehicle. Your wheels and tires can be covered in dirt, brake dust, and other contaminants that can be hard to remove. Note: ensure your wheels are cool to the touch as some chemicals can actually stain if allowed to soak onto a warm wheel surface. Start by washing off the wheels with your hose or power washer and then spray with an all purpose cleaner, wheel cleaner, or soapy water. Let the cleaning detergents sit for 30 to 60 seconds and begin scrubbing with a dedicated wheel and tire brush. Use your dedicated wheel bucket for rinsing and additional suds. If you have stubborn brake dust deposits, pitting, or stains you may need to repeat these steps or try a stronger wheel cleaner that has an iron remover to break down the contaminant. Also, don’t forget about your wheel wells and the barrels of the rims - we recommend a good wheel brush that can reach these tricky spots.
The Two Bucket Method is Crucial In Washing Your Car
When you finish with the wheels it’s time to move on to the star of the show. The first step is to fill your dedicated wash and rinse buckets: one for the sudsy car shampoo and another with fresh water and a Grit Guard. This system is known as the “two bucket method.” It allows you to wash your vehicle safely without cross-contaminating your wash mitt with previously removed dirt and debris. The grit guard is a grating that sits in the bottom of your bucket(s) that helps remove dirt and debris from the wash mitt. The unique grating pattern allows solid particles to sink to the bottom of the bucket thus reducing the chance of getting scratches and swirls from a dirty wash mitt.
Step one for washing your car is to thoroughly rinse the vehicle to wash away as much dust and debris as possible. This is where a pressure washer can be really helpful. After you have rinsed off the loose dirt you can begin washing the car with a soapy wash mitt or sponge from the dedicated wash bucket. Always wash the vehicle from top to bottom, then choose a side of the vehicle and continue scrubbing down the pillars and windows and then the door, fender, and quarter panel. We always leave the lower 8-10 inches of the body panels for last as this is usually the dirtiest part of the car besides the wheels and we do not want to drag dirt and debris across the rest of the car. We highly recommend rinsing the wash mitt after each body panel and checking for debris in the microfibers early and often.
After washing you should thoroughly rinse all the soap off the vehicle. Begin drying from top to bottom, and expedite this step if you’re working in direct sunlight or in hot/humid environments to avoid water spots. Many drying towels are large and you can quickly dry large panels by laying them flat and dragging it towards the edge. Historically, a chamois or synthetic drying towels were popular, however many discovered they actually increase the chance of scratching your vehicle because they do not have the weaves or depressions to hide the dirt as you are drying your vehicle. Lastly, if you're like us and hate seeing water mysteriously appear from side mirrors and other crevices - get a MetroVac Master Blaster and your detailing life will be changed forever.
The last step is to rinse out your wash mitt(s), towels, brushes, and buckets for next time. And now that your car is squeaky clean, dry, and hopefully swirl free, you are finished with the wash process. Congratulations!
For more tips on detailing your vehicle check out our blogs on a regular basis where we dive into topics like Graphene vs. Ceramic Coatings, paint protection, microfiber care, interior detailing tips, leather care, engine bay detailing, polishing aluminum wheels, and much more.