Each year, billions of dollars are spent on next level car cleaning services and gimmicky detailing supplies, and do you know what? A lot of it is either complete crap, or entirely unnecessary.

From weekly trips down to the scratch-inducing automatic car wash and infomercial-backed shampoo supplies, to paying professional detailers to make house calls, it’s all up for grabs, and by Zeus’ beard do we buy into it.

There are an endless array of reasons for buying into quick fix detailing solutions, or opting-out entirely by contracting a professional auto detailer. Maintaining a clean car is an expensive, time-consuming, and painstakingly tedious process, with cut corners typically resulting in subpar results, or worse yet, damaged surfaces.

But like any other routine automotive maintenance project, there are some steps that can be taken to reduce car cleaning mistakes, all while saving a sizable sum of time, money, energy, and expletives.

So if you’re a do-it-yourself guy or gal, keep on scrolling, because we tossed everything you need to know about cleaning a car’s exterior into today’s bucket of suds. 


Car Cleaning Preparation

Car cleaning and ceramic coating a vehicle without the aid of a garage is obtainable with the right ingenuity and a little financial investment.
Car cleaning and ceramic coating a vehicle without the aid of a garage is obtainable with the right ingenuity and a little financial investment.

Step 1: Pick a Good Wash Spot

The first thing you need to decide on, is where you plan on cleaning the vehicle. While an even surface, such as a driveway may seem ideal, be sure to take into account water hose location, and whether or not ample drainage is present. You don’t want to create a quagmire in your driveway, or water your garden with maintenance car shampoo run-off. 

Another thing to consider is the significance of shade, and the importance of having ample elbow room. Direct sunlight causes water spots and other sudsy issues, while a lack of space just flat-out sucks.

Step 2: Put Your Car Cleaning Supplies in Their Place

Cleaning a car is so much easier when you’re not tripping over your own supplies, so having a product basket that can be easily moved around is a must. 

While you’re at it, make sure your garden hose or pressure washer line are completely uncoiled, and that there are no H2O supply issues. There’s nothing worse than hitting a car’s body panels with a soft cloth and some sudsy water, only to discover that you are unable to rinse it all away afterward.

Step 3: Prepare Your Wheel Cleaning Supplies

The first area you’ll be cleaning will be your car’s wheels and tires. Everything from brake dust and road grime, to de-icing chemicals and roadkill entrails are forever quick to grab ahold of your vehicle’s rollers and the rubber that wraps around them. So getting all four of these components cleaned first will prevent your freshly cleaned fenders and rocker panels from getting hit with contamination.

One key thing to remember here, is that you should always use a separate set of cleaning supplies for washing your wheels and the car. All you’ll need is a separate wash bucket, as well as a wheel-and-tire brush or wash mitt, and either a good car shampoo, or a dedicated wheel cleaning spray.

Step 4: Prep Any Additional Supplies

Some things you’ll want to make sure are prepped and ready to rock include:

A few additional car cleaning goodies you might want to consider obtaining are:

  • A foam cannon or foam gun
  • Pressure washer (set on low power)
  • Pop-up garage/tent
  • Sweat towels
  • Shop fan
  • A cooler full of beer
  • Boombox loaded with a mix-tape from 1999

A Few Car Wash Warnings

Washing an automobile can be both incredibly rewarding and risky, so following a few core car cleaning rules is vital to your success.

Supplies stocked and ready to rock, it’s finally time to get to kicking ass. But wait… Before getting started on the cleaning process, you’ll need to keep the following car cleaning rules in mind.

Feel free to print them out for framing in your garage, have them laminated and placed in your glovebox, or get a burly tattoo artist by the name of Clive to inscribe them upside down on your abdomen.

  • Don’t let anything touch the ground: This includes any wash mitts, upholstery cleaning brushes, microfiber drying and washing towels, or anything else that will touch the vehicle. Surface scratches are forever quick to form, and only require a tiny pebble in order to be put into “kill mode.”
  • Beware of brake dust: The powder that comes off a car’s brake pads and rotors is packed with abrasive, rock-like compounds and sharp metal shards. If a microfiber cloth looks overly saturated with break dust, toss it and grab a fresh one. A contaminated towel is never worth the risk.
  • Always use fresh supplies: Cleaning a car with supplies that are expired or compromised in some way is only going to increase your chance of damaging your automobile. A good rule of wrench is: If it looks questionable, chances are it’s probably unsafe to use. 
  • Never wash a car in direct sunlight: Sunlight creates heat, which evaporates water, as well as liquid substances like soap. Say no to hard water spots and caked-on car shampoo by either washing the vehicle beneath a covered structure, or during the early morning or late evening, when the sun is not shining directly on the vehicle. 
  • Avoid circular motions: Ever heard of something called “swirl marks?” These unsightly surface blemishes are often the direct result of scrubbing a vehicle in a circular motion. Utilizing a side-to-side and up-and-down approach will help eliminate this risk.  
  • Remove anything that may cause a scratch: Necklaces, rings, watches, bracelets, belts, and even buttons can scratch and/or chip a car’s clear coat. So either remove all of your jewelry and break out some button-less clothing, or go wash in the nude, like that super hairy guy down the street. 
  • Finish what you start: If you’re going to wash a vehicle, you’ll need to complete the process in one sitting. Don’t start scrubbing in the morning, and then take a 4-hour beer bong break after lunch, with the hopes of finishing-up in the afternoon. 

How to Wash a Car Like a Badass

If you are not using a two-bucket hand washing method, you are contaminating your car shampoo and your automobile. Photo Credit: Pan The Organizer/YouTube
If you are not using a two-bucket hand washing method, you are contaminating your car shampoo and your automobile.
Photo Credit: Pan The Organizer/YouTube

When it comes to washing a car, everyone has their own preferred method for removing dirt, debris, bird shit, acid rain, bug guts, tree sap, microplastic pollution, and other unpleasantries. 

That said, the following steps tend to be the most universally accepted and effective forms of exterior car cleaning. 

Step 1: Prewash and Scrub Those Rollers

Before you apply soap to any portion of a vehicle, it’s important to give the exterior a pre-wash. This will remove any light debris from the vehicle, and provide additional lubrication, which reduces the risk of scratches and swirl marks.

Pre-wash complete, hit those rollers with your tire and wheel cleaning supplies and pressurized water… LOTS of water, and then implement the following steps.

  • Break out your spray-on wheel cleaner and spritz the spokes, face, and barrel of the wheel, following the manufacturer’s recommended contact time-frame. 
  • Wait time complete, scrub one wheel with a wheel washing mitt or brush.
  • After cleaning a wheel, scrub the tire affixed to it.
  • Rinse the wheel and tire before moving on to the next roller.
  • All four wheels scrubbed and rinsed, inspect each one, and repeat the cleaning process as necessary.

Step 2: Two Buckets and a Beer

After you’ve washed your wheels, spray the entire vehicle with fresh water again, and get your duo of scrubbing buckets ready.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with what the two-bucket car wash system entails, here is an abbreviated outline of how to implement this simple, yet crucial cleaning technique.

  • Fill two buckets with water. The first will be all water, and the second will be a combo of car shampoo and H2O. You’ll use the soapy bucket for reloading the wash mitt, while the water bucket is purely used for rinsing in between applications, and will keep cross-contamination to a minimum.
  • Squeeze the submerged wash mitt in the soapy bucket to encourage additional liquid absorption and lubricity.
  • Wash the vehicle, working one section or body panel at a time in the aforementioned back-and-forth motion. It’s usually best to start with the roof, and wash downward, saving the filthier lower sections for last.
  • In-between passes, dunk the wash mitt in the rinse water bucket and agitate it to remove as much dirt and debris as possible. If the water begins to look filthy, dump its contents and reload it with fresh H2O.
  • As you complete a body panel or section of the vehicle, rinse it off with the hose, and move on to an adjacent area, until you’ve completely washed the exterior.
  • Once the entire car has been scrubbed, rinse it one last time to remove any soap residue that might be hanging around, crack open another beer, and flip that cassette tape. You deserve it.

Step 3: Dry Hard With a Vengeance

Once you’ve completely washed the vehicle, and rinsed away any stubborn soap residue, you will begin the drying process.

When drying an automobile, always use a scratch-free microfiber drying material, and go side-to-side or up-and-down to negate the creation of swirl marks.

  • Dry the vehicle with the same approach you took during the shampoo wash phase, working from top to bottom, and tackling one section or body panel at a time.
  • Always keep extra drying cloths on hand, as saturated towels must be replaced quickly to avoid the formation of water spots.

For more on these steps, and other in-depth car cleaning tips and advice, be sure to check-out AvalonKing’s car detailing guide for beginners.

Parting Shots

A properly cleaned car is not only far more pleasant to look upon, but from a resale viewpoint, it is far more valuable as well.
A properly cleaned car is not only far more pleasant to look upon, but from a resale viewpoint, it is far more valuable as well.

Unfortunately there are some things that routine car cleaning will not negate. Clear coat oxidation, surface scratches, peeling paint, and rock chips are but a few of the many harmful side-effects of daily driving that a wash and dry will not correct.

Knowing how to amend these issues on one’s own, as well as when to hand the job over to a pro are both equally important.

So clean carefully, drive safely, and hit us up if you have any questions, comments, or concerns. Your friendly AvalonKing customer service rep is forever happy to help steer you in the right car detailing direction.

If you enjoyed this article, then you'll love AvalonKing's automotive care products for Do-It-Yourselfers. We create "No B.S. products" for an affordable price. And the best part, we treat our customers like family, so if you have any questions or just looking to chat about cars, we're only an email or call away. Check out our homepage here.