Beginner’s Guide to Detailing: A Proper Hand Car Wash

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After last week’s article on car wash preparation, you should be ready to wash your car. Nobody likes a filthy car, so get ready and get set to learn how to keep your ride clean. This next segment will show you the right way to wash and dry your car by hand, expel some popular car wash myths, and get you ready for next week when we talk about protecting your car’s finish.

Car Wash Knowledge & Tips

What does a “car wash” include?

Having spent some time in the car wash biz, I can safely say a lot of people think of the term “car wash” as an all-inclusive detailing procedure. Now obviously the more knowledgeable you are about detailing the less likely you are to think this, but it’s worth clarifying for the those just getting their feet wet in car care. A complete hand car wash (we’re only talking exterior for now) should clean your car’s wheels, windows, and body (including paintwork, mirrors, lights, grille, etc.). Additionally, it’s always recommended that the tires are conditioned with every wash to keep them looking vibrant.

How long should it take?

If you’re just getting to know the car wash process you should prepare for 30 minutes to an hour (depending on how dirty your car is). As you get more comfortable you’ll notice your washes are done quicker and quicker. To break it down a bit more, it usually takes 5-10 minutes to properly clean each wheel (again, depending on how dirty they are). Washing can take anywhere from 15-30 minutes, and drying another 10-15.

How often should you wash your car?

Typically every 2-3 weeks depending on location and weather. Read more.

How To Wash Your Car

Step 1: Prepare

If you haven’t already, read this and learn how to properly set up your products, buckets, and supplies. Always make sure you’re in the shade and have removed any jewelry such as watches or rings (it’s also smart to wear pants or shorts that don’t require a belt). Read: What not to wear while detailing your car.

Rinse the car early, often, and thoroughly.

Step 2: Clean the wheels & tires

cleaning wheels with a wheel brushWe clean wheels first to avoid tire sling and overspray later in the car wash – if you just cleaned the paint, you don’t want to rewash the car if brake dust flies up onto the finish while you’re scrubbing your rims.

  1. Scrub your tires in a circular motion to remove dirt and grime.
  2. Spray a non-caustic wheel cleaner that clings to the surface (more hang-time means more cleaning power and less waste) and use a flagged-tip wheel brush to remove large debris and brake dust from your rims. TIP: keeping all of your wheel cleaning tools in a wash bucket will make sure you have enough suds/water to clean thoroughly.
  3. Grab a sudsy wheel sponge out of the wheel wash bucket and clean the tighter areas (between spokes, around lug nuts).
  4. Lastly, inspect the wheels and repeat any necessary step until they are clean. You may need a Wheel Woolie or smaller scrub brush to clean inside the wheels or behind spokes (this may require it’s own detail if there’s quite a bit of brake dust).

IMPORTANT: always rinse out your wheel wash bucket thoroughly before using it for the regular wash. Brake dust is like a thousand tiny razors and should never come in contact with your paint.

Step 3: Wash and rinse, panel by panel

proper car wash processThe best way to make sure you’re left with a sparkling clean car is to take your time. Washing panel by panel will allow you enough time to rinse each area so as not to allow suds to dry on the surface (creating water spots and streaks). Typically we divide the car into seven segments – front, back, two on each side, and the roof. When cleaning each of these areas, wash from the top of the car downward using long strokes with your wash pad. We wash top-down because it allows the suds to rinse the dirt and grime off of the car, and if you were to wash upward you’d be pushing the dirt from the bottom of the car even higher.

  1. IMPORTANT: Rinse the car early, often, and thoroughly!
  2. If using a brush (make sure it’s a flagged-tip brush), dip it in the suds and clean the gunk off of the the lower 25% of the car (bumpers, rocker panels, running boards, etc.), grille, and lights. This is all you’ll need the brush for.
  3. Lather up your wash pad in the wash bucket and squeeze the suds out on whichever panel you want to start on – remember top first, so I recommend the roof (if this requires a stool make sure it doesn’t touch your car). Use long strokes, flip the wash pad when you’re about half way through the section, and rinse the car.
  4. Before going back to the section (if it needs more cleaning) or continuing to the next, make sure you rinse your wash pad thoroughly in a rinse bucket. Make sure the rinse bucket is full of clean water and has a Grit Guard at the bottom. TIP: rubbing the wash pad against the Grit Guard will release dirt and contaminants that were lifted off of the surface and into the pad’s fibers. The more you rinse, the better.
  5. Jump to the next section and repeat b & c until the entire car is clean. Remember to get the windows, mirrors, and in between your luggage rack if you have one.
  6. When you’ve gone around the entire car, rinse it completely before drying.

Step 4: Dry with microfiber towels

Microfiber Towel Drying CarBefore your next car wash I strongly suggest reading our Do’s and Don’ts of Drying your Car. By doing so you’ll see why you should avoid chamois, Shamwows, and cotton terry towels. You also will learn some helpful car drying tips that will leave your car spotless after a wash.

  1. Dry your car just like you washed it – section by section, top down.
  2. Using pressurized air will help get water out of cracks and crevices (find canisters at your local office supply store).
  3. When you think you’re done, move the car out of your driveway and back – you’ll notice a lot more water that was trapped in your car’s various trim pieces. You’ll want to clean these up before you move on so they don’t dry and leave streaks.

Step 5: Condition tires

I don’t consider a car wash complete unless the tires are a deep, rich black. All you’ve got to do is apply a nickel sized dollop of tire conditioner in a circular motion to each tire. Do not use a dressing, though… these will just coat the surface and leave you with a greasy shine. A tire conditioner is absorbed and delivers nutrients to rejuvenate the rubber surface (read more).

  1. Apply a dollop of tire conditioner to a foam tire conditioner applicator.
  2. Glide the applicator around the tire in a circular motion.
  3. Remove excess with a microfiber cloth. Some may drip onto the rims or between the wheel and tire, so double check your work. Allow some time for the conditioner to fully absorb (10 minutes or so) before driving to avoid tire sling – this time is easily filled by the next step.

Step 6: Clean windows

The last step to a perfect car wash is cleaning the windows. It’s quick, easy, and really puts the cherry on top of your hard work. All you’ll need is a microfiber glass cloth and an automotive glass cleaner (read how to pick the best one). Oh… and never use a cotton towel or paper towel – these leave streaks and lint.

Recap & What’s Next

With your mind still fresh on cleaning your car, check out our top 5 car wash tips. Follow the above steps for a quality hand car wash, and remember, as you continue to wash by hand you’ll get better and better each time. Comfort will increase, the time it takes will decrease, and best of all your car will be getting the treatment it needs to stay healthy. Now don’t think your car is done just yet. Sure it may be clean, but there’s a lot more to learn about proper car care. Luckily that’s what our Beginner’s Guide to Detailing is all about. Stay tuned and keep expanding that detailing IQ… and if you need anything at all let us know. We are happy to help you navigate through any detailing situation.


Stay tuned for our next segment on paintwork protection!