Washing your car by hand can be a relaxing and satisfying activity. Washing your own car will save you the money that would otherwise be spent paying for a car wash, and allows you to give extra attention to especially dirty areas of your vehicle. Commercial car washes use abrasive materials that may scratch or damage your car’s paint, so washing your own car by hand will allow you to keep the vehicle and paint job in pristine condition. To wash your own car by hand, you’ll need a flat, shady patch of concrete, and access to plenty of water and a hose. You’ll need to wash your entire car in one session, which usually takes an hour or two depending on the size of your vehicle and how dirty it is.
Preparing to Wash the Car
Park the car out of direct sunlight. This prevents premature drying which can leave splotches on the paint. Washing your car in direct sunlight also runs the risk of your car becoming hot while you wash it, which will result in water evaporating more quickly and making the cleaning process more difficult.
- Check that all windows are closed and retract the antenna, in order to prevent water from getting inside the car or the antenna from being snapped off.
- Pull the windshield wipers away from the windshield until they click into their propped position, away from the glass.
Set everything you will need near the car. This includes cleaning material: the car wash detergent that you will use for cleaning, a large supply of water (depending on the size of the vehicle), three buckets (two for washing, one for rinsing), a hose, and microfiber cloths or towels to dry your car. You’ll also want to have two or three wash mitts on hand, plus a large sponge, a stiff scrubbing brush, and maybe a separate brush to scrub your tires with.
- Be prepared to get wet and soapy. Wear the appropriate work clothes: shoes, shorts and rubber sandals when the weather permits, long pants and rubber boots when it is a bit chilly.
- You can purchase car-specific detergent at your local auto parts store. When filling the two wash buckets with detergent, be careful to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations concerning the suggested water-to-detergent ratio.
Fill a bucket with water. Then add car wash soap in the quantity directed on its bottle. This will be your washing bucket. If your car is very dirty or if you’d like to have a washing bucket for the body of your car and a separate washing bucket for washing your car’s wheel wells, you can fill two buckets with water and soap.
Fill another bucket with plain water. This will be your rinsing bucket. You only need one bucket for rinsing, whether you’ve chosen to use one or two buckets for washing.
Washing the Car
Hose off the car to loosen and soften the dirt. Don’t use a strong jet of water from the hose, as this can rub grit over the paint and scratch it. Try to aim the jet of water downwards on all surfaces. Aiming upwards around windows may cause water to dribble into the car if there are flaws in the rubber seals.
Wash the wheels first. Since the wheels of your car are often the dirtiest part, it’s a good idea to wash them first, so that dirt rinsed off of the wheels won’t land on an already-clean part of your car. Use a long, skinny wheel-brush for cleaning the openings of the wheels.
- If the wheels are already glossy and clean, instead use a sponge or a mitt to clean them just as you would the car body after hosing off as much of the extra dirt.
Wash your car using a large wash mitt. Before you begin scrubbing the surface of your car, soak a large wash mitt or sponge in the soapy water, being certain to wash out any dirt in it, and begin applying it to the car. Do not use a brush on the car body, because this may leave little scratches.
- Mitts with long, dangling strands do not push grit onto the car as hard. This type of mitt is preferable, as it’s less likely to scratch the surface. They should still be rinsed, then dipped into the soapy water often.
- Mitts, unlike sponges, can also be washed in washing machines to remove all the grit.
Wash the car section by section, starting at the top. Circle around the car several times, washing lower areas with each round. Washing the car from the top down will allow soap to drip over lower sections of the car while you’re still washing higher sections. This will prevent you from having to wash the same sections twice.
- If the car is very dirty, let the soap and water do the work. Make multiple passes and avoid excessive scrubbing at dirt on the car, as this could scratch or damage the paint.
Scrub off bird droppings or splattered bugs. Bird droppings and bugs can damage the paint, and extra care should be taken to remove them while washing the car. Get them off as soon as possible using a damp rag if you need more scrubbing power than the wash mitts can provide. Soften bugs by dabbing with a sponge that is loaded with warm water, then let the water soak in and scrub the bug off.
- Use “bug and tar remover” where needed, as this will effectively and safely remove dried bugs from the surface of your car. Do not scrape hard or use a brush to remove the bugs, as that will mar the finish. Ultimately, a few stubborn bits of dirt will look better than scrapes.
Keep the wash mitt clean. Rinse the dirt out of the wash mitt or sponge in the bucket with plain water frequently. If you allow dirt, grime, and grit to build up in the wash mitt, you’ll risk scraping or damaging the car’s paint. Rinse the mitt regularly in the rinsing bucket and, when the water in the bucket has become opaque or gritty, throw it out and re-fill with clean water.
Rinse each section after you’ve washed it. After one section is washed, rinse it with the hose before moving on. You don’t want the soap to dry on the paint and stain it. When rinsing sections, follow the same top-to-bottom pattern that you’ve used to wash the sections of your car.
- Always wash the door shuts, surrounds (the metal visible inside of the door well), and the bottom underside of the doors. It’s an unpleasant surprise to open an otherwise sparkling clean car to find dirty door shuts.
Keep the entire car wet as you wash it. As you progress from one section to the next, it’s important that you use the hose to keep the entire car wet. This will prevent water droplets from drying on the paint and leaving water spots. You want to be able to dry the car with towels before it air dries.
Save the lower body of the car for last. Scrub the lower body and the wheels last, as these are the dirtiest, grittiest parts. It’s a good idea to use a separate wash mitt or sponge on the bottom, as you’ll likely end up with a completely soiled wash mitt from this part of the car alone.
Clean the tire sidewalls with a plastic brush. If your tires are gritty or have absorbed dirt and grime from the roads you’ve driven on, you may not be able to successfully clean them using only a sponge or wash mitt. Use a plastic brush with stiff bristles to clean the dirt from your tire sidewalls.
- Your local auto parts store will sell various brands of Tire and Wheel Cleaner, which will help you effectively scrub off dirt from the rubber tires.
- If you choose to, you can use vinyl/rubber/plastic conditioner for dark-colored plastic parts and for tires. This should be available for purchase at your local auto parts store.
Spray the hose over the bottom of your car. At some point after you’ve washed the majority of your car’s surfaces, use the spray from your hose to rinse the bottom of the car, from various angles.
- This is particularly important when the car has been exposed to salt, which can damage and corrode the underside of your vehicle.
Drying and Waxing the Car
Dry the vehicle with fresh towels. Don’t be afraid to use several towels while drying your vehicle—fully wipe down all surfaces that you’ve washed, in order to prevent rust from building up. Make sure not to leave any water standing on your vehicle once it’s dried, as this can tarnish the paint or cause rust.
- Microfiber towels work the best for drying all car surfaces. When you’re finished using them, toss them in the washing machine. When laundering, don’t use fabric softener on microfiber towels. It can become trapped in the pores, then leach out, leaving a residue on the car surface.
Wax the car once it’s been dried. Wax (or similar polish) should be applied to a clean, dry car. You may need to wax the vehicle more than once: the failure of water to stand up in beads (or the presence of small pools of water on the car’s surface) after washing is a sign to re-wax. Abrasive polishes are rarely, if ever, needed with modern car paints and risk unexpected damage scouring through a clear coat.
- Wax (or one of the newer polymer products) protects the paint from the sun so it doesn’t fade or deteriorate. It also protects the finish from the flying grit kicked up by the vehicles in front of yours on the highway. Polymer products last longer than wax. The ones purchased at auto supply stores are just as durable as the ones the car dealers sell you for hundreds of dollars.
Treat rust and paint damage as needed. Remove rust from the car and touch up the paint if there is significant damage, or easily stabilize and seal small scrapes and rust spots with rust converter. Wash off any grit or corrosive pre-treatment chemicals, allow rust converter time to dry and cure, and do not wax a fresh paint finish.
- Adhesive accessories such as door and bumper guards and reflective patches stick best to a clean, dry, not-too-waxy car. Stick things such as touch-up paint or stick-on accessories to car before waxing it.
- A polymer wax-like product such as “Nu Finish” can be much easier to buff off than real wax, even if it is allowed to dry longer than necessary first.
Apply a water-repellent treatment to the windows. Apply RainX or similar water-repellent treatment to clean, dry glass to repel water from it and improve visibility. Reapply the repellent when water no longer forms small beads. Do this every few months on side and back windows as may be desired, every month or so on the windshield, where it is most needed and from which the wipers will tend to rub it off.
- Glass cleaner can get the windows a little clearer than can just car wash soap and water, but drying them with microfiber towels after washing the car can make them sparkle just as much. Clean both the insides and outsides of the windows.
- Use baby wipes to wipe the windshield free of any dirt.