How to Detail Your SUV, Step 1

Wash Your SUV

A variety of detailing towels for every purpose. Photo © Jason Fogelson

Washing your SUV is the foundational step in detailing. It all starts here.

Seems like washing an SUV ought to be a no-brainer, but there are still some helpful hints that can make the process simpler, faster and more effective.

Dos and Don'ts


  • DO use a detergent that is formulated for washing cars, like Meguiar's Gold Class Car Wash Shampoo and Conditioner, Mother's California Gold Car Wash or Griot's Garage Car Wash.
  • DON'T use dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent or another general purpose household soap. These soaps can contain chemical degreasers that remove wax and protective coatings from your SUV -- and that's a bad thing.
  • DO use a fresh clean wash mitt to wash your car. If your mitt looks dirty or grimy, run it through the washing machine or replace it.
  • DON'T use a dirty, dried-out or crusty wash mitt on your paint. Think about it -- you'll just be introducing a whole new set of contaminants, and causing new scratches and damage.
  • DO wash your car in the shade, or at least get your car into the shade quickly after you've washed it.
  • DON'T wash your car in the hot sun and then let it dry. You'll wind up with water marks and spots that you'll have to work hard to remove later.
  • DO dry your car with soft, lint-free microfiber towels after washing.
  • DON'T use rough cotton or poly-blend towels to dry your car, because you'll create tiny scratches and swirls that will need to polished out later.


The Two Bucket Method

Okay, you've got your clean wash mitts, your car is in the shade, and you're ready to wash. It's time to employ the Two Bucket Method.

Start with two clean wash buckets. I keep a few buckets around specifically for washing my SUV, and I don't use them for anything else. I know that sounds a little obsessive, but I don't want to risk getting any contaminants involved in the washing process. If I use the buckets for gardening, or hauling out trash, I might get some sand or fertilizer or whatever in my bucket, and it might not be so easy to rinse out. Then, when I wash my SUV, I could be inadvertently scratching or contaminating my surfaces. I find it easier to keep the car wash buckets on their own.

I label one bucket "WASH," and the other "RINSE." I pour the suggested amount of car wash into the WASH bucket, and then fill both buckets with water. I rinse the car with my garden hose -- no high pressure attachment needed, just a good spray -- and then dip my wash mitt into the WASH bucket. Starting with the roof of the car, I use the mitt to help loosen and gently scrub away surface dirt. Every few minutes, I take the mitt to the RINSE bucket, rinse the dirt off of the mitt by dunking, stirring and shaking off the mitt. Then, I return the mitt to the WASH bucket, pick up some more soapy water, and wash the car some more. Repeat until the car is clean all over. If the rinse bucket gets too dirty, dump it out, rinse out the dirt with the hose, and refill with clean water.

This method is designed so that you won't move contaminants from the car to the WASH bucket, then put them right back on the car with your wash mitt.

Wash mitts are inexpensive, so don't try to keep one as a family heirloom. Wash your mitt in the washing machine, but if it doesn't come clean, or starts to feel or look ratty, throw it away and get a new one.

Wheels and Tires

This is also a good time to wash and clean your wheels and tires. You may need a specialty wheel cleaner, if your wheels are particularly dirty or coated with brake dust.

There are three basic kinds of wheel cleaners. The most aggressive is Chrome Wheel cleaner, which is designed for -- you guessed it -- chromed wheels. In the middle is general purpose cleaner. This is for painted alloy wheels and forged wheels. The gentlest cleaner is aluminum wheel cleaner. Aluminum is a very soft metal, and you can ruin aluminum wheels by cleaning them with chrome wheel cleaner, so don't do it. If you're not sure what kind of wheels you have, check your owners manual or call your SUV's manufacturer. Use the gentlest cleaner that will get the job done.

Time to Dry Out

After washing, I quickly move my SUV into the shade, if it wasn't there already.

I like to use a water blade, like the California Jelly Blade from California Car Covers, to swipe excess water off of the SUV quickly. This high-tech squeegy has to be kept extremely clean and well-trimmed to make sure that it doesn't damage any surfaces, but when it works, it works beautifully. After the Jelly Blade, I wipe the SUV down with a thick microfiber drying towel. If I'm close enough to my compressor and I'm feeling ambitious, I use high-pressure air to blow water out of creases and gaps where a towel won't fit. This works really well, and is quite fun to do. It's almost worth buying a compressor for. The better you do the drying step, the better all of the next steps with product will work. There's nothing worse than an errant drip of water escaping from a side mirror and dribbling across a freshly waxed door, so dry carefully and thoroughly.

Now that your SUV has been washed and dried, it's time to decide if it needs cleaning. What's the difference between "wash" and "clean"? Read the next article to find out.

Next: Clean Your SUV.