If you obsess over things like tiny swirl marks in your paint, or getting just the right amount of gloss on your tires, you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we’re going to show you some professional-level cleaning and detailing tips that will make your car gleam with a few simple tools and a handful of car-care products.
As you read over these tips, you’ll find a common thread running through them. According to Mike Pennington, who heads training and consumer relations for the car-care specialists at Meguiar’s, making your car shine involves three basic steps: Evaluate the surface you’re working on to determine what it requires to bring it back to perfection, choose the appropriate car-care product based on the makeup and condition of the surface you’re working on and then use the proper technique to apply that product.
The first step in proper care and maintenance of painted automotive surfaces is to make sure they’re clean. But did you know there’s a difference between washing and cleaning your car? According to Pennington, washing — that job done with a hose, buckets and soap — removes dirt and other loose contaminants from on top of the paint. Cleaning, on the other hand, addresses contaminants that are bonded to the paint, like tree sap, hard-water deposits or other environmental fallout, as well as swirls, scratches, oxidation and stains.
To get the best results from your wash, Pennington offered these tips: Always wash your car in the shade when the metal is cool to the touch. Hose off the car first to loosen the dirt, and then use a high-quality wash mitt to apply soapy water to the car. A premium mitt, whether it’s cotton, synthetic or microfiber, has a lot of nap to it that will protect the paint from being scratched by dirt the mitt picks up. And always use a soap that’s designed for automotive paint; household soaps and detergents are too harsh for your car’s finish.
Meguiar’s recommends using the two-bucket method. Fill one bucket with water and soap, the other with plain water. After soaking the mitt in the soapy water and wiping the car, rinse the mitt in the plain-water bucket. That way, dirt picked up by the mitt is left in the rinse bucket and won’t contaminate the soap bucket, reducing the risk of the same dirt being wiped back on the car.
When it’s time to rinse, hose off the car using high water pressure, then do a final rinse with a low-pressure stream. You’ll be amazed at how the water sheets off the car and how much quicker and easier it will be to dry. As with the wash mitt, use a high-quality towel to dry off the car, preferably a microfiber drying towel, which is far superior to yesterday’s cotton or terry cloth.
Evaluate the surface
Once your car is clean and dry, it’s time to evaluate the paint to determine your next step. Move the car inside to a bright, well-lit area and check the paint for trouble spots. During the evaluation process, “you’re looking for above-the-surface contaminants like over spray or tree sap, and below-the-surface problems like swirls, scratches, etching and oxidation,” Pennington said. Run your hand over the car to feel how smooth or rough it is. A rough feel to the paint is a tell-tale sign that there are bonded contaminants on the paint that need to be taken off.
These bonded contaminants can be removed using a clay bar. Pennington offered these claying tips: Always lubricate the surface prior to rubbing it with the clay to make it glide across the surface and prevent scratches. It’s also a good idea to tear the bar into small pieces before using it. That way, should you drop the piece, you can throw it away — you don’t want to transfer imbedded dirt from the clay to the paint — without wasting the entire bar. Knead the bar every so often to keep its surface fresh; and if the bar gets dark, or you can see particles in the clay, it’s time to use a new piece.
Below-the-surface contaminants require a different approach, one that will actually take a little paint off the car in order to get down to the affected area.
Conventional rubbing and polishing compounds, those products Pennington calls “rocks in a bottle,” are typically too abrasive for today’s finishes and may actually “inflict more damage than they fix,” he said. Instead, use a mild swirl remover or clear-coat-safe paint cleaner to treat those areas.
These products typically can be applied by hand or by using a machine — an orbital, dual-action (DA) or rotary polisher. Hand application is safest, since there’s little to no risk of damaging the paint by rubbing through too many layers. Hand application is the most time consuming, however, and requires more physical effort.
A machine applicator will do the job quicker, though an inexperienced operator could burn through the paint if he or she doesn’t know how to properly operate certain machines. The secret to using a machine applicator is to work a fairly small section of the body — about a two-foot square area — with overlapping strokes. Then methodically work your way around the car.
When working by hand, orbital or even dual-action polisher, how many applications should you plan to use? “Do it until you’re happy,” Pennington said. “You may need more than one. But if you’re not getting the results you want after two or three applications, you may need the help of a professional.”
Once the painted surfaces are free of all defects, you can choose to polish the paint or move on to a protectant step. Polish will add gloss to the paint, especially when used on dark colors. Like swirl removers, most polishes can be applied by hand or with a machine applicator.
Protecting the paint surface
The final step is to protect the paint by putting a barrier of wax between it and the damaging effects of Mother Nature. These days, waxes tend to fall into two general types: carnauba, the traditional, natural wax that comes from palm trees; and polymer, a synthetic wax that’s formulated to tighter tolerances than natural wax, but also tends to be a little more expensive than carnauba. “Either type works on paint of any age,” Pennington said, though he feels the high-tech nature of a modern polymer wax will provide a better level of protection.
Pennington wouldn’t go so far as to say that a polymer wax will last longer than carnauba. In fact, he warned against using products that make claims of how long they’ll last. “There are too many variables to establish that type of time frame, from how often you wash your car and what you use to wash it, to where you park and so on.” Instead, he recommended establishing a regular waxing schedule “so you know you’re on top of it.” A daily driver could be waxed as little as three or four times a year, he said, while a hobby car should be waxed every two to three months to keep up its looks.
With either type of wax, it’s best to apply it in thin coats, and then give it time to set up and cure, or you won’t be getting its full protective benefits. Apply wax to the entire car; then, before you wipe it off, test an area by wiping it with your finger. If it smears, it hasn’t fully cured yet.
Once you’ve finished these steps, it’s time to step back and admire how great your paint looks.
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