- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2001

With winter's slop behind, many of us are itching to clean our cars and trucks of all that accumulated road grime, salt residue and other crud.

However, for so many owners, the results of that first thorough spring cleaning are sorely disappointing. Though it's clean, the paint just doesn't glisten the way we remember. Here are some key steps to doing the best job.

Starting with the basics, wash the vehicle out of the sun and away from a sap- or bird-filled tree. Drown the paint with lots of water before even putting a sponge or rag to the paint. This dousing will float the grit off so you don't scratch the paint. And frequently dip that sponge or rag in a bucket of warm water and commercial carwash solution, not laundry or dishwashing detergent. Don't skimp with the soap and water, and change the solution in the bucket as it gets dirty. Start on the roof and work your way down, washing one body section at a time. Rinse each section as you work.

Use special products not elbow grease to remove blotches of bird droppings, road tar, etc. After the stain's been removed, wash and rinse the area. When you get to the wheels and tires, use a strong stream from the hose to flush each, getting up into the wheel well and under the fender. Then wash each wheel and tire using lots of your soapy water. For best results on alloy wheels, use a special commercial wheel cleaner.

After the entire car is washed, dry the body to prevent spotting. You'll get the best results using a chamois or an old terry cloth towel. While you're drying the body, keep an eye out for small nicks and scratches in the paint. Don't worry about faint scratches and very tiny nicks they'll be taken care of by the polish. Damage that's more severe needs to be tackled before you polish. As you dry the clean body, you may also notice that the paint looks hazy. That's because the surface has oxidized. The oxidation is easily removed. However, it must be removed in the appropriate way for your car's paint finish.

So-called "clearcoat" finishes actually have a top layer of clear paint over the pigmented paint. To remove the oxidized layer from the surface, you need a polish that's clearly labeled as appropriate for clearcoats. If you're not sure if your polish is safe, don't use it, or you may end up leaving the finish even duller than when you started. Non-clearcoat finishes have pigmented paint right up to the surface, and the polishes for these types of finishes actually contain very fine abrasives that remove the topmost layer of paint. That's why the polishing cloth will gradually become the color of the paint.

If you find no damage to the finish, go ahead and polish. But should there be some nicks that need tending, do that first.

If the damage goes all the way to the bare metal, some rust might already be forming on the exposed metal. Remove it with a neutralizer, available at an auto-parts store. Or, if you'd rather, use some very fine sandpaper to carefully sand the bare metal shiny. You might also have to sand down some of the paint around the damage to make a gradual transition from bare metal to painted surface. This procedure will result in a less-obvious repair. Then put a dab of primer on the damaged spot to prevent rust. Check the primer's directions and let it dry fully before continuing.

Next, use body color paint, available at the auto-parts store or from your dealer. If you opt for liquid, use a very small brush and several light coats rather than one thick one. If you opt for an aerosol, spray the damaged spot through a piece of cardboard with a small hole in it to avoid letting the paint get on the surrounding area. If your car has a clearcoat finish, the procedure is quite similar, except that you finish up by applying clear paint after the pigmented paint has dried.

Once any paint has thoroughly cured, go ahead and polish the body. Again, work in the shade doing small sections at a time. For a car-show gleaming shine, use a damp, clean, soft cloth to buff the paint, moving the cloth in one direction not in circles.


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