Q: I own a late-model Corvette that I love to clean and detail on weekends. Of course, every time I work on my car, one of the men in my life informs me that I am doing it incorrectly, then tells me what methods and products I should use instead. Their advice is often conflicting, leaving me more confused than ever.
That being the case, could you recommend a good line of car-care products? What do you think of dry washing or waterless car washes?
What about the frequency of washing? I try to wash my car once a week, but my grandfather tells me I’m going to “wash the paint right off that plastic car.” Is there any truth to this statement?
Finally, could you share the correct method of waxing my Corvette? - Samantha, Via Email
A: There are numerous good finish-care options available, including DFT Details, Meguiar’s, Mothers, Turtle Wax, and others. But what the labels of most polishing and wax products don’t tell you is that in order to achieve that long-lasting, high-gloss shine, you must first prepare the surface properly.
Proper surface prep will eliminate scratching and swirls caused by contaminants being ground into the paint. It will also allow the wax to better adhere to the painted surface, providing longer-lasting results.
Start by washing your car with a quality, purpose-specific cleaning product (Image A). Do not use normal dish soap, laundry soap, or other household cleaners, as these products are designed to dissolve and remove grease and oil. They’re hard on rubber components, they can strip away the existing wax, and in some instances they could even damage the car’s finish. Dedicated car-wash products are pH-balanced and formulated to loosen and lift surface contaminants without stripping away wax. Most also contain an anti-spotting agent.
Washing Your Vehicle
When washing your car, a shaded location is a must. Direct sunlight will dry the car prematurely and leave water spots. Also ensure that the car’s surface is no more than slightly warm to the touch.
1. Start with the wheels
The first step in washing your vehicle should be cleaning the wheels, which are typically the dirtiest part. You can use regular car-wash soap here, but a specially formulated wheel cleaner will make the job easier. Don’t wash the wheels if they’re hot, as the heat can evaporate the cleaner and cause spots.
While a soft brush is the best way to clean wheels, you can also use an old wash mitt, detail brush, toothbrush, or sponge. All wheel-cleaning implements should be used for the wheels only, since they’re likely to pick up debris that can cause cross contamination or even scratch the paint. You should also have a dedicated wash bucket for wheel cleaning.
2. Prepare the vehicle for washing
Open the hood and trunk and clean out any accumulated leaves and dirt. If available, use compressed air to clean any hard-to-reach areas, such as the cowl area under the hood and the front lower doorjambs.
Inspect the paint, looking for contaminants such as film from tree sap, dead bugs, bird droppings, pollen, pollutants, or any other tough stains. After wetting the car, apply car-wash soap directly to these stains and let it sit for a few minutes. A simple way to apply the soap is with a spray bottle.
Rinse the car, starting at the roof and working your way down. Special attention should be given to areas where leaves and debris tend to collect.
3. If applicable, clean the convertible top
Dip a soft-bristle brush in soapy water and work the dirt out of the grain using small, circular motions. If the top is heavily soiled or stained, you may need to use a product designed specifically for this purpose. These products are pH-balanced to safely lift dirt from cloth and vinyl tops without damaging the top material or stitching.
The “two bucket” method discussed below should also be used for cleaning the convertible top.
4. Use the “two bucket” wash method
Fill one bucket with a mixture of car-wash soap and water, and the other with clean water. The ratio for the former is generally one ounce of soap for every gallon of water, but be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
After washing each panel, place your wash mitt in the rinse bucket and swish it around to remove any dirt or contaminants. Then dip the mitt in the soapy-water bucket and continue to wash small sections of the vehicle. Continue following this method until you’re finished with the car.
While this approach is a little more time consuming, it’s definitely worth the effort. Think of it this way: If you use a single bucket, you’ll be depositing all that dirt into the soapy water…and then loading it right back onto your wash mitt. (Note that the best car-wash buckets have a plastic straining screen in the bottom, which helps isolate them from your wash mitt.)
Use light strokes to “wipe and lift” dirt, ensuring that no contaminants are dragged across the surface of the vehicle.
Step By Step
5. Use a wash mitt composed of lambskin/wool or microfiber cloth
Most professional car detailers prefer these materials, since the nap of the wool or cloth is designed to draw dirt particles away from the paint.
6. Always wash the car working from the top down
Scrub from the top down, remembering not to press too hard. Keep the entire car wet during the washing process, which will help prevent water spots from forming. This is especially important if you live in an area with “hard,” or mineral-dense, water.
Don’t ignore small cracks and crevices where dead bugs, tree sap, and other materials can accumulate. Use a detail brush or a separate microfiber cloth to clean these areas so you don’t cross-contaminate your wash mitt. Sap can be removed with gentle pressure, but note that it may stick to the microfiber cloth, and it could scratch the finish if you’re not careful.
After you’ve cleaned the whole car, go back over it with your sudsy wash mitt. This will also help prevent water spots. For your final rinse, remove the spray nozzle from the hose. Rinse from the top down, using a gentle stream of water to flood the surface of the car and allow the suds to cascade off.
7. Use an absorbent, waffle-weave drying towel
While you can use a traditional chamois or rubber-bladed squeegee for drying, either of these products can scratch your car’s finish by dragging contaminants across the painted surface. An absorbent, waffle-weave drying towel is the preferred tool for the job, and it has the side benefit of being able to absorb 10 times its weight in water.
When drying your vehicle, lay the towel across the surface to be dried and apply light pressure. When that area is done, wring out the towel and move on to the next area, continuing until the vehicle is completely dry. Remember: Less motion means less chance of scratching.
8. Finish the job with microfiber detailing towels
Use microfiber detailing towels to remove any excess water from the trunk, hood, and doorjambs; this will prevent it from dripping on the paint and leaving spots. These towels are woven together with extremely thin fibers, which renders them soft to the touch and unlikely to leave scratches. Try to use a towel with a weight of 300 g/m² (grams per square meter) or greater.
Using a Waterless Car Wash
If you live in an area where drought-related water restrictions are common, a waterless cleaning product (Image B) can help keep your car looking good between full washes. Just remember to use common sense: If you’re dealing with a paint surface that is muddy or sandy, you’ll need to remove these contaminants before performing a dry wash. A good pre-rinse should be sufficient.
Don’t confuse a quick detailer with a waterless car-wash product. Quick detailers are primarily used to add an instant wax-like shine to a vehicle’s paint, and are not specifically engineered for cleaning purposes. They can also help remove things like bird droppings or hard-water spots before they damage your car’s finish.
Waterless car-wash products have much greater cleaning power than quick detailers. They combine surfactants, lubricants, and pH builders to help break down surface grime more effectively.
Keep the entire car wet during the washing process, which will help prevent water spots from forming
The following steps provide a good basic overview of the waterless washing method. As with a traditional washing product, a shaded location is a must, and the car’s surface should be no more than slightly warm to the touch.
- Fold your microfiber towel so there are eight usable sides.
- Starting at the top of the vehicle, spray a generous amount of waterless wash on one panel, then wipe it dry. Do not allow the wash to air-dry on the paint.
- Wipe lightly in one direction, “picking up” the dirt as you go. If you wipe in a circular motion, you may redeposit freshly removed contaminants in the area you just cleaned.
- When one side of the towel becomes dirty, switch to a new one. It may take several towels to complete the task.
- Wipe each section completely dry and move on to the next one. Continue until you’ve covered the entire car.
Due to the abundance of airborne pollutants present these days, most pro detailers recommend washing your car weekly (and no, you needn’t worry about “washing off” the paint).
Next month we’ll discuss how to clay-bar, polish, and wax your vehicle. In the meantime, Samantha, enjoy “showing up” the men in your life with your newfound car-washing knowledge.
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