Here’s How a Pro Waxes a Car by Hand

Wax on left, wax off right. Seems simple enough, yeah? Not so fast, grasshopper.

byCorey Forde|
Maintenance & Repair photo

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My neighbors are hilarious. I consider a five-minute conversation with them as part of my Sunday morning routine as it’s inevitable that one of them will yell from across the street any time they spot me cleaning my cars. This almost always leads to a conversation about how impressed they are that the paint on both of my cars appears flawless, despite their respective 200,000-mile lives. 

When they ask about my secret to their luster, my response is always: Keep up with the wax. This is followed by a brief walk-through on how and why it should be done. Waxing your car is key for many reasons, and taking the time to do it right is just as important as staying on top of your regularly scheduled maintenance. 

I admit that if I didn’t have nearly a decade of experience professionally detailing cars, I’d probably neglect wax too. It can be intimidating for novice car-care enthusiasts. Nonetheless, your neighbors here at The Drive are looking out for you, so we’ve put together a handy guide to show you the proper way to wax your car by hand.   

The Drive and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links. Read more., Depositphotos

Waxing Basics

Estimated Time Needed: 2-4 hours, depending on size of vehiclee

Skill Level: Beginner

Vehicle System: Exterior

Why Is Waxing Your Car Important? 

Think of wax as a protectant for your clear coat, which is the thin clear paint applied to protect your car’s hue. There are two different common types of waxes for cars: Carnauba and synthetic. Carnauba (the most common) is extracted from Brazilian palm leaves, and it’s loved because of its glossy finish and overall thickness. Synthetic wax is a hodgepodge of chemicals designed to bond with your paint’s surface.  

Carnauba wax is shinier in the end and has a thicker layer of protection than synthetic wax. Synthetic is easier to apply and lasts longer, at the sacrifice of a glossier finish. Synthetic wax can be applied via machine or hand and carnauba by hand only. Determining which one to use is up to you and how lazy you feel on any given Sunday afternoon. However, since I’m teaching you how to do this by hand, grab yourself some Carnauba wax. 

A good rule of thumb to remember when you’re shopping is that the harder the Carnauba wax compound is, the better. And if you’re reading this, you most likely take pride in your vehicle’s appearance, or at least you’ve chosen to take it a bit more seriously. In that case, kudos! It’s one of the easiest steps you can take to help your clear coat do its job of protecting the paint from the weather, harmful chemicals, and the sun’s harsh rays. 

Get it? Great. Now, on to the next part.


I know I don’t have to say this for everyone, but don’t consume the wax or cleaning chemicals. Some of them can smell good — delicious even, I know — but it’s not a great idea. 

Everything You’ll Need To Wax Your Car:

Waxing your car can get messy, and you could potentially do more damage to your paint in the waxing process. I know this because I’ve done this. Learn from my mistakes. Here’s what you’ll need to do and avoid in order to have this process go smoothly: 

  • Clothing without exposed zippers or hard materials. Sweat suits are welcome here. Beware of the buttons on your jacket sleeves
  • Soft microfibers. Preferably without edges to avoid scratches
  • Seems like a no brainer, but take off any jewelry 
  • Step ladder (optional)
  • Disposable gloves (optional)
  • Comfortable weather, unless you have a garage
  • Garage (optional, depending on weather)


Organizing the necessities here is crucial for saving time, and going through the process properly. Put your microfibers in a bag or clean container separate from everything else and never allow them to touch the ground. If they happen to fall or touch a dirty surface, get a new one. Microfibers are able to pick up on dust and debris that you can’t always see. You especially don’t want this to touch a car that you just stripped of all its protectants. 

Wax on, wax off. , Depositphotos

Here’s How To Wax a Car

Here are the steps to wax your car. 

  1. Clean your car. This article assumes you’ve followed our guides on how to wash your car properly, and how to clay bar a car. Maybe even polish, if needed. You’ve followed those, right? If not, go check those out and come right back. I’ll be waiting. 
  2. Dry your car properly.
  3. Mask off any areas with tape that you want to avoid applying wax. 
  4. Heat up your wax if you have a harder compound. You can do this by leaving it in the sun while you prepare.
  5. Apply some wax to your applicator pad. How much you add is at your discretion. Adding too little will cause you to repeat the process more often. Adding too much can make removing it very time consuming. Take the pad and go against the body lines in up and down strokes. Once finished, do a followup pass going with the body lines. Left and right strokes. Work one panel at a time. 
  6. Remove the wax. Go back to the panel you started with. Begin the removal process. Start going against the body lines, then flip your towel and do a follow up pass following the body lines. 
  7. Check your work. Get low. Stand up high. Get close. Check from different angles to make sure you missed nothing. If you own a white car, you’ll want to do this twice. Or even three times. 
  8. Double check your work. Take the instant detailer (or a spray bottle filled with water) that we talked about and hold parallel about 10 inches above the hood of your car. Spray it a few times. Don’t soak the hood. Now, take a closer look at the paint. Can you see streaks of wax that you couldn’t before? If so, that means you’ve still got some work to do. Repeat this process until the car is free of wax. 
  9. Post a closeup to Instagram and pat yourself on the back. You did it, grasshopper. Well done! 

Tips and Tricks

As with anything you’ve done for years, you pick up tips and tricks along the way. I sure as heck did, so here they are. 

  • The finger test. You wax needs some time to set in. This varies per brand of wax and how much wax you’ve applied to the car. If it’s your first time, you’ve likely applied too much. So, let it set. Go work on some other panels and come back to where you started.. The easiest way to know if your wax is ready to be removed, is to take your clean and dry finger, and wipe a section of the paint in a line. If the wax is greasy or sticky, it still needs time. If the line you left is smooth, and your finger has a slight chalky feeling, the wax is ready to be removed. 
  • Avoid any vinyl stripes or clear bras. Waxing those can cause streaks and leave build up on the portions where the vinyl meets the paint. It looks bad.
  • Avoid circular motions. If your cloth has any debris in it, going in circular motions can create swirls. Which are highly noticeable. Plus it makes you look like a rookie. 
  • Don’t wax your car in direct and harsh sunlight. The heat can bake the wax into your paint, making it much harder to remove. 
  • Don’t forget to flip your towels every so often.
  • Always use fresh or new pads. Pads can be machine washed.


Waxing your car is an art form. It’s personal. And it’s key that you learn your own process and technique. Since you now know the basics, we chose this video to show you one of the many different ways that wax can be applied to a car. 

FAQs on Car Wax

You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers. 

Q: How long does a car wax last? 

A: It all depends on the variables. How well you treated the paint and how well you took care of it after will determine the life of the wax layer on your vehicle. Washing the car with harsh chemicals can strip a wax fairly quickly. So, pay attention to how you treat your ride after the wax. Lastly, factors such as environment and the car’s storage location also play a big role. This ties into the next question.

Q: How often should I wax my car? 

A: Generally, once you’ve determined that the wax you’ve applied has reached its end, you should look into adding more as soon as possible. You can’t over wax a car, but consistently waxing increases the chances of streaks and swirls (hence my warning about circular motions) in your paint. If you own a red car, consider waxing more often. Red paint tends to fade quicker than others. A shame, really. 

Q: Why can’t I use a buffer machine? 

A: You can. It’s a matter of preference. In my seven years of detailing, I’ve always preferred to apply a wax by hand. Although time consuming, It’s much more satisfying in the end. That’s why we do this, right? Plus, I can be a bit more careful to avoid delicate areas that don’t need wax. It’s all about the magic touch.

Q: Does wax attract dust? 

A: Yes, and this is especially apparent on cars with darker paint. Cars with fresh wax have a buildup of static electricity. However, once you’ve washed and dried the car for the first time after, this issue goes away. The type of wax and the amount you applied also determine how dusty the paint will get. Small price to pay for having that special shine.

Q: How long do I have to wait to wash my car after waxing? 

A: The next day is fine, but there’s really no rush. If it’s a bit dusty, consider using some instant detailer in the meantime. Wash it when it really needs it. 

Q: Does temperature affect the wax or the process? 

A: Yes. Avoid waxing in hot or cold temperatures. Avoid bright sunlight as well. You want to wax in comfortable temperatures where your paint isn’t too hot or cold. These conditions will make your job much harder and can also ruin the finish of the wax. Find some shade to park under on a nice day and have yourself some automotive therapy. 

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