Basic wash – Washing the car: Two bucket method

I’m going to cover the famous two bucket method of cleaning a car now. This is the basic wash technique and will be used as a base point for virtually all intermediate and advanced car cleaning tasks. Assuming you take good care of your car, most washes will only involve a rinse/two bucket wash/dry cycle with the other techniques being far less regular. 

To properly clean cars bodywork using the two bucket method you will need the following products:

  • two buckets
  • wash mitt (preferably two woollen ones)
  • selection of microfiber towels with tags removed
  • drying towel (optional)
  • bodywork shampoo (I currently use Autoglym but you may prefer another)
  • detailing brush (optional)

Two bucket method – why it works

The two bucket method employs the use of one suds bucket and a separate rinse bucket. Theoretically this means dirt is lifted from the car via the wash mitt and deposited in the rinse bucket to fully remove dirt from the car. The mitt is then dunked in soapy water meaning that every batch of soapy water applied will be as clean as the first.

I believe in this method and suggest you use it. I find I may need to change the rinse bucket a few times throughout the wash (usually 1-2 times) but the soapy bucket will remain virtually perfectly clean throughout demonstrating that this method does work provided you rinse very well. If you find the clean bucket gets dirty you will need to try and be more rigorous at rinsing your mitt before getting it soapy again. At this point I would recommend replacing the soapy water to avoid moving dirt back on to the car.

When using either bucket you should avoid dipping the mitt into the bucket too deep. Any dirt and grime will naturally drop to the bottom therefore plunging your hand right in will encourage the dirt back onto the mitt. I tend to use only the top five inches of either bucket. 

Note there are two different schools of thought on this with many believing that a ‘grit guard’ is a necessary bit of equipment. This guard sits in the bucket a few inches from the bottom and gives a course surface to rub your mitt on shedding the dirt. Personally I think sticking to the top five inches of water and rinsing properly achieves the same so that is what I do. If you think having an expensive bit of plastic in a bucket will help feel free to give it a try.

Two bucket method – The technique

First get a warm bucket of soapy water ready. Personally, I am using Auto Glym bodywork shampoo at the moment which is a very gentle detergent so as to protect my wax layers as much as possible. You may prefer other brands, however. The rinse bucket should just have cold or warm water. I position these next to me and move them round as I work over the car.

Using your wash mitt make sure and saturate it with the soapy water. Without losing too much of the water, move over to the car and work from the top (roof) downwards. Inherently the top of cars is less dirty as there is less exposure to dirt on the road and other debris being flung up onto it. Think of it as cleaning your cups and glasses before you work on the frying pan.

In terms of order I work on the roof then around the glass down to the “fold” on the sides and the tailgate. I then do the sides down to the half way point which for me is indicated by the bump strips on the car. At this point I tend to switch to a new mitt and clean the front of the car first and then the lower section we haven’t done yet consisting of the back bumper, front bumper and lower part of the sides.

While washing I apply liberal amounts of soap and work in large circles applying a light amount of pressure initially to scoop up as much dirt as possible but applying moderate pressure as required on subsequent passes once the mitt has been rinsed. Anything which doesn’t come off with a light to moderate pass I will come back to as part of a later stage to lift off the paint carefully.

I try and do several passes over each area. Where there tends to be a lot of grime like the lower part of the front doors I will usually take extra care to pass very lightly initially and rinse much more frequently to deposit the dirt.

When not using your mitt I suggest rinsing it and hanging it on the edge of the soapy bucket.

I suggest rinsing your mitt regularly. Whenever the rinse bucket gets discoloured I change it. If you notice the soapy bucket start to change as well then change this immediately and try to be more vigorous when rinsing in future. It is also very important not to let the car dry naturally in the sun while washing – this can lead to hologram marks where the chemical residue is ‘burnt’ on to the paint. This can be tough to remove.

Once the entire car has been washed it must be rinsed. I will arm myself with the hose or power washer depending on how I initially had pre-washed the vehicle and work from the roof down. I rinse very thoroughly and will do it until no more suds appear which usually takes about five minutes. I work all over the car taking care over each body seam which can hide soapy residue. Once this has completely gone the car should be a clean base. Congratulations, that was the two bucket method! Now do not forget to dry the car!

Two bucket method – with protection applied

Using the two bucket method when there is already a base layer of wax applied will remove most of the dirt back to the wax or sealant finish which has been applied leaving the same fantastic finish as was achieved previously.

Consider the following picture showing a simplified version of dirty paint with wax applied:

Washing will remove the debris leaving only the wax layers and, unfortunately, a few elements of ingrained dirt. Don’t worry about these last few bits of dirt they are usually not visible and will be taken care of when you strip and reapply the protection in future.

The result after the two bucket method will therefore be paint which is brought back to the lovely state it was in previously.

There are a few hazards when doing this though. Obviously shampoo is set to remove dirt from paint however it is not quite clever enough to tell the difference between protection and dirt. This means frequent washing will erode the protection and ultimately strip it off completely. This is a combination of the chemicals in the shampoo and the abrasive washing process of rubbing the medium on the protective layer.

Selection of shampoo can therefore be important to the longevity of the protection as you will want a relatively mild and soapy shampoo. I’m currently using Autoglym which seems to preserve the Collnite 476 wax I have on the cars. This does not seem to damage the protection however at times I feel it can lack the required bite when getting a car suitably clean in the first instance. This is the trade off when it comes to shampoos.

I also suggest layering protection at regular intervals to ensure the above process constantly gets the desired results. The exact timeframe will depend on multiple factors such as mileage, protection used, shampoo used, frequency of washing etc. I currently use Collinite 476 as my protective layer which is very long lasting (some say up to a year), I would expect to layer this every two to three months or so to keep the car in top condition.

See the protection section for more details on this process.

Drying the car

When drying the car I recommend using high quality microfiber towels with a thick pile as this will absorb more water and avoid having to do too many sweeps over the car. Some microfiber towels are specifically for drying. I recommend having at least one such towels around as they really are much better at drying.

The absolute best practice for drying is to take a towel like the one above and dry the car by dabbing it. This avoids having any rubbing motion on the newly cleaned paint. When armed with a large drying towel this is actually quite quick and easy as you can spread the towel over the body and dab the surface. Once done you can pick it up and over the next area. Working like this I can quickly dab dry a whole vehicle.

When drying often you will find the microfiber towel will be saturated with water. At this point simply ring it out away from the car and it will become absorbent again and you can continue.

At this point the basic cleaning process is complete. There are further advanced cleaning techniques for glass, plastic trim etc. which can be followed to make the clean more in depth. Additionally if you want to make it an advanced clean there are several articles on polishing cars you can follow from this point onwards.

Stand back and admire your hard work as the two bucket method has done the job of keeping your suds bucket clean!

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