How To Wash A Car | A Detailed Guide
Updated: Sep 13
Everybody enjoys driving a car that has just been washed.
A clean car says quite a lot about the person that is driving it and the kind of person that they are. The same goes for tidiness of your house, your garden and your own personal appearance. A sparkling, clean car will present an image of cleanliness and professionalism and it will also make you feel good about yourself. And better still, there are benefits to washing your car properly. Not only is it relaxing but it can also be therapeutic to the mind, body and soul.
Swirl marks and cobwebbing and what causes them?
Swirl marks and cobwebbing are basically thousands of tiny micro scratches in the paintwork of your car which have a negative impact on the overall appearance of your car. They show up more on darker coloured cars and especially in direct sunlight. Take a look at your car paintwork the next time the sun shines on it, can you see all of the swirl marks and cobweb like scratches? The main cause of these marks is due to poor washing and drying techniques, using cheap road side car washes and automated car washes. So the purpose of this article is to teach you how to wash and dry your car correctly in order for you to maintain the look and appearance of your car for years to come by using the correct techniques and methods.
What Do I Need To Wash My Car Properly?
Firstly we need to use the right products which means that we won't be using items from out of the kitchen such as fairy liquid, tea towels or rags. Tea towels are abrasive and if used will damage the paintwork of your car. Fairy liquid if used over time will actually deteriorate the rubber trim on your car and also strip off any wax that you may have used previously. You will need the following:
1. At least two buckets containing grit guards.
2. A large plush microfibre towel for drying and a large plush microfibre towel for buffing.
3. A PH neutral car shampoo
4. A Sheepskin or lambs wool wash mitt - Never use a sponge to wash your car!
5. Detailing wheel brushes to clean your alloy wheels.
6. A pressure washer
7. A citrus based pre-clean product
8. Snow foam
9. A wheel cleaning product such as Bilberry or Dragons breath
10. An electric or compressed air blower to remove water from cracks and crevices if you want to look like a pro.
11. Detail spray
12. Tar and glue/bug remover.
Now you are ready to start washing your car properly... !
This is the methodology that I and other professional detailers use to wash ours and our customers cars correctly and safely.
Firstly find an area that is not in direct sunlight. We don't want to wash hot paintwork as we don't want water drying onto the car. This can cause water spots that are and will be difficult to remove. Once we have a clean shaded area, you are ready to commence with washing your car properly.
Citrus Pre Cleaner
We are now going to pre clean the entire car.
The first thing that I do is to fill my snow foam lance with a citrus pre cleaner and the correct amount of water and attach it to your pressure washer. Follow the manufacturers instruction on the product of your choice to ensure that you are using the correct dilution rates. We are using citrus pre cleaner to remove as much of the debris and contaminants as possible such as grit dirt and bird droppings from the cars paintwork before we start touching it with our wash mitt when we have to wash the car. We basically want the car to be as clean as possible before we actually start washing to minimise any damage to the cars paintwork.
So, starting from the bottom of your car and working your way upwards to the roof, spray the citrus pre cleaner across the car. I like to start on the sides of the car from the corner of the front bumper and work my way to the rear corner of the bumper. Open the nozzle on the lance to increase the spray pattern to a wide spray and open the dilution rate fully. Once you have worked you way across, work your way back again above the layer you have just put on until the whole side of the car is covered in pre cleaner.
Next, do the same across the other side of the car, followed by spraying the front and rear bumper. Then you can move on to the roof. Finally you will want to do the wheel area. Spray inside of the wheel arches to cover the wheel liners and then coat your alloy wheels on the insides and also on the front faces. Don't forget to open the petrol/diesel tank flap and spray some in there too, use a brush if necessary.
Once this is done, remove the snow foam bottle from your and rinse thoroughly, while the pre cleaner does its work on the car. Citrus pre cleaner usually needs to be left on the car for approximately 5-10 minutes to do its job properly. Then attach your pressure washer lance to your pressure washer. We will now be rinsing the pre cleaner off the car. To do this we repeat the process that we used to apply it in the first place. eg, starting on the sides at the bottom and working our way from the front of the car to the back.
Make sure you remove all of the product from the wheels and especially the wheel arches where lots of dirt and mud will be lurking. Make sure you get the water right up behind the lip of each wheel arch to remove all of the dirt and grime.
Congratulations, you have now pre cleaned your entire car.
Bug and Tar Remover
It is at this point that it is a good idea to inspect your paintwork to visually see if there are any bugs and in particularly any tar spots, that may have bonded to your paintwork and haven't been removed during the pre-clean procedure. If you spot any, get your bug and tar remover and apply it to these areas generously and allow the product to soak in and do its work. Do not at any stage start rubbing at them with a cloth etc. Just let the product work its magic. The bug and tar remover will be removed from the car during the next process.
Next we are going to snow foam the car, but what is snow foam?
Snow foam works by creating a thick, clingy foam that sticks to the surface of your car. The thick foam increases the amount of time that the cleaning agents inside the snow foam are in contact with the dirt on the car's surface. This is what's known as contact time. Because of this increased contact time compared to just using regular soap and water, the snow foam will do a much better job of breaking down dirt and lifting it off the surface of your car, which in turn will make your regular car washing much more effective.
So, to snow foam your car properly, we are going to apply it in the exact same way that we used the citrus pre cleaner.
Once again use the correct dilution rates as per the manufacturers instructions and fill your snow foam lance and attach it to your pressure washer. I won't repeat how to apply it again but just follow what I said previously by starting on the sides of the car first and using a sweeping method work your way from the from to the back again, starting on the lowest parts of the car. Once the car is completely covered in a thick foam including the wheels again, allow the product to do its job by allowing it to sit on the car and drip off for approximately ten minutes. (Follow manufacturers instructions for duration times) As it drips off the car, the foam is removing any contaminants that may have been left on the car following the citrus pre clean.
While you are waiting for the product to do its job, this is a good time to thoroughly clean out the snow foam bottle ready for next time. Now you can remove the foam from the car by re-attaching the pressure washer lance and starting from the bottom of the car upwards, once again just as we did with the citrus pre cleaner, remove the foam from the car completely. Don't forget to do underneath the petrol/diesel tank flap.
Congratulations, you have now finished both pre cleaning actions for your car!
Alloy wheels and How to clean alloy wheels properly?
A car that doesn't have clean alloy wheels, just doesn't look clean, so lets learn how to clean alloy wheels professionally. I always use a good alloy wheel cleaner such as Bilberry which is made as the name indicates, from Bilberry fruit juice which has excellent natural cleaning properties.
My personal favourite though is a product called Dragons Breath, which has this name for a reason... It absolutely stinks, but it is an incredible product and removes dirt from alloy wheels like you wouldn't believe. It also removes iron, fallout and brake dust and actually bleeds. What I mean by this is, where the product finds any of these contaminants, it turns red and as is runs away it appears to be bleeding. On your first use, you will be amazed at how much your car is contaminated, and it can be quite satisfying to see it all being removed.
Bilberry itself can be diluted unlike Dragons Breath which is used neat and both products should be used in a spray bottle that you fill yourself. Spray the product all over your alloy wheels and inside the rims. Also spray it on the wheel arch liners and allow to sit as per the manufacturers instructions regarding time limits. I recommend doing one wheel at a time before moving on to the next one, as these products shouldn't be left on the car for a prolonged period, especially Dragons Breath.
Once the product has been applied, take a good detailing wheel brush and agitate the product, moving in and out of the spokes to reach the inside of the alloys to remove any dirt that may be in there. Once you have done this, take a small detailing brush, such as an artists brush and clean the faces and spokes of the alloys along with inside of the holes where the wheel nuts sit. The small brush is ideal for this process. I always clean the tyre walls at the same time by spraying onto the rubber of the tyre and using the small brush, clean any dirt from the faces.
Now remove the product from the alloy wheels and the wheel arches using your pressure washer. Make sure you remove all of it, as the Dragons Breath
will foam up and will take a bit more time to remove than what the bilberry will. Ensure that it doesn't splash back into your eyes, especially when you spray the washer into the holes containing the wheel nuts. Trust me, it will splash back, I can tell you this from experience. Once completed, move onto the next wheel and repeat the process until all four alloys and tires are clean and ready to go.
Congratulations, you now know how to clean alloy wheels like a professional... !
Washing Your Car with Car Shampoo
Yes, we have now finally reached the stage where you can finally wash your car properly in a way that you will recognise. The pre wash treatments will have removed any debris, dust and airborne contaminants from your cars paintwork in such a way, that your car will no longer have any bits that can't be seen by the human eye, lurking on the surface that have the ability to cause damage during the washing process. Just like decorating, to do a job properly, it's all about the preparation to get the best end results to the job in hand.
You will now need two buckets, each containing a grit guard.
A grit guard is what fits in the bottom of your buckets and will be used to remove any grit or debris that you could possibly pick up with your wash mitt. It will become clear what their purpose is, so keep reading. Now, you will want to fill one of your buckets with fresh clean water and the other bucket is what you will be putting your PH neutral car shampoo into.
The idea is, that we use one bucket for washing and the other for rinsing out our wash mitt after each time we dip it into the shampoo. Add your car shampoo to your wash bucket. I recommend a concentrated shampoo as it will last much longer and you won't use as much. Follow the manufacturers instructions as to the amount required and add fresh clean water to fill your bucket. We are now ready to start washing your car.
Take your wash mitt and dip it into the shampoo bucket. I always start at the top of the car in this order - roof, windscreen, bonnet and boot lid. I always leave the sides until last, especially, the lower half of the car which pick up the most dirt. It is good practice to use a second wash mitt to wash the lower half of the car, to once again, minimise the amount of debris you may pick up in your mitt which in turn will minimise any damage to the paintwork.
When washing, we do not want to be putting pressure onto the paintwork so try to glide the mitt gently across the surface of the paint. This will once again, minimise any damage that washing may cause. Use a straight arm motion and work from front to back. Do not go round in a circular motion! After washing the first panel eg: the roof. Remove the shampoo from the panel with the pressure washer, to avoid any of the soap drying onto the paintwork.
Important - Never dip your wash mitt back into the wash bucket without cleaning and rinsing it first in the clean bucket of water. Dip the mitt into the clean water bucket and agitate it on the grit guard at the bottom. This will remove any debris that could possibly have been picked up that will be stuck in the wash mitt. If there is anything stuck in there, it can cause damage the next time you put it back into the car again.
Any debris that is removed from the mitt whilst agitating it against the grit guard, will fall to the bottom of the bucket beneath the guard and out of harms way. It is also worth visually inspecting the mitt to see if you can see any bits or debris with your own eyes. Its better to be safe than sorry.
Once you have rinsed the mitt, you can now dip it back into the wash bucket and carry on washing your next panel which will be the windscreen. Repeat the process over and over agitating the mitt against the grit guard every time before you dip it back into the shampoo bucket, until all horizontal panels have been washed, including the front and rear windows and rinsed off thoroughly with the pressure washer. You are now ready to clean the sides of the car.
This time using a straight arm method once again, you will want to wash up and down in straight lines and not wash in a circular motion. Wash the top half of the sides of the car as, just as I mentioned earlier, it is good practice to change your wash mitt when washing the lower half which tends to be much dirtier than the rest of the car. Once washed rinse thoroughly with your pressure washer, change your mitt and clean the lower half of the car, along with the front and rear bumpers.
Congratulations, you have now washed your car like a professional and now its time to dry it.
How to Dry Your Car Properly
Drying your car is where you could possibly damage the cars paintwork. This is where streaks and swirl marks can easily be picked up, and we have just spent a lot of time making sure that we don't cause them so be very careful when drying the water from your car. Here is the best way to do it with minimal damage.
Sheeting a car and What is Sheeting?
Sheeting is the best way of removing excess water from your car without actually touching it and a practice carried out by all good car detailers. Take an open ended hose pipe and allow water to run through it. Not so that it is squirting out the end under pressure, but also not just a trickle. I always recommend the same speed and flow rate that would pour out of a long nosed watering can (without the rose attached)
You will work out the best speed as you carry out this process. Starting with the roof, hold the hose pipe (ensuring the trailing hose doesn't touch the sides of the car) close to the paintwork and starting at the rear of the car, slowly work your way to the front, moving the hose from side to side as you work your way down. What you are doing is actually pushing the excess water off the panel so that it runs down the front of the windscreen. You will visibly notice that there is a lot less water now on the roof if you have done it properly, which means there is less water to dry when it comes to using a plush microfibre towel to remove the last little droplets.
Next, do the same to the windscreen starting at the top moving side to side until you reach the bottom of the glass. Then do the same with the rear windscreen.
I recommend that you move onto the bonnet next starting at the point nearest the windscreen and working your way down to the front edge. You should once again be noticing that the majority of the water I being removed with the flow of the water. If it is splashing everywhere you are holding the hose too far away from the panel or maybe you have the flow too fast.
Try changing the flow rate until you get the best results. With practice, you will work out what works best for you, then stick to that. After the bonnet I recommend doing the sides of the car starting at the highest point and working your way down to the bottom, and finally the front and rear bumpers. You should at this point have the least amount of water still on the car that you can possibly have. If your car has been waxed and especially if it has a ceramic coating, you will virtually remove all water from each panel leaving only a few droplets.
So once again, congratulations, you have just sheeted the car and are now ready to dry it.
I recommend using a detail spray along with using a clean plush large microfibre drying towel. Starting with the roof, spray a couple of bursts onto the panel and with your drying towel using a minimal amount of pressure, gently glide the towel in straight lines from front to back to remove any excess water that may be left. You may leave the odd streak, but this is where the second buffing towel comes in. Use the buffing towel to remove the streaks, again in straight lines. Do not use circular motions!!! Once the roof is complete, move onto the glass areas, then the bonnet and boot lid, followed by the sides of the car and finally the front and rear bumpers.
Now you will notice, that there is still water in the nooks and crannies. Especially in the wing mirrors, door shuts, door hinges/sills, front grill and panel gaps. As a professional car detailer I always use an electric air blower for this task of removing the excess water. Its an additional luxury, but one definitely worth having, because if left, the water will drip down your clean car and dry leaving stains.
As a tip, avoid falling for the trap of buying a specified detailing car blower as these can be very expensive. (Around £150) I always purchase pet blowers, which are just the same, the only difference usually being that they don't have a detailing manufacturers sticker on them. eBay is a good place to pick one up for about £50. At the end of the day we just want a machine that blows hot air with a variable speed limit on it.
So using your blower remove all of the water that is still in the cracks and crevices. Its a good idea to holding a drying towel in the area that you are blowing to catch the excess water as it is being driven out by the air blower. If any lands on the car paintwork just dry it off with your buffing towel. When using a blower, it is good practice to start with the alloy wheels, as the water will spray everywhere, especially from the holes containing the wheel nuts. Don't forget to open the petrol/diesel tank flap and dry in there too. Finally, open the bonnet and the boot lid and ensure that you dry inside of these areas thoroughly too.
As a final tip, it is always worth revisiting the wing mirrors, as it seems that no matter how dry you think they are, water seems to just reappear in there.
If you don't have an electric blower, you will just have to remove the water the old fashioned way, with a drying towel. I don't recommend using the towels you used for drying the car as we want to keep these in as clean a condition as possible. Instead use a drying cloth that you will only ever use for drying these specific areas.
And that concludes the safe washing of your car. It should now look spotlessly clean. You now have the knowledge and the skills to clean your car properly just like the experts do. You're not quite a professional detailer yet, but you're on you're now on your way to becoming one of us.
I hope you find this article assists you in keeping your car clean and causing the least amount of damage to your paintwork as possible for years to come.