How to Wash Your Car like a Pro by Tom Pane

There is much more to washing and waxing when it comes to cleaning and protecting your vehicle’s paint.

If you care about your car’s exterior, you will avoid those quickie car washes with the big brushes that can do more harm than good and do a DIY car wash that will achieve the best results.

Most people think a wash and wax is the best way to keep their car shiny and clean. Their heart is in the right place, but there is much more to washing a car than those two things.

I regularly hand wash my 2012 Mazda MX-5 using a water-hose with a suitable high pressure setting except near the PRHT which requires a soft shower setting to rinse off dust and lose dirt. I then use one product to wash and wax using cleaning mitt. However, one can wash with soap and water and wax later.

1 Evaluate the Condition of Your Vehicle

Evaluating the condition or your vehicle will steer you towards how it should be cleaned. A new car or one that already has a good coat of wax on it may only need a wash and wax to maintain it, but a car with an average to neglected exterior may need to be cleaned and polished as well.

2 Read the Label

Before using any type of car cleaning chemical, it is important to read the label. The application for soap, wax, or detailer can vary from brand to brand and vehicle to vehicle. For example, using a chrome wheel cleaner which is extremely acidic on an aluminum wheel can ruin it. Also invest in premium microfiber clothes and keep separate pile for those used on your paint, wheels and windows. Wash your towels and cleaning mitts after every use.

3 Washing your Car 

Washing your car will remove loose contaminants such as dust, dirt and mud from the exterior of your vehicle. Always use a car washing soap and not a liquid detergent or dish cleaner which can damage the paint and strip away wax. Rinse your car first to remove larger pieces of dirt which can scratch your car when washing, and use clean mitts and drying cloths. I use a combination of chamois and plush microfiber cloths to dry my cars. Most important is to wash your wheels first! This will help prevent break dust and other wheel contaminants from getting on the painted surfaces.

4 Prepare the Surface 

After washing you can easily see scratches, swirls, and oxidation in your paint. Feel for bonded contaminants such as overspray or tree sap that washing doesn’t remove. Just run you hand over a washed vehicle, and if you can feel little bumps, then you need to a step further with cleaning your car.

A clay bar can be used to remove stubborn bonded contaminants. It will remove everything off the surface of your vehicle including wax and will restore smoothness to the paint. Start by kneading it into a flat wafer and use a detailer as a lubricant. Hold it in the palm of one hand and run it across the surface of your car. To remove scratches and etching that are below the surface you will need to use a compound that can be applied by hand using applicator pads or by using a dual-action polisher. Wipe away soon after applying. A compound paint cleaner needs to be worked into the finish and can sometimes require a 2nd, 3rd, or even a 4th application. Some scratches are too deep and only a paint touch-up will repair them.

5 Polishing for Extra Gloss

This step is optional and can be compared to applying lotion on your skin. Polish can be applied by hand or with a dual-action polisher. The conditioning oils add depth of color and maximum gloss prior to waxing, especially on dark colored vehicles.

6 Wax to Protect

Waxing is like sunscreen for your car. It adds a layer of protection from UV rays to prevent fading as well as anything that may land on the paint. It preserves your high gloss finish and is available in a carnauba or polymer form. Both types of wax perform the same, but a polymer wax won’t haze as it dries and can usually be wiped off soon after applying. The choice between using carnauba or polymer wax is similar to choosing synthetic or regular engine oil. Polymer is a bit more expensive but is easier to apply and may perform better.

7 Maintain a Shine and Protection

After you’ve done the hard work of washing, cleaning and protecting your car, you will need to take steps to maintain its appearance. Keep a spray detailer and clean microfiber cloth in your trunk, which can come in handy for quickly removing dust, overspray and bird droppings. I also use a special microfiber car duster to remove dust that may accumulate between washings.

If your car is relatively clean and all of these steps seem daunting and time consuming, one-step cleaner/wax may be the best choice for you. It is my first choice for sure.

8 Clean the Windows

Stay away from Windex and other household glass cleaners as they usually contain ammonia which can damage a car’s window tint. Use an auto window cleaner for best results and wipe down twice to ensure the cleaner is removed.

9 Clean the Wheels (first)

Wash first. If you need something stronger than car soap, then the most important wheel cleaning tip I have is to use a product that has been specifically formulated for your type of wheel. If you don’t know what type of wheels you have, than go with the least powerful version which is an acid-free pH balanced aluminum wheel cleaner as these can be used on all type of wheels, so I am told.

Happy motoring!

Note: Much of the above information came from articles posted in Popular Mechanics and Automotive Engineering as well as YouTube videos. However, the magazine articles have been significantly edited for the RTT newsletter and include the editor’s personal experience on this subject. All the materials, cleaners, etc. that I have discussed in this article can be found in Griot’s Garage Handbook (

Side Sill Drainage

Side sills not draining? Ever wash your car and notice that the water doesn’t drain from around the top as fast as it used to? There could be a good reason for that! The side sill drain holes are susceptible to dirt, leaves and other debris. One key indicator – after washing or a heavy…

Read More about Side Sill Drainage

Anti-Freeze Alternatives

If you haven’t changed your antifreeze in 2 years, it’s time. There are 2 ways to do have it done: yourself or a shop. It isn’t at all complicated and a shop can even suck out the old without climbing under the car. But if you do it yourself, you will need to dispose of…

Read More about Anti-Freeze Alternatives