A step-by-step guide on the basics of how to hand wash your car and make it shine
Is cleaning your car a pleasure or a chore? Many enthusiasts delight in keeping their pride and joy in tip-top condition, but the results of a DIY car wash can be rewarding for anyone – especially when it’s done right.
Washing the car is a popular weekend pastime either way, with lots of car owners choosing to forego the cost of a drive-through valet or automatic wash. It may be simply to save money, but others choose the DIY route because they know exactly how they want to care for their cars, and take pride in a job well done.
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Not everyone is quite so confident though, and it’s easy to make beginners' errors when you wash a car for the first time. Using the wrong type of suds, failing to realise a sponge may be dirty and damaging your paintwork, or even washing a car in the wrong sort of weather are just a few of the practical pitfalls that may catch out the unwary. Then there’s the mind-boggling array of car shampoos, special cleaning compounds, waxes and polishes, not to mention the variety of brushes, sponges and cloths on offer.
So for anyone thinking of washing a car, but who doesn’t really know where to start, we’ve compiled this simple guide to washing your car like a professional.
If you're using a car on a daily basis, the dirt can start to show quickly, even if you're driving in dry conditions. In winter, the grime builds up on even the shortest trip, as road salt and dirt sticks to your bodywork, wheels and tyres.
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But where do you start? Well the first place to visit is Auto Express' comprehensive product test section. Here you'll find all the cleaning products you'll need – and probably a few that you didn't even know existed. Our thorough tests will leave you in no doubt about which are the best products to use on your car. The next step is a quick search online or a trip to your local motor factors or large supermarket, which will stock all the kit you'll need, and usually carry products that have the Auto Express seal of approval, too.
A step-by-step approach is best when it comes to cleaning a car. First you need to wash off the grime, then you need to rinse the bodywork dry, and after that you can apply a wax coat to give longer-lasting protection, which will also make it easier to clean your car the next time you do it. But while that's the basic premise, there's plenty that you can do to help your car to look its best. Here are our top tips.
How to wash your car in 10 easy steps
1. Choose the right weather and time of day to clean your car
It might seem like a risk, but if you can choose a cloudy day to clean your car then that is much better than doing it in the sunshine. Washing a car in the sun might seem like the best thing to do, but the heat will dry out your car between washing and cleaning, which could leave water marks on the bodywork. The heat of the sun will also reduce the effectiveness of your cleaning products.
Of course, there's no point in washing a car in the rain (not even for a 'free' rinse after a shampoo), and if it's sunny and you must clean your car, then pick a shaded area to get to work, or choose either the early morning or late afternoon to do it. That's when the sun isn't quite as strong, and there's more natural shade to work in.
Dirt and grit needs to be washed off your car before you can get started with any cleaning. If you can park close to a water source, or have a hose long enough to reach, then we'd recommend buying a pressure washer to connect to it. These are more effective than a hose alone, because the high-pressure jet can blast more dirt off, leaving you with less work to do to get it clean. Just be careful as some more powerful pressure washers can damage paintwork and seals.
Two useful products are snow foam or traffic film remover. These cover your car in suds that get to work loosening off all the grime. Simply leave them to work for a few minutes, then you can blast it all off using a pressure washer. You should work from the roof of the car downwards, and don't forget to do the undersides of the door sills and bumpers – they're easy to forget when you're standing close to the car, but are an obvious place to see dirt when you're standing further away.
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At the same time, you can clean the dirt that accumulates on the door sills themselves and the edges of the doors. If you're a dab hand with a pressure washer lance, you might like to try blasting it off without getting the car's interior wet. But for the rest of us, it's probably better to just use a cloth or sponge to wipe the dirt away. Remember not to use this same sponge when you shampoo your car, though, as it'll be filthy!
If you have stubborn stains, such as tar spots, dried-on bugs or tree sap, then you'll need a tougher cleaner, and oil-based products work well. There are tar and bug-removing sprays available, but even products such as WD40 can help loosen off stubborn marks. However, if you do this, it's essential that you give the affected bodywork a thorough clean and polish afterwards.
Once, you've done your initial pressure wash, you should then treat your car to a hand wash using a traditional bucket and sponge. NEVER use washing up liquid to clean a car – the detergents used in liquid are designed to strip dirt and other products from objects to get them clean, and using washing up liquid on paintwork will strip it of any protection, causing the paint to deteriorate faster than normal.
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Use a dedicated car wash shampoo, mixed with warm water, and applied using a sponge. You should have removed most dirt with the initial pressure wash, but it's worth investing in a grit guard to put in the bottom of your bucket. That way when you rinse the sponge after each wipe, any remaining dirt particles will sink to the bottom, away from your sponge. As with every other step of cleaning, it's worth approaching the car panel-by-panel, working from top to bottom to prevent dirt spreading.
While microfibre cloths have been marketed as a great way to dry your car's bodywork, there is a risk of them scratching the paintwork if they have any dirt contaminating them. We'd still go for a chamois leather, preferably a natural one rather than synthetic, making sure that it has some moisture in it before wiping it across the car.
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If you're feeling thorough, you could use a hairdryer to blow water droplets out of hidden areas, such as around the doorhandles and lights. There's nothing more frustrating than making your car spotless, only for it to be covered in lines from hidden water droplets as soon as you drive off.
Once your bodywork is clean and dry, it's ready for another level of cleaning. A clay bar can be used over the bodywork to pick up the finest of particles, because not everything can be picked up by a chamois or cloth. Once this is done, then maybe you could apply a polish to the bodywork. Either way, it's waxing time after this.
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The best way to apply wax is to use a fine sponge that can spread the wax evenly across the bodywork. Simply apply, allow to dry, then use a soft cloth to buff to a shine. You can purchase polishing brushes that attach to a household drill, although that carries the risk of scratching your bodywork if you're careless.
With the bodywork clean, it's time to turn to the windows. While there are dedicated automotive glass cleaners available, a domestic glass cleaner is just as good, as long as it's vinegar-based for a streak-free finish. Again, a lint-free cloth is best for this. When you're cleaning, do the inside and outside of the windows, and lower them slightly to clean the strip where the window and seal meet.
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While you've got the glass cleaner out, give some attention to your mirrors, too, and once you're done, you might like to apply a rain repellent liquid or an anti-fog coating that goes on the inside of the glass.
One part of any car that's prone to dirt is the wheels. Brake dust can cling to alloy wheels easily, and it can quickly build up, leaving the wheels looking filthy when the rest of the car is clean. You can use snowfoam on the wheels and tyres at the same time as you're cleaning the bodywork, but for baked-on brake dust, a dedicated alloy wheel cleaner is needed. Some are sprayed on and change colour to show exactly where the dirt is coming off, and a blast with a pressure washer can help them look spotless quickly.
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Once cleaned, you can wax wheels to help prevent brake dust from collecting on them in the first place, while a good spray-on tyre shine can help your rubber look factory-fresh.
8. Exterior trim
Most modern cars now come with colour-coded bumpers, doorhandles and wing mirrors. But if you have an older car or a 4×4, there's likely to be black plastic on display. Most tyre shines can also be used on these bits of plastic trim, and they offer added protection from fading via ultraviolet rays from the sun.
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For even older cars, you need a chrome trim cleaner. There are plenty of metal polishes that are perfect to use on exterior brightwork, while a coat of wax after cleaning will help to prevent fading or discolouring.
With your car clean outside, it's time for the interior to get clean, too. You really need a decent handheld vacuum cleaner with a set of good attachments to get into all the nooks and crannies of a car's cabin. The latest domestic handheld vacs are powerful enough to suck up the worst dirt, and have the battery power to help you vac your car in no time at all, no matter how big your motor is.
It's worth sliding seats back and forth to suck up the worst dirt from underneath them, while flipping and folding back seats – and opening the rearmost row in seven-seaters – can reveal hidden debris, too.
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And don't forget the boot. If you can remove the boot floor, then it might be quicker and easier to take it out, put it on the ground and run the hoover over it. Then you can also go around the spare wheel well.
If you've got crevice tools for your vac, then use them. The narrower, the better, as some gaps between seats and transmission tunnels can be ultra-narrow, while a brush attachment can be good for lifting dust from plastics, especially the top of the dashboard and in between the air vents.
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Once this is done, it's time to crack open the wipes. Dashboard wipes can leave a matt or gloss finish, depending on what you prefer, and are really good for wiping up crumbs or spillages in cupholders and door bins. There are specialist cleaners for fabric or leather seat upholstery, so you really can go to town.
10. Under the bonnet
If you're going the whole hog, then you might as well get in the engine bay and give that some TLC, too. Once bonus of this is that if a garage sees your well maintained engine bay, they may well give your car the same care and attention. It's ill-advised to use a pressure washer under here, because of the damage you could do to electrical parts or greased components.
Use a silicone-based spray to revive hoses and rubber coated cables, while a bit of grease on those components that need them can add another finishing touch.
Once you've cleaned your car, it's time to enjoy it! A clean car can make you a more careful driver – after all, if you've invested a day cleaning it and making it look smart, you don't want it to go to waste.
Do you have any car cleaning tips? Let us know in the comments section below…
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