How To Properly Wax Your Car

A proper wax process can help restore your car’s exterior and protect it from elements like bird droppings and road grime, UV damage, and fading. Learn how to wax a car by yourself to save money and enjoy a quality DIY maintenance routine. Compare wax products and follow this step-by-step guide to care for your car.

What’s the Difference Between Wax?

The primary ingredient in quality car wax products is carnauba, synthetic polymer, or ceramic wax, but carnauba wax is likely the most well known as it as been used for decades. This product comes from Brazilian palm leaves and is a durable, natural product. Most waxes also include synthetic polymers and other waxes to vary the glossy finish, ease of application, and longevity of the product.

Compare brands and styles of wax to be sure you have the best option for your driving habits and vehicle. Wax and finish products vary and can be slightly confusing, so here’s some of the most popular and what they perform:

  • Rubbing Compound: The most aggressive compound and used for heavily scratched, swirled or hazy vehicles. When wet sanding a freshly painted vehicle or doing major corrections in the finish, rubbing compound is the first step after fine wet sanding. Recommended to be applied by a machine, and then followed up with polishing compound.
  • Polishing Compound: A finer cut than rubbing compound, polishing compounds can be used after clay bar if the vehicle has corrections in the finish like swirl marks and very light scratches or haze to polish out. Again, best recommended to be used with a machine.
  • Cleaner Wax: Cleaner wax is a bit of a tweener between polishing compound and a wax. While it doesn’t cut into the finish as much, if can be used to remove very fine swirls and also provides a wax protectant layer too.
  • Traditional Wax: Used either as a paste, spray, or liquid, traditional wax is applied, left to dry, and wiped off. Wax paste is the hardest type of automotive wax. This provides a long-lasting finish preferred by many auto enthusiasts, but is also more difficult and time-consuming to apply. Spray wax is the easiest to apply, but may not offer the same long-lasting results of paste. Finally, liquid wax is a middle-ground option that doesn’t require as much effort as paste but still offers more longevity than spray.
  • Ceramic Coatings: Ceramic spray coatings are all the rage right now as multiple offerings have hit the market by storm. These coatings are a synthetic-based sealer. A spray-on, wipe off sealer than can go directly over a nice glossy shine, and help to protect the finish even more. With ceramic coatings, dirt and mud can be hosed off without barely applying soap, and water is shed from the vehicle quickly, eliminating spots. To use, spray on and wipe off with a dry microfiber or buffing towel. The coating must then cure, which takes 8-12 hours, so do not wash or re-wet after application.

How to Wax a Car by hand

1. Gather Supplies and Find the Ideal Workspace

As described in our 6-steps for washing your car article, you should always pick a shaded area to properly wash your car. For waxing and finishing, you’ll want to move your car into the garage or covered space that is completely clear of the sun. It’s best not to wax your car in direct sun. Here are the basic materials you need to wax your vehicle:

2. Wash the Vehicle

Because wax is used to seal the surface of your vehicle, it’s important to thoroughly clean its surface before you start the process. Use an car wash and microfiber cloth or other preferred cleaning steps to remove dirt, oils, and insect parts from the surface of your car body. Look at your car’s paint closely to ensure that deeply clean to remove any sticky substances like tar and pitch. Bug and tar remover will clean these surfaces and get them ready for wax.

3. Check for Imperfections – Clay Bar

Having a paint surface completely clear of contaminants is vitally important. Once your car is clean a dry, gently slide your fingers across one of the body panels. You will feel small, tiny bumps in the paint that feel almost like sand grains. If you feel these, a clay bar treatment is the next course of action. The clay bar works by spraying on the clay “lubricant” and using a wiping motion with the clay to scrub the paint. This removes any contaminants, as you then wipe the remaining lubricant off with a microfiber towel. The result is a perfectly smooth finish, ready to apply wax or polish.

4. Wax or Polish by Hand

Once your car is washed and clay-bar’d (if you choose to do so) you can proceed to polishing or waxing. Many folks are confused about the difference between polishing and waxing, as many products appear to do the same thing. A polish has actual cutting compound in it and is made to remove swirl marks, fine scratches and haze by cutting into and creating a new sheen surface. Most polishes do not have wax in them, and are strictly a compound for shining. While you can use a polishing compound by hand, it is extremely difficult and is recommended to always use a machine, such as the Griot’s buffer/polisher to do so.

As far as wax goes, applying by hand has been done for decades and is still a popular method. Apply wax with a clean applicator pad one area at a time and don’t attempt to apply wax to your entire vehicle at one time. Once you’ve sprayed or applied wax to a single area and waited for the wax to dry to a haze, rub it with a damp microfiber or cotton buffing cloth to remove and shine.

Turn the cloth or pad over and buff out the remaining product with the other side. Be sure to use circular motions and to work slowly to ensure every area is covered and excess wax is removed as you work. Once you’re finished, you can expect car wax to last between three and six months, depending on the weather and your driving habits.

5. Or Wax with a Buffer

While waxing by hand is a process that’s been around for decades, using a dual-action polisher like the Griot’s unit is beginning to become commonplace because of it’s ability to speed the job up, and ultimately put the wax and compounds to better use. While polishing or applying wax by hand, even at a quick pace may possibly achieve 240RPM (approx. 4 revolutions per second of the applicator pad), using a machine is achieving 2000-6400RPM. This is especially important when applying polishing compound or cleaner waxes, which need these revolutions to cut into the finish and properly polish.

Be sure to read the owner’s manual on your particular buffer before use. Depending on the size of your vehicle and the contours of its body, you may need to be extra precise to cover every area of its surface. Once you’ve chosen a buffer, understand that there are different types of buffing pads, designed to “cut” into the finish (for polishing) or application pads, for waxing. There are also buffing pads specifically for removing wax.

Apply the wax to the orbital pad before you turn the buffer on, as these tools can be used on both the buffing stage and applying stage. Once wax is thoroughly spread over a single area of your vehicle, turn on the machine and allow it to gently glide and buff the wax. This will save you time and energy on the waxing process.

You also might want to consider getting a power waxer for your car to get that professional wax feel and look. You can read our “How to Power Wax Your Car” article to learn more.

There are hundreds of washing and waxing products out on the market today, so if you’re still not decided on what’s best for your vehicle, come into AutoZone for detailing advice and all the products you’ll need.

Advice, how-to guides, and car care information featured on and AutoZone Advice & How-To’s are presented as helpful resources for general maintenance and automotive repairs from a general perspective only and should be used at your own risk. Information is accurate and true to the best of AutoZone’s knowledge, however, there may be omissions, errors or mistakes.

Be sure to consult your owner’s manual, a repair guide, an AutoZoner at a store near you, or a licensed, professional mechanic for vehicle-specific repair information. Refer to the service manual for specific diagnostic, repair and tool information for your particular vehicle. Always chock your wheels prior to lifting a vehicle. Always disconnect the negative battery cable before servicing an electrical application on the vehicle to protect its electrical circuits in the event that a wire is accidentally pierced or grounded. Use caution when working with automotive batteries. Sulfuric acid is caustic and can burn clothing and skin or cause blindness. Always wear gloves and safety glasses and other personal protection equipment, and work in a well-ventilated area. Should electrolyte get on your body or clothing, neutralize it immediately with a solution of baking soda and water. Do not wear ties or loose clothing when working on your vehicle.

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