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How to Care for Your Car's Exterior

Updated on June 22, 2014

Necessary Supplies and Equipment

  • Orbital buffing wheel
  • Wash mit
  • Microfiber towels
  • Chamois (Pronounced like "shammy")
  • Buffing compound
  • Car wash soap (not dish soap)
  • polishing wax

2006 Monte Carlo SS
2006 Monte Carlo SS | Source
2010 Camaro RS
2010 Camaro RS | Source

It doesn't matter if you drive a Corvette or a Camry. Most people want to make their ride look top notch. The problem is, most people don't know how to. Some know how to wax, but they don't know what to look for. Very few people know how to polish or buff, outside of car detailers. The thing is, waxing, buffing, and polishing your ride is what gives it that new-car gleam!

Before you start, it's important to understand what makes your car look the way it does. Your car is most likely painted with two types of paint, the base coat and the clear coat. When you see fine scratches in your paint, you are seeing scratches in the clear coat. These are fixable. Scratches that you can feel on the car, are most likely through the clear and into the base coat. These can be fixed, but it's not something someone with little experience should undertake on there own. Older vehicles do not have a clear coat, If you have a vehicle this old and it hasn't been waxed consistently, your paint is probably faded and very rough. This can, theoretically, be fixed but it will take someone with the equipment and knowledge to do so.

First step: Washing

The first thing you need to do, no matter what you plan on doing, is washing your car thoroughly. Any dirt, tar, insect matter, or other road grime can potentially create scratches in your car's finish. Using a soap made for washing cars is essential in this step. Do not use dish soap! Dish soap is a food grade degreaser, while it is not as strong as commercial grade, it will strip your car's finish down to the clear coat. If you don't wax your ride, you are leaving your car's finish susceptible to the elements, and decreasing the longevity of your car's finish. When your car's paint is being weathered without wax, you make it easier for scratches to form. If they were to get through the clear and base coat, you are very likely to start seeing rust, especially in northern states.

Using a wash mit that is made for automotive use will decrease the chances of you scratching the car while scrubbing. Don't use your wash mit on the wheels and tires. Your mit will pick up unnecessary dirt and debris that will be pressed against your car's finish and create more scratches. Once you're done, rinse the car off. If you can, use spot free water, this is made through either ionization or reverse osmosis. If you don't have access to this, don't worry, drying with a chamois (pronounced shammy) is an excellent way to dry your vehicle and avoid ugly water spots. If you are going to wax, you will need to dry the vehicle thoroughly anyway.

Second step: Using the clay bar

Now, I realize that most of you reading this might not know what a clay bar is when used in the context of car care. You can purchase these online, in automotive stores, and at some retail stores. They are used after washing your vehicle to remove what washing your car doesn't. For this you'll need your automotive clay bar, clay lubricant, and at least one microfiber towel. From this step on, use only microfiber towels to remove anything from the vehicle. This is because microfiber towels are designed to pull debris into the cloth and away from the surface, preventing scratches from use.

First, you'll want to mold the clay into a disk. Spray your lubricant onto the clay and onto the surface of the vehicle. Use little or no pressure, or you may inadvertently mar the surface. You will hear and feel the impurities that your clay bar is picking up. You'll want to keep going over the surface until you don't feel any more debris. At this point, the clay bar will move with extreme ease. Use your microfiber towel to remove lubricant from the car's surface. Your clay bar can be used on fiberglass, glass, and metal surfaces. It is important to note that your glass does pick up the same debris the rest of the car does and glass cleaner removes very little in comparison. Once you've clayed the whole car, your ready for the next step.

Third step: Buffing

Now, some people are skeptical of using a buffing wheel. If you don't feel comfortable with them, don't use them. Variable speed buffers make it much easier to prevent unwanted burns or swirls but they can still happen. The more practical way for most people to buff is with what is called an orbital buffer. These use two separate but simultaneous motions to apply buffing compound. There is a multitude of different buffing compounds out there from many different companies. Using compounds with heavy grit are only for cars with no clear coat. Clear coated vehicles will be instantly marred by anything not intended for use on them. Check the labels of what your buying, they will tell you if they are safe for clear coats. Once you've picked out an appropriate buffing compound, you can apply a dollop onto the surface of your vehicle. Using the orbital wheel, spread the compound a little, then turn it on and begin going in straight lines with it over the cars surface. Running the cord for the orbital over your shoulder will prevent the cord from rubbing the paint as you polish. Going in back in forth motions slowly will be adequate. You don't need to put a lot of pressure on the buffer, but if you have some minor scratches, you can push a little harder to help remove the scratch. The beauty of an orbital buffer is that they are all but dummy proof. It takes a decent amount of negligence to damage the clear coat with an orbital buffer. After you've gone over the area you are working on, use a different microfiber towel to remove the rubbing compound. It may behoove you to have two towels designated for this, one to take off the bulk of the residue, another to finish it off.

Using your buffing wheel on glass is okay, so long as you don't allow it to bounce on the glass. The buffer wheel will do the same thing to your glass that it does to the car, coat and remove abrasions in the surface of the glass. It is important to note that you make sure your buffing compound is okay to use on glass, too. Some are and some aren't. After you've buffed the entire car, you can move onto the final step

NOTE: buffing compounds and waxes should not be applied or allowed to be applied to rubber or black plastic trim. They will discolor the trims and it's incredibly hard, if not impossible to remove the milky coloring that it's caused.

Final step: Polishing

The final step of the process is polishing. Not all waxes are created equally. Many waxes you see on the shelf are considered polishing waxes. These can be used in the same fashion as with the buffing wheel, or applied manually with a microfiber applicator. If you apply manually, use short, circular motions to apply to the surface of the car. Again, use microfiber towels to remove residue. The same concept of using one for the bulk and a second for the finishing is preferred. Now, I haven't endorsed any products thus far because of the wide array of products and the subtle differences between each. However, I highly recommend using Turtle Wax's ICE polish. It is safe for every conceivable surface on your vehicle, even the black trim that normal waxes and buffing compounds can give a milky color too. Once you have finished removing the polishing wax, you have completed a very thorough cleaning of your vehicle.

These steps pertain to the car's painted surfaces, using degreaser or tire cleaner, you can use a foam applicator to cleanse the rubber of the tires of dirt and break dust. A wheel cleaner can be used to clean the rims of the vehicle. Knowing what your wheels are made of is important here. Some cleaners will say, "Not for ferrous metals". This means that the can not be used on steel surfaces or wheels. They can be used on chrome and aluminum. However, many cleaners are for use on all types of wheels

Going through these four steps may be tedious, but the reward is worthwhile. Not to mention that waxing and polishing bolsters the longevity of your car's finish and prevents rust from forming on the surface of your vehicle. This equates to higher resale values down the road, and more heads turned on the highway. Happy Buffing!

2010 Camaro 2SS
2010 Camaro 2SS | Source
Turtle Wax T-465 ICE Paste Polish - 8 oz.
Turtle Wax T-465 ICE Paste Polish - 8 oz.

Perfect shine, every time. Won't harm plastics like other finish waxes, and lasts a long time. This is what I use on my cars.

Meguiar's G1016 Smooth Surface Clay Kit
Meguiar's G1016 Smooth Surface Clay Kit

Great kit for beginners and professionals alike.



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    • marcJ profile image

      marcJ 5 years ago from Mid-MO

      Can you see bare metal? If so, it's all the way through the clear and base coats and no buffing will help. If you wanted it fixed, I'd say buy a used hood and have it painted, since your dents are heavy too.

    • jdelias profile image

      jdelias 5 years ago

      Great hub! What would you recommend I do to fix the hood on my '01 Plymouth Neon? It's as if the previous owner drove it under a very strong metal fence and then threw a brick at it! The scratches look really deep, and the dent looks virtually unfixable. Should I just purchase a new hood?