Car Detailing 1 – Washing

Automotive Detailing

Part 1: Washing

Car being washed with hand mop


There are many who subscribe to the maxim that if the weather is nice enough to wash their car, they would rather be driving in it. The perception of anyone having a clean car must not drive great distances or often or they would prefer to clean the car, than drive around in it. Well, they do not necessarily have to be exclusive.

Consider cleaning your car a part of routine maintenance and should be done regularly given the same commitment as a 3,000-mile oil change. The advantages to periodically cleaning your car, truck, SUV or minivan are numerous. But suffice it to say that maintaining your investment is reason enough.

Tools of the Trade

Start by purchasing, stealing, or otherwise procuring two buckets to be exclusively used for your vehicle(s). You don’t want harsh household cleaning chemicals used on your car’s finish or, conversely, automotive fluids transferred to the fine Italian marble floor of your Loudoun County mansion.

Next, buy at least two or three of the softest car wash mitts available. Mitts with a thick, plush mat/pile are best since they easily lift and carry dirt, prehistoric insects, Buicks and other debris away from the painted surface without leaving a scratch on it. I do not recommend using sponges on painted surfaces since they are not as effective in removing grime as thick mitts. Use a synthetic chamois for drying, as it is the most effective.  The chamois can be machine washed when dirty and does not break or become brittle after a long time.

Car Detailing Products

Microfiber towels as well as 100% cotton cloth towels and diapers can be worth their weight in gold, and can cost just as much. But they are by far the best when it comes to applying and removing waxes and polishes.  Also buy several heavy-duty cleaning (“shop”) rags and/or sponges to be used on areas of your vehicle where you don’t want to use a mitt (e.g., wheels, engine, drivetrain, etc.). Other items that could prove invaluable for those hard-to-rach crevices or wheel cleaning are a nylon (not brass) toothbrush, a stiff-bristle, a toilet bowl type brush, and a wooden-handle (not metal) paintbrush.


The fastest way to prematurely age any vehicle is to simply do nothing and allow the dirt to attack your car’s engine and/or finish. Having the right tools helps.  But knowing how to use them is equally important, and it all begins with soap and water.

We recommend using a liquid soap specifically designed for washing cars/automobiles, vice powder soaps since undissolved particles from powder soaps can be abrasive. Also, avoid dishwashing liquids that are designed to remove the dried-on and encrusted Lobster Florentine you had for brunch 3 years ago — they will remove the wax from your car with the same efficiency. All wax manufacturers (Meguiars, Eagle One, RainDance, Turtle Wax, etc.) sell their own brand of car wash soap, which can be purchased at virtually any automotive parts retailer, retail warehouses (Costco, BJs), or big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target.

Generally speaking, the stronger the concentration of soap, the more wax you are likely to remove. Read the manufacturers suggested directions, and then use half the recommended amount of soap. Also, avoid using hot water when mixing the soap in your bucket since this will soften and facilitate removal of the wax.

If you can’t wash your vehicle first thing in the morning, the next best option is to park it in the shade, but make sure it’s cool to the touch before starting.  Begin by using a dedicated “dirty” bucket and washing the rims, lower trim pieces and bumpers first.  If you start with the painted surfaces, they will likely be dry by the time you’re done cleaning the wheels thereby leaving water spots.

Next, thoroughly hose down your car with a garden hose, not a pressure washer. Even Holy Water will eventually find its way past seals and bearings if a 10,000-psi deck washer or a fire hydrant is used. Start at the top and work your way down using a continuous stream of low-pressure water and a clean wash mitt, being especially careful that it is free of dirt, gravel, plum pits or moon dust. Use your dedicated “clean” bucket and start at the top of the car and work your way down (this avoids transferring heavy dirt, grease, etc., into the bucket before most of the bodywork has been washed). If you accidentally drop your mitt on the ground, set it aside and get a clean one.

(Note: A word about bird poop is in order. Not only is this substance highly acidic, but a close inspection of this offering could disclose small pebbles that are used by some of flying rodents in the digestion of their food. So don’t spare the water and remove bird poop as soon as possible after you discover a deposit. If not removed soon after and properly, it will ruin your paint.)

The car should then be rinsed thoroughly and dried as soon as possible. As suggested earlier, the best method of accomplishing this is to use a quality synthetic chamois, 100% cotton cloth diaper, or a soft, clean terrycloth towel. We do not advocate using compressed air to facilitate the drying process since this can easily force water into unwanted areas of automobile.

Cleaning the Engine

There are as many opinions about which techniques, methods and solvents to use when cleaning/detailing the engine compartment as there are lamb chop sideburns at an Elvis convention.  Some of the information is useful, and some is not.  We do not, for instance, advocate warming the engine first to loosen/soften the oily/greasy areas.  There is an engineering/chemistry principle known as capillary action where liquids are drawn into areas when adhesive forces exceed cohesive forces.  In layman’s terms, water can be “sucked” into unwanted parts of the engine (particularly as it cools).  So we let the degreasers do the work (Foamy Engine Bright, Simple Green and Castrol Super Clean to name a few) to minimize the time spent “watering down” the engine.

Car engine being wiped down

Regardless if you use a pressure system or a hose to rinse the engine off, it’s important to first protect sensitive engine components like the distributor, rotor, carburetor, air filter/cleaner, coil and other electrical connections.  One way to do this is to place tin foil over non-electrical parts and plastic baggies over electrical areas, and then secure them with a rubber band before applying the solvent.  And for heavily soiled parts, we suggest using stiff-bristle, wooden handle brushes to help the degreasers do their job before hosing it off.  Some customers prefer a dressing on the hoses and plastic pieces within the engine compartment.  Meguiar’s and 3M make rubber treatment sprays, or you can use something as readily available as WD-40.  Finally and for obvious reasons, do NOT spray dressings in the area compartment that are close to pulleys and belts.