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Cleaning your car should be considered routine maintenance. It should be done with the same commitment and regularity as a 3,000-mile oil change. The advantages to cleaning your car periodically have been stated many times before. Suffice it to say that maintaining your investment is reason enough.We work with a professional detailing company to ensure that your vehicle is shining from top to bottom. If you would like to arrange for your vehicle detailing, give us a call. If you prefer to do it yourself, we have listed some points below to assist you in your task.
Tools of the Trade
Start by purchasing, stealing, or otherwise procuring two buckets that will be used exclusively for your car(s). Do not use a household bucket: You don't want to wash your car with a bucket that recently contained a bleach or ammonia cleaner. Conversely, you want to avoid accidentally transferring harsh chemicals and contaminants from your car to the fine Italian marble floor that was just laid in the foyer. The first bucket will be used only for washing the wheels and other sullied non-body parts. The second bucket, preferably one in a different color than the first, will be used only to wash the painted surfaces of your prized car.
Next, buy the softest car-wash mitt available. Mitts with a thick, plush mat/pile are best since they easily lift and carry away dirt, bugs, small children, Buicks and other unwanted debris from the paint surface without scratching it. We use a natural fleece mitt for the paint and a (less expensive and thus more sacrificial) synthetic fiber glove mitt for the wheels and bumpers. But do not use sponges on painted surfaces since they are not as effective as thick mitts for gently lifting and removing grime.
For drying, a synthetic chamois is very effective. It can be thrown in a washing machine when soiled and does not crack or become brittle with age. There are a number of detailing aficionados who do not like natural chamois' fearing that the chemicals used in the tanning process might adversely react with car's finish. These chamois' also require more care, and do not last as long as a quality synthetic chamois like those sold by P21S. (The trick to preserving a chamois, by the way, is always keep it moist, store it in its original container, and do not ring it out since this tears the fibers, rather squeeze the chamois to get rid of excess water.)
Another tool that can be used to quickly dry your car is a silicone squeegee. The California Water Blade is one example. The manufacture claims that it removes water in one-third the time of a chamois, the edge applies 15 times less friction than a terrycloth towel, and that it will not scratch your car's finish.
Microfiber towels, as well as 100% cotton cloth towels and diapers, can be worth their weight in gold - and can cost just as much. We use the diapers for waxing and cleaning windows, cotton towels for removing wax/polish (the thick pile is better suited for this purpose than diapers), and the microfiber towels for windows and detailing work. Also buy several heavy-duty cleaning ("shop") rags and/or sponges for use on the grimiest areas of your car (e.g., wheels, engine, drivetrain, etc.). A round, thick, stiff-bristle, wooden-handle (not metal) paintbrush, and a nylon (not brass) toothbrush can also be invaluable tools for getting at those hard-to-reach crevices or for cleaning wheels.
The quickest way to prematurely age any vehicle is to simply do nothing and allow the dirt to attack your car's finish. Having the right tools helps. But knowing how to use them is equally important, and it all begins with soap and water.
We like to use a liquid soap specifically designed for washing cars/automobiles as opposed to powder soaps since undissolved particles from powder soaps can be abrasive. We also avoid dishwashing liquids at all costs. These are designed to remove the dried-on and encrusted Lobster Florentine that you had for brunch 3 years ago and they will remove the wax from your car just as effectively. All wax manufacturers (Meguiars, Eagle One, RainDance, Turtle Wax, etc.) sell their own brand of car wash soap. Generally speaking, the stronger the concentration of soap, the more wax you are likely to remove. Read the manufacturers suggested directions, and then use half the recommended amount of soap. Also, avoid using hot water when mixing the soap in your bucket since this will soften and facilitate removal of the wax.
Ideally the car should be parked in the shade and cool to the touch before washing. Thoroughly wet the car down with a garden hose, not with a high-pressure system. Even Holy Water will eventually find its way into unwanted areas if a 10,000-psi deck washer or a fire hydrant is used.
Begin by washing the wheels first with the bucket that you identified for this purpose. Generally speaking, properly cleaning four wheels takes more time than washing the entire car. If you start washing the car first, you risk having the water dry on the finish before you've completed cleaning the wheels. Also, treat the wheels with the same care as the paint since many late model cars have clear-coated wheels, and be careful when using special products used to clean wheels. Some are for non-clear coat wheels and contain acids that will etch your beautiful wheels quicker than Anna Nicole Smith hoovering her way through an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Next, using the other bucket specifically for the painted surfaces, start at the top and work your way down to avoid transferring heavy dirt, grease, etc., into the bucket, which is usually found closer to the ground. Also, use plenty of water. As one expert detailer wrote, "If you spare the water, you risk ruining the finish." If, however, a cleaning detergent or engine degreaser is to be used, it is always best to clean this part of the car first, so you can properly remove any chemicals that may have inadvertently been sprayed onto the bodywork. Lastly, if you accidentally drop your mitt on the ground, set it aside and get a clean one.
The car should then be re-rinsed thoroughly and dried as soon as possible. As suggested earlier, the best method of accomplishing this is to use either a quality synthetic chamois or silicone squeegee. We do not advocate using compressed air to facilitate the drying process since this can easily force water into unwanted areas of your car or imbed dirt into the finish.
Air filters are relatively inexpensive, costing on average between $12.00 - $30.00 depending on the make and model. Generally speaking, they are made either from a paper-like material, or from an oil-impregnated fabric like those by K&N. While each has its advantages and disadvantages – a subject for a future article – suffice it so say that every automotive manufacturer uses a paper element air filter.
There is a common misconception among the unwashed that waxes and polishes are the same thing and can be used interchangeably. This is nothing less than blasphemy among detailing aficionados. To help set the record straight, the following definitions are offered:
Often referred to as cleaners, polishes are designed to remove contaminants and oxidation, restoring the paint/metal to a rich, light-reflecting luster, covering swirl marks/scratches, and preparing the paint for wax. For the most part, polishes contain abrasives and "clean" by friction. There are three types of friction polishes: hand glazes, rubbing compounds, and clays. It is almost always best to start with the least aggressive means first and begin with a fine abrasive (a glaze), instead of a coarse abrasive (a rubbing compound or clay). Furthermore, do not confuse metal polishes with paint or plastic polishes or try substituting one for another.
Wax is designed to sacrifice itself and protect your paint from suicidal prehistoric flying insects, acid rain, salt, tree secretions, UV rays, X-rays, stingrays, and a myriad of other demonic substances. Most waxes are either organic or polymer-based. Polymer waxes are chemically manufactured and may contain silicone or Teflon, and are not recommended by most dedicated automobile enthusiasts. The reason is that silicone easily penetrates the clear coat/paint/primer. Painters hate customers who use it since silicone is very difficult to remove if the car or a body panel needs to be painted since "fisheyes" will often be quite visible afterwards. The most common organic waxes are from tropical plants (caranuba) or from bee's wax. Our experience has been that a quality paste wax containing carnauba offers a superior protective finish and is applied and removed with less effort than products containing bee's wax.
We think it is counterintuitive to expect one product to perform completely different functions. Products that claim to clean and polish, while SIMULTANEOUSLY applying a protective coat of wax, are best suited for a lawnmower, not a Car.
Generally speaking, we recommend polishing a car only about once a year, and always apply a coat of wax immediately after polishing it. Most, if not all, major wax manufacturers also make polishes. How often you wax your Car will depend on its use. If the car is garaged and covered, and driven 3,000 miles a year on nice days, you might need to wax it only once a year. If it's a daily commuter, then 2-4 times or more a year might not seem unreasonable. Die-hard detailers apply paste wax with their fingertips. This method minimizes the potential for accidentally rubbing a piece of sand or grit into the paint and scratching it. An orbital buffer, not to be confused with a high-speed circular buffer, is oftentimes used by professionals to apply and remove wax since it saves time and is very effective. We recommend, however, that most garage detailers use elbow grease unless properly trained.
Another tip is to apply AND remove polishes/waxes in the direction the wind flows over the bodywork, NOT in a circular motion. Simply stated, scratches and swirl marks are more visible when they are perpendicular to the lines of the vehicle. This is especially important if your prize possession is painted a dark color since scratches are more easily seen on darker finishes. And contrary to doctrine, you do not have to wait until the wax is completely dry before removing it.
Using Pledge ™ or any other household products to shine automobiles is not a good idea. The chemicals in some household products might not be compatible with the chemicals in the paint. So why risk it? Furthermore, household products do not protect paint against UV, acids, salts, etc.
A word about bird poop is in order. Not only is this substance highly acidic, but also a close inspection of this offering will probably disclose small pebbles that are used by some of these flying rodents in the digestion of their food. So don't spare the water, and remove bird poop as soon as possible after the deposit. This stuff will scratch your bodywork quickly and permanently if not removed properly.
Vinyl seats, dashes and door panels are constantly subjected to UV, dirt and abrasion. Caring for vinyl is as simple as using a soft cloth and wiping the area with a vinyl dressing. There are a number of these products on the market and most wax companies make their own formulas. Some of the better vinyl dressings are Turtle Wax's Formula 2001, Refresh by 3M, and Lexol Vinylex. These are specially formulated to resist UV degradation and leave behind a low gloss sheen that will not be blinding when the sun is out. And just as we recommend against the use of silicone on paint, the same warning applies to vinyl as well. Silicone can literally dry out the vinyl and facilitate "out-gassing," the byproduct of which is a nasty thin layer of film that appears on the inside of your windshield.
It really is amazing how well the leather in our cars holds up - especially the seats. Wide temperature variances, sweat, drinks and friction constantly bombard them all year around. As a result, leather needs to be cleaned and conditioned regularly. In this regard, try to think of it in the same context as your own skin: If the oils are not replenished, the leather will eventually dry out and crack. Therefore, treating the leather should be part of your standard cleaning regimen. The first step is to use a pH-balanced cleaner with warm water and a soft cloth. A quality leather conditioner should then follow this treatment. Lexol makes excellent products specifically made for leather and can be found at better automotive specialty retailers.
Over-the-counter automotive glass cleaners do not leave behind a film and resist streaking - unlike some household window cleaners. One alternative to a household window cleaner is windshield washer fluid. But the best products are those made especially for automobiles. Glass Cleaner by 3M and Invisible Glass are two excellent and readily available products. Begin by washing your hands to remove any contaminants/oils. Then, using a 100% cotton cloth, wipe the exterior glass in horizontal direction and the interior glass in a vertical motion. When inspecting your handiwork, if a vertical streak is noticeable, for example, you know it's inside the car.
For those cars with chrome, the best way to keep it looking new is as easy as washing your car as described previously (being especially careful that your wash mitt is free of moon dust, plum pits and gravel). We do not recommend using chrome polish regularly since it is by definition an abrasive. Every time you polish chrome, you are essentially removing a microscopic layer that can only be replaced by re-chroming (unlike painted surfaces which can be waxed). Therefore it is particularly important to use the "least aggressive approach" first too when working on chromed parts. To remove black marks from the exhaust, for instance, try using Castrol Super Clean, WD-40, CRC or Bug and Tar Remover first before using a chrome/metal polish and avoid the temptation to use a cloth wrapped around a Popsicle stick to expedite the process. Finally, apply a coat of wax afterwards to all chrome pieces to further protect them from the elements.
Some of our customers don't like us to put anything on their tires. Others do not think the job is complete unless a tire dressing has been applied. If you are in the latter camp, there are a plethora of products on the market that can make your tires shine. Some are sprayed on like ArmorAll (and this is the ONLY place we recommend using it), Black Again or Back to Black. Others are gel-like substances and applied with a foam applicator like Meguiar's Endurance. While a little more expensive, we prefer using gel products since they look better in our opinion, last longer and are easier to control since there's no chance of over spray on the rims.
Exterior vinyl/plastic/painted metal trim pieces, particularly those in black, will fade over time because of damage caused by UV rays, the use of strong detergents, or neglect. The same products mentioned as tire dressings can also be used on trim pieces to protect and/or restore them. As with tires, gel or thicker liquids hold up better than the "thinner" fluids. We also apply dressing to windshield wiper arms, the air vent shroud and window gaskets. If there is an unsightly white discoloration on your vinyl trim, it's probably dried wax. To remove it, we suggest that you work the dressing into the trim piece using a nylon toothbrush. One tip to help prevent this happening in the future is to apply the dressing before you wax.
If after thoroughly vacuuming the carpeted areas, including the trunk, you still find some heavily soiled areas, it's best to try to identify the contaminant first before trying to remove it. Whereas household carpet cleaning products like Resolve are very effective at getting rid of the worst kinds of dirt like clay, grime, the Board of Directors at Enron, al-Qaida, etc., they are not as helpful at removing grease or oil. In these cases, using a strong detergent like Simple Green, Castrol Super Clean or a citrus-based product like XENIT Citrus Cleaner/Remover is probably better suited to tackle these obstacles. Make sure you identify an inconspicuous area to color-test the solvent first before using it. Working with a small scrub brush, gently work the cleaner into the affected area and repeat as necessary. Don't use a lot of muscle here - let the cleaner do the work to loosen or dissolve the soiled area.
There are as many opinions about which techniques, methods and solvents to use when cleaning/detailing the engine compartment as there are lamb chop sideburns at an Elvis convention. Some of the information is useful, and some is not. We do not, for instance, advocate warming the engine first to loosen/soften the oily/greasy areas. There is an engineering/chemistry principle known as capillary action where liquids are drawn into areas when adhesive forces exceed cohesive forces. In layman's terms, water can be "sucked" into unwanted parts of the engine (particularly as it cools). So we let the degreasers do the work (Foamy Engine Bright, Simple Green and Castrol Super Clean to name a few) and thus minimize the time spent "watering down" the engine. Regardless if you use a pressure system or a hose to rinse the engine off, it's important to first protect sensitive engine components like the distributor, rotor, carburetor, air filter/cleaner, coil and other electrical connections. One way to do this is to place tin foil over non-electrical parts and plastic baggies over electrical areas, and then secure them with a rubber band before applying the solvent. We also use stiff-bristle, wooden handle brushes to help the degreasers do their job before hosing it off. Some customers prefer a dressing on the hoses and plastic pieces within the engine compartment. Meguiar's and 3M make rubber treatment sprays, or you can use something as readily available as WD-40 that doesn't have a "wet" look and, therefore, won't attract dirt. A word of warning about spraying dressing in the area compartment - keep it away from the pulleys and belts for obvious reasons.