How to Hand Wash your Car like a Professional

Many professional detailers will work from the inside out to allow time for the carpet to dry as they polish and wax the car. But we’re going to work from the outside in, on the surface most people care about—the paint surface. But in order to accurately evaluate the the paint, you must wash it thoroughly. I visited both Eagle One and Meguiar’s, who both bent over backwards to help me in any way possible. What follows is a combination of instructions direct from the folks who are some of the best in the business.

For a proper, professional hand wash, you need the proper equipment: mitts instead of rags, at least two buckets, and car wash liquid. You’ll also need bug and tar remover, a good hose with high pressure nozzle, and your chamois. The dual bucket above has one receptacle for rinsing, one for sudsing. The tray, which holds the products, fits inside when empty, all closing up into one neat container.

PREPARATION

The first step is to assemble your washing kit. These are:

  1. A non-detergent car wash liquid, specially formulated for this task.
  2. Two buckets with minimum 5 gal. capacity
  3. A washing mitt (a second is preferred if the car is really dirty)
  4. A natural or man-made chamois (you may need more than one)
  5. A spray bottle of water for spot rinsing
  6. Bug & Tar Remover (Turtle Wax has a good one)
  7. Hose & spray nozzle
  8. An assortment of short, soft bristle brushes for exterior vinyl, trim work and spoke wheels
  9. Wheel cleaner specific to your wheels.

Dishwashing soaps are formulated to remove food fats and grease, and will strip wax from your paint. Do not use them. There are several products on the shelf that are designed as washing aids containing no soap or detergent.

WASH TECHNIQUE

Do not wash your car in the sun if possible, and early morning or late afternoon is best if you have a choice. Most likely you have hard water with a high mineral content (unless it is filtered or softened). With this type of water, it is important that it does not dry on the paint, where it will leave a hard water mineral deposit.

Pre-Rinse

You may only need to pre-rinse the car if it is really dirty. If there is only a light film of road grime, then the extra step of pre-rinsing may not be necessary.

Pre-rinsing the car serves two purposes: it gets heavy dirt deposits off, and cools the paint. Use a strong spray for this. Be sure to work around under the body edges and dislodge as much as possible. You don’t want to drag this dirt around with the wash mitt, scratching the paint as you go.

Wash Solution

To make a washing solution, place the correct amount of car wash liquid into one of the buckets as specified on the back of the product. Make sure that you dilute the solution sufficiently. If there is too much solution, it might leave a haze or film on the paint when you dry it. Measure carefully, eyeballing or “guesstimating” won’t do it. Direct a strong stream of water into the container, creating an abundance of suds. Suds hold the dirt in suspension, lessening the possibility of scratching the paint as you wash it.

Car wash liquids are specially formulated not to strip the wax on your paint. They also have a sudsing action designed to lift dirt off the surface so it can be wiped away easier without scratching it. Used to be dish soap was just fine, but not any longer. Make sure you dilute it properly according to the directions on the back.

Procedure

Work one section of the car at a time, starting with the roof, then trunk and hood, saving vertical surfaces for last. Dip your mitt into the wash bucket, saturating it fully with a lot of suds. Wash one half of the top (one quarter if it’s really dirty), applying even, medium pressure. Now, rinse the mitt in the clean water, wringing it out away from the bucket—not into the bucket. Dip your mitt in the washing solution again and wash the other side of the roof—then repeat rinsing the mitt. Empty and refill the rinsing bucket several times throughout the washing operation to remove all grit, which can put microscratches in the paint. Don’t scrub! Remember: you don’t want to scratch the surface. There’s dirt on the paint and heavy scrubbing will make that dirt act like sandpaper. Keep it easy going.

Work in the shade or at the cooler times of day, like early morning or late evening. After a thorough pre-rinse, suds up the mitt as much as possible. You want a lot of sudsing action. Work in small sections, working from the top down.

Using the “double dip” method of dunking in water first, then suds, to get more soap. Check the mitt periodically to make sure debris is not lodged in the folds, which could scratch the paint.

If you run into something that’s a little tough to get off, this polypropylene covered sponge can be very aggressive without scratching the paint.

Keep the bug and tar remover, as well as a separate applicator, nearby. As you wash, try rubbing the bug or tar spot off the car with the mitt. If it doesn’t work, use the remover. Whatever you do, don’t use the mitt with the bug & tar remover. Use a separate sponge or towel. Do not use a spare shop rag that you may have used to clean engine parts with, either. This will undoubtedly contain metal particles or other abrasives that will scratch the paint.

Rinse — Some people use one mitt for washing, then one mitt to hand rinse with the clear water, and avoid using a hose. If you’re like most people, you’ll use a hose. However, flood the surface gently, making no water beads on the surface. Do not use the spray nozzle. Flooding the surfaces allows the water to “sheet” off, leaving few water rings and less water to dry. Rinse from the top down.

Wheel Wells, Wheels & Tires

We will cover deep cleaning and detailing of your wheels and tires later, so at this stage, you are just trying to remove as much surface grime and dirt as possible before going on to more caustic, specially formulated cleaners designed to remove the specific problems that attack your wheels and tires. You’ll want to get any overspray from the wheels and tires over with now, before you clean, polish and wax the paint. The deep cleaning process is waterless, so you don’t have to worry about messing up your detailed paint at that stage. I suggest you use a separate washing mitt to do the tires and wheels rather than the one you’ll use for the body of the car. It would be too easy to bring up some heavily soiled matter (dirt, sand, grease, or road tar) and spread it over the body or scratch the paint. So, keep a special mitt to wash the tires and wheels and one for washing the body. A good scrub brush also works well for this. Use lots of detergent as you work on the wheels and tires. This will keep dirt in suspension and lubricate your washing mitt. This combination prevents scratching your wheels, especially painted wheels. Don’t let this solution dry on the wheels (or tires).

Tires should be scrubbed at this stage, using a tire cleaner and wheel cleaner formulated for the task. You can spray rinse this area.

Make sure you get up under the wheelwells.

Make sure you reach up behind the wheel and tire and get the wheel wells. This is the time to clean them, so use a scrub brush and get what you can.

Finally, rinse, rinse, rinse. You can’t overrinse and you must get as much of the loose dirt and grime off as possible. Remember, we’re only getting the “lumps” now — later we cover procedures for removing things like brake fluid and dust.

Caution — In the past, steel wool scouring pads or steel wool were recommended for scrubbing wheels. But many wheels today now come with clear coat finishes that require special care. Do not use abrasives or scouring pads on these wheels.

Grilles & Exterior Trim

Grille work can be rather complex and detailed. If you have a car from the fifties you know what I mean. The easiest way to get into those cracks and crevices is with a cut-off paint brush (nylon bristles). I use a 2 1/2-inch wide paint brush with soft bristles. I use two of them: one for washing, as in the grille area and wheels; the other I use dry to brush away buffing compound and polish from around trim areas where the buffer/polisher can’t reach.

Drying

You might think the next step is to wash the wheels and tires, but that is not true. Wheels and tires should be washed with special cleaners separately.

The same goes for window glass. The next thing is to get the paint dry with a chamois and towels to prevent the water from drying and spotting.

The correct way to use the chamois is to open it up and lay it flat out on the body. Then, holding it by two of its comers, pull it across the surface. If there is a speck of dirt under it, it’s less likely to scratch. Of course, there will be areas where you’ll have to use it wadded up. Just remember not to scrub hard with it.

Toweling

If you don’t have a chamois, then you’ll have to use a towel. Or, some people like to run over the car with the chamois, then once again with a clean towel. Your choice. The professional detailers use 100% cotton terrycloth towels. Not just cotton towels, but terrycloth towels. Your bath towels are made of terrycloth to absorb water. Have you ever tried to dry off with a bed sheet? It doesn’t work very well. Pros also keep all of their toweling separate. The drying towels are never mixed with the polishing towels.

As for final rinsing the rest of the car, don’t use a high pressure spray. Rood the car’s surface gently, from the top down, allowing the water to “sheet” off. This will make drying a bit faster and more uniform.

Lay the chamois out and drag it gently across the surface to get the majority of the water off.