How to wash and wax a car

Updated: February 10, 2020

Why do you need to wash your car? The contaminants such as bird droppings, dead bugs, and tree sap will leave hard-to-remove stains if not washed off in time. Moisture and dirt accumulating behind mouldings and in other hard-to-reach areas over time will cause corrosion, especially in regions where road salt is used in the winter, see the photo. If the alloy rims are not washed off regularly, the brake dust will bond to the rim finish and will be hard to remove. Plus, the car that is kept clean and shiny not only looks good, but retains its value longer.

Automatic car wash options

Automatic drive-through car wash
Automatic drive-through car wash

Automatic drive-through car wash stations are everywhere, and they are not very expensive ($8-$20). Many automatic car wash stations have the option to wash the underneath of the car. It's useful if you want to wash off all the salt and dirt accumulated underneath over the winter.

A car wash with wrap-around brushes like in the photo works well for very dirty cars, but if you use it too often, you might notice that the clearcoat finish becomes less shiny. Some car owners don't like this type of car wash, because brushes can break off a rear wiper or antenna. I washed my car in this type of car wash many times and never had problems.

As an alternative look for a 'touchless' car wash. A touchless drive-through car wash uses stronger detergent and washes it off using water under high pressure. It's less effective on harder dirt stains, but works well if the car is not very dirty.

Washing a car at self-service car wash

The self-service car wash stations provide plenty of options and are not expensive; I washed this car in the photo for $6. A typical self-service car wash is equipped with a high-pressure washer gun and a brush connected to a hose that supplies soap. Many self-service car wash stations offer an option for washing the engine bay and drying it with compressed air. Check the instructions and safety precautions; they are usually posted on the wall. Here, I took a minimalist approach and used only these 3 options:

Washing a car - high-pressure soap
The first step is to pre-wash the car using the high-pressure soap.

1. Use the High-Pressure Soap mode to pre-wash the car. Start from the top and wash off all the sand that can scratch the clearocat when using a brush. Wash off any dirt from the brush itself before using it. Don't hold the gun too close to the car, as the pressure can peel off the loose paint. Avoid water jet contact with the eyes or skin.

Washing a car - Foam brush mode
Step two: foam brush.

2. Switch to Foam Brush and brush the car starting from the top, doing the wheels last.

Washing a car - high-pressure wax
The last step: high pressure wax.

3. Switch to High-Pressure Wax and rinse the entire car starting from the top. Once the car is done, rinse the brush too to be ready for the next person. It took me only 6 minutes to wash this car. Watch these YouTube videos on how to wash a car in a self-service car wash station for more tips.

Drying the car with a chamois
Dry the car with a chamois.

After washing, dry the car with a clean towel or chamois. It's not necessary, but this way you will less likely to see the streaks.

Clean the wiper blades

Clean the wiper blades
After washing the car, clean off the dirt and sand from under the wiper blades.

After washing the car, clean off the dirt and sand from under the wiper blades. Sand particles that get caught under the wiper blades can scratch your windshield over time. This will cause glare at night. Check the condition of the wipers. If the wiper blades are damaged or worn out, the metal parts can also scratch the windshield. Change the wipers if they are old.

Why do you need to wax your car?

Layer of car wax on a clear coat
A layer of car wax covers scratches.

A layer of car wax seals scratches and chips in the paint, preventing the exposed metal from corrosion. After waxing, a thin layer of wax covers the clear coat, protecting it from sun fading and bird droppings. Car wax fills up the minor scratches, making them less visible. And of course, the wax makes the car look shiny.

Dirty car
Let's see how this car looks after washing and waxing.

How long does the car wax stay on the car? A good product should stay from 6 months to a year. If you reapply the wax at least once a year, it should be enough to keep the clear coat shiny.

How to wax a car
Apply a small amount of wax on the sponge applicator.

It takes from 40 minutes to an hour to wax the whole car. All you need is a clean sponge applicator and a high-quality car wax. Carnauba wax works best. An electric buffer can help, but it's not very difficult to wax a car manually, see below.

Of course, the car needs to be washed and dried first. It's easier to wax a car in a shade, when the clearcoat stays cool to the touch. First, let's see how to use an electric buffer.

Waxing a car
Apply a thin layer of wax evenly.

Don't use wax on matte plastic parts, as it will leave white stains; use on clearcoat and glossy plastic parts. Work on one panel (e.g. one door) at a time. Apply a thin layer of wax with the sponge evenly. Wait a minute or two to let the wax haze.

Electric buffer
Buff the panel to a perfect shine.

Use the electric buffer with a waxing pad at a slow speed; buff the panel to a perfect shine.

Waxed car: before and after
Waxed car: before and after.

Done! Compare before and after photos: not only does the car look shiny, but its clear coat is now sealed and protected. The owner got the workout too.

How to wax a car by hand

Dry with a chamois
Dry the car with a chamois.

Dry the car with a clean chamois or towel.

Waxing a car
Apply a small amount of wax on the sponge applicator.

Apply a small amount of wax on the sponge applicator

Apply thin layer of wax
Apply a thin layer of wax evenly.

Spread the wax evenly on one section. Wait until it hazes. It takes a minute or two.

Buffing a car
Give the wax a minute to dry up. Buff with a clean soft cloth until it looks evenly and shiny.

Buff with a clean soft towel until it looks shiny. Flip the towel frequently. The clean side of the towel works better.

Freshly-waxed car
Freshly waxed car.

Waxing this car manually took less than 40 minutes, and it was a good workout.

Dress up your tires

Using a tire shine
A good tire shine product also protects the tire sidewall.

A tire shine spray is not expensive, but it makes your tires look new. A good tire shine product also protects the tire sidewall material. Applying a tire shine is easy: Spray evenly around the tire, then wipe the excess off.