This is the proper way to hand wash your car (vvvracer,... This is the proper way to hand wash your car (vvvracer, Flickr).
Summer is upon us. The kids are off. If you have time on a sunny Saturday, one way to put a smile on everyone's face, and feel sunny yourself is to put a decent shine on the family car.

There is a right way and wrong way to wash a car. This promises to be the last article you ever need to read about how to properly wash and polish up your favorite set of wheels.

At AOL Autos, we have spent time considering the not only the finish of our own car, but the legion of swirl marks that mar it. Informal surveys at stop lights revealed that nearly every car appears to have fallen victim to the same thing: a car washing technique that removes most of the surface dirt but that, at the same time, ruins the silky sheen of new-car paint.

This year we decided we were going to figure out how to get those marks out, and how to wash our car so that we wouldn't put any more marks in it. That meant a trip to Meguiar's, the car-care product specialists, in Orange County to spend a day with the two Michaels – Michael Pennington and Michael Stoops. It was like having two Mr. Miyagis from The Karate Kid films teach us how to "wax on, wax off," and also let us know that just about everything we thought we knew about car care was wrong.

Meguiar's has been around since 1901 and started out making products to care for furniture. That led to car care solutions in the twenties, when cars and household furniture had a lot more in common than they do today. The brand is now in 93 countries worldwide and the largest manufacturer of auto finish care products.

Our Bucket List

It was a hot, sunny day, I had driven at least an hour to get there and I thought we'd get right into it. Not so – we had to wait for the outside of the car to cool down.

"You want the paint to be cool to the touch so you don't flash dry the soapy water," said Stoops. "A cool surface is the really critical part."

Once the metal had cooled I was given two buckets to fill, one with soap and water, one with just water. At the bottom of each bucket was a grit guard, a round plastic baffle that rested a couple of inches above the bottom of the bucket and that kept the sponge from falling to the bottom.



First Stop: The Wheels

Then we washed the wheels first.

"It's good to address the wheels while there's not much of anything on them," said Stoops. Cleaning the wheels first instead of last has the added benefit of keeping any wheel dirt from flying onto the car you just washed. Yes, we know – why did we not think of this before? The key to cleaning your wheels safely is to know what kind of wheels you have.

"Wheel cleaning products vary in the level of how delicate they are on a finish. Chrome is hardy, but bare, aftermarket, highly-polished aluminum isn't – in fact, it is the most difficult to care for. Factory wheels, those your car was born with, are always clear-coated in some way, but once you go aftermarket you need to watch out."

We used a mitt just for the wheels, and then a high quality brush for stubborn areas and difficult-to-reach places like the brake calipers.

Mitt ... Not Brush Or Towel

The four corners done, we moved on to the body.

"Washing and drying your car is where the vast majority of swirl marks are going to come from," said Stoops, "that's why we're big proponents of the two-bucket method, with a grit guard in each. The point is to get the dirt off the car, then get it off the microfiber wash mitt into your rinse bucket, not put it back into the soapy water. The baffle just keeps the dirt from swirling around at the bottom of the bucket back up into your water."

Notice that Stoops said "microfiber mitt," not "brush" or "towel."

"The biggest mistake people make is using a cotton towel or an old beach towel, and an old beach towel tends to have old beach sand in it. They're not removing the dirt from the paint, all they're doing is grinding it around and into the paint."

Don't Use Dish Soap

And if you were considering using dish-washing detergent to wash your car, well, they don't recommend that.

"Dishwashing detergent is very effective at getting grease off dishes. Car wax and grease have similar properties, so if it's good for removing grease it's also pretty good for removing wax."

We used Meguiar's Gold Class Car Wash and Shampoo. "It doesn't strip your wax, helps to keep the shine and it's completely biodegradable. If you're on a budget, try our Crystal Car Wash."

We washed one panel at a time, starting at the top and working down: roof, hood, trunk, then the body panels, doing one panel at a time. Each panel was washed and then rinsed before moving to the next one.

The Most Important Step

"It's critical that you dry your car," said Stoops. "We get calls all the time from people who say they have water spots after washing their car, then they tell us they let it air dry. Well of course you're going to get water spots. Always dry the car. Our preference is to use our water magnet, a waffle-weave microfiber drying towel – it has a specific type of microfiber weave that's highly absorbent."

While this will make an extra step for some people, once the car has been cleaned and finished properly it can actually go quite quickly. You can do a soft rinse - that's taking the sprayer off the hose and letting a steady stream over the vehicle - and "it'll sheet the majority of water off the car," said Stoops, "and you can blot it dry. And the less you touch the finish the less change you have of marking it."

With the surface dirt removed, it was time to make some repairs to the finish, and that meant using the clay. Not exactly the doughy ball you played with in elementary, this clay is formulated to remove the contaminants bonded to the surface of the car.

Clay For Your Clear Coat

"When you're driving down road your car collects 'road film,' a generic term used to describe any and all fallout that that surface is exposed to like industrial fallout and tree sap mist," said Stoops. "Given time, and not cleaning it off properly, it'll start to bond to the paint. Your paint should feel literally as smooth as glass, and that's what clay will take it back to."

We used Meguiar's Smooth Surface Clay Kit, which includes two 60-gram bars and a bottle of Quick Detailer to lubricate the clay and the car surface. Spray the detailer on the car and "use a light rubbing motion – you don't need or want a lot of pressure," said Stoops. "Back and forth or circular strokes makes no difference. You can move that clay pretty quickly and you can actually get it done pretty quickly."

As the clay picks up the bonded contaminants it turns a dirty yellow-brown. All you need do then is fold it over – just like the doughy ball from elementary school – to expose fresh clay, then get back to it.

"In general, one bar is enough for one car, or even more than one," said Stoops.

It was at this point that we really got excited about having spent two hours – so far – washing our car because we could feel it. Instead of the bumpy, textured finish we had arrived with – it was almost like reading braille on the roof and hood – the surface of the car was porcelain smooth.

Attack The Swirls

Then it came time to attack those swirl marks, done with Meguiar's Ultimate Compound and a dual-action polisher. This step is not called polishing, however; it's called paint cleaning because you're repairing the surface of that top layer of clear paint. You can also use a foam pad for application.

"The towel marks, etchings from bird droppings, maybe a shopping cart or your kid's bike has put a scrape in the finish, or ladies' fingernail marks on the cups behind the door handles – all those things are below-surface defects. They're all removed the same way," said Stoops. "If you're doing it by hand we like to see a little passion behind the pad, some elbow grease. Do small areas at a time, maybe a foot square, for 30 seconds to a minute and wipe it off while it's still wet." It is only doing its job when it's being rubbed on or off the car, not when it's left untouched.

"With a polisher you can go up to two feet by two feet, but half the hood is not a small area. Wipe it straight off with microfiber cloth."

Don't Be Afraid of the Polisher

Some DIY-ers see a polisher and turn the other way, preferring to apply by hand because of horror stories they've heard, but Stoops said it was a case of mistaken identity.

"People are always afraid of using the polisher. That comes from the improper use of a high-speed rotary, which is fantastic if you know what you're doing with it, but it can burn your paint if you don't. A dual-action polisher takes that danger out of the equation. It's very safe and very easy to learn how to use, and yet it still has power to get results you really want to get. Don't be afraid of it."

This step, while getting rid of most of the small swirl marks, has the surprising affect of making the larger swirl marks more apparent. The longer, deeper marks "may show up more readily now that you've removed the 'noise.' You might just need to go at those a little more vigorously."

With your vehicle truly clean, you're ready to polish. Again clarifying the proper terminology, this is not to be confused with waxing.

"Since 1901 we've defined 'polishing' as the creation of a brilliant high gloss," said Stoops. "It doesn't clean defects, but it can go further now that you've removed the defects. For a daily driver that you're not trying to win a show with, you may want to skip this step."

The process is similar to paint cleaning but you don't need as much 'passion behind the pad.' "Use a foam pad for application, do small areas, work it in lightly and work it off while it's still wet."

Almost Done

If you're still with us, only now is it time to wax the car. If you're not sure about using a carnuba or a synthetic wax, Stoops said it's down to individual tastes.

"There may be some subtle appearance differences that come down to personal preference, but carnuba is the hardest of the naturally-occurring waxes and the best at protecting the finish, while synthetics will last longer and protect better overall."

"The bottom line with any of them," he said, "is to apply a thin and uniform coat. The adage that 'some is good and more is better' does not apply here. More wax takes longer to dry and is harder to remove, and you gain nothing from that. You can wax the entire car at once with a foam pad, let it dry for 15 to 20 minutes – it's the only product you let dry – then remove with a microfiber cloth."

And that, finally, is the car kind of done ... you only have the tires, headlights, engine and interior left to do.

Details, details

The tires were dressed with Meguiar's Endurance line, which comes in gel, aerosol or trigger spray. If the car has other jewelry that you'd like to polish, you can use a wheel-cleaning product such as Hot Rims Mag or Hot Rims All Metal, since such ornaments are likely to be chromed.

Polishing the headlights was done with Meguiar's Headlight Restoration Kit, which allows you to mount a wool pad at the end of a power drill.

The engine was the easiest part, requiring no more than a spray-on application of cleaner – this was a light-duty job – a little brushing for agitation, and a light stream of water to rinse.

For the cabin Meguiar's offers water-based protectants in "natural shine" and "supreme shine" formulations. Our favorite part about them was that both dry to the touch, so there's no greasy feeling or slipping and sliding to accompany the glowing leather. The company's quick interior detailer is even safe for navigation screens, but again, and as with the tire dressing, a little bit goes a long way.

Finally done

It was hours later by the time we were finished, and completely worth it – our car looked better than it did the day we bought it. Still, the idea of needing to spend the equivalent of half a workday every Sunday cleaning our car wasn't the most appealing idea ever, but Stoops promised us it goes much faster with practice.

"If it's a wash and wax you can knock it out in a couple of hours if you're quick, and 20 minutes of that is letting the wax is dry. While that's happening you can clean up the interior."

The company has an online forum at www.meguiarsonline.com with more than 30,000 members who can address almost any issue when it comes to car care, and if you're in the Southern California area they offer Open Garage Sessions and detailing classes every week, free of charge, to come try out the products and learn how to use them.

For the time being, we'll be content to just park our car in the garage and admire it for a while ...


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  • 214 Comments
      moch5team
      • 3 Years Ago
      Ah, now if only I had a Red Dodge Viper.
      jmenor3
      • 3 Years Ago
      My neighbor in Maryland would soap up his entire (black) car in the scorching sun, without rinsing. Then, he would hose it off, wait for it to dry, and go over the whole thing with Windex and a filthy towel to get rid of the dried soap and water spots. I was absolutely horrified. This was a beautiful Cadillac, and he was an idiot.
      mshollywooddog
      • 2 Years Ago
      The one and only thing needed to wash a car is water - Ferrari and Lamborghini have been using it for decades. Same for the wheels:H2O! And only dry the body of the vehicle with good qualtiy micro fiber towels which are manufactured for that purpose. To remove bird droppings use a towel soaked in water and leave it on top of the droppings for a numebr of minutes, then pick the thing up with one motion without rubbing. Let the waxing and polishing up to the professionals and have the process repeated every 6 months. The real pros work indoors only (in their own shop), there are too many particles in the outdoors and the car's paint can get damaged when the wax is applied. Anyone who comes with their truck to detail your car in your driveway is just taking your money and paying your car a disservice!
      arenadood
      • 2 Years Ago
      The best drying method I ever used was a quick drive down the freeway. blew all the water off including the spots a cloth or towl can't get.
      Margaret
      • 2 Years Ago
      Any washing recommendations where I don't have to buy $100.00 worth of products?
        Tom
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Margaret
        If all you want to do is wash the car, then any of the name brand (Mequiars, Turtle, etc.) car wash products will work just fine...$ 8-10. Don't use Dawn dishwashing liquid, unless you're prepping to put on a coat wax immediately following the wash. Get a good white, 100% cotton, Made in America, towel (see my other post on here) for drying it off. Dry it as soon as you're finished washing. DO NOT use a chamois (natural or synthetic) as they aren't so keen for today's modern finishes. There are two keys to washing your car; plenty of soap, and rinse, rinse, rinse. If you're looking for something that works great for shining your finish, and your car is a daily driver, I don't think you can beat Nu Finish...laugh if you want to but, I've been using on my 1984 Toyota Landcruiser FJ60 for about ten years and it looks great (I know, in my other post I said I was using Zaino...my bad...it's the one vehicle, in addition to my trailer, that I don't use the Zaino on.) What's great about Nu Finish is that you can use it in the sun, although I don't recommend it because it dries and builds up too fast...do it in the shade. Yes, it leaves some white residue in the seams if you have a dark colored vehicle but, spend a little time getting rid of those and your good for at least a full year. It works. So...what's the total? Car wash soap-$8.00, five gallon bucket from Lowe's or Home Depot-$ 5.00, cotton towel from BB&B-$15.00, Nu Finish from Pep Boys/Advance Auto/etc.-$9.00, microfiber waffle towel for removing Nu Finish, from Auto supply store-$10.00, and another cotton towel for buffing out final finish from BB&B-$15.00. That comes to a total of about: $62.00 and should last you, oh let's say at least a couple of years, if not more. Of course, if you're not real particular about the finish, you could skimp on the towels and buy the softest cotton blend towels you can find for about $3.00 each, get a bucket at Walmart for a couple of dollars, but everything else is what it is, and probably the least expensive route to take. Like I said, if you're just washing, then throw out everything else and save $30.00 or so. Last but not least, use the brushless, automatic car wash, with wax, for $8-10 dollars per, and call it good. It won't look as great as doing it by hand but, it saves a lot of time and least gets the big chunks off.
        Tom
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Margaret
        Oh, almost forgot that you will need a microfiber wash glove ($5.00) and microfiber applicators for the Nu Finish. This gets us close to $75.00 but, still under the $100.00.
      cimarelli427
      • 2 Years Ago
      The first thing i do after i wash my $80,000 sports car is sit my pretentious blue jean , riveted pocket wrapped ass on the fender!
        • 2 Years Ago
        @cimarelli427
        That hurts!
      • 3 Years Ago
      Wash ... WASH the wheels first! You treat the tires and polish/wax the wheels last. And if the compliments on the polish don't make you want to do it more often alt least find a way ..even a drive through.. to get the brake dust off your wheels at lease monthly. I use Zaino and make those other show polish boys jealous.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Doesn't washing the tires first make the water dirty? I've always started with the 'cleanest' parts first, and worked my way to the tires last, because they were the dirtiest.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Or I can just drive it through a car wash. Save me 14 hours and about $200
      • 2 Years Ago
      Personally, I'm fed up with all these AOL links to pieces every day that tell us that EVERYTHING we've ever done in our entire lives is WRONG. If that were the case we'd all be dead by now. Give us a freakin' break already. SOME of us have a degree of common sense, or intelligence.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Wheels first is what I do "most" of the time. Yes, lots of abrasive particles in the brake dust. DO NOT use the same wash water for your wheels and painted areas. NEVER. When done right you can do the wheels in any order, as long as you rinse off the painted areas after. I also use de-ionized water (mineral free) to reduce the marks caused by grit.
      • 3 Years Ago
      also using dishwashing liquid is a lie Cause ive been using dishwashing liquid for over 10 yrs on the same truck and still have the clear finish on it and its a 93' So its all just a Big lie to make you buy there stuff '
        awcooter
        • 3 Years Ago
        he didn't say it striped the "clear coat" (which would be impossible with any detergent). he said it stripes the wax, wich it does.
        • 2 Years Ago
        The best my car has looked in years is when I washed it with DAWN ! stripped off all the old wax ,looked like a new paint job ! Then to wax over that was beautiful ! the car is nearly ten years old too !
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