Let's Get Technical: Car Washing Tips

By Tom Dobush, February 2013

One of the early signs of Spring is a long line at the car wash on days when temps consistently creep above freezing. Just about everyone can appreciate a nice clean ride. I get questions about washing and detailing all the time so I’ll take this opportunity to share some of the important basics. There is a lot more to properly washing your car than just soap and water. With anything technical involving your car, be sure to do your own research and consult a professional. The idea is to clean your car and protect its value, not diminish it by unknowingly causing damage. Be sure to read and follow all instructions of any products you choose to use.

There are hundreds of products out there for the cleaning process and there are differing opinions on what is best, but for a thorough clean you will want to make sure you have the basics: bug and tar removing spray, dish soap, a clay bar kit, car wash soap, 2 or 3 five gallon buckets, wheel cleaner and brush, 2 or 3 micro fiber wash mits or pads, 5-10 microfiber towels, glass cleaner, paper towels, interior cleaner/protectant, and a half inch short haired paint brush.

Generally, I like to vacuum the interior first, making sure to remove the floor mats and get underneath the seats. Don’t forget the trunk and underneath the hood where leaves, pine needles and acorns like to accumulate. Wipe down the interior windows, remembering to spray the glass cleaner onto the paper towel or microfiber cloth directly to avoid leaving overspray spots all over the interior. Avoid using glass cleaner that contains ammonia on tinted windows as they can react negatively. Using a fresh micro fiber towel, wipe down all appropriate surfaces with an interior cleaner and/or protectant. It is best to work from the top down, starting on top of the dash, then instrument cluster, steering wheel on down to the center console. To finish off the interior, use a small paint brush to work all seams that collect dust and dirt.

For the exterior of the car, choose a place that is out of direct sunlight. Even a cool day the sun’s rays can dry the car prematurely causing poor results later. A quick walk around and visual inspection is a good idea, checking for any signs of rust or paint chipping, especially on older or vintage cars. Pay close attention to any areas that could be damaged by scrubbing or direct spray from a hose, especially a pressure washer. Wet the car down, using gravity to your advantage, start at the top and work your way down. Take your time and be thorough, removing as much of the loose dirt from the paint as possible, as well as inside the wheel arches, the rocker sills and front and rear valences.

Spray the bug and tar remover on the leading edges and around the wheel arches to get the tough grime loosened up. This needs as much as a few minutes to work before scrubbing. Spray down the wheels with wheel cleaner, let sit for a minute or two, but be aware that wheel cleaners tend to be very harsh. Instructions should be followed carefully, letting the cleaner sit on the wheels for too long by even an extra few minutes could cause damage. A wheel brush works great to get in the hard to clean places.

Sponges tend to hold onto dirt and should be avoided. It is best to use three separate microfiber mits, one for washing the upper two thirds of the car, one for the bottom third and the grimey bug removal, and one for the wheels if needed. Brake dust by nature is very abrasive, so anything used to scrub wheels should NEVER touch paint.

You can use mild dish soap as the stripping part of a multistage wash. Dish soap will strip any old wax and oil off the paint, leaving it completely naked or exposed. ONLY DO THIS if you plan to then rewash the entire car again with carnauba car wash soap and then apply a sealer or wax. Otherwise the paint will be completely unprotected from the elements.

Fill one bucket with soapy warm water. Fill the second bucket with warm water and use for rinsing your microfiber mits after wiping the dirt off the car. A rinse bucket helps to prevent scratching your paint. The tiny dirt particles can accumulate in your mits and cause swirls in the paint from scrubbing, so always use light pressure while applying a soapy mit to the paint and be sure to rinse the mits often. A separate second mit should be used for the dirtier lower third of the car. If a mit gets dropped on the ground it should ALWAYS be thoroughly rinsed in a sink to remove any dirt or pebbles that could cause scratching.

Car washing should always be done in overlapping sections, say for instance one panel at a time or no larger than a four foot by four foot area. Most importantly is to hand wash in straight lines, north-south or east-west, and avoid circular motions of any kind. If the paint does get scratched, a straight line is much easier to buff out than a curved swirl.

With the car still wet after the first wash, I like to clay bar the paint, windshield and chrome. Depending how dirty your car is, this can be an extra step that makes a huge difference. The clay bar is just that, a piece of clay that can very lightly be rubbed, again in straight line motions, against paint to remove impurities. Paint, chrome and glass are actually porous and the clay bar will absorb tiny dirt particles left behind by normal washing. The clay will become dirty and should be kneaded often, like silly putty. Very little pressure (almost none) is needed when clay barring the car, and the bar should always be well lubricated with either a carnauba car wash soap or spray detailer while the car is wet. Once done with a small section, be sure to rinse the car again with the hose, at which point you should notice a clear difference on how the water beads on the paint. The smoother, cleaner paint holds much less water as there is less surface tension to hold the beads of water in place. When finished, gently dry the car with a synthetic absorbent shammy to minimize water spots.

My next article will cover polishing, sealing and waxing which is equally important to protect your car’s paint, and should be done regularly after washing. I greatly appreciate your questions and feedback and can be easily reached at BavarianRocketScience@gmail.com. Thanks for reading and happy motoring!