How to Hand Wash Your Car

Whether you have 10 minutes or a whole day, a DIY clean is in reach.

Washing carShutterstock

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There’s something so satisfying about the process of washing a car. There’s a choose-your-own-adventure aspect as well, with plenty of options for folks who have 10 minutes and want instant gratification to those who want to spend a leisurely weekend afternoon basking in cleansing therapy. We’ll cover what you need for the job, the basics of washing, and how to maintain the fresh clean and shine.

This guide focuses on the traditional hose-and-bucket method of hand washing your car. You can adapt it to include other tools and products such as a foam cannon or pressure washer for low-touch and touch-free cleaning, or you may use a rinseless product if you lack access to a hose (or wish to save water).

Choose the Right Products

You might be tempted to squirt some dish soap into a bucket and suds up your ride. Please don’t. Soaps that aren’t formulated for car paint can do more harm than good, stripping away protection like wax and making the finish dull. What you really want is more of a shampoo than a soap (but don’t run to the shower for that bottle of Prell either). A quality car wash concentrate will run you around $10 for a half-gallon jug, which should last for 50 washes or more.

The method outlined below requires two buckets—the five-gallon ones emblazoned with your local home center’s logo work great and are pretty inexpensive at about $5. We recommend installing a grit guard or dirt trap insert in one of the buckets, as it will keep your washing tools from hitting the bottom of the bucket and picking up crud. These sell for between $5 and $15.

Next, find yourself a nice fluffy wash mitt. Made of microfiber or wool, these do a better job than sponges at trapping contaminants, and they won’t scratch cause swirls in the paint or scratch the surface with the material you pick up. A decent one will range between $5 and $15.

Microfiber is also a great option for drying. Look for a large drying-specific towel; they’re usually thicker and/or textured to absorb more water than a standard microfiber. Budget $10 for a good one, though if you want something really fancy, prices range up to around $50. The important thing is to have a dedicated drying towel.

That’s it for the necessities. You may also want to look at smaller microfibers to scrub the details, brushes for wheels and tires, and dedicated wax applicators.

Prep Before the Wash

Before you even turn on the hose, make sure the car’s surface is cool to the touch and out of the sun (and that the shade won’t move during the course of the wash).

Now it’s time for water. Add soap to one bucket and your dirt guard to the other, then fill both with water. Once all your tools are in place, hose down the vehicle top to bottom.

Hand Wash Your Car

Grab your wash mitt, dunk it in the soapy bucket, and suds up a small section of the body at a time. Again, work from top to bottom—gravity is your friend and you’ll save the dirtiest bits for last, reducing the chances of scratching the paint along the way. Then rinse the mitt in the clean-water bucket before soaping up again. Continue until you’ve washed the whole car, rewetting as needed with the hose to ensure you’re working on a wet surface.

Go back to the hose and give the whole car a rinse—you guessed it—from top to bottom.

Dry Your Freshly Cleaned Vehicle

Unfurl your drying towel and, starting on the roof and working down, slowly drag it across the paint, kind of like an ineffective matador. If the towel becomes saturated, wring it out and continue. You can use a detailing spray to help your towel glide if you like.

Protect Your Work

Now that the car is squeaky clean, a coat of wax will help lock in the shine and protect the surface between washes. You can opt for a combination wash and wax to cut a step, a spray wax that goes on before you dry the car, or a traditional paste or liquid wax. The process differs slightly from product to product, but with traditional waxes, you wipe it on, let it dry, then buff it off with a microfiber. Follow the instructions on the package and you should be good.

How often you do a full-blown wash depends on how dirty your car is. The short answer is: when it looks dirty again. There are plenty of spray-on products, like waterless wash and quick detailer liquids, that you can use in between washes to extend cleanliness. They work great on mildly dirty cars, especially on road trips when you can’t or don’t want to do a full wash.

From here, washing and detailing can be as involved as you want it to be. Just remember to keep the dish soap where it belongs: in the kitchen.

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David Gluckman
David Gluckman has over a decade of experience as a writer and editor for print and digital automotive publications. He can parallel park a school bus, has a spreadsheet listing every vehicle he’s ever tested, and once drove a Lincoln Town Car 63 mph in reverse. When David’s not searching for the perfect used car, you can find him sampling the latest gimmicky foodstuffs that America has to offer.