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Car Care Paint and Finish

Spring is in the air and as old man winter yields to warmer weather and longer days, it's a good time for some much needed attention to your vehicle's paint and finish. As the temperature rises, people all over the Northwoods will break out the soap and sponge and scrub away at their car or truck's finish - washing, polishing, waxing, buffing. While it's great to be enthusiastic about taking care of your vehicle's paint, it pays to take your time and use the proper product and techniques for your vehicle's finish. There is more to caring for your vehicle's paint job and trim than a squirt of dish soap in a bucket of water and an old t-shirt rag - this article covers some basic information that will help you choose the proper product for your car or truck's paint along with techniques and tips to help you get the most out of your vehicle's finish. The ideas here can be used for caring for more than just cars and trucks, too!

The Basics

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's make sure we understand just how important taking care of your car's paint is. From the moment your car left the factory brand new, it's finish has been under attack - broiled by sun, eaten by road salt, baked by high temperature, scoured by blowing dirt - it's a wonder that the paint is even still there!! To keep your vehicle looking it's best, you need to give your finish a fighting chance by keeping it clean and well-fed.

A simple washing helps remove environmental pollutants that build up on your paint and washes away corrosive road salts that can do more harm than just ruining your finish. Bird droppings, tree sap and bug leftovers each do their part to destroy your vehicle's finish so it makes sense to wash them off as often as you can.

Applying a good wax helps protect the underlying finish and acts as a "disposable" shield that will take the brunt of the daily assault. Ozone rays from the sun and bug guts can have their fun eating away at the wax finish while the paint and clearcoat below are safe from harm (more or less). Keep your vehicle waxed and you can keep your finish safe and shiny for years!

Additionally, treating your finish for specific problems - minor scratches, spider webbing, swirl marks, overdrying, water spots - will not only enhance the look of your car or truck but helps your finish stay new-looking for a longer period of time. Using the proper product is very important and polishes, glazes, sealers and compounds each have their own application and uses. Read the label and follow directions to make sure that you don't end up doing more harm than good.

Alright, can you see why it's a good idea to take care of your finish? Add the potential resale value of a great-looking finish compared to a dull, lifeless one and you'll probably be ready to shut off your computer and start washing and waxing right now!! But wait - before you rush off, let's cover some more good information. Then you'll be all set to make your car or truck look brand-new (or even better)!

Getting Started

Washing your vehicle isn't hard and should be the first step in taking care of your finish. Regular washing will remove the gunk that builds up every day - get in the habit of washing your car and you'll lessen the damaging effect of dirt and filth and have a clean car to boot! By the way, when we talk about washing your vehicle, we're talking about a good old-fashioned, hands-on swabbing. Running through the car wash when you fill your gas tank can help keep your finish from getting too covered in grime but it's not nearly as thorough as your finish demands. Plus, some water can be recycled from the prior washes and can contain abrasives that will actually scratch your paint! Spending the time washing your vehicle by hand will yield the best results.

You don't need much to wash your vehicle - a bucket, a sponge or pad, water, soap and drying towels. A plastic bucket is recommended since metal can chip paint. Feel free to use a sponge, pad or wash mitt - the key is to rinse whatever you use frequently to flush out all the grit and dirt that is removed from washing. Warm water is best and soap specially-formulated for car washes dissolve dirt while not removing your vehicle's wax finish. Towels made for drying your vehicle are available though you can use all-cotton bath and hand towels that you may have around home already. Surprisingly, many towels that claim to be 100% cotton really aren't and have synthetic fibers that can act like little needles and scratch your finish even as you're drying the rinse water! Test any towels on an inconspicuous area of your car before rubbing them all over your vehicle - you'll be glad you did if your towels aren't telling the truth.

Washing and waxing should never be done in direct sunlight and your vehicle's finish should be cool enough to touch. Park in the shade of a building in the earlier morning or later afternoon or wait until overcast weather to wash and wax. When you're ready to wash, use the right amount of soap in water (more is not better) and start washing from the top of the vehicle. Don't soap up the whole car or truck and then rinse, instead wash and rinse small areas of the vehicle until you've washed all of it. This method allows you to spend the time you need to really get the dirt and grime off without worrying about the soap drying on the finish.

Once you've washed and rinsed well, start drying. Again, start at the top and work your way down blotting the water as you go. Change to a dry towel as often as you need. Another method of drying is to use a chamois which comes in either natural or synthetic material. The choice is yours - we just recommend that you don't drive your car to dry it. Adding new dirt to a wet car means that you're drying a layer of mud over your finish - probably not what you had in mind.

Fix Any Problems (or prevent them)

Now that your vehicle is clean, inspect the finish and look for signs of scratches, imperfections and oxidation of your paint. Run your hand over the finish. Do you feel bumps and scratchies? Can you see cracks and swirls? Taking the time to address problems with your finish before they get out of hand goes a long way in keeping your vehicle looking it's finest.

There are a dizzying variety of products for protecting and "fixing" your finish - knowing the right one for the job will give you better results. Let's look at a few of the products that you'll run into at the auto parts store and see what the differences are…


A cleaner is designed to remove wax and contaminants from your finish and come in either chemical or friction formulas. Chemical cleaners do a good job of removing bug remains and road tar while friction cleaners will knock down the high areas of the finish to leave a smoother, more shiny surface behind.


Polishes are good for covering swirl marks and usually use a filler to load up the valleys of a swirl mark rather than an abrasive to knock down the peaks. Polishes may have chemical cleaners added.


Usually a very fine friction-based cleaner, glazes are good for removing swirl marks and scratches. Often, glazes will be combined with emollients and oils that help refresh and restore your vehicle's paint.


     Compounds are the coarsest of cleaners and should be used with care. Useful for seriously neglected finishes, compounds are too much like sandpaper for regular use and should be used as a last-ditch effort before electing to refinish your vehicle.

Tar and Bug Remover:

Sometimes the only thing that will get off the tough stuff, tar and bug removers are generally either citrus or petroleum-based. Citrus products seem to be a bit easier on the finish and some kerosene-based tar removers can potentially damage a finish over repeated uses.

As you can see, knowing which product to buy and put on your vehicle can make a big difference in the results you'll end up with!

Protect Your Hard Work

Your clean vehicle has been treated, buffed and shined - now it's time to put on a protective layer that will help your care and attention last for months to come. Waxing your vehicle will cover the finish with a hard, clear coating that will keep the elements and dirt away from your paint. Waxes are blends of wax (the best is carnauba), emollients, glossifiers and polymers and protect your vehicle's finish while offering a high-gloss shine.

Again, don't wax your vehicle in direct sunlight or when the finish temperature is too hot and wax small sections of the vehicle at a time until you've covered the entire finish. Apply the wax with an applicator pad or a soft, 100% cotton cloth. Whether you use a liquid or a paste wax, don't apply it directly to the finish. Put a small amount on the cloth or pad and work it into the surface of the finish being careful to avoid using circular motions. Try to always wax your vehicle in the same direction that air passes over it (front to back/back to front) - this will avoid leaving minor scratches that are more easily seen from an angle should a piece of grit end up under your pad or cloth. Work the wax into the finish and buff out to a high-gloss and continue until your entire vehicle is looking great!

Congratulations! The time you just spent on washing, treating and waxing your vehicle's finish will be time well-spent when you see just how good your car, truck or boat looks! The key to keeping your vehicle looking good is take the time - wash your vehicle often, wax regularly and repair any minor imperfections that crop up along the way!

J. Ramsey 2001

Pedestrians & Bicyclists | Oh, Deer | Teen Driving| Car Care | Buckle Up America
10 Safe Driving Tips | Driving Your Way Through A Wisconsin Winter

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