Car Wash 101: How To Get Started Washing Your Car

a person spraying water on a car
How To Wash Your CarTrevor Raab

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Congratulations, if you’re one of the few who are still committed to washing their vehicle by hand. Many will succumb to the convenience of the automatic car wash—often worrying about getting dodgy knees and the odd cramp. Few will put in the elbow grease to wash their vehicle themselves. We commend you.

We’re here to help reduce the friction that stops many of you from washing your vehicle yourself and resorting to the automatic car wash. Here’s our basic 101 guide on how to do a simple wash in under an hour.

Why Avoid The Automatic Car Wash?

If you’ve ever been unsure about washing your vehicle, you’ve likely heard car enthusiasts shouting from the rooftops to avoid automatic car washes at all costs. And they’re mostly right. The belts and brushes these places use to remove detritus from your paint are just too harsh—sometimes to the point of adding visible scratches. Sure, your car will end up cleaner than before, but these places tend to be costly and do more harm than good.

The only case for possibly recommending an automatic car wash is during winter when your hose may be stowed away for the season. However, this is merely because an automatic car wash—especially with the undercarriage wash—is better than nothing. While paint fortifies most of your body panels from rust, the underside of your vehicle is much more susceptible after picking up road salt.

Sure, you could probably get away with a touchless laser wash, but those often aren’t abrasive enough to properly clean your car. That’s not to mention that these are generally more expensive than a standard automatic wash. If we forget everything else, one of the best reasons to wash your car yourself is that you save a substantial amount of money.

Equipment You’ll Need

If you’re just starting out, keep things simple. For a basic starting kit, we recommend two buckets, car-specific soap, a wheel and tire brush, microfiber towels, and an optional wash mitt. See below for some of our recommended options.

Heavy Duty Ultra Clear Detailing Bucket

<p><a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Heavy Duty Ultra Clear Detailing Bucket</p><p></p><p>$19.99</p><span class="copyright">Chemical Guys</span>

Water Magnet Microfiber Drying Towel (2 Pack)

<p><a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Water Magnet Microfiber Drying Towel (2 Pack)</p><p></p><p>$19.83</p><span class="copyright">Meguiar's</span>

Car Wash Shampoo

<p><a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Car Wash Shampoo</p><p></p><p>$13.19</p><span class="copyright">Adam's Polishes</span>

Cyclone Ultra Wash Mitt and Wash Pad

<p><a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Cyclone Ultra Wash Mitt and Wash Pad</p><p></p><p>$23.95</p><span class="copyright">The Rag Company</span>

Water is another element that’s easy to forget when you’re thinking about washing your car. If you’re lucky enough to have a spigot and a hose, then you’re golden. However, other solutions, like cordless pressure cleaners, can suffice in a pinch. Another slightly more expensive option would be to find a local jet wash, which can give you access to a pressure washer.

Step 1: Decontamination

a person standing next to a car
Trevor Raab

Every step of car cleaning revolves around eliminating the risk of scratching. That all starts with decontamination, which means rinsing off as much dirt, dust, and other crud before you even think about touching the paint with a wash mitt—or microfiber towel, as you’ll see later.

A power washer is the king here, thanks to its superior cleaning abilities. If you’re lucky enough to have one, use the fan-type nozzle instead of the “turbo” nozzle that’s often reserved for home applications requiring more cleaning power. Always keep the nozzle about six inches away from your vehicle to reduce the risk of blasting away the clear coat. If you’re left with just a garden hose, don’t shy away from being a little bit more aggressive, getting into every nook and cranny to remove as much dirt as you can.

Step 2: Soap and Scrub

a person with a beard and mustache holding a large piece of meat
Trevor Raab

Now comes the fun part: cleaning your vehicle. Start by pouring a small amount of car-specific soap into your buckets—one for the wheels and the other for the paint; if you’re looking for specifics, we’d shoot for about one or two tablespoons of soap. As you fill your buckets, don’t be afraid to stick your hose—or other water source—underneath the surface to aerate the water and create suds.

We like to start with the wheels and tires as they’re often the filthiest part of the vehicle. Washing them is pretty straightforward, so give everything a thorough scrub; don’t be afraid to be extra thorough and get in with your wheel and tire brush here. If you’ve ignored your vehicle for long enough, you might need a little extra cleaning power to get some of the grit and grime off of your wheels. If that’s the case, we’d recommend a wheel and tire cleaner that uses slightly more aggressive chemicals to loosen up some of the more stubborn dirt. After scrubbing down the wheels and tires, be sure to rinse off all of the soap and other products before moving on to the rest of the car.

Once you get to the vehicle’s body panels, our best advice is to start from the top and work your way down. As you work your way through, use only moderate pressure and scrub in straight lines to avoid scratching. Also, keep dunking your wash mitt into the bucket to loosen any contaminants your mitt captures—reducing the chance of scratching.

Dropping your wash mitt or microfiber towel on the ground is all too easy a mistake to make. I can admit on the record that I’m guilty of it myself. However, you can easily make the situation worse by continuing to use that wash mitt or towel again. The rocks and other abrasives that it picked up off the ground will scratch your paint—sometimes cutting clean through the clear coat. Throw these towels into a safe spot or even a discard bucket, and clean them thoroughly before using them again for your next wash.

Step 3: Dry

Drying is a deceivingly risky step as there’s no soap on the paint to provide lubricity, which lowers the chance of scratching. The small amount of water on the paint after your final rinse makes it fairly easy to scratch if you’re not careful. The key here is to be gentle—only using light pressure—and fold/flip your drying towel as you go along.

As you see above, I like to fold my towel into quarters, giving me eight sides to work with. I use one side until it’s saturated before flipping the towel and using the other side. Once both sides are saturated, I fold the towel in the other direction, exposing two new dry sides. I then unfurl the towel and fold the other side over to give me more drying space. This method lets me dry my Volkswagen GTI hatchback with just two microfiber towels.

In Between Washes

Now that you know the basics of car washing, the key is to remain consistent with your wash program. We all know this can be a bit more difficult (especially in the winter months), but it will make each car wash that little bit easier—leaving less contamination to pick up. It’s easy to get lost in a lot of the cleaning products that you find at your local auto parts store, but everything we mentioned in this article is all you’ll ever need to keep your vehicle sparkling.

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