Keeping It Clean: Car Exteriors

Posted on by Defensive Driving | in Defensive Driving Tips

A well-washed car is a thing of beauty: bright and shiny, the envy of the parking lot. A dirty car, on the other hand, invites derision; children write “wash me” in the grime on the rear window. Beyond maintaining aesthetic value and avoiding personal shame, however, keeping your car clean has a practical purpose. Grime and dirt retain moisture, which speeds up rust and corrosion, thereby ageing your car prematurely. A well maintained car will look almost new after ten years on the road, while a poorly kept car may look ancient after just two or three years.

As a last resort, you can take your car to an automated drive-through carwash. This is, however, a bit like washing your face with steel wool and a hairdryer; the harsh environment of an automated car wash will eventually do more harm than good to your car’s delicate paint finish. Take the time to wash your car yourself. It won’t take more than an hour, and you’ll be proud of the results. Plus, it’s nice to be outside on a fine day, and cleaning can be a soothing and meditative activity.

There are three steps to washing a car: washing, polishing, and waxing. The first step, washing, should be done every month or so to prevent grime build up. The next two steps can be done every three-four months, as a good coat of wax should last about this long. Polishing helps to remove surface imperfections like small scratches and prepares the surface for waxing. Waxing then creates a protective coating over the paint job and helps to “seal” any chips or cracks. If you haven’t waxed your car in recent memory (or ever), consider taking it to a detailing shop first. There, professionals will use an electric buffer to remove minor scratches and impurities in the paint before waxing; this will make it easier for you to apply wax yourself in the future.

What You’ll Need

– A garden hose
– Two buckets full of warm or cold water
– A car soap or shampoo (avoid using other soaps, like dish detergent, that aren’t specifically formatted for cars, as these can damage the paint)
– Two soft cloths or wash mitts
– 100% cotton towels, chamois leather, or microfiber cloths
– Car polish
– Buffer pad for applying polish and towel for removing it
– Car wax
– Sponge for applying wax
– Steel wool and/or brush for cleaning tires


1. Choose the right day. You want a day that is warm enough for you to be outside for a while, but not too hot, or the car will dry quickly and you’ll end up with soap and water stains. Overcast days are great; otherwise, pick a shady spot for your washing.

2. Mix your car soap into one of the buckets filled with water. Check the bottle and be sure to use the recommended amount. Too much soap can damage the car’s finish, while too little won’t get the job done. Use the other bucket for rinsing out your cloths, so that you don’t get grime in the water you’re using to wash the car.

3. Next, hose down the car to remove outer layers of dirt. Avoid using pressure hoses, as these can damage chipped or cracked paint.

4. Wet one of your soft cloths and begin washing the car. Start at the top of the car and work your way down. Since the bottom of the car is usually much dirtier than the rest, you may want to use a different cloth for tackling this part of the car.

5. Rinse off each section of the car after washing it. You don’t want to let the soap dry, or you’ll end up with streaks.

6. As you progress around the car, keep rinsing the car off with the hose, so that the surface stays wet. Allowing the car to air dry will result in water spots.

7. Once you’ve washed the body of the car, use the steel wool and brush to clean the tires and the tire wells, where a lot of dirt tends to accumulate.

8. Finally, dry the car. Chamois leather or microfiber cloths, which are soft and absorbent, are ideal for this. However, 100% cotton towels make good substitutes for these products. To dry the car, lay a cloth over one section of the car to blot up the water. Then, use a dry towel to absorb the remaining moisture.

Polishing and Waxing

1. Once the car is dry, begin to polish it. Apply a 1-inch circle of polish to your buffer pad. Then apply this polish to a 2-foot square of car exterior.

2. Apply the polish in a circular motion. Finish with a few back-and-forth strokes to make sure you’ve evenly covered the area.

3. Allow the polish to dry. Then, remove it with a dry cloth or polish removal mitt.

4. Once you’ve polished the car, it’s time to apply the wax. First, make sure to get a good quality wax (often with Carnauba wax in it.) Avoid getting a wax with abrasives. Read the labeling carefully and test the wax on a small and unobtrusive part of the car first.

5. Provided your test goes okay, proceed to wax the rest of the car. Apply wax to the sponge and spread it in a thin and even layer over the surface of the car. Avoid getting wax on plastic and rubber trim, as it can stain these parts of the car. If you do get wax on these surfaces, you can clean it off with window cleaner.

6. Once the wax has dried, use another dry towel to buff the wax to a high shine.

Additional Steps

1. If you like, you can apply tire finish to tires to give them a black and shiny glow. However, beware that these products can stain your driveway, so if you don’t want black marks there, put newspapers underneath your wheels.

2. You can also use products like trim preserver and window polish to enhance the shine of glass and rubber components.

Stay tuned for part two, how to clean the interior of your car!

To read more on a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit’s Safe Driver Resources website!


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