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Car Care 101: How To Wash A Car

Posted in Car Care, General, How To by Kurt Ernst | March 23rd, 2010 | 2 Responses |

Are you REALLY going to let that belt buckle near your paint?

If you love your ride, chances are you wouldn’t consider taking it to a drive through car wash. The brushless ones never seem to get your car clean, and the ones that use brushes (even the new soft foam brushes) can scratch paint if they’re not kept clean. Your ride may not be a Ferrari 250 GTO, but you still want to keep it looking nice; now that Spring is here, it’s time to spend a Saturday morning bonding with your car. Here’s how to properly wash it, from the roof to the wheels.


Step 1: Find a shady spot to work

Better. She's washing in the shade and wearing only soft fabric.

Sun is the enemy of car washing, as it causes water spotting, soap film and streaking. Find a spot that has some shade, or wash the car in the early morning or late afternoon. Always wash your car before it’s been driven for any distance. Cold water on hot brake rotors, hot wheels and hot body panels is not a good thing.

Step 2: Use the right stuff

Meguiar's Gold Class is good stuff

Always start with a soap meant specifically for washing cars. I don’t care what brand of car wash soap you use, since they’re all good enough to get the job done. Never use dish soap or laundry soap, as neither was designed to wash cars and both can strip the wax from a car’s finish.

Start with a clean bucket (better if you dedicate one just to washing cars), add the recommended amount of car wash liquid and spray in the water to create a decent bucket of suds. Now grab your wash mitt.

My preference? Sheepskin, but I'm old school.

I prefer sheepskin mitts for car washing, but a microfiber mitt will work just as well. Here’s the key thing: it has to be absolutely clean, since any embedded grit will scratch your paint. If you dropped the mitt on the ground, you’re not going to shake or rinse out all the grit; it needs to go through the washing machine before you use it on a car.

Got your bucket o’suds? Got your clean mitt? Good – drop the mitt in the suds, and let it soak up the soapy liquid. We’ll get back to it in a little bit, but first, we’ve got some wheels to clean.

Step 3: The wheels

Simple Green is great for cleaning wheels.

Brake dust is nasty, corrosive stuff. Leave it on your wheels long enough, and no amount of scrubbing will make them look decent again. You can spend a ton of money on exotic wheel cleaner sprays, most of which are acid based. In other words, if you don’t use them correctly they can etch your wheels, etch your driveway and probably do nasty things to your skin. My preference? Simple Green, which is an all purpose, biodegradable cleaner that works on just about anything. The best part is you can find it anywhere, and it’s a lot cheaper than a specialized wheel cleaner spray.

First, spray your tires and wheels down with water. Next, spray generous amount of Simple Green on the wheel and tire and let it sit for a minute. Now, get out your tire brush. Of course you have a tire brush, right?

For tires, any medium stiff bristle brush will work

If not, here’s what you need – a broad head scrub brush with medium stiff bristles. Nylon is fine, unless you feel compelled to shell out the big bucks for a natural bristle brush. Remember, this is just for scrubbing tires, so don’t use it on painted surfaces unless you like scratched paint or clearcoat.

Spray the brush down with water and throw on another squirt of Simple Green. Use a circular motion to scrub the dirt and old tire shine off your tires, but try not to hit the wheels. If the brush is stiff enough to clean your rubber tires, it may be stiff enough to scratch the paint or clearcoat on your wheels (and yes, most alloy wheels are painted these days).

Once you’re done with the tire, you can move on to the wheels. Get your wheel brush out, and spray it down with clean water. You’ve got a dedicated wheel brush, right?

Wheel brush; sadly, mine is nowhere near this nice.

If you don’t, here’s what you want – a soft bristled brush that’s pointed enough to get into all the nooks and crannies of your wheels. Nylon is fine, but here’s example where saving money may not be a good thing – cheap wheel brushes won’t last more than a year or two, and some stiffen up with use. Buy the best one you can find, but make sure it’s small enough to get behind the brake caliper and into all the detail areas of your wheels.

Spray your wet wheel brush down with a little Simple Green and get to work. I like to start with the area around the tire valve first and work in a clockwise pattern. Scrub with just enough force to get the brake dust and road grime off your wheels. Flush the tire and wheel with clean water and touch up any areas you missed the first time. Now repeat the process with the other three wheels.

Step 4: Wash the car, top to bottom

Always remember to turn the water on first

Take your car wash nozzle and set it to a light stream. Heavy streams (or power washers) may be good for getting mud out of wheel wells, but they can also get by window seals and blast off loose paint or anodizing. Start with the greenhouse (roof, windows, windshield and rear window) and spray the car down from top to bottom. You’re not looking to wash it clean; you’re just trying to get the whole thing wet.

Done? Grab your wash mitt and start on the greenhouse. Lift the wiper blades up so you can clean underneath them (clean the wiping surface, too). Wash the roof first, then move on to the windshield, widows and rear window. Be as quick as you can while still being thorough; you don’t want the soap to dry on the paint or glass.

When you’ve finished with the greenhouse, rinse it down (roof first) until all the soap is gone, then make sure the rest of the car is still wet.

Bad form; clearly, their mitts aren't nearly wet enough

Make sure to dip your mitt in the wash bucket from time to time (and yeah, that’s also a metaphor). Check to see that it’s relatively clean before starting to wash a new section of car.

Pick another area and get to work. I usually move on to the rear fenders, trunk and bumper and wash it as one section. The idea is to was a small enough area that the soap won’t dry between rinses, but a large enough area that the car wash doesn’t take all day. Rinse, lather, rinse and repeat until the car is done.

If you’re really anal retentive about your car’s finish, you’ll use a separate mitt for the areas around the wheel wells and the rocker panels. These areas build up dirt and grit, so using a second wash mitt helps to prevent scratches on other areas of paint.

When you’re done with washing and rinsing all areas, it’s time to flood the paint with water. First, turn off the water at the faucet. Now remove the nozzle from the hose and turn it on full. Starting with the top of the car, flood the paint with a heavy stream of water and work your way down. Notice how the water beads off and leaves you with less to dry? Go kill the water and grab your drying towels, it’s time for the next step.

Step 5: Dry your car

Hmm, I wonder what this product does...

Everybody has their own preference for drying cars, but here’s what I do. First, I grab a synthetic chamois (like The Absorber) and dry the roof. Next, I grab a silicone water blade and dry the windows and any other flat surface (vertical first, then horizontal). I finish up by drying rest of the car with a synthetic chamois or cotton towel, depending upon what’s at hand and clean.

Now’s a good time to touch up any areas you may have missed, since you still have the bucket and mitt handy. Don’t forget the inside of your doors, trunk and hood. Bugs or tar etched into your paint? Get the bug and tar remover out and follow the directions, them wipe down the area you’ve cleaned.

Bonus points go to those who now clean their windows and treat them with RainX. If you’ve never used it, it’s good stuff.

So we’re done, right? Not just yet, because it’s time for…

Step 6: Wheels and tires

Tire care, tire dressing, whatever - just use it.

Few things can make a car look rattier than dirty wheels and dull tires; on the flip side, clean wheels and properly treated tires can make a dirty car look good.

Start with a cotton towel (washed after every use, since it gets filthy) and dry your wheels and tires. Get your tire dressing out (No Touch, Armor All, Poor Boy’s World Tire Dressing, etc.) and spray or brush it on your tires. Not only does this make tires look better, but it seals the rubber and prevents UV damage (which causes sidewall cracking and “dry rot”).

If you’ve got alloy wheels or wheel covers, grab a beer because you’re done. If you’ve got painted steelies (like my FJ), grab a can of Lemon Pledge furniture polish. Yes, I’m serious – Lemon Pledge. Spray the wheel lightly with the polish, then use a microfiber towel to work it into the painted surface. The end result is a medium gloss finish that lasts for weeks and smells pretty damn good, too.

Natural beauty AND lemony freshness; what's not to like?

So that’s it. I can wash the Miata in about 45 minutes, the car in about an hour and the truck in about an hour and a half. As an added bonus, you get to make sure everything is OK with your ride, and spend some quality one-on-one time with your four wheeled mistress (or mister – I’m not judging). If you’re a gear head, what’s better than that?

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2 Responses

  1. Dimitri says:

    Ahem, *wonderful* photos :-) And kudos for mentioning The Absorber, it’s an awesome product!

    • Kurt says:

      Thanks Dimitri – I agree on The Absorber. I used to go through about one chamois per year, but The Absorber never wears out.