How to Properly Wash a Vehicle

Every car that comes through our shop we educate the owner on how to properly wash and maintain their vehicle. Contrary to popular belief the local “hand wash” does not qualify as proper maintenance for your paint.

In this blog post I want to go into extreme detail on how we wash cars at American Wrap Company. Whether your car was recently Ceramic coated or has been fully wrapped in PPF I am going to break down a general process that is very safe for all cars, paint types and levels of protection. This process will be a maintenance wash process using a water source. I will write a separate blog for waterless washing, interior cleaning and waxing. The sole purpose of this blog will be on washing the exterior of your car with water.


Choosing the Right Products

Every good detail should start with a basic list of products. If you are serious about maintaining your vehicle I suggest you invest in quality products. Don’t go to pep boys and buy a bunch of off the shelf stuff. At American Wrap Company we stock and sell products for you to purchase and maintain your car with the same products we use!


Using a Pressure Washer

Pressure washers are where it all starts. I like electric pressure washers making around 2000 PSI with a low gallon per minute or GPM rating to save water. Pressure washers help save time and water because they use the water more efficiently and increase the raw cleaning power of water. If you don’t have a pressure washer and don’t want to invest in one a hose will work fine!


Why Purified Water is So Important

Purified water. This isn’t a must have in my opinion if you know how to control water spots. Water spots will mostly happen when you wash in direct sunlight. When I chose our shop location I specifically wanted a shop with a North facing roll up door. The reason for this is so that we are never washing cars in direct sunlight. Furthermore, as soon as we wash a car and are done we pull it inside and immediately dry it off. If you can’t seem to wash your car in the shade or struggle to control water spotting then investing in a DI system might be a smart choice for you. Some cities also have really hard water, we are blessed to have very nice water in Newbury Park CA.


How to Choose a Soap

Now that you have water you need soap. There are dozens and dozens of soaps on the market and I want to cut through the smoke and mirrors. I believe in two types of soap. PH Balanced soap for ceramic coated cars and a cleansing soap for heavy cleaning or paint prep. I don’t feel like soaps with waxes or any other added hoopla is worth it or necessary. In detailing there are no short cuts for hard work. If you want a shiney car you need to put forth some effort. With that said after a wash we will protect or recharge the paint with some type of protection specific product.

Now that you have soap we need something to apply it with. Foam cannons have gained a ton of popularity because the foamed look on a car frankly “looks cool”. I adopted the foam cannon for one reason- Money. The foam cannon saves product which in turn saves money because I am more efficiently using my products. Its a measured amount of soap in the foam cannon every time producing consistent results. There are foam cannons for pressure washers and garden hoses. So either way you are covered!


The Importance of a “Grit Guard”

Now that you have your soap and a foam cannon you need a rinse bucket with a grit guard in the bottom. This is super important so that any heavy contamination on your wash mitt gets trapped at the bottom of your rinse bucket and the wash mitt doesn’t pick it up and grind it on the paint. For wash mitts I like a high quality micro fiber mitt or just simply using some new hyper soft high GSM towels. Using a few new high GSM micro fiber towels is a very safe method. It also ensures you are using a clean “mitt” every time essentially.


How to Properly Clean Wheels

The next set of products you need are wheel products. Clean wheels are something I am very very particular about at American Wrap Company. Every car we wash we clean the wheels a very specific way! We have a dedicated bucket that we fill with water to soak the wheel cleaning tools in. We use Wheel Whoolie brand wheel cleaning tools. Then you need a concentrated all purpose cleaner. We use APC diluted to 1:1 for the fender wells and suspension. This also works great on the chassis and engine cleaning. With a higher dilution rate you can also clean heavy grime on paint. Diluting it even higher you can use it on the interior. APC is one of my favorite products because of its versatility.

Secondly you need a tire cleaner. This is a chemical specifically formulated for cleaning rubber. These products are safe for tires and will not cause premature cracking or dryness. They simply break down tire shine products leaving the tires ready for dressing after your wash. Lastly you need a wheel cleaner. Wheel cleaners are designed to attack and break down brake dust. Combined together these three products will have your wheel wells and wheels looking mint!


Can I Use Any Towel to Wash My Car?

One of the most important things to any detail is towels! I am very picky when it comes to towels and we stock 8 types of towels in our shop all with dedicated process. For a maintenance wash you need a few types of towels. I use Costco yellow towels as throw away towels on wheels, tires, fender liners and anything thats extremely dirty or could contain heavy soiling. We have towels specific for drying the vehicle as well. These drying towels have a proprietary weave that absorbs a lot of water and makes drying fast. Then I recommend a stock pile of medium GSM towels in the 400 range. These will be great all around towels for spray detailers, windows, interiors and door jams. Lastly you want some high GSM 700 plus pile towels for serious detail spray sessions, wax removal and super soft wipe downs.


Spray Detailers: What they are and Why you need them

Lastly for our exterior maintenance wash regime of products you are going to want some sort of spray detailer. There are many many types on the market and they all have different blends and properties. Broken down into three categories there are carnauba based sprays, polymer based and ceramic based. There is no right or wrong product to use and I use many different types. I have carnauba based sprays that are quick and easy when I’m in a rush or just want a quick slick wipe down. I also use spray ceramics that are so durable they are actually rated for months of durability. In my opinion you can’t have too many detail sprays!


Now that we’ve touched on most of the products we use during a maintenance wash I will break down our exact process!


How to Wash a Vehicle: Step-by-Step

1. Washing Wheels

This is the first step of every wash. The wheels should come first because they are always the dirtiest thing on a vehicle. We start by pre rising the wheels and wheel wells very thoroughly with water. We then start by soaking the inner fender liners with APC. Then we mist the tires with tire cleaner and the wheels with wheel cleaner. From our wheel bucket we grab the tire brush and give the tire a scrub. Then we clean the face of the wheels with Wheel Woolie tools and lug brush and the barrels with the long handled tools to reach all the way in.

If you are not working in the sun you can usually work on one side of wheels at a time. Say you start with the passenger side rear wheel you can then also do the front wheel, then rinse both wheels at the same time. Avoid letting these chemicals dry on the wheels. If you are working in the sunlight just work one wheel at a time.


2. Pre-Rinse 

This is the first step to a good maintenance wash. One thing I see many detailers and car wash places doing wrong is poorly pre rinsing the paint. At American Wrap Company we pre rinse almost excessively. The point of this step is to knock as much dirt, dust and contamination off the surface prior to touching the paint with any kind of wash mitt. Doing a poor pre rinse will greatly increase the chances of swirling your paint. I would say 75% of swirls in paint are due to a poor pre rinse. Really focus the stream of water at the cracks and crevices of the car as well as the lower 12” as this is the dirtiest area on a vehicle.


3. Soap

Once your paint is very thoroughly rinsed you can hook up your foam cannon and begin lathering on the shaving cream! At the shop we slather the entire car with foam and then use our wash mitts or wash towels to scrub the car from the top down. Working top down Is a critical step because the bottom is always the dirtiest. You can wash mitt a larger area at the top of the car before dunking the wash mitt in your clean water rinse bucket. Above the lower 12” of the car a safe working space would be about 6 square feet at a time. Once the car is clean above the lower 12’’ you can then grab another wash mitt and clean the lower 12” as your last wash mitt step. At this point the whole car should be scrubbed and ready to rinse.


4. Rinse

This is similar to the pre rinse step but does not need to be as thorough. You simply need to blast off the soap and grime that was loosened while you scrubbed the car with your wash mitts. Once all the soap is rinsed off you are ready to dry!


5. Drying 

This is wear the large double twist drying towels will come in very handy! Another useful tool we have in the shop is a mini master blaster. This is a powerful hand held blower that helps blast excess water out of the cracks and crevices as well as the wheels. Using your drying towel make sweeping passes across the body panels with the towel flat to the surface. As you get close to the wheels and wheel wells make sure you control your towel in such a manner that it doesn’t touch the wheels or ground.


6. Dress

In this step I like to dowse the tires with tire shine which we will level off later. I also go around the vehicle at this time to condition the trim panels. The reason I do these steps now is so that in my protect step I can clean up any streaks left behind on the paint or glass.


7. Protect 

In our protection or final wipe step you will utilize your detail sprays. Depending on the amount of time you have, the paint type of your vehicle and the type of wash goal you have will help dictate your spray of choice. In this step I would clean up any streaking left behind from dressing the trim. I would also use some my detail spray to clean the wheels at this time and level off the residual tire shine left behind.


I use multiple high pile micro fiber towels during my wipe downs. I like to have one towel as my “wet towel” and then another as my “polish towel” this helps to spread the product around better while mitigating streaking. Also depending on the type of spray detailer you’re using will sometimes change the difficulty and effort required to achieve streak free wipe downs. Ceramic based detail sprays or ceramic coating recharge products require far more effort and fines of technique to not have streaks left behind.


8. Glass

This is always the last step to our washes and details. Glass is another thing I am a total stickler about. I like to use Sprayaway brand glass cleaner and waffle weave glass towels. Again I use a wet and dry towel and as minimal product as possible. The more spray you use the harder it is to achieve a streak free final result.

Now go out and enjoy your clean ride!

Tyler O'Hara