For many vehicle owners washing a car is something apart of every weekend and most feel they know how to do it properly. But in my experience, I have found most people are still ill-informed. Detailing forums, product instructions, and tools can all be very confusing. In the paragraphs below, you will learn how to clean your car the proper way using techniques, tools, products, and processes that are used by professionals and used by Drive by Detail. This is our in-depth wash process for every vehicle and our guide for the weekend warrior looking to wash his or her car.
Don't use dish soap. This is a common mistake many people make. Dish soap strips your car's paint of any protective layers that you may have previously applied, i.e. waxes and sealants. While dish soap will not harm the paint itself, it is not recommended for use unless your goal is to expose the paint. Instead, we recommend a pH neutral shampoo formulated for cars. We use Griot's Garage Car Wash and Optimum ONR.
Don't wipe an area more than once. Many people believe that the more you clean an area the better it will look. People use lots of pressure and wipe an area many times. This has the opposite effect and actually dulls the paint. When cleaning the paint you are only trying to loosen the dirt by agitating with a wash mitt. If you scrub the paint more than once you risk creating tiny scratches called swirl marks which take away from the luster of a clean car.
Do... use a separate wash mitt for wheels and tires. Using a separate wash mitt prevents cross contamination. Your wheels and tires are covered in sand, brake dust, dirt, iron fallout, and tar. You do not want any of these to be rubbed into your paint marring the car's finish.
The "Two bucket wash method" Many detailers will use what is called a "Two bucket wash method" this means when washing a car you will use two separate buckets. One is for clean water to rinse your mitt in and the other is for soapy water. After using the wash mitt, they will ring it out using the clean water bucket to remove the dirt from the wash mitt before using it again on the car paint. This is all in an effort to avoid scratching the car paint. While the two bucket wash method does work, there are better and more efficient options. We use one bucket with a grit guard and a special polymer-based pH neutral car shampoo to prevent scratching and this works great. We also implement a plethora of unique preventative measures to ensure we do not scratch your car's paint.
These are just a few of the many things to avoid while washing a car. I can not list all of the common mistakes as that would take far to long. With this being said we can move into how to clean your car the right way.
Washing the paint
To clean the paint you will need car soap, pressure washer, air compressor, a five-gallon bucket, grit guard, wash mitt, foam cannon, degreaser, clay bar, wheel cleaner, iron and tar remover, wax or sealant of your choice, and a drying towel.
Before you begin you should remove all jewelry including watches and rings. You may accidentally scratch the car's paint will washing the car if you do not remove them.
First, we will begin by preparing our equipment and area. This is necessary to conserve time throughout the wash process so it will be less likely water will dry on any part of your vehicle leaving undesirable water spots. Start by setting up your pressure washer, filling the foam cannon with pH neutral car soap, filling your bucket with pH neutral car soap, inserting grit guard into the bucket, and unpacking and laying out any additional products or tools. Once this is done move onto the first step.
The first step is a touch-less wash. This is done because the contaminants on the paint can scratch the finish if rubbed in. To prevent this we begin by washing the car without touching it. Always start from the top and work down.
To start, rinse the car down with a pressure washer. Use a wide-angle spray pattern and make sure to keep the nozzle 8-12 inches away from the paint to prevent any damage. The goal is to loosen any large particles that may be on the paint. It is okay to miss some because we will eventually clean it.
After the initial rinse, attach the foam cannon to the end of your pressure washer and foam down the car. The foam cannon will spread a thick layer of suds over your car which will loosen and carry away dirt. Allow the soap to dwell on the car for about one minute before rinsing.
The second step is a hand wash. Grab the bucket filled with soap and a microfiber wash mitt. Make sure the bucket is filled with suds. Next, dip your wash mitt into the bucket and make sure its covered in suds. These suds will provide lubrication which prevents scratching and swirl marks.
Start by washing the car from top to bottom. Always wash in straight lines and never wash a section more than once or twice. This prevents swirl marks and even if you accidentally create micro scratches they will be in straight lines which are easier to remove.
After cleaning a panel your wash mitt has become full of contaminants and dirt. Before washing another panel rinse off the wash mitt and be sure to agitate against the grit guard to remove any trapped contaminants. Now dunk your wash mitt back into the suds and repeat for all of the other panels.
Cleaning areas typically forgotten or missed is what separates an average detailer from a great detailer. Cleaning areas like behind the gas cap door, door and trunk jambs, mirrors, grills, emblems and other hard to reach areas are what separates us from the competition. To clean the hard to reach areas we enlist the help of a detailing brush. These are relatively inexpensive and I would recommend one if you want to take your cleaning ability to the next level.
Once you are done washing you can do a final rinse of the car and move to the next step.
Drying is a very important step and is often overlooked. A drive around the block does not dry your car. To dry your car you should use a microfiber drying towel and compressed air. If you do not use compressed air water will drip down from areas like mirrors and emblems that cannot be dried with a microfiber towel. This can leave water spots that can only be removed with a clay bar or light polishing.
Cleaning the tires, wheels, and fender wells.
To clean the tires you will need a few additional tools: Tire brush, lug nut brush, wheel face brush, separate wash mitt, fender well brush, and wheel barrel brush.
To start rinse off the tires to loosen any brake dust or particles. Next, spray the wheel, tire, and fender wells with degreaser and let the degreaser dwell for about one minute. After the degreaser has dwelled rinse it off. Next spray the wheel with iron and tar remover and let it dwell until you see the chemical turn purple.
Next, you should take your brushes and dip them into the wash bucket. Take your fender well brush and scrub the fender wells until clean. After this take your tire brush and scrub the tire. You want to make a few passes around the tire to ensure all previous tire dressing and contaminants are removed leaving you with a clean tire.
Now we will clean the barrel and face of the wheel. Take your wheel barrel brush and put in in-between the spokes of the wheel to reach the barrel. Now agitate to remove the brake dust and dirt. Last we will clean the face of the wheel and lug nuts. Use your wheel face brush and wheel wash mitt to remove dirt from the face of the wheel. Lastly, take the lug nut brush and clean any hard to reach areas such as the lug nuts and brake calipers. Do a final rinse and inspect the area to make sure you got everything. Repeat for all remaining tires.
Once you are done cleaning you can move onto drying the tires. We use compressed air to achieve perfect results but a microfiber towel will also work.
Decontaminating the paint
Pollutants are collected on the surface of your paint from routine driving. These pollutants are often referred to as "industrial fallout" or "rail dust" and they can not be seen with the naked eye. It is very important to remove these contaminants because if they are left untreated it can cause "clear coat failure." This is where they eat into the clear coat and erode it away over time leaving an exposed, dull, and unpleasant finish.
This step is optional and does not need to be completed after every wash. To determine if your paint needs a decontamination service lightly run your hand across the paint. If the paint feels rough that means there are contaminants embedded in the paint that needs to be removed. These contaminants can not be removed from regular washing.
CHEMICAL VS MECHANICAL
If you determine your paint needs a decontamination there are two ways to remove the contaminants. Chemical and mechanical, a chemical decontamination means you do not remove the contaminants by touch. Instead you use various chemicals to break down and carry away these contaminants. A mechanical decontamination is where you use a clay bar to physically remove these from the paint.
Which is better? Both of these methods will achieve the same results so we consider other factors when making our choice. Price is a considerable factor for most people, but if money is no object we recommend a chemical decontamination because it decreases the chance of scratching the paint. Mechanical decontamination will not scratch your paint either as long as you use a clean clay bar, plenty of lubrication, and light pressure. We often choose chemical for the sole reason that it takes far less time. A chemical decontamination may take 5 minutes but a mechanical can take 15 - 30 depending on the size of the vehicle. So for whatever option you choose make sure to follow the manufacturer's directions for safe and effective use. Once you are done you can move on to the last step.
Waxes, Sealants, and Coatings
This is another area where extreme confusion can set in. With hundreds of waxes, sealants, and nano-coatings all promising to bring more depth, clarity, and protection then the last most people have no idea what to choose. I usually recommend a carnauba wax for anybody who does not know much about the subject. A carnauba wax provides a rich shine and short-term protection from the outside elements. If you would like to know more about the subject, read our guide to waxes vs. sealants vs. coatings.