How to wash your car

The art of hand washing a vehicle is a practical and relaxing manly skill - and unlike learning how to shave with a straight razor, it’s easy (and harmless) to learn.

Why Hand Washing?

There are three practical reasons to hand wash your car.

Better for you car: Unlike handwashing, drive-in automatic car washes are inefficient at removing dirt and also have a higher risk of damaging your car.

Better for the environment: Depending on how dirty the vehicle is, hand washing can use as little as six gallons of water. Compare that to at least 20 gallons using a garden hose, or 150 gallons in an automatic car wash.

Better for your wallet: Supplies will cost approximately $60. So, the cost of your first 32 washes (one bottle of cleaning solution) will be $1.88. With each subsequent fifteen-dollar bottle of cleaning soap, it will be a mere $0.47 a wash.


Conveniently, you do not need a garage full of cleaning products to get started.

  1. Two 3 gallon buckets or any other large container that holds water.

    $3.00/each from WalMart. You’ll need two: one for the soapy water and the other for rinse water.

  2. Grit guard

    $11.00. Keeps the debris from washcloths at the bottom of the rinse bucket and not back on your car.

  3. Microfiber wash cloths

    $10.00. Soft, absorbent, and reusable. A perfect product for car washing.

  4. Large microfiber drying towel

    $11.00. A single large microfiber towel is preferable over your standard bath towel because bath towels will often shed and leave little bits on the car. Invest in a nice microfiber towel for your car so you won't have to share it with your guests.

  5. Washing solution

    $15.00. Optimum No-Rinse Car Wash is the foundation for reducing water usage while washing your car. You only need to use a capful, and you can even use it as a quick-detailer by putting a couple of capfuls into a spray bottle and filling it with distilled water. By far one of the most versatile car care products, and found in almost every detailer's garage.

  6. Instant detailer spray

    $10.00. Optional, but highly recommended. It'll give your vehicle that finishing touch and clean off any watermarks missed from drying. Lots of brands out there, so it will be a matter of personal preference. I’ve been using Meguiars Quick Detailer and it serves me quite well. I also like to dilute my Optimum No Rinse Wash & Shine to use as a quick detailer and save some cash (rounds down to about 1 oz of ONR per 16oz spray bottle).

The Technique

  1. Set Up Your Supplies

    Follow the directions on the no-rinse soap and fill one bucket. Put your grit guard and clean water in the other wash bucket. Be sure to lay your microfiber cloths and drying towel on a clean surface.

  2. Rinse (Optional)

    A quick spray of the garden hose can make your job easier and faster if your car is caked in mud, but unless you just took your jeep off-roading rinsing is not needed for a car covered with the dust from commuting.

  3. Start Washing!

    Divide your car into sections when washing it in order to stay organized and methodical. Clean the highest and cleanest parts first, followed by the dirtiest and lowest portions. For example, I usually start with the roof, followed by the rear quarter panels, the doors, the front quarter panels, hood, than finishing with the front and rear bumper.

    The hand wash itself can be divided into two repeating steps: Washing and Drying.

    Step A (washing): Soak a microfiber cloth into the cleaning solution bucket and wipe off a selected panel. The weight of the wet cloth should be enough to soak, loosen, and pick up surface debris. Additional pressure shouldn’t be needed, as rubbing on a dirty surface increases the risk of grinding dirt and causing scratches. Depending on how dirty the car is, additional passes may be needed. Clean the microfiber cloth in the rinse bucket when finished.

    Step B (drying): After you clean the selected surface, get your drying towel and dry the surface you just cleaned. Drying is important because it will give you an idea of how clean/dirty your car is; if after the first pass you dry the surface and still see residual dirt on the drying towel, repeat Step A. If you are consistently seeing dirt on your drying towel, additional passes of step A should be considered before step B.

  4. Here's a video guide if you're still not sure what the process looks like:

  5. Quick Detailing

    After completely cleaning all the panels and tires, bring out the instant detailer. Spray and clean the selected surface, then wipe dry. Repeat until all panels are clean.

  6. Windows, Wheels, Etc.

    Wheels: Using a microfiber towel and the remaining wash solution are more than enough to clean the wheels and tires. You could buy tire cleaner to get the ‘wet look’, however after a few days the oils will start to hold on to dirt rather than repel it.

    Windows: Any window product, such as Windex, will suffice. Get some glass specific microfibers for an easier streak-free finish. I treat all the cars in my family with Aquapel. It repels water just like Rain-X, but it only requires a single application which will last 4-5 months. I usually do one application at the beginning of spring and another at the end of fall.

    Headlamps: Headlamps tend to get ‘foggy’ with time. An easy and cheap remedy for this is using toothpaste (a mild abrasive). Dab some colgate on the headlamps and rub in circular motion, rinse clean with a wet microfiber cloth.

    Tree Sap: A ridiculously sticky substance that is difficult to remove. Use an automotive specific remover and be weary of home remedies and non automotive specific products (nailpolish remover or ‘goo-gone’ are too abrasive and can damage paint).

  7. Depending on how dirty the car is and how proficient you are, this whole process can be completed in under 45 minutes.Though it may take more time out of your weekend, the benefits far outweighs the lost time. You, your car, and environmentalists will rejoice in your new found skill.