It’s hard work, but this is the best way to wash your car’s exterior
If you grew up in the 80s or 90s, maybe you remember your parents taking the car for a spin inside one of those old-school tunnel car wash machines at the local petrol station––we certainly do. There was something rather magical about watching the massive, spinning brushes blanket the car in a storm of soap suds and jets of water from the inside, and emerging from the tunnel with a squeaky-clean car. Keeping the family car clean never felt so fun and effortless.
Now we know, of course, that these car wash machines are pretty bad for your car: all those massive, quick-spinning brushes packed with dirt and debris from all the cars that came before yours will scratch, swirl and generally mess up the paintwork on your car. These days, there are automated no-touch machines which are as convenient and far less abrasive.
Nevertheless, washing your car by hand is still by far the best way to make sure it’s as clean as you want it to be. It’s one of the best forms of car maintenance, helping to improve its resale value and lengthen its lifespan by reducing deterioration.
Washing your car is definitely a chore––you can’t really use any old soap and brush and call it a day. But given that you’ve shelled out so much money for your car, it really pays to take care of this asset. Plus, many car owners find there’s a real satisfaction and reward in stepping back and looking at an hour’s hard work transformed into a gorgeously clean car!
But why wash your car regularly? Can’t the rain just wash away the dirt?
Rain alone won’t remove the buildup of dirt, grease, and dust on the surface of your car. When dirt accumulates, it attracts yet more dirt and other substances that cling to the body, accelerating the deterioration of various parts of your car. Washing your car is a preventative maintenance measure.
Step by step: How to thoroughly wash your car
Prep your work area.
Before you start, make sure you have everything ready and in place––get your shampoos, brushes, towels, and hoses ready. We recommend the two-bucket method for washing your car: one with soapy water (use a strong jet of water to activate the suds), and one with water and a grit guard at the bottom. You’ll use the latter to rinse out the dirt from your mitt or sponge.
An important point: avoid cross-contamination where possible. For example, your wheels and tyres are usually super filthy, and if you use the same wash mitt for the wheels on the rest of your car’s body paint, you’re likely to end up with scratches and swirls. This is true even if you take care to rinse them: brake dust particles are tiny enough to be trapped in the fibres of a mitt. Where possible, use different tools and buckets for different parts of your car (or keep changing the water in the buckets).
Maybe don't get everyone else wet?
2. Get it wet.
‘It’ being your car, of course. Think of this as a pre-rinse: Thoroughly wet the vehicle’s surface to knock off excess dirt before you start cleaning, including the underside. You can use a hose, but if you have a pressure washer, the high-pressure (around 40-degree nozzle is good for a wide spray) jet will help remove some of the dirt more efficiently. Make sure the water flow is pointed downwards so it doesn’t drip into your car through the window seals.
If your car is really dirty, wet your car and then cover in snow foam using a foam gun or hand frother, and let it sit for a minute or two to loosen all the grime and debris (like bird poop). You’ll want to include the roof, undersides of the door sills and the bumpers, which can be particularly grimy. Then, blast it all off from top to bottom with a pressure washer. Otherwise, skip to the next step.
Image via Shutterstock 3. Start with your wheels and tyres.
Wheels and tyres are typically the filthiest parts of your car. Doing them last runs the risk of splashing dirt and dust back onto the clean paint. Don’t do double work! You may also want to do the lower body sections behind the wheels if they’re especially grimy.
You will need a cleaner designed specifically for wheels; check your wheels to make sure the product is compatible. A water-based, non-corrosive one suitable for all types is the safest choice.
Spray the wheels to get rid of excess dirt. Clean them one at a time––don’t be tempted to apply cleaners to all the wheels before scrubbing––and rinse each one when you’re done. Use wheel brushes designed specifically for the job. These range from stiff to soft bristles. Stiff-bristle brushes should be used on tyres and wheel wheels; softer brushes used on the wheels and rims will prevent scratches and swirling on the finish. Once you’re finished with the wheels, put the mitt away and bring out the mitt you’ll use for the rest of the car.
4. Clean from top to bottom in small sections
Make sure your car still has a good coating of water, and change out the water in your buckets regularly as you work your way from top to bottom in the following order:
Roof and windshield
Window supports and windows
Hood and top of the boot (if the car has one)
Upper side panels
Middle of the doors and boot
Front grill and bumper
Lower panels and lower part of doors
Rear tailgate/bumper area
The idea is to use the mitt to gently loosen the dirt and rinse it away, as excess force will scratch the paint. Plus, you’ll need to work fast enough to ensure the soap doesn’t dry on the paint and leave residue/water spots. This means rinsing often as you go along and working in small wash areas. If you can, use different mitts for the lower parts of your car, as they are generally dirtier than the upper parts.
Try the following technique: Dip the mitt in soapy water. Use it to make a single, gentle swipe in a straight line––not in a circular motion––flip it over to swipe again, and then rinse the mitt in the ‘dirty water bucket’ to get the remaining dirt off. Wring the mitt dry, then dunk it again in soapy water. Repeat until the car’s been cleaned.
Thoroughly rinse your car from top to bottom with a hose, preferably no nozzle, to let the water flow over the whole car in sheets rather than rivulets to prevent water spots. Don’t leave any soap on the car!
5. Dry your car
Finally, use a dry chamois or large microfibre towel to dry your car. It’s important to be gentle here to prevent scratches: don’t rub, but drape the car with the cloth, lift, wring the water out, and repeat. If you’re wondering which one’s better, microfibre towels generally absorb more water and dry faster. Do NOT use bath towels or cotton towels, as they’ll scratch the car.
If you have the space for extra equipment, you could even try using a hand-held blower to get most of the water off! This blower will also come in very useful for removing ‘hidden’ water from the door sills, door handles, lights, grills, spoilers, and cladding. You don’t want water damage to all these tiny components, and taking a few extra minutes will keep your car nice, dry, and free of water spots.
6. Optional waxing/detailing