How to Wax a Car

We here at The Drive like shimmering cars. Beyond the primal attraction to shiny objects, a good coat of wax enhances the beauty of a car’s paintwork and protects it from the effects of weathering and aging. And unless you have a six-figure, self-healing car (that isn’t a transformer), you’ll quickly appreciate how much headache and heartache a proper thin coat of wax will save you.

Waxing a car is a bit more complicated than conventional wax-on, wax-off movie wisdom suggests, but it’s still an easy weekend project that goes along way towards good car care. 

Related Post: Best Car Wax

Things You’ll Need

It’s important to have everything you need for waxing within reach because once you begin, it’s hard to hit the reset button on beautifying your vehicle. 

Here are the minimum supplies you’ll need to wax your car:

  • An hour or two set aside for waxing.
  • A cool, dry, covered working area.
  • Readily-available water and a hose. 
  • A wash bucket filled with automotive soap (dish soap works well, too).
  • One to two clean, soft sponges.
  • Two soft applicator pads about the size of your hand.
  • A pair of disposable, chemical-resistant gloves. 
  • Drying towel(s) and/or a chamois.
  • Rags/shop towels.
  • Two to four microfiber towels, depending on the size of your vehicle.
  • Paint remover.
  • One bottle automotive car wax (either a liquid wax, spray wax, or paste wax).

Optional materials include glass cleaner and/or tire and wheel cleaner. You can use both of these items to aid in finishing the overall clean look of your vehicle. However, they’re not required for waxing your car. 

Preparation

Waxing your vehicle is a simple process in terms of just putting wax on and taking it off. But nothing automotive-related is ever that easy, right? There are a few steps you’ll need to take before even applying the automotive wax if you want the best results and a stress-free time. 

The more thoroughly you’re able to prepare your vehicle’s paint, the better your final results will be. Let’s take a closer look at this pre-waxing process:

Step 1: Wash Your Car (Thoroughly)

When car washing, don’t give your car the simple Super Soaker treatment. Rinse off as much dirt and debris as you can. Warmer water is better than cold. 

Once the surface of your vehicle is wet, use one or both sponges soaked in automotive/dish soap to scrub off the rest of the contaminants, including dirt, tar, and bugs. Work from the top of the vehicle down, finishing with the wheels and tires. Finally, rinse the soap off the vehicle, making sure to spray in cracks and crevices where debris can hide. 

Once the car wash is done, dry it completely with your choice of drying towels or a chamois. Water will typically pool around the grille, the side mirrors, under window trim, and above the rear license plate. Check these spots for drips after the rest of the car is dry.

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If you can write on your car it's too dirty.

Step 2: Prep Your Paint

Prepare your hands by putting on the disposable gloves. Layer two or three shop towels and dispense a small amount of paint remover onto the towels. Begin with one whole piece, or “panel” of the car, and move in a consistent direction over the clear coat, checking each panel individually for contaminants that might be stuck to the paint. 

Use the paint remover to remove this debris, being careful to avoid rubber, plastics, and any other exterior components that are not painted. The paint remover will dry up after a few minutes, so reapply as needed until you have addressed each panel on the car. 

Pat yourself on the back! The hard work is done—it’s now time to shine up your ride. If you have employed the “voluntary” help of children or pets, now is the time to let them loose.    

Methods

There are many ways to wax a car, each not necessarily better or worse than the next. Your final choice will depend on the tools you have—or the tools you want to have but haven’t rushed to the automotive store to buy yet—and how much time you have to spend with your vehicle over the rest of the world. 

We’re going to show you how to wax a car with a basic set of tools almost anyone has access to. Get your wax ready! Here’s how to wax your newly-washed car:

Step 3: Apply the Wax

Ready two soft pads, your microfibers, and the wax. Shake the wax bottle well, reading the instructions for best practices. Most waxes will be fine going on the way we’re showing you here, but it’s always good to read the guidelines printed on the bottle.

Once shaken, apply a nickel-sized layer of wax onto one side of one of your soft pads. Begin again with one panel of the car, pressing down gently but firmly on the paint with the waxed pad. Move in small circling motions. The idea here is to get a thin film of wax across the entire painted surface, so once a haze forms, you can move onto the unwaxed paint. Think of spreading a generous layer of butter on toast. That’s the look you’re going for. 

Generally speaking, you should use a nickel-sized blob of wax for a section about 2 feet by 2 feet. 

A good way to visualize this without a ruler is to think about two pieces of paper next to each other, portrait-style. Another way to tell if you need more wax is to look at how it is applying to the paint. When you see spots of paint where the wax hasn’t been applied, you’ll need to stop and apply more wax to your pad.

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Work your way around the car, making sure to cover all painted surfaces of your vehicle. Again, do not let the wax touch any rubber, plastic, or unpainted pieces. It’s okay if the wax gets onto these pieces, but wipe it away immediately so that the wax doesn’t soak into it. 

Touch up any spots that don’t look covered. After you’ve come back to the first piece you began with, slowly walk around the vehicle, checking to make sure you don’t see any unwaxed painted sections. 

If at any point in the process your pad becomes too saturated with wax, feel free to switch to your other pad. If you have a larger car like a truck or van, this second pad is essential.

There are other ways you can apply wax, or even car polish, to your vehicle’s paint as well—most that require the aforementioned trip to the auto supply store. The method we described above is known as “hand waxing” because you apply the wax with your hands via a small pad. There are three other methods you can choose from as well:

1. Dual-Action (DA) Method: The first alternative method to hand waxing is to use what’s known as a dual-action polisher or DA machine. This tool spins clockwise, but also moves in a figure-eight pattern—hence the name, dual action. Many of these machines are small and fit in the palm of your hand. Some require electricity while others require an air compressor. Instead of using your hand and a pad to distribute the wax, you use the pad on a DA machine. 

2. Rotary Polisher Method: Those well-versed in rotary polishers are able to cut waxing time nearly in half. Rotary polishers don’t have the dual action of the DA machine and simply rotate in a clockwise direction. However, they are usually 7 to 9 inches in diameter, so they’re much bigger than either the small hand pad or the DA pad. Again, you’ll use a round pad attached to the rotary polisher to apply the wax, usually at a low revolutions-per-minute (RPM) range. 

Go too fast with the rotary and you’ll just end up flinging the wax everywhere—except on your paint. 

With rotary polishers, you’re using heat to apply the wax directly into the paint’s pores, so you won’t get that same haze as you would with a hand wax and/or the DA. 

3. Mixed Approach: A third, blended method is to apply the wax with the DA pad, allow it to dry as you would if you were hand waxing, and then remove the wax with the rotary polisher. Again, this method simply warms the wax to allow it to flow into the pores of the paint. Remember our toast analogy? If you melt the butter before you spread it, it will adhere to the bread better than if the butter were cold. 

Now it’s time to sit back and wait. Think about our toast analogy some more if it’s still not quite clicking or ask a friend. Meanwhile, clean up your materials and dump out any soapy water leftover. If you have a spray-on tire and wheel cleaner, now’s a good time to apply that. The same goes for glass cleaner. Spray a little bit of glass cleaner on each window and then wipe it with a clean microfiber. You can do just the outside windows if you want, but it’s best to get the inside ones as well. 

Depending on the climate and environment, the wax may dry within anywhere between 10-20 minutes. There’s no strict time limit on how long wax can sit on paint, but after 20-25 minutes, it should be ready to wipe off. The best way to tell is to feel the wax itself. Wax that is ready to come off has the consistency of lotion, but a bit gummier.

Step 4: Remove the Wax

Remove the wax by using a dry microfiber towel. It may be difficult at first to move the towel across the wax, but use slight pressure and overlapping strokes. Move from one panel to the next, removing the wax as you go along. Feel free to switch microfibers or use another side of the current towel after a few panels, as the wax will build up on it.

Use a new microfiber to go over the car again, making sure to remove wax that might have gotten stuck in tiny cracks and crevices.

There you have it! A shiny, like-new waxed car to call your own. It might take a lot of work, but it’s not something you can get at a car wash. It will definitely protect your paint and keep your investment in tip-top shape for at least six months to a year.  

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Microfiber towels work best for removing car wax (though pick isn't a must).

Tips

  • If you’re worried about getting wax on certain pieces, use masking tape or plastic to cover them. Make sure the tape is sticky but not too much; otherwise it will be hard getting the tape off your vehicle. 
  • Applying more wax is better than applying too little. It will definitely be harder to get all the wax off your car if you do get too much on there, but don’t be afraid to be generous. 
  • Black cars are harder to wax. Just like with white cars, black cars show everything. There are specially-formulated waxes for black cars, so search these out if you need. 
  • If this is your first time waxing your car, pick up the most basic wax at your local auto parts store. Not necessarily the cheapest, it should be something you feel comfortable applying. Use this as your baseline wax. If, in the future, you feel adventurous, try another brand.
  • Waxing your car can be a great way to pretty it up for pictures if you intend to sell it. It’s been said that we buy with our eyes first, so appeal to the masses with a shiny, like-new wax on your for-sale vehicle.

FAQ

Q: How do I know when I should wax my car?

A: If you don’t remember or know the last time your car was waxed, it’s safe to say it’s time for a wax. Unless you’re waxing your vehicle daily, you can’t necessarily over-wax it.  

Q: How often should I wax my car?

A: Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to wax an old or new car twice a year. The best times to wax are right after the first snow and in the first few days of summer. Ideally, you’ll be protecting your paint through the winter from any chemicals on the road and from the heat of the sun during the summer. Once a year, however, will suffice. 

Q: What if my car just got painted—can I wax it?

A: Call the body shop where your car was painted. Depending on when and how the car was painted, you may be fine to wax it or you might need to wait a few months. Always ask the body shop before you begin your waxing process to avoid having to repaint the car. 

Q: The car wash soap I bought has wax in it. Should I still wax my car?

A: Yes. If you think about it, soaps are meant to remove unwanted materials. While some may be formulated to leave a waxy residue, it’s best not to rely on that to keep your paint protected from sun rays and harsh road chemicals. Give your car the most protection.  

Q: Will waxing my vehicle take out the swirl marks? 

A: No. Waxing might help to lessen swirl marks, but they are best addressed through complete paint correction. See your local dealership or detail shop for more information. 

Q: Almost all the higher-priced waxes at my local auto parts store have “carnauba” somewhere in the name—does that mean it’s better quality wax? 

A: Those waxes without carnauba in the name are referred to as “synthetic” waxes and differ from the carnauba products based on chemical makeup. In plainer words, they’re both waxes but with different ingredients. Some argue carnauba waxes work better but often don’t last as long on your vehicle’s paint as synthetic wax. We recommend you start with a synthetic wax to get a feel for it. Then, try carnauba wax if you want to and decide for yourself. Whichever wax gave you better results is most likely the one you’ll buy again.