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Detail Guide

Cleaning and preening is what the Mothers® Detail Guide is all about. From the simplest tasks to the most technically challenging, our Guide covers it all.

Detail Guide

Car Washing

Posted on May 7, 2021

bucket with wash and wax liquid

Laying suds to sheetmetal is a major opportunity to bond with your car and/or truck. Get to know those exterior panels, caress every curve, check each gap and groove. Consider all the parts of your vehicle before you wet it down and soap it up. This process benefits from that close attention, because slopping on the soap and hosing it off ain’t enough to achieve a great shine.

Plan ahead for what specific cleaning you will be doing.  A quickie wash begets a quickie clean, and while car soap works on any vehicle, there are specialized practices and cleaners that may work even better: there are many steps to car washing to keep in mind when the bucket is at hand. You’re not just washing your car, you’re washing wheels, tires, trim, metal, glass and perhaps a convertible top or truck bed. In many cases (as we’ll specify in this guide), those parts benefit from specific consideration.

Before jumping in, take a few minutes to dig into a Mothers® Polish video that details a few car-washing processes that you might not know. It’s available here on the Mothers® YouTube Channel.

Specialized car washing info you should be aware of:
  • Always start at the top, and wash to the bottom. There’s more dirt down low – no sense in spreading it up.
  • There is an order to what gets cleaned, and specifics are included throughout this detailing guide. An example: specialized tire cleaning should be done before washing the rest of your vehicle, but the tires should be dressed after the vehicle has dried.
  • Be sure to use the correct chemicals in every case – for instance, wheel cleaner has no place coming in contact with auto paint (and wheel cleaners are wheel-specific too).
  • Keep specialized process from affecting other surfaces. Convertible tops, for example, require brush agitation that you don’t want to touch the paint.

bucket, hose and soap

Suds & Soap

What kind of soap are you using? Suds are nice, but it’s not about the suds, it’s about how the soap cleans. Be sure to keep all non-automotive soaps far, far away from your car – dishwashing detergents and other kitchen cleaners are typically formulated to remove grease and wax (which are not unlike the basic ingredients in most automotive wax and lubricants). Automotive-only washing agents, such as Mothers® California Gold® Carnauba Wash & Wax, are formulated to penetrate and suspend dirt while leaving intrinsic automotive coatings alone. The right car wash can deal with dirt, bugs, tar and grime on your sled, but will not strip wax from the paint or grease from an exposed joint. Car soap is intentionally gentle, so more than one visit to a dirty spot may prove necessary (which highlights another wonderment of good car-wash soap – go ahead and mix it stronger if you have a serious bug graveyard to uproot).

Some car washes (like the Carnauba Wash & Wax) have a dash of carnauba in them, which leaves a sparkle behind after washing. It won’t protect you from a typhoon, but any assistance in maintaining a fine shine is a good thing. 

If You Need to Remove Wax

If you must remove wax from automotive paint, the clay bar or paint polish like Mothers® California Gold® Pure Polish can do so without risk to the paint (both are explained in the “Paint Prep & Wax” section). Cleaner waxes also have this effect (such as Mothers® Carnauba Cleaner Wax and Synthetic Paste Wax), though they leave a protective coating behind.

car washing spray

Pre-Treating Caked On Funk and Dirt

A smart way to deal with caked-on or sticky dirt, sap, dead bugs, bird droppings and other infunkticants is to pre-treat those extra-dirty sections of bodywork. Before you start washing the entire vehicle, coat the aforementioned filthified panels with car soap or a healthy spritzing of Mothers® Waterless Wash & Wax or Instant Detailer. Apply the soap undiluted. Thick car wash soap like Mothers® Carnauba Wash & Wax will cling, and this allows time for it to penetrate before washing the entire car. Don’t worry about damaging the paint – even at full-strength, Mothers® Carnauba Wash & Wax will not affect the vehicle’s finish, just the funk stuck to it. If you want to skip the whole car wash scenario, step up to Speed® Foaming Bug & Tar Remover. It’s no-drip aerosol foam is ideal for pre-soaking and cleaning. Just spray and wipe. Perfect for in the garage or on the road.


Porsche in a garage

Racecars and Tough Trucks Need Washing Too

In the case of pre-treating race and trail vehicles that see rubber-based dirt like smudges and tire scuffs, Mothers® makes a specialized spray-on/wipe-off cleaner called R3 – Racing Rubber Remover. You can find it online.

washing a car
Washing and Rinsing Your Car

Hose down your vehicle with a firm stream of water that is not a narrow jet – the “Shower” settings on many multi-nozzles is ideal. The car-washing spray should be firm but not harsh, enough to flush an area with water but not a deluge, and easily controlled.  Concentrate on loosening dirt and unwanted buildup, but don’t blast a specific spot of stuck-on dirt – that’s what pre-treating and a sudsy wash-mitt are for. A narrow stream of pressurized water will not only distort wax that’s already on the paint, if can damage paint and trim parts. Have that bucket of soaped up water ready before you wet the vehicle (you shouldn’t let any water dry on the paint while filling up the bucket). Get the wet portions of the washing process done quickly, because water that dries on the paint is one more spot to reclean. If it’s hot out, if you live in Death Valley, or if you have no choice but to wash your car in the sun, be sure to keep it wet and cool with regular hosings.

Preparation for the Washing Process

  • When and where are you washing your vehicle? The perfect car-wash location is where you find it, but being in the shade is ideal. Try to avoid washing a car in direct sunlight, in the heat of the day, and never wash a car that’s hot (under the hood, the sheet metal itself or parts like brakes or wheels).
  • Before you wash, plan to dry – a car sitting in the sun after it’s been rinsed clean can be covered in water spots in minutes, and then you need to wash all over again. Have towels ready to go, and get the vehicle into the shade or your garage if you can.
  • In the case of water spots that appear despite your best preparation, Mothers® Instant Detailer, Spray Wax or Waterless Wash & Wax can erase them following the drying process.

washing a car

To do the work of transporting suds and applying them to your car, use a wash-mitt. Ideally, it should be clean, thick, non-marring; either synthetic microfiber or natural lamb’s wool.  Some experts recommend using an ultra-soft synthetic or animal-hair brush for working cracks and trim gaps. Whatever device you use, rinse it and re-soap it frequently as you clean. Work from the top of the vehicle down, because the lower portions of the car are usually the dirtiest – there’s no sense in dragging the filth from the bottom of the car to the top.

buckets of soap water
The Two-Bucket Method

No excuses! The two-bucket method is simple, and only requires a look at the dirty water in the rinse bucket to know it’s effective. How? Prep a second bucket with clean water alongside your soap bucket, and before you re-soap the wash-mitt or sponge, rinse it in the clean water (which you will want to dump and refill once or twice) – keep that dirt from getting back on your car.

Speed Clay as you Wash

Much like whistling while you work, you can also Clay as you wash and kill two of those pesky poop-slinging birds with one stone thanks to these new-fangled surface removal tools (Mothers® recommends our Speed Clay 2.0). Hose off your vehicle first to remove loose dirt. Wash the area with a clean wash-mitt before rinsing thoroughly with water.

water in bucket

Dip the Clay 2.0 into your wash bucket to fully saturate the tool. This helps keep the working section lubricated, which is crucial to claying performance.

washing the hood

Lightly glide the tool across the working surface in a linear motion. Your paint should be smooth to the touch and you can run your hand over the finished area to check for any missed spots. All is not lost if you drop this clay tool, just rinse it with water and continue claying. When finished, rinse your vehicle and dry thoroughly. It’s that easy (click here to view a short video on how to use Speed Clay 2.0).

bucket with cleaning accessories

Specialized Washing Tools You Should Try
  • The sponge is a sponge. If you still use one, okay, but there’s a better way – the wash-mitt. Try lamb’s wool (preferably), synthetic wool, or the fancy new chenille-style microfiber units (which look like a wool wash-mitt and a Muppet had a kid). Closely check the quality of material used in its construction, because fiber qualities vary widely.
  • Use soft (soft!) synthetic or animal-hair brushes of varying sizes and reach for wheel wells, wheels, impact-resistant plastics (think bumpers and fender flares) or for gaps between panels. Bristles reach the nooks and crannies that sponges and mitts miss.
  • A slightly stiffer (keep it away from pretties-stiff) brush will work to clean tire sidewalls, wheels and the undercarriage. A brush with a long handle and sidewall-stiff bristles can serve double-duty for scrubbing fender wells and suspension parts.
  • Consider having separate tools for your wheels and lower panels. For example, you don’t want use the same wash mitt that cleaned your gritty wheel wells one week to clean your hood the next (unless you want your hood to look like your wheel wells).

hood of a car

  • The chamois: it’s a legacy car-care device that’s grown long in the tooth. Don’t use it to dry your paint – it’s Hell on wax and paint coatings because of the way it sticks to the surface. That chamois is good for drying hard surfaces like glass and chrome, but not much else.
  • When you get to the tires and wish you had a small sponge to use for tire dressing – blammo! Save a few old kitchen sponges in a baggie in the garage, and cut them to size. Reuse that tire sponge, because it’ll already be full of tire stuff the next time.
  • Use a quality water nozzle, one with a variable range of settings and a full shut off. We prefer firehose-style nozzles like Bon-Aire.

Cleaning a Dropped Mitt or Towel

If you drop any mitt, sponge or cleaning device or on the ground, it’s done for the day – don’t let it contact your paint again. You can examine it thoroughly and remove every scratchy thing that can damage your vehicle’s finish and toss it in the washer (gentle cycle), or just throw it away. Whether or not you drop it, feel free to toss the wash-mitt in the washing machine after each car wash (as particles of dirt will be trapped in the fibers). At the least, give it a thorough rinsing.

wiping a car

Drying Successfully

Dry the vehicle as soon as you finish washing it, and be sure to use cotton or microfiber towels. We recommend one in each hand, or at least being prepared to use a second towel as the first gets too wet. We recommend a quality microfiber towel. Its tiny synthetic fibers won’t scratch your paint like regular poly-based synthetics. Pound for pound, microfiber holds more water. If you insist on cotton towels, quality is important—the thicker the nap, the more pile there is to cushion any dirt and debris picked up while drying.

Sheeting Action Promotes Better Drying

Before drying your vehicle, run a slow flooding flow of water over all flat surfaces. This will encourage a sheeting action, pulling water off the paint as the flow passes by. It won’t take much water to create the sheeting action necessary to water-dry your car’s flat metal surfaces.

Car-specific towels are available for drying work – thick, waffle-knit microfiber material that holds a tremendous amount of water. Remember to chase all door jambs, hatch, trunk and hood openings to make sure they’re dried as well – a thin microfiber detailing towel works well for those nooks and crannies.

rinsing a car

Tiny Techniques for Trick Tidying

  • Consistently rewet the vehicle you’re washing to avoid premature drying and the appearance of water spots – you don’t want to let water dry on the paint’s surface. This wetting will ease the drying process.
  • Dry in the shade. Pull your wet vehicle into your garage/carport/the shade of a tree (minus the sap) after washing it and the paint will stay cool, helping keep spontaneous air-drying from outrunning your towel.
  • If you can, dry the wet glass first. Dry towels love wet glass, and reduce streaking. This will also slightly dampen the towel, which softens its fibers, and in turn helps avoid another possible source of swirl marks on the paint.
  • Use more towels than less during the drying process. It’ll reduce any dirt returning to surfaces being dried, and dry towels are less wet than wet ones.

You’ll probably wind up with water spots if you don’t dry your vehicle fast enough. Chase water spots with a burst of Mothers® Instant Detailer or Waterless Wash & Wax and a microfiber towel, and you’ll be able to remove all but the most etched water spots. The worst etching requires a cleaner or polish and some extended attention – see the next section in this guide.

A valuable step in the drying process involves further washing. As it’s difficult to thoroughly clean jamb areas on any vehicle without getting water in the interior, you can hit those spots after drying the rest of the vehicle. A clean, Instant Detailer or a Waterless Wash & Wax-damped towel or waffle-weave microfiber detailing towel can swipe away most of the offending dust. However, if there’s stuck-on dirt, you’ll want to go back and grab the wash-mitt and do some more washing.

If you want to crank up the glow of your paint beyond standard-issue shiny, apply a spray wax to the wet finish as you dry the vehicle, post-wash. This technique is a popular way to maximize shine on the show-car circuit. Working around the vehicle one section at a time, a spray wax like Mothers Speed® Spray Wax or California Gold® Spray Wax can be applied with a clean towel, or directly to the paint. Spread it around evenly, just as you would with a traditional wax. Let it dry to a dull haze and then buff it to a shine with a fresh towel. This process will also provide an additional layer of protection between regular washing. Speaking of detailer, Mothers® Instant Detailer can be applied in the same fashion – apply the detailer liberally to the wet paint, but instead of waiting for a haze, immediately dry it with a clean microfiber or cotton towel.

closeup of car hood
How to Achieve an Anytime-Fine Shine with Detailer or Spray Wax

Using a detailing spray, wet then buff each panel in the same fashion you’d use when drying. If you have Mothers Speed® Spray Wax or California Gold® Spray Wax (which has a light polymer wax suspended in its formula that offers a scosche of protection and reinforcement of existing wax coatings), coat one section at a time. Once the spray wax has dried to a haze, buff out said haze with a clean towel.

close up of car hood
hosing a car
Waterless Wash and Wax (No Hose, No Problem)

What if you’re ready to wash your car and you’re missing a few items, namely a hose and water? Gone are the days when you’d slink away in defeat, doomed to an afternoon of shame eating and re-runs. Waterless washes provide a convenient alternative to traditional washing. These formulas, like Mothers® Waterless Wash and Wax, create extreme lubrication to encapsulate and dissolve dirt and grime. Simply spray on the surface, then use a clean, soft microfiber to carefully wipe the dust and dirt away. For your final pass, use a fresh microfiber to buff-off any residue.

Drying Don’ts (Don’t Be Surprised)
  • Don’t use the towel you’re drying with to remove stuck-on dirt you missed while washing – you’re inviting scratches. Keep the bucket of soap and mitt handy until you’re done drying, because if you’ve got more dirt, you’ve got more washing to do.
  • Again, avoid that chamois (synthetic or natural) for regular drying. The chamois material, especially a natural chamois, develops a large amount of friction when being pulled across your paint, almost to the point of suction. This “dragging traction” is sufficient to distort and/or strip wax from your paint. Also, there is very little nap to a chamois, so any particles not washed off have a higher chance of being rubbed directly into the paint and causing scratches and swirl marks.
  • Stay away from squeegees unless you’re dealing with glass. A squeegee can pick up dirt and scratch it across your paint for as far as you swipe.

When washing car towels, use limited amounts of detergent, and don’t dry them with fabric softener – it leaves trace chemicals in the towels that can contaminate your wax or leave streaks. Also, a hot wash with a cold rinse for your cotton towels can help reduce lint (no hot water for microfiber, however – cold and cold).