Wax On, Wax Off

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

August 23, 2011 5 min read

Keeping your car shiny is a cinch when you wax it on a regular basis, experts say -- but only if you use the right products and techniques to do the job. Not all waxes are created equal.

The best and most expensive car waxes contain a heavy concentration of high-grade carnauba, a wax culled from the leaves of a palm found only in Brazil. Mixed with softeners for ease of application, these super-premium waxes provide the deepest and longest-lasting shine.

"No matter if you use your car daily in the worst imaginable weather or you have a pampered show car that's rarely exposed to the elements, always buy the best quality wax you can afford," says Tim Miller, founder and owner of Surf City Garage. Surf City is a fast-growing, worldwide manufacturer and distributor of waxes and detailing products that Miller originally formulated for use on his personal collection of more than 120 vintage muscle cars.

If you use a top-quality wax with high concentrations of premium carnauba, he says, you will need to wax your car only three to four times a year. "But if you use a cheaper, consumer-grade wax," he says, "you'll need a lot more wax a lot more often. All things being equal, the harsher the weather, the more you drive, and the less you garage your car, the more often you should wax."

There are three basic forms of car wax on the market: spray, liquid, and paste.

"The performance attributes of each product can vary greatly," explains Mike Schultz, senior vice president of product research and development for Turtle Wax. "Most retail-finish care products are designed to clean, shine and protect. However, formulation design can focus on specific attributes or on one particular attribute feature."

Turtle Wax, for example, has developed Black Box, a liquid wax, wax pre-cleaner and black detail spray specifically designed for black automotive paint.

"Black car finishes have grown in popularity over the last five years," Schultz says, "and these finishes are harder to maintain than lighter or more colorful paint finishes."

Prepping your vehicle for that wax job is as important as when and how you apply the final product. Hand-washing your car first, whether in the driveway, garage or washing station, is preferred to an automatic car wash -- even if it's billed as "touchless," say automotive gurus like Lauren Fix, Time Warner Cable's national automotive correspondent and author of three how-to car books.

"Rollers, brushes and rags have to touch it or it won't get clean," Fix says. "These types of car washes are great for removing salt and bugs and grime buildup that occurs during everyday driving. If you've been using this cleaning method a lot, take a close look at your paint. Do you see little scratches and swirls? This is the result of the quick-shortcut method."

If you don't have a driveway or safe place to wash your car, a self-service washing station is a great option.

"Some people prefer this method to cleaning at home -- there is less clean up," Fix says. She adds that you shouldn't use dish soap to wash your car, because "it will take off all the wax and dull your paint." And never let water droplets dry on the vehicle's surface. Minerals and other solid residue in most tap water can make paint surfaces rough to the touch -- even after waxing.

Fix offers these tips when applying wax:

--Seek shade and good temperature. Never wax your car in the sun. Most wax products work best at temperatures above 50 degrees.

--Think small. Do small areas at a time, starting from the top of the vehicle.

--Use the right applicator. The special applicator provided with the wax, a soft rag or old clean cloth diaper work best. Apply the wax in small circles.

--Wait for the haze. When the wax hazes over, rotate or turn the rag as often as you remove the wax.

--Wax on, wax off. Don't use the same applicator to apply and then remove the wax. And don't let the wax dry too long, or it will become harder to remove.

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