How to wash and wax a car properly

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Here are some tips on how to properly wash your car.  I used to think that washing your car just meant scrubbing off the dirt with a brush, and that is why my first car had so many micro-spiderweb scratches in the paint.  Improper washing or automatic car washes are the most common reason for scratches in the paint other than parking lot rash.  This article will show you how to avoid scratching the paint when washing your car.

If you look at the reflection of light in the paint, you will probably see a halo of fine lines in the paint.  These are spiderweb scratches and are caused by improper washing.  If you go to an automatic car wash the brushes will always put these microscratches into your paint so if you want to use an automatic car wash, go to only touchless car washes.  The worst automatic car washes could use less water which causes the brushes to put more scratches into your paint.

These spiderwebs can be removed by polishing the paint, see 1000q: polishing paint to remove them.  Here is an example of spiderwebs caused by poor washing techniques and automatic car washes.  The spiderwebs are halos of micro scratches.  

Here is a picture of an "after" a wash, polish, and wax.  See the difference?


Materials and preparation 

To wash your car, first get two buckets and a soft cleaning sponge or cloth to clean your car.  Your washing sponge should be something that holds a lot of water and soap, reducing the chances of tiny pieces of dirt scratching the paint.  I would not recommend using a brush except for rockguards or lower plastic cladding because brushes don't hold enough water and soap to prevent scratches.  One of the buckets should be used to contain clean soap and water, the other bucket for rinsing the cleaning sponge.  If you were to use the same bucket to rinse the sponge, dirt and contaminants would stay on the sponge and scratch the paint.  If you want to be really careful, place a few layers of screen mesh or other trap at the bottom of the rinse bucket to prevent dirt from getting back onto your washing sponge.  For soap, do not use dishwashing detergent because it is designed to clean grease and baked on food off dishes and will strip all wax and sealants off your car's finish.  

Also make sure that the car is out of strong direct sunlight because it can cause spotting.  If you park on a slight incline, it will help water run off the car.  If your driveway is level, you could push a 1x4 piece of wood against the front or rear tires and drive the car's wheels onto the wood to tilt the car.  Make sure that the wood is not under the drive wheels, as this could cause the wood to shoot out or slide out of place once you start moving.  Also make sure that no one is around the car or holding the wood as you drive onto it.  This trick can also be used if you have a low car and can't fit a floor jack under the proper jack points.

A porter cable random orbital polisher, 1 wash bucket, 1 chenille sponge, 2 polishing pads, and 1 microfiber cloth.  I also suggest a few more cloths and 1 rinse bucket.

Washing Tips

Once you have all your materials ready:

First thoroughly rinse the car to remove large dirt and to wet the car.  Do not use hot water because it strips off the wax.  Always move the cleaning sponge in the direction that air would move over the car, starting at the top of the car, the roof.  Moving in a back and forth motion instead of circles seems to reduce the appearance of micro scratches.  Starting at the top and move around the car before moving to the bottom prevents the crud and sand from the bottom of the door sills, normally the dirtiest part of the car, are not put on top of the car.  Starting at the top also helps keep the car wet and presoaks the lower part of the car.

Drying Your Car

You can use a drying chamois, water blade, or microfiber towel to dry your car.  I recommend waffle weave microfiber towels because an errant piece of sand or dirt blown onto your car could cause a water squeegee to push the particle, creating a scratch.  Push microfiber towels trap it in the deep fibers.

Cleaning the Wheels and Tires

At this point, you can use the leftover soapy water to clean the wheels.  Wheel cleaners tend to be harsh on the paint and tires, so I use them only if I have some tar or buildup that cannot be removed with regular soap and water.  There are also lots of "easy rinse off" or "scrub free" wheel cleaners.  They all work 100% better if you do scrub the wheels.  

Tire dressing: Some tire manufacturers recommend against tire dressings, some do not address it at all.  Some claim that tire dressings contribute to tire sidewalls cracking.  Meguiar's Endurance is one brand that claims to not do so.   Some dealers claim that's why your brakes creak but then they apply it to the cars on the lot.  Applying an excessive amount of tire dressing can cause the excess to fling onto the car paint once the car is moving, and this is bad for the paint.  Try scrubbing your tire sidewalls with soap and a brush - that will naturally restore their appearance, so I try to avoid using tire dressings.

Cleaning the Glass 

For glass, just use the same soap that you use on the paint.  After washing the glass, I highly recommend using Rain-X or a similar product to make water bead off the glass.  It is the one cleaning product that also enhances safety.   I apply it with a paper towel to the front windows, the side view mirrors, and the front and rear windshields.  It makes it so much easier to see in the rain that after using it, you will wonder why everyone doesn't use it.  You have to buff it off with another paper towel or else it will cause streaking.  

Waxing the Car

Before you wax the car, run your hand over the paint.  If it's smooth, go ahead and wax.  If it's rough and grainy, you could wash your car again or try clay bar to remove the contaminant.  Waxing just seals in these contaminants.

Waxing the car also helps preserve the finish of the paint.  First make sure the car is dry, then apply the wax as directed.  It's pretty self explanatory: apply, let dry, buff off.   If you have black plastic trim, avoid putting wax onto it as wax on black trim will discolor the trim and make it appear chalky and milky.  Blue painter's tape works great at protecting black trim.  To save time, I use an electric buffer/polisher over the large areas and then cover the smaller areas by hand.  See the article on polishing paint, since the technique is basically the same.  1000q: polishing paint

Choice of Wax

Waxing is as necessary as washing because it lays a protective layer on top of the paint and can make paint appear more shiny.  If you don't keep the car waxed, road salts and acid rain could damage the paint.  Some people prefer carnauba wax and some people prefer synthetic wax.  I prefer synthetic wax because it lasts longer, between 4-6 months.  Carnauba wax may only last 1-2 months.  As a side note, I have seen liquid turtle wax that says 100% pure carnauba.  This is incorrect because 100% pure carnauba is solid-the turtle wax has at least additives to stay in liquid form.

To save time, I use a great tool for waxing and buffing the paint: the porter cable random orbital polisher.  Unlike a rotary polisher which spins on a single axis, the random orbital polisher moves on a free floating head which spins on a moving axis.  Because of it's random motion, it greatly reduces the chance of burning, or over-polishing the paint in any one spot.  If you went to a dealership or professional auto detailer, they all use something similar because for a business, time is money.  And it is can be used for sanding, polishing, waxing, buffing, etc..  It not only saves time, but it is a necessity if you want to polish the paint.

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