The Karate Kid Pretty Much Got Car Waxing Right

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What do you do if you've never actually waxed a car before and aren't sure where to start? You Ask a Clean Person.

Ostensibly, this is a column about how to wax a car for people who have never waxed a car but we're all friends here so I'm gonna go ahead and level: It's actually a column about orbital buffers, and why they are so bad arse.

If you already know how to wax a car, which I'm going to assume you all do because you've all seen a movie about car maintenance and a grown man who teaches a teenager to beat the shit out of some dirtbike enthusiasts with his bare hands, go on and skip ahead.

If you don't know how to wax a car, because you don't, which is a perfectly fine thing not to know, not everyone knows everything it's honestly fine, then stick around for this first part.

Wax On, Wax Off Is Pretty Much It, Buuuuut ...

Photo: Michael Ballaban/Jalopnik

Well yes, of course there are nuances, but The Karate Kid pretty much got it right with the whole "wax on, wax off" thing. The basics of waxing a car are: Rub wax on, buff wax off.

But, as I said, there are nuances. Starting with the wax itself! There are different kinds of wax. There are different types of wax (natural or synthetic) and different formulas (paste, liquid, spray or coloured).

For our purposes today, we're not going to spend much time on spray and coloured wax—spray waxes are sort of like the Clorox Wipes of the car wax world in that they're ok for a quick job but not what you'd want to use to Get The Job Done Right, and the circumstances under which you'd need coloured waxes are so specialised that almost none of you will ever need to use them.

That leaves us with the choice of paste or liquid wax. Natural paste wax can be trickier to apply because it's less pliable, but it will yield a shinier shine than liquid wax. Liquid wax, by contrast, is easier to apply and also a better choice if you'll be performing the wax job with an orbital buffer. WHICH OH GOD YOU SHOULD TOTALLY DO BECAUSE THEY ARE SO RIGHTEOUS, YOU GUYS.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. (Cool your jets, Joles, you've got a job to do here, focus focus.)

As for choosing natural (carnauba) versus synthetic wax, both are good! But they perform differently and here's where those differences lie: Carnauba will give your car that S H I N E but also won't last nearly as long as synthetic waxes (about four months in contrast to about 12 months), which won't deliver on shine but will provide much more paint protection than the natural stuff.

When it comes to applying the wax, it can either be done by hand using microfiber cloths or using a machine. You may already have a sense of which approach I recommend! But honestly, both are fine — in pursuit of Important Journalism, we waxed Jalopnik Deputy Editor Mike Ballaban's car using both methods and neither of us found the hand job (yes, I did that. Yes.) to be overly taxing. The buffer was cooler though.

Like I said, wax on/wax off is really the crux of the work but there are a few process details worth pointing out:

  1. The car should be cool to the touch before you start the wax job;
  2. The car should also be parked in a shaded area, i.e. not in direct sunlight;
  3. If it's 110° in the shade, maybe save the job for another day;
  4. Apply a thin layer of the wax to the car but don't worry about working in sections—the wax needs to dry a bit (about 10-15 minutes) before you buff it away, so you can apply wax to the entire car, which will probably take about 10-15 minutes anyway, and then go back to the spot you started with to wipe the wax away.

So that's all there is to it, really. It's a pretty straightforward job but also there are some Choices To Be Made and hopefully this was helpful in terms of sorting through what those choices are and why you might make one over the other. Which brings me, blessedly, to the part where I get to hoot and holler about orbital buffers.

Orbital Buffers: God's Gift To Cleaning, Like, Everything

Photo: Michael Ballaban/Jalopnik

I mentioned that Ballaban and I actually got out there and did this job and because it was For Journalism, our overlord gave me permission to purchase an orbital buffer. I opted for a little guy: The Ryobi 6" Buffer/Polisher, which ran me a whopping $US25 ($34) at The Home Depot. I also bought a package of 24 microfiber cloths for about 9 bucks, so we could perform the wax job both manually and using power tools.

The buffer comes with two bonnets (terry cloth and synthetic polishing) which can be laundered and reused; replacement bonnets cost about six bucks.

To reiterate: The job was FINE both ways, both in terms of the work that went into it and the final outcome. So if you don't want to invest in an orbital buffer, please don't feel that you'll be missing out on a massive amount of time-saving or a marked difference in the resulting shine. What you will be missing out on, however, is the sheer badassery of the buffing experience. I mean, check this out!

Look at how much fun we had with our little $US25 ($34) toy! But oh ho ho! The fun did not stop there, my friends. Because I took that buffer home and GOT WILD WITH IT. The thing is about me is that I have an extremely active imagination.

So as we buffed Ballaban's car, my mind started whirring (heh)(ehhhh) with ideas for other ways I could use our new machine. Here's what I got up to:

  • Restoring my shitty rental apartment parquet floors: You guys cannot even begin to imagine how furious my shitty rental apartment parquet floors make me. I've tried so many things to make them look decent — Old English Scratch Cover, Mop & Glo, Rejuvenate Floor Restorer, probably 10,000 other things over the years that I've forgotten/blacked out due to trauma.

    Enter the orbital buffer! I gave the floors another pass using the Rejuvenate, which I'd been holding onto in some sort of desperate hope that maybe, just maybe, one day it would work in the way I wanted it to work. And you know? With the help of my lil friend? The Rejuvenate did manage to make my floors look a smidge better. (With that experiment out of the way, there are two other processes I want to perform on the floors, using the buffer, before hitting them with one more round of the Rejuvenate. But this is my car cleaning advice column, not my floor restoration advice column so we gotta keep things moving along.)

  • Scrubbing stubborn soap scum off tiled shower walls: I, of course, have no shortage of tricks for cleaning soap scum, but in my own home there's a small section of tile where the lip of the tub meets the wall that was tricky to clean because getting in and really scrubbing it was wildly awkward.

    Enter the orbital buffer! And, spoiler alert, exit that soap scum. I slapped some Soft Scrub on the pad, sprayed the shower wall down with water (since, you know, power tools and water aren't really friends) and buffed away. In no time those few discolored tiles matched all the rest and I was having such a ball that I went ahead and cleaned the rest of the shower walls. It was a breeze! I did have to wipe them down after I was done to remove some streaking, but that wasn't such a big deal.

  • Polishing a wood bench: I have a bench that I re-stain every few years and, while I'm due up to perform that job, when I had the Rejuvenate out I figured I'd give the bench a once over with that to save me the effort of grabbing the tin of stain from my toolbox.

    Enter the … well, you know. And yeah, it made the bench gleam. And now I'm desperately seeking more things in my home that I may buff.

Before I leave you, it's for sure worth mentioning that if you already own a power drill and you don't want to add another power tool to your arsenal, you can turn the drill into a buffer by buying an attachment set. Prices vary, but you can nab a decent buffer/polisher attachment set for about $US10 ($14). Like the bonnets that come with the orbital buffer, the pads can be washed and reused for future jobs.

Photo: Michael Ballaban/Jalopnik

So don't be afraid to wax the hell out of your car! Go watch the karate teen movie again, get your wax ready, and buy an orbital buffer to transform your life in ways you never thought possible.

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