Probably the least expensive, most satisfying thing you can do to improve your car’s overall appearance is to give it a good wash.
The traditional way to do this is to bring out the water hose or pressure washer, buckets, sponge and car soap.
However, with the right technique and the best performing equipment and products, there’s a lot of room for improvement to achieve faster professional results with less effort.
We’ll show you how!
Even if you are restricted by limited water availability or municipal storm drain laws or live in an apartment building, there are great alternatives: take a look at our posts about rinseless or waterless car wash techniques.
Check out our video on “How To Wash Your Car Like A Pro”, or if you prefer reading, you can follow the steps below the video:
How To Wash Your Car Like A Professional Detailer
1. Park your car in the shade, away from trees
The sun’s direct heat will dry your soapy water before you have the chance to rinse and dry your car, which will leave hard-to-remove soap- and water marks. Full sunlight will also soften your car’s clear coat making it more vulnerable to scratching during the washing process. If you have no shade on your street or driveway, it’s best to wash your car on a cloudy day, early in the morning or late in the evening.
However, in late autumn or early spring the sun is too weak to heat your car paint, so you should be OK. Gently touch the car surface to make sure it isn’t hot and use common sense.
It’s not a good idea to park your car under trees when you’re washing it either. There’s always stuff falling from trees like tree sap, seeds, dead foliage, bird droppings… Murphy will make sure that this debris will fall on your car surface while you’re washing it or in your soap bucket. It will get caught in your wash mitt and towels and scratch your paint without you noticing until it’s too late.
2. Everything you need to wash your car like a pro
Put all the stuff you’re gonna use in one clean spot, away from the ground. Any small camping/party table or on top of a large trash container will do, as long as it’s clean and at working height. If you don’t, sand and gritty bits from your driveway will inevitably contaminate your cleaning gear and you’ll unknowingly scratch your car’s paint during the washing process.
Like so many people, you could simply get a bucket of water, any old sponge, a squirt of Dawn and get it over with.
However, if you want professional results and to avoid scratching up your car’s paint, using the right gear will make a world of difference. It’s also less expensive to buy your own stuff and do it yourself than to pay a detailer to wash your car or get a car wash membership. As an added bonus, we think it’s great fun and very rewarding too!
Here’s what you’ll need to wash your car like a professional detailer:
- a hose and a pressure washer with 25° and 40° nozzles
- a foam cannon
- 2 car wash buckets with grit guards and washboards
- car soap
- a car wash mitt
- wheel and tire cleaner
- a tire brush, a wheel brush and a wheel woolie
- drying towels
Here’s how to wash your car in 7 easy steps
Make sure your brakes are cool before you start washing your car. Spraying hot brakes with cold water can warp them.
Do not use a pressure washer on classic cars or on old, worn or cracked paint. Instead, use a soft hose water jet or wash rinseless or waterless.
Step 1: Pressure-wash your wheels and tires
Always wash your wheels and tires first because they’re the dirtiest part of your vehicle. If you wait to clean them until the end of your wash, you’ll splash dirt and brake dust back onto your clean car paint.
First blast the inside of the fenders, wheels and tires with your pressure washer set between 1200 and 1900 PSI. Higher pressure might damage your wheel paint.
Using a 25° nozzle for wheels and tires works best to blast away this notoriously stubborn brake dust and caked up mud.
The 25° nozzle enhances pressure to get that nasty brake dust and road grime off your wheels and tires, the dirtiest parts of your vehicle.
Don’t hold the nozzle closer than a foot away from your wheels, again to prevent damaging them.
Step 2: Clean your wheels and tires
Spray your wheels and tires with wheel and tire cleaner. Let it work for a couple of minutes but don’t let it dry.
Scrub your tires with your tire brush, which has tough hairs to remove all that brown gunk from the rubber tire face. Be careful not to brush over the wheel edges. These hard bristles may scratch your wheel paint.
Next clean your car’s wheel faces with your soft-haired wheel brush.
Last but not least, use your wheel woolie (set) to clean deep into your wheel barrels, where your wheel brush can’t reach. Don’t forget to clean your wheel lug holes and other parts of the wheel face where your wheel brush can’t go.
In our opinion, thoroughly pressure-washing your inside wheel fenders is sufficient, but if you want you can clean ‘em with a long handle fender brush. It is hard on dirt but soft on paint and can reach the deepest wheel arches.
Now thoroughly rinse your wheels and tires with your pressure washer and 25° nozzle before they dry.
Step 3: Pressure-wash the rest of your car
First, put your windshield wipers in the propped position to be able to easily clean your windshield and wipers without them leaving water marks on the glass during the car wash process.
To pressure-wash the rest of the car, it’s best to spray at an angle of about 45-60° using a wider 40° nozzle.
A 90° straight-angle approach blasts all sand and grit with full force onto your clear coat, actually sand blasting it, while a “softer” angle will blast dirt away from the car surface without scratching it.
Again, don’t hold your pressure washer nozzle closer than a foot away from the car surface.
If your car is very dirty, after the first pass let the water soften the dirt for a couple of minutes without letting it dry and hit it a second time with your pressure washer.
Now most of the sand and gritty bits should be gone. This is very important, because any sharp particles that get caught in your mitt or wash pad will scratch your car paint.
Step 4: Cover your entire car in a thick foam blanket
Now that you’ve removed most sand and sharp particles that can scratch your paint, it’s time to loosen that remaining road grime.
This greasy dirt film can’t be removed with a pressure washer because it consists of a chemical cocktail coming from road pollution, exhaust fumes, chemical fallout, tar, bug guts, tree sap and brake dust.
That’s where a foam cannon works wonders: Just connect it to your pressure washer at maximum power, fill it with car wash soap / water solution like it says on the label and cover every inch of your car in a thick foam blanket. This foam blanket has a long dwell time, making it very effective in removing that greasy dirt film touchless. Touchless is the keyword here: because there is no rubbing or friction involved, it’s a 100% scratch-free process.
For optimal foam volume, use demineralized water. The minerals in tap water have a negative effect on the foaming process and can leave water marks too. You don’t need much anyhow and it’s very cheap. You may have to experiment with the water / soap ratio and the settings on the foam cannon, but once you get the hang of it, it is dead simple.
Leave the foam “hanging” till it starts to run off but don’t let it dry. Then use your pressure washer at 1200-1900 PSI with the 40° nozzle to rinse it off.
Step 5: Wash your car with the 2-bucket method
Now that the sharp contaminants are gone, it is safe to start the manual washing process using the 2-bucket car-wash method: take your two car wash buckets, insert the grit guards and washboards. Fill one bucket with plain tap water, the other one with tap water and the amount of car wash soap instructed on the label. Drop your preferred wash mitt or pad in the soapy bucket and you’re ready to go.
Always wash your car from top to bottom, not the other way round because the bottom part is the dirtiest. You don’t wanna take any dirt and sand that’s left on the bottom sections up to the cleaner top sections with the risk of making swirls or scratches.
Work in sections of about 2’ x 2’ in a straight cross-hatch pattern, up and down, from side to side, applying only very light pressure.Don’t wipe in a round swirling pattern, because marring and minute scratches will be much more visible in full sunlight.
After each section, flip your mitt/pad to the reverse, clean side. When both sides have been used, rinse it in the rinsing bucket by rubbing both sides on the washboard. Wring it, then submerge it in the soapy bucket. It’s now clean, replenished and ready for the next panel. Rinse, wring, replenish, wash, flip, wash, repeat…
Dirt sinks to the bottom of the buckets and is caught safely underneath the grit guards where it can’t be picked up by your mitt/pad.
Step 6: Rinse your car
Thoroughly rinse your car with your pressure washer, again set at 1200-1900 PSI using the 40° nozzle. Make sure all soap is rinsed off.
Step 7: Dry your car
Starting from the top down, dry your car using ultra plush microfiber towels. Use an XXL size for the roof, trunk, hood, rear window and windshield.
The XXL size can be “thrown” like a fishing net, holding two corners to spread it. Then you can simply pull it towards you. Work your way around the car. Once you master this technique, it’s very fast with a streak-free result and because there is zero pressure applied, there is absolutely no risk of scratching.
Use small size towels to dry the sides. A large towel is a pain to work with drying vertical car panels. If you don’t pay attention, it will pick up dirt from the ground and mess up your car paint.
Work in gentle, linear side-to-side motions, not in swirls.
When you work in linear motions, tiny scratches will be less visible in direct sunlight, especially on dark colored paint.
What a difference some soap, towels and elbow grease can make!
It gives such pleasure and pride to admire your car after it’s had a proper car wash. It looks all fresh and shiny and it’s ready to enjoy on your next drive.