The exterior detail – washing


Before you can begin a proper detailing of a car exterior, you must start with a good wash, and I don’t mean just run it through the wash at the local gas station, or even a “better” wash at a dedicated car wash franchise.

The Two Bucket Wash

The gold standard is something known in the detail world as a two bucket wash. This is pretty important, as it is crucial to clean without just rubbing the dirt particles into your paint and finish.

grit guardA two bucket wash is pretty simple, although, when I started, I heard the phrase, but it didn’t click at first. You need two buckets (I use standard 5 gallon buckets I bought at Home Depot), two “grit guards“, and washing detergent. Also, while you can use a soft terry cloth towel to lather and suds your car, I recommend a washing mitt or pad.

Since we are going to clay and polish the paint in the next step, for this wash we will do something I would never recommend, and use Dawn dish detergent as our soap. Normally I would recommend a good car specific detergent. I like Meguiars Gold Class. It comes in a 3 quart bottle, and one bottle lasts many years. However, we are going to use Dawn, as it is really aggressive at stripping any existing wax that is still on the surface. This helps with the claying and polishing, by having a very clean surface to start with.

dawnIt is best to wash the car in a shaded area, or before the sun is high, to keep the surface cool. You do not want it to dry too quickly, leaving soap residue on the car. This can be tricky if you are in Arizona and it is the summer. I used to wash before 7:00AM in the summer time.

To get started with the two bucket wash, you put about a gallon and a half of water in one bucket with a grit guard. Do not put detergent in this, as it will be your “rinse” bucket.

In the second bucket, with the grit guard, put roughly 1 oz of detergent per gallon. Since Stewie is a small car without a lot of surface area, 2 gallons is more than enough for a good cleaning. (Use a little less Dawn for this though, as it is a super surfactant). My wife’s Rav 4 requires about 3 gallons, and if we had a full sized SUV, get that bucket pretty full.

3 buckets> My trick is I actually do a 3 bucket wash. 2 for the exterior of the car, and one dedicated to the wheels and tires. I wash and rinse the wheels before I start with the rest of the car, that way I can avoid getting brake dust and tire grime in my main wash. As usual, YMMV.

Before you touch the car with the soapy water and the wash mitt, you should thoroughly rinse it off. With a modest stream, rinse from the top to the bottom. Try to get all the loose dirt and grime off. If there are bird droppings or other big things, use your hands under the flowing water to break them up. This will make your later job easier.

With the freshly rinsed car (and hopefully clean wheels) you can begin the real washing. Take your mitt and wet or rinse it in the rinse bucket. Remove and wring (a quick wring, no need to get extreme here), and then dunk it in the soapy bucket. Shake off the excess and begin washing your car.

Pro tip: Start from the top and work down, and from the back and work forward. This keeps the grime moving to “dirtier” areas and reduces your risk of getting an already clean area dirty again.

After doing a small section of the car, before you are dragging dirt and potentially scratching the finish, you should then rinse the mitt, wring, soap up, and continue the washing. The proper process is:

  • Rinse the mitt in the “rinse” bucket to get the dirt and grime out
  • Wring the mitt over the rinse bucket.
  • Dip the mitt in the “Suds” bucket
  • Shake the excess water out
  • Clean another part of the car
  • Repeat until finished

There is some controversy about when to rinse the soapy film off. Some people do it after each “big” section of the car. Some wait until the end. I think on large vehicles with a lot of surface area, you should probably rinse at intermediate stages during the wash to prevent the soapy film from drying on the car. On Stewie? I wait until the end.

That is the essentials of a 2 bucket wash.

Drying after the wash

There are a few ways to accomplish this, but my preference is to use a California Magic Blade squeegee to get most of the water off. This is a hand held, silicone rubber squeegee that is pretty easy to use. It can get about 80% of the water off the car, greatly reducing the effort to properly dry. Be sure to dip it in the soapy water and then rinse off first to get any dust or dirt off.

After that, you can use a fluffy 100% cotton terrycloth towel (I bought these solely for use on the car), or a Chamois (natural or synthetic) to dry the surface.

Lastly, I use a nasty towel (not as nasty as I use to dry my dogs after a bath, but one I wouldn’t use in the bathroom) to clean the door edges, the underside of the hood, the gas filler door, and the trunk. The idea is to wipe off any dirt and grime as well as remove any water hidden in nooks and crannies.

At this time, you should have a nice, clean paint surface to begin your magic on.


This regimen is a good regular cleaning process that will help keep your car’s finish in good condition for a long time. If you do this every two weeks, and apply a coat of wax every 2-3 months you can keep the finish in great condition for the long term.

I am neglecting the windows, and treating the tires and all rubber/plastic surfaces at this time. I will discuss them in a later post.

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By geoffand


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