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New materials in waxes, polishes and cleaners make the job of selecting the right product for your vehicle more complex than ever.

Cleaning, polishing & waxing
The Shining: Expert tips for keeping your vehicle looking great

By Bill Roebuck

What do an enzyme from the thorax of a bee, sunscreen and cat repellent have in common? They each can be found in today's car waxes -- an odd, but true facet of the new technology that puts the shine back into your car or truck.

Car wax used to be just for brightening and protecting the paint on your car. It would take hours on a warm Saturday morning to do the job, and you could never get the car to look quite as good as did when it was brand new. That's all changed now, thanks to new paint and new cleaners, polishes and waxes. Today's products can bring back the original glow to a car's finish in as little as 15 minutes, and they are specially designed to protect against modern hazards of acid rain, ultraviolet rays, higher summer temperatures, and harsh grime and road salt.

If you take the time to read the labels of the various waxes, polishes and cleaning agents on the shelves, you'll begin to wonder if you need a science degree to decipher them. The descriptions include references to emulsifiers, conditioners, viscosities, UV protection, reactive resins, fluoropolymers, anti-static chemicals, micronized polishing agents, pH balance, sheeting technology, shearing materials, and molecularly complex silicone. And that's on just some of the brands at the local Canadian Tire.

The business of cleaning and shining your vehicle is highly competitive. There are products that promise to restore a new car shine instantly, to protect against all sorts of environmental hazards from man-made chemical fallout to organic bird droppings, to putting a gleam on your car with hardly any effort on your part (no wiping, no drying, no buffing). An example is Blue Coral's One Step Touchless Acrylic Instant Restoration Coating. Another is Durashine Advanced Auto Polish -- you wipe it on and simply hose it off. Durashine claims to excel in a Gloss Meter Test with its product, which produces a sheeting action, preventing the beading of water on the car's surface (on the other hand, most manufacturers report that beading is a good thing).

Most of today's products are formulated to work with current clear-coat paints. This two-stage process includes a base coat containing colour pigment and a gloss-enhancing, protective layer of clear paint on top. The clear-coat layer uses urethane and acrylic enamels to improve the overall shine and durability of the vehicle's finish. It's only a few mils thick -- about the thickness of a garbage bag -- and it scratch easily and oxidize, keeping the colour below from shining through.

Products that are clear-coat compatible use a chemical compound to remove oxidation gently, with no harsh abrasives. (To find out if your vehicle has a clear-coat finish, apply a bit of polish to a cloth and rub the surface -- if the paint colours the cloth, it's not clear-coat.)

By the way, it's important to note that wax doesn't normally polish the surface -- its role is as a protectant. If you want more shine, you need to use polish. But before that's done, you need to clean, and that job can range from a simple wash to the vigorous job of removing old wax and oxidation.

The job of cleaning and waxing your car can range from 15 or 20 minutes to a full weekend workout. Basically, your choice of a product will be based on the amount of time and effort you intend to put in and the individual steps you want to do, from cleaning to polishing to waxing. The more labour you put in, the longer the finish will last.

If you have an old vehicle whose shine has long faded, a two- or three-step system that entails lots of rubbing, wiping and buffing will gratify you with impressive results. Both Meguiar's and Zymol offer multi-step products. Meguiar's Clear Coat Deep Crystal System uses a paint cleaner (Step 1), polish (Step 2) and wax (Step 3). Zymol recommends its Car Wash Cleaner (there's even a special formula for extra-dirty SUVs), followed by HD Cleaner to remove grime, road tar and previous wax coatings, and finally its Carnauba wax mixture (this is the product that uses a living bee enzyme, thus the company name, which is a contraction of "enzyme emollient"). All of the other components of the Zymol wax are made from natural vegetable products, according to spokesman Jim MacPherson.

The best products in each brand's line use Carnauba wax. Carnauba is a natural wax from the leaves of the Carnauba Palm in northern Brazil. It has a natural ability to retain oil, will not react with paint, and has excellent gloss properties. In its original state, it's as hard as concrete, so it must be mixed with oils or chemicals to soften it. (Manufacturers use various softening methods.)

Carnauba wax produces a very hard film to protect the vehicle's surface. The amount of Carnauba in various brands of car waxes ranges from 3% to 70%, says MacPherson. Note that a label that reads "100% Carnauba," such as Mother's Pure Carnauba Wax, means that the wax component is all Carnauba, without other kinds of wax. But there must be other materials in the mixture to make the Carnauba useable.

Some brands, such as the Turtle Wax Hard Shell Car Wax, also include polymers designed to fill in minute scratches in the clear-coat layer. Armorall Car Wax has a formula that "penetrates and bonds" with the car's surface.

However, if you just need to bring back life to the paint of a relatively new model, a quick wash and wipedown with an all-in-one wash and wax blend will protect the surface for several months.

Several manufacturers also have devised new spray-on cleaners for use between major waxes. They can be used after a rain to remove atmospheric pollution, or on spots such as bird droppings to clean up the mess and put the shine back on the finish. One such product, Eagle Wet Wipe 'n Shine, has anti-static properties to reduce dust buildup on your vehicle. Another, Turtle Wax Express Shine, uses silicones and Carnauba wax to give a quick, spray-on, wipe-off shine with no waiting for the wax to haze. "It's designed for new and like-new cars with clear-coat paint," says Turtle Wax spokesman Michael Shultz.

Shultz notes that the biggest problem today is from scratches and abrasions in the clear-coat finish. "Even though new clear-coats have six- to eight-year durability, their problem still is mar resistance. They don't oxidize the way monocoats used to, but they need a barrier to prevent scratches and swirls."

Other specialized products now available include swirl removers to get rid of micro-scratches and swirl marks; coloured waxes that are supposed to match your car's paint; special waxes made for the paint on certain Japanese makes; synthetic waxes; abrasive polishing compounds; extreme-condition waxes for cars that are outside all the time, clear-coat sealants; and scented waxes -- one brand available on the Internet has cat repellent mixed into it, while another smells like cherries.

It's difficult to decide which type of product is best, but the proponents shake out into two main camps -- those which offer a good job quickly with minimal effort, and those which provide the best shine possible for those who are willing to work for it. That said, anybody can take their vehicle to a detailer and have the job expertly done for a few hundred dollars.

The benefits of a clean, polished and waxed vehicle are pride of ownership and a better resale value. You'll also postpone the need for a paint job -- with quality car paints costing $200 a litre and up, a professional repainting can easily exceed $2,000.

Additional information

How to get a quick shine

No matter what product you choose, you'll have to start with cleaning your vehicle from top to bottom. It's especially important to get rid of winter's grime from all the nooks and crannies. Snow, ice, rain, salt, sand, gravel, pollution and UV rays all attack even today's durable automotive finishes.

Charlie De Haseth of Paint-a-Car Collision in Oakville, Ont., has spent a lot of time detailing cars and he recommends the fast approach for cleaning and waxing. "I find it's best to work with a partner. First we wash the vehicle with a car soap -- not detergent. We rinse it well with water from a hose. Then, while it's still wet (this is important), one of us applies a liquid polish/wax with a clean cloth. Use just enough wax to saturate the cloth. You don't want any wax left over in the cloth when you're finished. We'll use two or three cloths each time. We don't wait for the wax to haze up. My partner follows me along with another cloth, wiping the surface clean. This way, we can have the car cleaned and shined in about 15 minutes."

De Haseth emphasizes the importance of working carefully to keep polish or wax away from trim, especially if it's black plastic. "The residue is almost impossible to get off," he advises. It's okay to use wax on any trim surfaces that are painted the same as the vehicle. Some people even wax their windows so rain will sheet off easily, but you should avoid getting wax on the windshield, as it could cause the wipers to skip or chatter.

De Haseth recommends choosing a brand name car wash and a liquid polish/wax. Prices at Canadian Tire range from $4.99 to $9.99 for the soap, and $6.99 to $22.99 for wax or polish and wax blends.

Paste or liquid?

Is it worth the extra labour to buy and apply a paste product, or will a liquid do just as good a job? The answer varies, depending on which expert you ask.

If you haven't cleaned and waxed your vehicle for a long time and it's more than three years old, there's probably a considerable amount of oxidation and pollution on the surface, so rubbing with a paste can be more effective in revealing the old shine underneath.

Another advantage of paste is that it's easier to control, says Michael Shultz of Turtle Wax. It won't run onto plastic and rubber trim.

If your vehicle is less than three years old, a liquid product will produce the same results as a paste, so you can reduce the amount of elbow grease needed.

Tips to enhance your vehicle's finish

With the first warm weekend of spring just around the corner, it's time to prepare for that annual driveway ritual -- the first hand-washing of your vehicle this year.

* Wash the vehicle when it is cool and parked in the shade.

* Rinse any grime off the car.

* Use a special car wash mixture (not dish detergent), warm water and a wash mitt, soft sponge, terry towel or cotton diapers.

* Start with the roof and work your way down. Rinse each section as you finish.

* Take the nozzle off the hose and let the water flow over the entire car to rinse it.

* Use a chamois, soft terry towel or cotton diaper to dry the car.

* Wax the vehicle at least twice a year -- spring and late fall are best.

* Most experts advise against using a power buffer, as it is easy for a novice to burn the paint and cause permanent damage. When waxing by hand, it's better to use more speed with your cloth instead of pressing harder.

* Work in straight lines and make sure your cloth isn't bunched up.

In-between washes:

Avoid parking in direct sunlight. Shade is better, but try to avoid parking under trees that may drip sap.

Remove bug splatters, road tar, tree sap, bird droppings, spilled gasoline or oil, or anything else that lands on your paint as quickly as you can.

Keep safety in mind

With all the different materials in today's cleaners, polishes and waxes, it's advisable to wear protective gloves to keep the chemicals out of your skin. Also, paste wax is typically 75%-85% petroleum naphtha and 15%-25% wax. Naphtha is flammable and an irritant that can affect breathing, digestion, skin and eyes with repeated exposure. Finally, note that a major brand-name product had to be recalled in May, 1994, because bacteria in the product caused a skin rash.

Copyright Bill Roebuck,