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Car Washing and Waxing

Chris Kaiser

Details matter, especially when you’re detailing your own car. Learn all the steps, tips, and tricks of how to wash and how to wax a car to keep it looking its best today and tomorrow.

Why DIY?

You watch your neighbor across the street washing his vintage AMC Rambler with care and devotion, doting on it with more affection than he shows to his own kids. He waxes and buffs, he shines the chrome to a blinding mirror-like finish, and you wonder, is it really worth the hassle?

I’m here to tell you yes, it is worth washing and waxing your car yourself. Washing your car isn’t just about making it look its best. It’s also about making sure your car stays in good condition over the long haul. That’s because automatic car washes, with their rollers and cheap soaps and waxes can be hard on your paint. Plus, those automatic washes just don’t do a good job. Who hasn’t left a tunnel car wash and found all manner of nooks and crannies on their car still dusty, salty, or otherwise grime-coated?

When you want a job done right … well, you know the rest. Here’s the best way to wash and wax your car at home.


Soap – First thing, don’t use dish soap. Such soaps can be harsh, not properly ph-balanced, and actually harm your clear coat. Go out and buy a properly dedicated car washing soap from your local auto parts store. These are non-acidic, ph-balanced, and often come with wax integrated (and yes, many experts like to use both a soap with a wax in it as well as a separate wax application).

Washing Media – Another don’t, don’t use traditional sponges. These are abrasive on their own and trap dirt, which makes them even more likely to scratch your paint. Invest in some microfiber cleaning pads and mitts, instead.

Buckets – Depending on your method, one or two buckets are called for. We prefer the two-bucket method, which we’ll get to below. You can also buy yourself a dirt lock for the bottom of your bucket to allow silt and grit to fall to the bottom while keeping your cloth grit-free.

Wheel Cleaners – You don’t have to have separate wheel cleaners, but you’ve come this far, so why not do the job right, eh? The advantage of wheel cleaners is they’re good at removing iron deposits from heavy brake dust. Make sure to use a wheel cleaner intended for your car’s type of wheels, as products intended for metal can damage wheels with paint.

Drying Media – Here too, don’t skimp by with an old towel from the laundry, these too will damage your clear coat. Instead, find a microfiber weave towel or chamois. Using two works best as one can sop up the majority of the moisture and the other can get any remaining drops.

Spray Sealant – When drying, you can also use a spray sealant or spray wax, applied to a drying towel to add an additional layer of protection.

Sap/Tar Remover and/or Clay Bar – These special compounds are made for breaking down tree sap, tar, and other sticky substances that might have collected on your car. They are far more effective and safer for your paint than using elbow grease. A clay bar can also help remove dust, debris, and other tiny contaminants that have conglomerated on the surface of your car and won’t come off with regular washing.

Wax and Applicator Pad – You have the option of getting your wax in liquid or paste forms. While the liquid is fast and easier to apply, it doesn’t last as long, only 3-4 months versus paste which can last up to a year.

Car Window Cleaner – This may sound excessive, but again, non-automotive cleaning products can have an adverse effect on your car’s components. The last thing you want is to damage the rubber weather stripping on your windows.

Washing Step-by-Step

We recommend a two-bucket method to washing. That is, using one bucket for suds and clean water and another for rinsing your cloth after each application of soapy water. This prevents too much dirt getting into the water you’re trying to clean the car with.

Step 1: Rinse – First, rinse off any dirt, grime, or debris. Make sure to spray the wheel wells and undercarriage, too.

Step 2: Pre-Wash – Apply sudsy water to the car, let sit approximately 5 minutes, and then rinse.

Step 3: Wheels – Spray on your wheel cleaner and allow to sit for 2-3 min. Then scrub using a wheel woolly (a microfiber cloth on stick). Don’t use a bristle brush as this too can scratch your wheels. Rinse wheels of any wheel cleaner to avoid any getting on your car.

Step 4: Hand Washing – Starting from top to bottom and cleanest to dirtiest, apply soapy water from your clean bucket in a linear fashion (even using microfiber, it’s best to avoid a circular motion). Rinse your mitt frequently, using the “dirty” water bucket first and then the soapy bucket. DON’T scrub hard or try to remove tar or sap, save that for specialized products after you’ve washed the rest of the car. Rinse each section as you go and don’t allow soapy water to dry.

Step 5: Drying Part One: Get out your leaf blower. You might look weird to your neighbors, but there’s nothing more effective in your garage for getting moisture out of the crevasses between panels and door seams than your leaf blower.

Step 6: Drying Part Two: Just as with washing, use a microfiber weave towel or chamois. For best results use two, one for sopping up the bulk of the water and another to get any moisture you missed on the first pass. Blotting is better than wiping, especially with the first towel. You can also use a spray wax or spray detailer at this point, applying it directly onto your towel.

Step 7: Spots – Now is the time to use that tar/sap remover or clay on sticky spots or other imperfections.

Bonus Step 8: Tire Shine – This can be applied at the end of the process. Spray on a layer and allow to sit for 5-10 min. before wiping off any access.

Waxing (On and Off)

Now that you’ve cleaned your car, you’re ready to wax. You have a couple options here, as we noted above, you can go with either a liquid wax or a solid/paste wax, the latter of which will last longer.

By Hand: Using a soft foam or microfiber pad, apply wax in a uniform layer, working in limited sections at a time. Unlike when you were washing, feel free to use a circular motion when applying wax.

Machine Buff: Apply wax directly to the pad and buff with light pressure, use an overlapping pattern, and make sure to maintain contact with the surface the entire time.

Wait a few minutes and check to see that your application has set by running your finger through the wax. If it smears the wax, it isn’t ready. If it makes a clear streak, you know it’s ready. Now you can wipe away any excess wax with a microfiber towel and then stand back to admire your work.

Dos and Don’ts to Remember

Don’t wash or wax your car in extreme heat or direct sunlight. This will cause the water to evaporate, leaving spots and hard water deposits.

Don’t use sponges, scrub brushes, or other potentially abrasive media when washing, drying, or waxing your car.

Do read the label on every product and use them as directed, both for your safety and that of your car’s paint job.

Do remember to start at the top and work your way down to the bottom.

Do enjoy yourself, take pride in your work, and enjoy the ride in your clean car!

Check out our article on upholstery cleaning here.

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Chris Kaiser
Chris Kaiser

Chris’ greatest passions include topiary, spelunking, and pushing aging compact cars well past 200,000 miles on cross-country road trips. His taste in cars runs from the classic and esoteric to the deeply practical with an abiding affection for VW Things, old Studebakers, and all things hybrid-crossover.

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