Car cleaning for normal people

These days most car owners really aren’t bothered about cleaning their own car. The vast majority would much rather pay someone else for a hand car wash or go to an automated one. But some do enjoy it and a few are completely obsessive about it. Personally I enjoy cleaning cars myself from time to time. I understand the therapeutic appeal it has to people who are obsessive about it. But I also totally get the ambivalence towards it too - having a clean car is just not high on many people’s priorities.

As fewer people have been venturing out during the Coronavirus lockdowns, I’ve noticed neighbours who never usually clean their cars washing them by hand once again.

It may seem a little pointless to clean a car that goes nowhere or does very few miles, but it is surprising how quickly dust, pollen, tree sap and bird droppings collect over time.

Deciding the purpose of cleaning your car is really the crux of deciding how to go about it and achieving the desired results.

Why clean your car?

There are many reasons to clean the exterior of a car. It’s up to the owner decide which they think are most important and therefore how to do it. These include:

  • Removing surface debris including: mud, droppings, bugs, plant matter etc.

  • Preventing the growth of mould and moss

  • Washing the paintwork to get a consistent look

  • Decontaminating the paintwork to remove stubborn contaminants that may damage it

  • Removing oxidation, tar, overspray, etc. which makes the paintwork look dull

  • Restoring the paint colour and making it shine

  • Protecting the paintwork

  • Making the surface of the paint hydrophobic so water and dirt do not stick

  • To prevent corrosion of body panels and components

How to clean your car

This is a huge topic but I’ve broken down the steps in the (broadly sequential) process below. The more steps you complete the more of the above reasons for cleaning you will cover.

  1. Pre-wash (‘contactless washing’) - can be anything from a spray with a water based degreaser and/or rinse with water, to blasting the car with ‘snow foam’ and rinsing it off with a pressure washer. The idea is to loosen and remove surface debris on the car. This could include washing the underside and wheel arches of the car.

  2. Contact wash - using a wash mitt or microfibre cloth with ‘car shampoo’ to mechanically remove dirt. The mitt / cloth should be frequently rinsed or changed, typically done using two buckets. Once complete the car gets another rinse with water.

  3. Drying - removing water and any remaining suds on the surface before evaporation occurs to avoid water marks. Typically with a microfibre towel.

  4. Decontamination - further cleaning for example using a ‘clay bar’ to remove stubborn contaminants

  5. Polishing - polishing by hand or with a machine, usually as a two stage process of cutting compound followed by polish

  6. Wax - using a wax paste, liquid wax, spray wax or waterless wash and wax. This adds a glossy shine and a sacrificial layer of protection

  7. Sealing - applying products with qualities such as hydrophobicity to help protect the paint and help it stay cleaner for longer

There are also other parts of the car that are generally cleaned separately with a different approach including: windows, wheels, door shuts, stainless exhausts, bumpers, trim and seals. Though there is debate about it some people really like their engine bay clean too - but a bit of research and care is recommended here so you don’t damage your car!

That’s a lot of stuff to do - expect all of the above to potentially take a whole weekend to complete. But you only have to take it as far as you want to. Polishing in particular is not a regular thing even the most committed enthusiast would do as part of every clean - it would really shorten the lifespan of your paint job!

On that note there is another, often ignored, topic to cover with regards to how often and how far you should go with this.

various cleaning and polishing products
The amount of products available are not only baffling but can require a serious investment too. It’s a good idea to make them last. But you can start out simply with a few microfibre cloths and some car shampoo or waterless wash/wax spray

What is a sensible cleaning routine?

This depends on your aims and how you want to look after your car. This is very subjective but it’s my belief if you clean a car too often or in the wrong way, you’re likely to do more harm to the paintwork than if you cleaned it less often, or had a good professional do the job.

That said it’s not too hard to get good results with a bit of care and effort. Be aware of how much water and products get used. Economically, environmentally and in terms of taking care of the car, it is best to use as little as possible to get the job done. Car cleaning done right is about efficiency of cleaning: essentially quality over quantity.

Completely washing and waxing a car often, or as soon as it gets any dirt on it, is unnecessary. It’s probably better to do a deep clean every few months, and an occasional less thorough clean every few weeks, unless the car has covered a lot of miles.

An exception is a classic car or car that is particularly vulnerable to rust that is taken out on gritted roads in the winter. It really is advisable to wash off the salt from the underside and wheel arches as soon as possible. Also it’s best not to put a car back in a garage after it has got wet straight away.

But really it is up to the owner as to how much and what sort of cleaning they do. Of course if you’re hoping to enter a ‘show and shine’ competition at a car show or win a prize from a club, magazine or show sponsor, you’re going to want to learn as much as possible about this stuff and apply it.

Beyond a certain point car cleaning becomes what is now known as ‘detailing’, which is a whole profession with an industry revolving around it. Gone are the days of a cheap ‘valet’. Professional detailers offer a different, much more involved, service to your local car wash.

Most normal people don’t have all the products, facilities or space to carry out the kind of detailed, um… detailing that might feature on YouTube or Instagram. But that doesn’t mean if they want to have a go they can’t get decent results which satisfy themselves and ultimately that’s all that really matters.


Want to know more?

Drop a comment below to tell me what you want to know, or if you have any car cleaning advice of your own. Thanks for reading!

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