How to Hand Wash a Car

TheDrive and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links. Read more.

Sure, fancy car washing makes it quick and easy to give your vehicle a good cleaning, but what if you want the best for your beloved road warrior? No automatic car wash will give you that showroom shine that can even make human-powered transport enthusiasts do a double-take. Instead, the best way to clean your car is doing it like Model T himself did things—by hand.

Get ready for a wet and wild "adventure" that's fun for the whole family, especially little kids you don't have to pay. Here's how you can wash your own car by hand.

Safety

  • Don't taste or consume any cleaning products, including soapy water. 

Things You'll Need

Getting a good wash requires a few different steps along the way. With extra steps comes a few different tools and products to get the job done.

Man Cleaning Car With Blue Towel
gettyimages

A simple wash cloth goes a long way to getting a great shine.

  • Plain water: The stuff straight from the hose will do.
  • Soap: Automotive soap is best. Avoid general washing detergents.
  • Wash buckets: Two or three separate buckets will make the cleaning process easier.
  • Cleaning mitts/towels: Something to apply soap and to scrub the car off that won't leave streaks.
  • Scrubbing brush: Something for tougher dirt and debris.

Preparation

Generally, you can wash a car anywhere that has access to some water. It's helpful to get your supplies and tools set up ahead of time so you can clean the car quickly before the soap dries.

  1. Park the car in a shady spot or inside the garage. Keeping it out of direct sunlight will prevent the water/soap from drying too soon.
  2. Set up the cleaning materials so you have everything in place before you begin.
  3. Fill a bucket full of water. Add soap.
     Another bucket filled with just water is useful for rinsing.

Hand Washing a Car

Getting a good wash is more than just applying some soap and water. Unless you love the look of streaks on the surface after the water dries, you'll need to put a bit more effort into your wash effort. The most important thing to remember is to work your way from top to bottom. Since you can't control the flow of water (or don't want to reveal that party trick to the neighbors), it's best to work with gravity.

Rinse the Car

A good hose rinsing across the entire car will help remove loose dirt and soften the encrusted debris.

  1. Take a hose with a strong water jet to the car's exterior. Work your way down from the roof to the bottom edge of the chassis.
    • Keep the hose pointed downward to force the dirt to the ground.
  2. Scrub the wheels. Beyond just rinsing the tires and rims off with the hose, take a long wheel brush to dig into the hard-to-reach spaces and some wheel cleaner to get brake dust and the wheel wells.
    • You can use a brush on the tires to get in between the treads.
  3. Give the undercarriage a good rinse. This can help remove salt build-up to prevent damage and corrosion.

Apply the Soap

After the rinsing, you will likely have smaller, hard-to-clean dirt and debris leftover. This is where automotive cleaning soap really gets the job done. 

  1. Divide the car up into sections. It's important to work on separate areas as you wash the car. Once again, start with the upper sections and work your way down.
  2. Soak the wash mitt or sponge in the soapy water. Get the mitt/sponge fully submerged.
    • Make sure you remove any dirt or debris from the surface of the mitt/sponge before using it on the car.
  3. Move the soapy mitt/sponge over the surface of the car. Work slowly, allowing the soap and water to remove the dirt. Very little force is usually required.
    • You may need to make several passes over specific sections if the surface is very dirty.
    • Resoak the mitt/sponge as often as needed.
    • Keep the mitt clean and dirt build-up off.
  4. Rinse off each section. It's important to remove the soap before it has a chance to dry. Otherwise, it can stain the paint.

Remove Splatters and Droppings Separately

Bird droppings and bug splatters are typically more difficult to remove than simple dirt and grime. More importantly, they can damage the paint if you aren't careful when scrubbing them off.

  • Apply some splatter-specific cleaner like bug remover to encrusted messes. You may need to let the remover work for a minute or two.
  • Scrub the cleaner off with a microfiber towel or mitt. Don't use a scrubber since it can scrape the finish.
  • Wash off any excess debris and cleaner

Dry the Car

You'll need to give your car a helping hand when it comes to drying. Pure air drying will leave streaks on the paint, so you should remove the excess soap and water quickly.

  • Using the same sections as before, dry off the surface of the vehicle. Use clean microfiber towels.
  • Remove excess soap/water from any cracks or body panel seams
  • Run a towel around the bottom edge of the vehicle. This will help clear out any run-off.
  • Optional: Polish and/or wax the car. These steps will give it a nice shine and protect the paint.
  • Optional: Apply water-repellent solutions to the windows. These can help improve visibility in rainy/snowy conditions and help keep the car clean.

Tips

  • Be sure to wash dead bugs, bird droppings, and road chemicals from your vehicle sooner rather than later. If they sit too long on your car's paint, they can damage it.
  • A good glass cleaner and microfiber cloth can also take care of the windows. Make sure you don't use typical window cleaner, however.
  • Do not use dishwashing detergent or other household cleaners to wash your car. They're not intended to interact with paint and may strip it of its protective wax. Use car wash products, which are milder.
  • Before applying soap, completely rinse your vehicle to remove loose dirt and other particles, which could cause scratches. Start on the roof, then do the windows and the rest of your car.
  • Use two buckets–one with soapy water and one with clean water. The more suds you have, the better lubrication you will have for the paint. Put the mitt in the soapy water and wash one section of the car at a time. Then rinse the sponge in the clean water before washing another section.
  • To prevent water spots, rinse the soap off your car using a hose without a nozzle. Let the water flow from the top of the car to the bottom. This sheeting effect minimizes the pooling of water.

FAQ

Q: What’s the most effective way to dry my car?

A: One of the best ways to dry your car is with a drying towel made especially for vehicles. They are often made of microfiber. You can also use a chamois drying cloth. An alternative is an electric air dryer.

Q: How do I get rid of water spots?

A: A drying cloth will help prevent water spots. You may also consider rinsing your car with distilled water, which doesn't contain minerals or other particles from your faucet.

Q: Can I wash a car that’s hot?

A: You shouldn't wash a hot car if you want it to be streak-free. A car that's warm to the touch will dry faster, allowing water spots to form quickly. If you recently drove your car, or it's been sitting in the sun for a while, you may want to wait a while before washing it.