How to Wash a Car Like the Pros

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How to Wash Your Car Like the Pros

Tips from Mothers
Photo © Aaron Gold

A good, thorough car wash involves more than simply running your car through a machine. I brought our car to Mothers, the well-known manufacturer of car washing and detailing products, to learn how to wash a car the way the pros do it.

What You Will Need to Wash Your Car:

1. Car wash soap. We used Mothers' Carnauba Wash & Wax, which is available at retailers and online (Compare Prices).

2. A wash mitt made of sheepskin or microfiber cloth. Both materials are designed to pick up and hold dirt. Mothers prefers microfiber mitts as they have more "fingers" to scrub the car. Sponges work too, but a wash mitt makes the job easier and is kinder to your car's finish. It's not recommended to use towels as they merely push the dirt around rather than pick it up.

3. Two buckets.

4. A drying cloth. Chamois (natural or synthetic) is the traditional choice, but it can scratch your car's paint. An absorbent waffle-weave drying towel makes the job faster and easier. You'll also need a few extra microfiber detail towels.

5. A shady location. Direct sunlight will dry the car prematurely and leave spots.

6. A ​dirty car.

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Pre-treat Stains

How to wash your car - Pre-treat stains
Tough stains (bird poop, sap, etc.) can be pre-treated with undiluted car wash soap in a spray bottle. Photo © Aaron Gold

It's important that for pretreating stains and washing your car you do not use dishwashing or household soap. Dish soap is hard on the rubber components of your car, plus it can remove your car's wax coat.

To begin, if your car has bird droppings, dead bugs, sap or other hard-to-clean stains on the paintwork, apply car wash soap directly to these stains. The folks at Mothers use a spray bottle filled with undiluted car wash soap.

Products used:

  • Mothers Carnauba Wash & Wax 
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Wash the Wheels

How to wash a car - wheels
Wash the wheels before the rest of the car. Use a brush to get into the crevices. Photo © Aaron Gold

Wash the wheels before the rest of the car. If the wheels are hot, spray them down with water to cool them, as the heat will evaporate the cleaner and cause spots to appear. You can use regular car wash soap, but a dedicated wheel cleaner makes the job easier.

Spray the cleaner directly onto the wheels and tires, then use a soft brush to scrub them down. A brush is the best way to clean wheels, but if you are going to use a mitt or a sponge, don't use the same one you'll be using on the rest of the car. It will pick up dirt from the wheels that can scratch the paint. Use an old, dirty wash mitt or sponge instead, and a detail brush or an old toothbrush for small openings.

After scrubbing, rinse the tires thoroughly. Once you're done, take a step back — it's amazing how much better a car looks with just clean wheels!

A note on cleaners: Many tire cleaners are designed for newer wheels. For older wheels, which may have scratches, weathering, or other compromises to their finish, Mothers recommends a gentler product such as their Aluminum Wheel Cleaner.

Products used:

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Initial Rinse

How to wash a car - pre-rinse
Rinse the car from the roof down. Note how nice the car looks with clean wheels!. Photo © Aaron Gold

Rinse down the car, starting at the roof and working your way down. Pay special attention to the area around the windshield wipers, as leaves and dirt tend to collect there.

After rinsing, open up the hood and trunk and clean out any accumulated leaves and dirt. Spraying water with the hood open is not recommended, especially if you have some place to go that day; if the engine's electrical bits get wet the car may not start, plus the hose pressure can damage rubber seals that may have gotten brittle with age. The best way to clean these areas is to put on latex gloves and scrape out the dirt with your fingers.

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Use Two Buckets

How to wash a car - two buckets
Rinse bucket on the left, sudsy soap bucket on the right. Photo © Aaron Gold

Why do you need two buckets? A separate rinse bucket will remove the dirt that your wash mitt picks up. If you use a single bucket, you'll be depositing all that dirt into the soapy water, loading it back onto your wash mitt, and rubbing it all over your car.

Fill one bucket with car wash soap and water (mixed as per the instructions on the bottle) and the other bucket with clear water. Dip your wash mitt in the soapy-water bucket, wash a small section, then rinse your wash mitt in the clear-water bucket before reloading with suds.

Products used:

  • Mothers Wash Bucket (compare prices)
  • Mothers California Gold Car Wash (Compare Prices)
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Scrub!

How to wash a car - scrubbing from the top down
Scrub from the top down, rinsing frequently and keeping the car wet. Photo © Aaron Gold

Scrub your car from the top down. Don't press too hard on the mitt, because you want to avoid grinding in dirt that could scratch the paint. As you wash, it's important to keep the car wet, especially when you get to difficult patches such as bird droppings and sap. Use your hose to mist the car as needed. Sap can be removed with gentle thumb-nail pressure, but be careful not to get over-zealous and scratch the car. Harder stains will require a more thorough cleaning. Take your time to remove the stains, because if they're ignored, they can cause permanent damage to the paint.

Other places to be diligent about are small cracks and crevices, as these are spots where dirt loves to collect. The wash mitt allows you to apply finger-tip pressure to many of these spots, but some areas may require a detail brush or a bit of improvisation. Be gentle when using a detail brush — you don't want to scratch the paint or damage old, brittle seals.

Products used:

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Quick Suds-over

How to wash a car - suds-over
A quick suds-over using our microfiber wash mitt. Photo © Aaron Gold

After you've scrubbed down the entire car, give it a quick once-over with your sudsy wash mitt. This will help avoid water spots -- most car wash soaps have an anti-spotting agent. Dish soap doesn't have the anit-spotting agent which is another reason not to use it.

As you're sudsing the car, remember to rinse and reload the mitt frequently and work from the top down.

Products used:

  • Microfiber wash mitt 
  • Sheepskin wash mitt
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Final Rinse

How to wash a car - rinse
Final rinse. Note that the water isn't beading -- a sure sign that this car needs to be waxed. Photo © Aaron Gold

For your final rinse, remove the spray nozzle from your 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. Keep the hose close to the car; extend your index finger or thumb just past the edge of the hose to avoid accidentally scratching the paint.

Pro tip: Rinse the ground right around your car to wash away dirt and prevent you tracking it into your car or house.

This is a perfect time to check your wax coat. If the water beads into droplets, your car's wax coat is fine. If it doesn't, as in the photo shown, you'll need to wax the car after you're done washing it.

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Primary Dry

How to wash a car - drying
Drying with a waffle weave towel is fast and easy, and it's less likely to scratch than chamois. Photo © Aaron Gold

It's important to dry the car quickly to avoid water spots. We used a special waffle-weave drying towel, which is designed to absorb ten times its weight in water. You simply spread it out on the car and drag it across the surface, and it will pick up most of the water without scratching. It's much easier than using a chamois and less likely to scratch the paint.

Products used:

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Detail Dry

How to wash a car - detail drying
Final drying with a microfiber towel. Photo © Aaron Gold

Use microfiber detail towels to remove any excess water. Open the trunk, hood and doors and wipe out the doorjambs and other hidden areas. Neglecting these areas can cause water to drip out and leave spots.

Products used:

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Wash the Windows

How to wash a car - Washing the windows
Fold a microfiber towel around your hand to clean the lower edge of the windshield. Photo © Aaron Gold

Use a streak-free window cleaner to wash the windows inside and out.

Pro tip: Lower the window slightly to clean the upper edge, and wrap a microfiber towel around your hand to get the lower edge of the windshield.

Products used:

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Spray Wax

How to wash a car - Spray wax
If the car doesn't need a full wax job, a quick spray-wax job will keep it looking good until the next wash. Photo © Aaron Gold

If your wax coat is good (i.e. the water beaded into droplets when you rinsed the car), apply a coat of spray wax. It's a quick job that will help keep your car looking sharp between washes. Use the spray wax on the wheels as well; it will help protect them from dirt and brake dust.

By now, your car should be looking clean and ready to go! If it needs a full-on wax job, check out How to Clean, Detail and Wax Your Car.

Products used:

  • Mothers California Gold Spray Wax 

Special thanks to Jim Dvorak and the folks at Mothers, who provided space, supplies, know-how and elbow grease for this article. Visit them online at www.mothers.com.