How to wash your car like a pro.
The definitive tutorial by the Esoteric Learning Center!
We all enjoy the feeling of driving a freshly washed car. The cleanliness of the vehicles we drive says a lot about the type of person we are. It’s no different than how we care for our houses, our landscaping, or our personal appearances. Beautifully prepared cars project confidence, professionalism, and just makes us feel good when driving (or admiring) them! And the act of car washing can be therapeutic and relaxing as well.
But as we engage in the ritualistic weekend activity, are we doing more damage than good? Although most car owners have spent countless hours over the years washing their vehicles, chances are it is being done incorrectly and/or with the improper materials which in the long run results in paint that is full of swirls. Not only do they make the paint look bad, but they also reduce the overall value of the car as well. So given that, let’s take a little time to teach you how to wash your car like a pro!
One trip to the automatic car wash (also referred to as swirl-o-matics), or a quick wipe down with the wrong kind of towel can quickly destroy 20 hours of machine polishing.
What are swirls and what causes them?
Swirls or spider webs on the surface of the car are thousands of micro-scratches that have a negative impact on the overall appearance. They are more noticeable on darker colored vehicles, and can easily be seen in direct sunlight or under the lights at night while in a parking lot.
While there are many causes of swirls, the biggest culprit is improper washing and drying techniques. They can be avoided for the most part once you learn how to wash your car, as well as which materials to use. One trip to the automatic car wash (also referred to as swirl-o-matics), or a quick wipe down with the wrong kind of towel can quickly destroy 20 hours of machine polishing. Even if the local car wash or dealership offers a hand-wash, it doesn’t mean that they are using proper methods or materials, and in many cases can do more harm than good.
The photo below is a perfect representation of what improper washing can and will do to paint. The left side of the photo is perfectly polished paint, and shows just how much clarity should be in the finish. The right side is full of swirls and micro-scratches, which dull the finish considerably. If you want to prevent your paint from looking as it does on the right, then read on!
What materials and products are needed to properly wash your car?
My first advice is to say that you should keep your kitchen supplies where they belong…in the kitchen! Kitchen towels (or any household towels or rags) are very abrasive and easily scratch the delicate painted surfaces of your car. Dish soap over time can damage rubber trim, and it can strip off any wax from the finish as well. By using the proper materials and products to wash your car, your process will be easier, and your results will be much better.
- 2, 5-gallon buckets for the wash process, and 1 more 5-gallon bucket dedicated strictly for wheel cleaning (a separate article).
- At least 2, but preferably 4 Grit Guards
- A few Waffle Weave microfiber towels for drying, and a supply of various high quality microfiber towels for final buffing.
- A mild auto washing shampoo.
- A plush wash mitt / sponge (it’s always good to have a spare!)
- A quick detailer spray (for non-coated vehicles)
- A coating maintenance spray (for coated vehicles)
- A mild degreaser/all-purpose cleaner to help break down heavily soiled areas such as bird droppings, tar, sap, or other stubborn forms of contamination.
For those interested in buying one kit with all items needed, then please check out the Esoteric Complete Wash Kit.
Let’s get started!
Now you’re ready to prepare your wash buckets. Yes, that was plural, as in more than one bucket! Ultimately you want 3 buckets. One is your wash bucket, one is your rinse bucket, and one is dedicated for wheel cleaning. You could get away with just two, but then you’d have to stop and clean out a bucket after you finish your wheels before you started on the rest of the car. Notice too that I use Grit Guards in both my rinse bucket and my wash bucket (for best results, use two Grit Guards per bucket!). For the rinse bucket in particular, this helps dislodge dirt and debris from the wash mitt, and then keeps the abrasive sediment at the bottom where it is away from the cleaner water at the top. The reason you need a rinse bucket is because you want the water in your wash bucket to remain clean throughout the entire process. If you use just one bucket that means you’re introducing dirt into your wash water, then using that same dirt to wash your car with…hence all the swirls!
Note: When you add your car wash detergent to your wash bucket, be sure to closely follow the manufacturer’s recommendation for how much product to use. More isn’t always better, and in fact you may strip any existing coats of wax by using too much detergent.
Grit Guards are placed at the bottom of both the wash and rinse buckets.
All 3 buckets are filled and ready to go. Fill your wash and rinse bucket with 3.5~4 gallons of water. 2 buckets are for the washing, and the third bucket is dedicated for wheel cleaning duties.
Wash your wheels first!
One thing to keep in mind for wheel cleaning is that you always want to start the car washing process with the wheels first. The reason we do this is because the wheels are typically the dirtiest parts of the car, and we don’t want to risk overspray from the wheels getting all over a clean painted surface.
Make sure that you have a dedicated bucket and wash media strictly for wheels! Never use your wheel washing materials on painted surfaces. Ever! There are too many abrasive contaminants on the wheels, and if you were to use it on the paint afterwards, you’ll most likely damage the finish.
Make sure that you thoroughly rinse out your wheel brushes and sponges before dipping them back into your wheel wash bucket! If not you will contaminate the water, and by the time you get to the final wheel you would be washing with mud!
Proper washing for a swirl-free finish!
To avoid water spots and streaking, you want to make sure that the surface of the vehicle is cool to the touch, and preferably in the shade.
First you want to pre-rinse the surface to remove as much of the dirt and debris as possible. A pressure washer from a safe distance works best, however the use of a good garden hose works just fine as well.
Be sure to thoroughly rinse the lower areas that attract a lot of dirt and road grime.
And don’t forget your wheel wells. Most luxury cars today have a carpet-like material in the wheel wells for sound deadening, and they attract a lot of dirt. Be sure to do a good job of spraying these out.
If you have any heavy contamination, now is the time to pre-soak it with an all-purpose cleaner. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how long to allow it to dwell. Here we are using Sonax MultiStar APC.
When washing the vehicle, start at the top and work your way down. Wash the roof, windshields, hood, trunk lid, and then move down to the sides.
Dip your wash mitt / sponge into the wash bucket, and then clean one small section at a time using little to no pressure. You’re merely trying to float away dirt and debris from the surface. When washing the horizontal surfaces on top, use a straight arm motion from front to back. I’ll typically work a section roughly 3’x3’, and then thoroughly clean out my wash mitt in the rinse bucket before moving on.
Wash horizontal surfaces in front to back motion.
After washing each small section, dip your dirty mitt into the rinse bucket and agitate against the Grit Guard at the bottom of the bucket. This will help to dislodge the dirt and debris from the mitt and keep it at the bottom of the bucket. After rinsing, then dip it back into the wash bucket (agitate against Grit Guard in wash bucket also) to start the process over again. Rinse the vehicle frequently and don’t allow soap to dry on the surface.
Note: When you finish washing the vehicle, your wash bucket should be as clean as when you started. Never introduce dirt into your wash bucket!
Agitate wash mitt against Grit Guard.
Now that you’ve finished the horizontal surfaces, move on to the vertical surfaces and work your way around the car. Here you want to wash in straight up and down motions and in small sections the same as you did on top. Rinse your wash mitt frequently, and I would recommend using a completely separate wash mitt or sponge for the lower areas if they are exceptionally dirty.
Wash vertical surfaces in up and down motion.
Note: After every time you wash your car, be sure to thoroughly clean out all of your buckets and wash media. While cleaning your wash mitts in particular (I wash mine by hand in the sink), carefully inspect them to make sure there are no foreign objects imbedded into them that could cause damage to your paint. Also allow them to dry completely before storing them so they last longer. Should you ever drop your wash media on the ground during the washing process, then grab a spare to finish the job…one small piece of debris could wreak havoc on your car!
Time to dry and shine!
We’re done with the wash process now, so let’s move on to the proper way to dry it to keep from marring the finish.
Just because you’re armed with some microfiber towels it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to induce swirls in your paint. You also need to have the right kind of microfiber, and care for it properly as well. You have to use a very high quality microfiber towel, and use as little pressure as possible. For drying I use the Gyeon Waffle Dryer, or the Gyeon SoftDryer microfiber towels and for buffing I will use the Gyeon SoftWipe or PolishWipe towels.
The first thing I do after washing is to use compressed air to blow off all of the standing water, and water that hides in all of the cracks and crevices. The less you have to touch the vehicle the better. If you don’t have access to compressed air then don’t worry because you can still get it done the old fashioned way, which is drying by hand.
Now that you’re ready to dry it off, first take your microfiber towel (lightly spritzed with your quick detailer for added lubrication to prevent marring…VERY important step!) and gently drag it across the finish to remove the majority of the water. If your car has been coated with something like Kamikaze or Gyeon Coatings, then instead of using quick detailer for this drying step, I would recommend using either Kamikaze OverCoat, or Gyeon Cure.
Here Dan is using the WaffleDryer microfiber that is capable of absorbing up to 5 times its weight in water.
If after using your Waffle drying towel (and detailer) you find that you can see a little water streaking, you want to make sure that you get that removed. If you just buff that out with a plush, dry microfiber, you still run the risk of marring the finish. For this step, you want to add some lubrication using either a Quick Detailer if it’s a non-coated car, or a maintenance spray for coated vehicles (Kamikaze OverCoat, or Gyeon Cure). Use a fine mist of product directly on the towel and lightly buff to a brilliant finish. By using this method, you’re also drying and adding protection all in one quick step! This method is quick, easy, and it is very safe for the finish of your car.
Your final step will be lightly buffing the finish (sprayed with detailer or coating maintenance spray) with your high quality microfiber towel.
Once this step is completed you should reach for a general purpose microfiber towel for the finishing touches. I reserve my most plush microfiber towels for exterior painted surfaces, and then I keep a set of general purpose (less expensive) towels for cleaning areas like the door jambs, behind the fuel filler lid, and drying the wheels. Never mix your plush towels with your general purpose ones.
If you follow those key steps in how to wash your car, you should be able to keep your vehicle looking its absolute best without inducing swirls in the washing and drying process. Once you get this system down, you should be able to complete the entire process in an hour or less.
Here’s our video tutorial on how to wash your car, featuring a stunning Ferrari 430 Scuderia!