Car waxing: Elbow grease yields protective coat

Waxing a car is no frolic. It takes time - an hour or more for a mid-size car - and therefore requires a certain mindset.

"This sounds kind of corny, but it's almost got to be done with a little bit of romanticism," says John Paul, the Car Doctor for the American Automobile Association of Southern New England. "When you put the wax on you want to come away saying, 'Wow, my car looks great. That was worth it.' "

Today's car paint holds up well and resists oxidizing better than paint did 20 years ago, says Mike Pennington, director of training for Meguiar's, a leading maker of car-care products. There's still a problem, though, with airborne pollutants. Acid rain, for example, is no less an aggressor than tree sap or bird droppings, Mr. Pennington says.

When does a car need waxing? A good indicator is when water stops beading on the car's surface.

But beading doesn't necessarily mean the finish is protected, Pennington says. If a towel or chamois slides off the car or doesn't squeak when rubbed against the finish, or the surface just feels smooth, those are good signs, he notes.

Waxing is no panacea if the paint has begun to craze, crack, or check, but even then the wax can help forestall further deterioration. "With a terribly faded car," Pennington says, "putting on a coat of wax is still going to help prevent rust.

"The biggest mistake most people make," he adds, "is they don't get the car clean enough before they start. To get a good end product, you have to do some preparation." Without it, the finish may look cloudy.

The prep work begins with washing the car. Stay away from dishwashing liquids and household cleansers that tend to strip off existing wax. And since hot water softens wax, Larry Reynolds of Car Care Specialties (www.carcareonline. com) recommends cool water with only a little carwashing liquid.

After washing, more cleaning may be required with a tar, grime, and bug remover of some kind, or perhaps with a finely abrasive clay bar sold at auto supply stores that picks up grit.

Once the car is clean and dry, waxing should begin before airborne contaminants collect. Most products should be applied in the shade, or else the wax might bake to the car's surface.

The rule of thumb is to apply the wax when the surface is cool to the touch. In the absence of shade, the job can be tackled early in the morning or when the sun is going down. A garage is ideal.

The array of finishing products can be dizzying. "I think any good, brand-name product will do the job," says David Brownell, editor of Special Interest Autos magazine. Among the better known brands are Meguiar's, Mothers, Turtle Wax, Simoniz, and Zymol.

There are two basic kinds of wax: paste and liquid. Paste was once considered superior, but Pennington says liquid has caught up and now is on a par in terms of durability, at least among Meguiar's products. The advantage with liquid is ease of application.

This tempts some car owners to use too much wax, leading to uneven application and possible streaking or smearing if not buffed uniformly.

It's important to work carefully. Wax is designed for painted surfaces, not plastic or rubber, so keeping wax off moldings and bumpers can save cleanup time.

Waxes are often sold with a foam applicator. A soft cloth will also work, but Reynolds says bare fingers are his choice. This helps to work in just the right amount of wax, and provides tactile feedback about the presence of grit, which can act like sandpaper when rubbed into the finish.

To keep grit out of canned waxes, Reynolds suggests keeping the lid closed as much as possible.

After letting the wax dry to a haze, it's time to buff. Some people prefer high-speed buffers, but they aren't recommended for amateurs, since they can leave swirl marks. Hand-buffing is the tried and true method. A soft, absorbent cloth, such as a cotton terry-cloth towel, flannel sheet, or cotton diaper, works well. The secret is to turn the cloth frequently to expose a clean, section.

Paul, the AAA Car Doctor, likes to wax his car four times a year, "It puts you back in that new car mode again," he says, "plus it's pretty good exercise."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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