How I Wash Cars
Car wash materials sitting in front of Erin's car

As a professional podcaster, I quickly learned that there are some topics you really don’t want to bring up on a show:

  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Parenting

When it comes to car enthusiasts, there’s another topic that invites argument more than almost any other: how do you like to wash your car?

Since I’m an idiot a glutton for punishment, but also since I’ve been asked several times in the past, and also because of that sweet sweet affiliate money I like to help people, here’s a basic walkthrough of the methods I use.

My car, my rules. Your car, your rules. Please come to your own conclusions.

This post is meant for the person who wants to start taking care of their car. It is not meant for the seasoned car washing enthusiast. I’m sure this list of tools will utterly horrify some, but I hope it will also help some others.

Washing the Car

When the weather is nice, I try to wash my car once a week. I don’t always get to every step in this process. I do try to do this sort of thorough cleaning once a month though.

Phase One: Wash

I am a fan of the two-bucket system for washing your car. One bucket is for soapy water; the other is for rinsing off your dirty sponge. The theory is that all the impurities and contaminants are rinsed off in the dirty bucket, so they don’t muck up the clean bucket. I’m pretty sure this is a placebo, but I like it, so that’s the way I do it.

I happen to use this Rubbermaid bucket as my dirty one; I’m not sure where I got the clean bucket. But really, any bucket will do. There’s no real science here.

For a long time I used Turtle Wax car wash, but some friends recently turned me on to Mr. Pink car wash, which is excellent. It’s super sudsy, and I’m told, easy on your car’s paint.

For a sponge, I use this mitt from Meguiars, though I never actually use it as a mitt. It’s just a nice sponge.

To wash, I fill the clean bucket with soapy water, one with plain water. Dip your sponge in the clean bucket, apply soapy water to the car, top → bottom, back → front. Do one section at a time. Rinse with the hose after each section.

Phase Two: Wheels

I really really hate brake dust. It’s the stuff that makes your wheels brown, particularly up front, which tends to be where most of the stopping happens. If I have the time, I try to always clean my wheels when I wash the rest of the car.

I have come to quite like the Black Magic No Scrub Wheel Cleaner. I spray it all over the wheel, and then simply wipe the dust off with a damp rag. Then I spray it down with the hose when I’m done. It’s important to have a dedicated wheel cleaning rag, as it will be pretty much instantly destroyed by brake dust forever. I do re-use that rag, but only for wheels, and never for anything else.

Phase Three: Exhaust

One of the few flaws of my Golf R is that the exhaust tips get really brown really quickly. In casting around for a solution to this, some friends strongly recommended Barkeeper’s Friend. I got the powdered version. I sprinkle it on a damp rag, mush it around in the rag to make a bit of a paste, and then apply to the exhaust tips. Spray clean after.

I’ve linked to this on Amazon, but you can probably find this cheaper in your local Target or equivalent. It’s also worth noting that it works well on lots of stuff around the house, such as metal sinks.

Phase Four: Dry

I don’t have particularly strong opinions here. I use bath towels purchased at Target. The only advice I have is that I’ve found 100% cotton seems to be not absorbent at all. I do advise getting towels that are in part polyester, which seems to dramatically increase how absorbent the towels are.

Before I begin to dry, I spray down the whole car one more time to try to alleviate any spotting. Then I try to dry the side of the car that faces the sun first, since it’s most likely to dry and create spots first. Otherwise I move top → bottom, back → front, just like when I wash.

Phase Five: Tires

As with clean wheels, I really love how a shiny, wet-looking tire presents. There’s many different products that can achieve this goal, but I really like Black Magic Tire Wet Foam. Once the tires are at least mostly dry, you simply spray that foam on them, and then walk away. No buffing required.

(Note the one I’ve linked here is a six-pack; you’re probably better served by going to your local store and getting just one to try.)

Since it’s so quick and easy to spray this foam on, I’ll spray all four tires from time to time, between washes, to freshen them up, when I think they need it.

Just be sure to let the foam dry up before you drive the car, lest you spray the excess foam all over your bodywork.

Twice a Year: Wax

Generally speaking, in the spring and fall I try to find the time to wax the car. I feel like this is particularly important in the fall, as it puts a protective layer on the paint prior to the harshness of winter. Yes, even here in Virginia.

There are a million and seven car waxes on the market. I grew up in a house that used Nu Finish, so that’s what I use. Nu Finish is a wet wax. The process is:

  1. Get a damp cloth
  2. Apply a little NuFinish to the cloth. A little goes a long way.
  3. Rub the wax onto the car, using a circular motion
  4. Wait for the wax to dry. Not only will it be white, but if you swipe a finger across it, you’ll take the wax right off, and it’ll feel dry.
  5. With a different, dry, cloth, also using a circular motion, rub the wax off the car.

Do the above one panel/section at a time until the whole car has been waxed.

Every Other Year: Clay

Every couple years, time permitting, I’ll clay my car.

The first time I heard about this, I thought it was absolutely bananas. Nevertheless, I tried it, and was amazed at the result.

Specially created bars of clay can be used to take invisible impurities out of your paint. I know how ridiculous this sounds. I didn’t believe it either. I thought it was the automotive equivalent of ear candling.

Believe it.

One time I clayed my wife Erin’s car. When I got to the hood, I only did half of it. I asked Erin to run her hand across the hood, from the non-clayed side to the clayed side, to see the difference. With some eye rolling, she did so. Her face quickly went from 🙄 → 😳. The difference in feeling between the side that had been clayed and the side that hadn’t was tremendous. One had the feeling of a mirror; the other felt like a veritable sand trap by comparison.

Once you clay your car, it will feel noticeably smoother to the touch.

I’ve had really good luck with Meguiar’s Clay Kit. It includes the clay bar, as well as a solution you use to dampen the car. So, the process is:

  1. Thoroughly wash and dry your car
  2. One section at a time, moisten the surface of the car using the spray
  3. Rub the clay bar directly against the car, not using very much force
  4. Dry with a dry rag
  5. Once you’re done with a section, fold the clay onto itself a few times so you’re not rubbing the old impurities against a new section of car
  6. When you’re done, wax the whole car.

This is typically a half-day affair, even for a normal-sized sedan. I haven’t yet clayed my wife’s SUV, but I assume that it will be an all-day affair.

Claying a car seems (and looks) ridiculous. I’m telling you, it’s worth it.

Every Few Years: Leather

Every few years, I also like to do a full round of leather conditioning. Another friend of mine recommended this kit from Lexol, which is expensive, but well worth it. It took a really disgusting looking steering wheel back from the brink of death, including making some cracks all but disappear.

The Lexol kit contains cleaner and conditioner for leather, and protectant for vinyl surfaces like your dashboard. For the leather, apply the cleaner, and then the conditioner. For the protectant, just use it on non-leather, plasticky surfaces, as you would Armor All.

It took me forever to do all the seats, the steering wheel, and my shift boot in my last car with all three Lexol liquids, but I was stunned by how good everything looked when it was all done.

A Closing Thought

I can’t stress enough that I am not passing off any of what I’ve said as the one true way to clean a car. I also take my car to automatic car washes from time to time. Different tools in the tool belt.

As with all instructive posts one reads on the internet, I strongly suggest careful scrutiny of the above, and for you to form your own conclusions.

That said, I find washing my car — especially with my kids — to be an extremely enjoyable way to spend some time outdoors on a nice day.