How-to: Washing & Waxing your car the right way

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New Member
Ogden, UT
In my quest to write down & share some of the car stuff locked in my brain, I'll be posting this up on the forums as well as keeping a back up copy on our website at I will be adding these to my master list of auto related articles.

Think of it as my way of giving back to the car community. This will be broken down in to several different posts.

Nothing beats that feeling of having a truly clean car.

Having a freshly detailed car is very simple, and very easy do it your self work compared to some of the other topics on this site. Compared to going to the pay car washes, or paying for a detail, you can have a squeaky clean car all summer by doing it your self for the cost of 1 or 2 automatic car washes. Automatic car washes can also be very bad for you car ranging from the ones with rotating brushes scratching paint to tearing off parts of your car. Rocker panels or body cladding can be torn off by these. Cleaning can also be a little time consuming, but worth it. Do not buy into products that seem too good to be true. Products such as the "wax as you dry" have great claims, but usually never have good reviews.

Some simple tips before we start. Never, ever, use circular motions when working on the car's paint if they can be avoided. Not while washing, not while polishing, not while buffing. Always use a back and forth motion for washing, scrubbing, drying, waxing and buffing by hand. Using circular motions when working on the paint by hand is what causes most if not all of the swirl marks you see in your vehicles paint. Small dirt particles become trapped in the wash mitt, or pad for wax and leave micro scratches that you see in the form of swirl marks.

Always try to keep a clean surface for washing/waxing/buffing. This means using different sides of the towel, flipping sides to the wash mitt when its full of road grime, and never using a wash mitt or towel after it has been dropped on the ground until after it has been washed. This will also help with eliminating small scratches in your paint.

A small seat with swivel casters can save you tons of back pain if you have a bad back like my self. It will allow you to sit down while working instead of hours of bending over.

Step 1 cleaning your cars finish.

Before we can do anything to protect the cars finish, we must first clean it. If you try to polish the surface of your cars paint with out washing it first, you just grind more dirt into the finish and it may look worse than before you started.

Since we're planning on polishing this car after washing, I recommend washing with a dish soap type detergent soap. No need for expensive, the generic brands seem to work just as good as the name brands. This is 1 time out of 2 I recommend washing with dish soap, the other being before body work or paint. I recommend using dish detergent soap, as it's designed to cut wax and grease from your dishes and it will do the same for you car. All other normal washings I recommend using a good car wash soap such as Mcguires gold class as I like the scent (no point in using a soap you hate to smell) and have been using it for years with great results, the price is not that bad when bought by the gallon. A good car wash soap will not strip off the wax and oils we apply to the paint to protect it. The dish soap will strip any old wax and oils from the paint so we can start fresh.

I recommend using either a sheeps skin (wool) or microfiber wash mit. Either of them work very well at taking the trapped dirt and moving it further down into the nap of the material so that it's not on the surface of the mitt scratching the car. I also use an assortment of the brushes for the wheels, wheel wheels, and hard to reach parts on the bottom of the body, but recommend using the wash mitts for the general washing of the cars body. I will also sneak in soft plastic scouring pad for scrubbing extra stubborn bugs off the front of the car, but if you're too aggressive with this it may scratch.

5 gallon buckets can be purchased cheap, and provide lots of room for water and suds for long washing. Most recommend washing/drying the car in a shaded area to keep the paint cooler so the soapy water does not evaporate from the surface leaving problems. I find that usually It's impossible to find enough shade on the sunny days you actually want to wash your cars on, so if you do wash in direct sunlight, wash quickly working on small areas 4x4' at a time. Don't forget to clean the exhaust tip, ac condenser or radiator, ect. Bugs love to collect in the ac condenser and plug them up.

The price on small electric pressure washers has come down a ton, and almost always use mine to wash the car. I never bother to put soap into the pressure washer, and instead just wash with soap from the bucket then rinse off with the pressure washer. Start with the top of the car, and wash to the bottom leaving the wheels for last. This keeps the wash bucket & mitt cleaner, and keeps dirt and other contaminates from the wheels and dirty lower parts of the car from scratching the cleaner top portion. Fill the 5 gallon bucket with water & suds, and remember to use the back and forth motions while cleaning. Do not be afraid to wash over dirty portions of the car 2 times, I do it all the time and it helps prevent missed spots. If you're going all out, don't forget to wipe down the door sills and insides, under the hatch areas, the shock towers under the hood, and open up the sun roof if you have one and wipe down the painted areas with soapy rag or mitt, then a clean one.

For the wheels I recommend using car wash soap as much a possible with most wheels being of the base coat clear coat painted aluminum type. The more you wash your car, the easier the wheels are to clean. If you must use something else to clean the wheels, I recommend something safe for painted wheels that is not harsh or acidic. If you do use an acidic cleaner on your wheels it may eventually break down the paint and ruin them. Waxing your painted wheels once they're clean also makes them much easier to clean.

Once you've washed all of the car, go back over with the hose or pressure washer and rinse out the entire car, remembering to get the stubborn areas rinsed well so the don't leave little soap spots such as the mirrors, hatch areas, ect. For those of you with soft water, you can just rinse down the car. Others with hard water may want to invest in one of the many devices that removes minerals from your rinse water, such as the Mr clean setup. They're expensive to use but work well at final rinsing the car, I do not recommend using them for the washing of the car though.

Once the car has been rinsed, work quickly to remove water from the surface of the car before drying. I prefer to use a California water blade to remove the majority of the water from the body, then some sort of shami to do a final wipe down and get the contoured parts of the car. Some people recommend not using the water blades because of scratching, but in my experience they work fine on most daily drivers and I would only refrained from using them on a full show quality car that is not a daily driver. The work quickly and are made from medical grade silicone which makes them very flexible and not harsh on the paint. Make sure to give them a quick rinse before using to get any dirt off the surface, the same goes for any shami you're using. The towel I prefer to use to final dry the car is called "the Asorber" and is a synthetic material that soaks up an amazing amount of water for it's size. They're easy to clean (machine washable), and store neatly in the container they come packaged in. If you hate tearing up your wrists trying to wring water from your shami, you can purchase the 2 roller type wringers from Harbor Freight.

Wipe down the car from top to bottom, making sure to wring out the shami often and get all the problem areas that we talked about before (sunroof, door sills, mirrors ect). I like to let the car sit for a while to let all the parts you can't get dry air out before driving so you don't get water coming out and ruing that fresh wash job from driving it right after washing.

If you're just washing the car and not going to wax it, you're done for now. Most manufactures recommend washing your car at least 1 time per week, but your fine to wash your car 2 or 3 times a week if you're a clean freak as long as some care is taken to not scratch it while washing.


New Member
Ogden, UT
Step 2: Polishing, Waxing, And Protecting

Assuming that you're coming with a freshly cleaned car from step 1, we'll proceed to step 2 where we will take care of the cars paint.

Here's a point where you will have to decide how much effort and time you want to put into your cars finish. You can go through the full onslaught, or just wax it.

I personally have never been a big fan of the clay bar. They seem to just smear crap all over the paint for me, or have nothing but problems when using them. I may have just owned cars that are too old, and the paint is too far gone for these to work right, but I'm not going to give comment on how to use them.

Applying wax or compound is something that you want to do in the shade for sure. Having the wax bake on is bad news, if you're using compound it will dry before you have time to actually use it if you do it in the sun. Make some room in the garage so you can pull the car in for this one.

The first portion we're going to start with using rubbing compound on the car to remove deep scratches, swirls, and oxidation of either the clear coat or top layer of paint in a single stage paint job. I seriously recommend purchasing a machine to help you if you're going to go this far. It make the work much quicker and seems to give better results. Just like anything, the more expensive units tend to give better results, and last longer. I have a setup that's right in the middle. I use several buffers that are electric and are a random orbit that take the simple covers over the buffing pad. My best experience with these has been using the micro fiber covers and keeping a good supply of clean ones. I actually have a dedicated old washing machine in the garage for washing polishing towels, covers, rags ect. One trick I use is to clean all my polishing cloths with bleach, and I do not add fabric softener to the wash cycle. The still seem to come out soft, and who knows how the compound you're using will react with whats in the fabric softer. I use a larger 6" buffer for big flat areas, a smaller 4" electric for smaller contoured areas, and a 3" air powder unit for lots of small jobs polishing parts ect. If you use the more pro style units that take hook & loop pads, a lot of people swear by the 3m perfect it style pads.

As for what brand of compounds to use, I love the 3m line of products for pro's. You usually have to go to a auto body supply store to get them (some times pep boys has this line as well), but lots of professional body and detail shops use these day in and day out. The do not contain silicone, and are "body shop safe" some of the products like Zanio contain silicone, and may cause problems if you decide to repaint the car with fish eyes. I've stayed away from the products with silicone, so I can't comment on how to use them. I use the entire 3m line from rubbing compound to imperial glaze, but have had very good luck with Zymol liquid wax in the bottle. I've had tons of friends swear by it, it can some times be found at Walmart making it cheaper to use, I've read reviews by many different people with a lot saying it was the longest lasting wax they used ect.

If you're going all out, you'll have 4 steps to this. The first is a heavy cut rubbing compound, this removes deep scratches ect. Then a fine cut rubbing compound which removes finer scratches, the scratches caused by using the heavy cut compound and leaves paint glossy, some type of glaze which restores the oils to paint, and a coat of wax to seal everything in. The 3m products are taylored to dark or light colors cars.

The heavy cut rubbing compound is amazing stuff. It can take out some serious scratches from the paint. You want to work your way around the car doing small areas at a time, working back and forth with the rubbing compound then letting it dry. Once its dry, you want to keep a clean section of your buffing cloth (I prefer the micro fiber cloths you can get in bulk packages from sams club) and buff it off with a back and forth motion. You want to do sections the size of half of the hood. If you work long enough, or too many time you could eventually rub off all of the clear coat protecting your paint. This is an abrasive substance, so you don't want to go using it on your car 3x a week for 10 years. Just when needed to remove deep scratches. I may use this stuff once right after I buy a car, and not compound it again for 2 years. If you just have a couple of deep scratches, you may want to use it just in those areas. If you have older paint that is 1 stage with heavy oxidization, or the milky white apearance, go to town and do the whole car. Just remember that each part you do with the heavy cut must be gone over with the fine cut to finish it and remove scratches made by using the heavy cut abrasive. Once you've proceed to go over all parts of the car one at time, I'll take a fresh cloth and go over the whole body of the car to catch any places I've missed. Even If I apply compound by machine, I'll buff it off by hand.

Now you can move to fine cut rubbing compound following the same directions for application as the heavy cut compound. Small sections, back and forth motions then let dry and buff off with a clean cloth. You'll want to go over the cars entire body with a clean cloth once done to make sure you don't miss any small spots.

The glazing step is one that is often missed, but can really add that extra deep finish or wet look. The glaze adds natural oils back into the paint that are lost over time. Washing with harsh soap removes these very quickly, washing with car soap will make these last longer, but they still eventually go away. A glaze is a shine enhancing product that goes on after polishing but before the wax or sealant. It is made with oils and wetting agents that amplify your paint’s shine and improve the clarity. Glazes are usually used by auto manufacturers and paint and body shops to prefect freshly painted surfaces before the vehicle is handed over to the consumer. Glazes generally do not have protective qualities, but they may have fillers that hide any slight imperfections in the paint. A glaze is often used by a body shop after compounding to restore the shine and eliminate haze.

A glaze is not a polish or a wax. It is strictly a shine-enhancing agent that will produce a dramatic deep wet glossy look on your paint. Most glazes do not include protective qualities so always follow with a wax or sealant.

Glazing will make an even bigger difference on older single stage painted cars. Same application as wax or compound. Small areas, back and forth motions, apply by machine or hand, and buff off by hand once dry. Go over the entire car with a clean cloth once done to make sure you haven't missed any areas.

Now you can move on to the 4th and final step, waxing. Up to this point you've been getting rid of defects with the paint but not really applying any sort of lasting protection to it. Waxing the car will deepen the shine, while hiding minor scratches by filling them in, and protecting the work you've done. It makes the car easier to clean, and will keep it looking good longer. You can tell when its time to wax your car again because the water will quit beading up on the surface. Waxing protects your paint from harmful elements in the environment like acid rain, bird poop, tree sap, and bug guts.

You want a good wax that lasts, and I've tried several different ones that I like. Zymol has been my favorite for ease of use, and how long it lasts. It has carnauba wax, oils, and other products that are great for paint. Apply just like glaze and compound, back and forth motions, small areas, buff with a clean cloth while switching sides so that there is always a fresh area on the cloth. Once you finish up waxing the car, you can try it out with the "hat" test. With a quality wax, you should be able to toss a hat like a base ball cap on to the hood of the car, and have the hat slide right off the side of the car with how smooth the surface is when your done. You can also wax your wheels it they're painted or powder coated to make them easier to clean.

Congrats, you now have a clean, waxed and shiny car. Try not to spend too much time looking at it.