Few things are as satisfying as a meticulously cleaned car. It’s a feat rarely achievable at your local automatic car wash with its imprecise, floppy brushes and one-spray-fits-most approach.
Even do-it-yourself car wash bays can cause more harm than good as the brushes often collect debris that can scratch the surface of your vehicle. Pulling out the hose and a few buckets in the driveway allows you to take your time and focus on the dirtiest parts of your vehicle.
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Taking the DIY approach also gives you the opportunity to clean your car safely without damaging the paint. And let’s be honest, it’s also an incredibly gratifying process that allows you to really get to know the vehicle that takes you from Point A to Point B everyday.
From washing to waxing to polishing, here are 12 easy steps to master the do-it-yourself car wash approach so you can clean your car like a pro in your own driveway.
1. Evaluate the Condition of Your Vehicle
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s a crucial step. Determine how dirty your car is before hauling out the hoses, buckets, cleaning supplies, and towels. Is mud caked on the rocker panels? Is the car covered in fine dust? Will you need to remove salt after driving on icy roads?
You may not need an entire arsenal of products for a quick touch-up wash. Look at the car itself. An older car may need a whole cleaning regimen with clays, waxes, and polishes to protect the paint, while a new car may have a robust clear coat still intact.
2. Read the Labels—No, Seriously
Before applying anything to your vehicle, read the labels on the products you plan to use. Not all automotive cleaning products are all-purpose. The wrong product could even damage the paint, clear coat, or other finishes inside and out. If you have any doubts as to what your car’s components are made of, always default to the mildest cleaning products you can find.
Reading the directions will help save time and money and ensure you’re using the right amount of product for the task at hand.
3. Three Bucket System
The goal of a good deep clean is to remove contaminants from the surface of the vehicle. The last thing you want to do is wash the car with dirty water that puts that grime back on the car.
That’s where the three-bucket cleaning system comes into play. You have one bucket filled with clean soapy water and another bucket with just water. The water-only bucket is designed for rinsing your cleaning mitt before dunking it back into the soapy bucket. The third bucket should include a mix of cleaning product and water that’s only used for your wheels, as these are often the dirtiest parts of your car.
Before you start cleaning anything, move the car out of direct sunlight if you can. This ensures that your water and cleaning products evaporate less while you’re working.
4. Wash the Wheels
Let’s tackle the grossest part of the car first: the wheels. Only use the wheel bucket for now—not the water-only one you’ll use for the rest of the car.
Make sure you don’t get your cleaning products on the tires. The tires could spray the product onto your paint when you drive the car afterwards. Skip the tire dressing that makes your sidewalls look darker and shinier, too. It’s as slippery as it is shiny and can negatively affect your tires’ ability to grip the road. Spray your wheels down with water to rinse off any cleaner when you’re done. Remember to use a separate hose or bottle for this than the bucket for the rest of the car.
5. Wash Those Headlights
Plastic headlights turn cloudy and yellow with age, which makes them less effective on the road. Grungy headlights can ruin the appearance of an otherwise clean car, so this is the perfect time to fix that.
Headlight restoration kits are easy to find, and many include a UV blocking component to protect your now-clear headlights from further sun damage. Take care of this now, as you’ll need to use masking tape to cover the other surfaces around your headlights. Wipe your headlights down with your cleaning solution and clean them off with a moist cloth when you’re done. If there is a protective finish in your kit, apply it now.
6. Washing Your Car
Now to the most obvious part of your do-it-yourself adventure to cleanliness: washing the body of your car. This removes loose contaminants such as dust, dirt and mud.
Rinse the car down with water first to remove larger pieces of dirt. Then add soapy water from your bucket to the exterior. Make sure the soap is designed for washing cars. Liquid detergents and dish cleaners can strip away the wax and even damage the paint.
Remember to dry off your car with a microfiber towel or lightly moistened chamois before moving on to other steps. Wax doesn’t stick very well to water.
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7. Wash the Windows
Here’s another area where using the right product matters. Household glass cleaners such as Windex contain ammonia that can damage a car’s exterior window finishes. Instead, use a window cleaner made for car windows. Sadly, there is no panacea for removing streaks other than good old-fashioned elbow grease.
8. Prepare the Surface
Now that the car is washed, it’s easier to spot deep-seated blemishes such as swirls, scratches and oxidation in the paint. Run your hand over the paint surface and you’ll feel bonded contaminants even though you just washed the car. To remove these tougher blemishes, use a clay bar, which can remove these stubborn spots along with any wax that was previously applied to the vehicle.
9. Repair Scratches
Remember the adage “that’ll buff out?” It probably will, but it will take some elbow grease. (Consider this workout your arms day.) Scratches are much harder to remove. Lighter scuffs and scratches can often be covered or filled with a smooth coat of wax, which we’ll get to shortly. If that won’t work, use a scratch-specific repair compound which may take several applications before hiding a scratch.
Deeper scratches may need a paint touch-up. Dealerships and parts stores offer paint pens and cans that can fill your deepest oopses, but if your paint has faded, these may not be an exact match. In that case, you may be able to ask a paint shop to whip up some matching paint. You’ll need to add primer under your color if the scratch is down to the bare metal. Apply two to three thin coats of each layer, waiting at least 20 minutes for these to dry.
If your car came with a shiny clear coat over its paint, gingerly apply it over your color to protect your scratch repair. Use a scratch repair compound on top to smooth it out.
10. Polishing for Extra Gloss
Once you’ve washed the vehicle and prepared the surface, you can polish the vehicle for a high-gloss sheen that can give your car’s paint a mirror-like look. This step is optional and your polish can be applied by hand or with a dual-action polisher.
As much as we love gadgets, be careful with these polishing tools. A heavy hand can leave unwanted swirls in your car’s finish. If you don’t trust yourself to be gentle, it’s best to do this step by hand.
11. Wax to Protect
Many people believe car wax shines up your paint and that’s true, but only part of its benefits. Wax is a protectant, adding an extra layer that blocks UV rays to prevent fading.
12. Protect and Enjoy!
Once your car is washed, cleaned and protected, the next step in your DIY car adventure is maintaining that shine and protection. A spray detailer and clean microfiber cloth in the trunk can come in handy for quickly removing dust, overspray and bird droppings in a pinch.
Regular cleaning maintenance will also make washing, cleaning and protecting your car easier, too. A cleaner wax could help save time if a full wash regimen is too time-consuming.
Now that your car is squeaky clean, enjoy it! Go for a drive and show off your hard work.
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