Keeping your vehicle waxed up will help protect your car’s finish and looking great. But there’s a proper method to take when waxing your vehicle. Many people forget that the vital first step in waxing your car is to strip the old wax off. That process takes a little know-how and finesse. In this article, we’ll discuss how to properly remove wax from your vehicle. We’ll also share some product recommendations along the way.
Types Of Car Wax
Before we jump straight into the steps needed to remove wax, it’s helpful to understand the product you’re dealing with.
Car wax is the most common form of protection for your vehicle’s finish. Millions of people wax their cars each year. While there are countless brands on the market, the wax itself really only comes in two types: the natural variety and synthetics.
The natural variety is known as Carnauba wax, and it’s been around for a long time now. When your dad or grandfather was rocking a Led Zeppelin shirt while polishing his Camaro for hours on end back in the 70s, he was using Carnauba wax. This type of wax comes from a palm plant that can only be found in Northeastern Brazil. When applied properly, Carnauba wax leaves a brilliant shine that’s hard to beat. However, it also requires more work to strip before applying a new coat. That’s why most folks are choosing to use the second form of vehicle wax.
Synthetic waxes don’t come from exotic palm trees. They come from scientific laboratories. Most of the ingredients are artificial and they act more as a paint “sealant” than the natural waxes.
So, which is the better product: Carnauba or synthetic?
It really depends on your own preferences. I believe that old-school Carnauba wax will leave a more brilliant shine. However, you’re going to have to work harder to get it. Carnauba wax won’t last as long as synthetics, and you’ll have to put in more work to strip it. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a “decent” shine that will last, synthetic is the way to go.
Both forms of waxes are applied in the same way. The product is spread in an even coat over the vehicle’s surface. When it dries to a haze, it’s buffed with a soft cloth to a brilliant shine. Ultimately, you’re creating a protective “shield” for your paint. The first step in the process, though, is to remove old wax. Here’s why it’s important to complete this step.
Why Stripping Wax Is A Good Idea
The obvious reason someone would want to strip wax from their vehicle is that they’re about to apply a new coat. Wax works by filling in microscopic paint imperfections. The result is a smooth surface, which is where that mirror-like shine comes from. But if old wax is left on the surface, the new application won’t reach those microscopic pores. If you want to paint a masterpiece, you have to start with a clean canvas, right?
Another reason people strip old wax off their cars is to prepare for fixing nicks in their paint. The wax creates a protective barrier on your vehicle’s surface. If you have a nick or scuff in your paint, you need to get down to the base coat to effectively repair it. That’s why it’s a good idea to strip the wax off of whichever panel of your vehicle you’ll be working on. For more tips on repairing paint scuffs, check out our article on the subject.
The same school of thought applies to any major bodywork you’re going to have done on your vehicle. Regardless of the steps taken in bodywork repairs, most will result in repainting the damaged area. That means all wax will need to be removed before the new paint prep can begin.
But what if you don’t have any damages to repair and you’re just looking to keep your finish looking brilliant? How often should you apply new wax?
It really depends on the type of wax you’re using. If you go the old-school Carnauba route, you should really only expect to get 3 months out of your wax job. In that case, you should plan to revisit this article about 4 times per year until you get the hang of it. On the other hand, if you’re using synthetic waxes, you can get away with applying new wax once a year.
Challenges With Removing Old Wax
Removing old wax from your car isn’t always going to be easy. There are many factors that influence just how much time and elbow grease you’ll need to put into the job. Some waxes are harder to remove than others. If a ton of wax was applied the last time, you’re going to have your work cut out for you. You’ll also find that parking your car outside vs. in the garage will also affect how much effort you put in.
One challenge that comes with stripping old wax is the potential of scratching your finish. Some schools of thought suggest using a buffer and cutting compound to remove old wax. This method requires a lot of finesse. If your cutting compound is too robust, or you press too hard with the buffer, you could scratch your paint. One tiny speck of dirt on the polishing pad can wreak havoc on your paint job. That’s why you won’t find the buffer-method in our recommended steps below.
Another challenge that comes with stripping old wax is knowing when the job is done. If it’s not obvious that all the wax has been removed, you run the risk of over-polishing. Again, that can result in damaging your paint finish. The good news is that there are a few tell-tale signs that you’ve done the job right.
First off, consider the reason you wax your car, to begin with. You want to bring out the brilliant shine of your paintwork. If you’ve tried our removal steps below and your car is still shining, you haven’t gotten all the wax off. If your efforts result in a dull finish, you’re good to go with putting on a fresh coat of wax.
If you want to get a little more scientific, you can do a water test on your vehicle. You probably know that a good wax job will result in water beading off the surface. The scientific term for that phenomenon is known as “hydrophobia.” So, if you want to see if you still have wax left, pour a bit of water on the surface. If the water beads up and runs for the hills, you’ve still got wax to strip. If it sits still and collects in a pool, you’re good to go!
Finally, you can determine how much stripping is needed by considering how long it’s been since you last waxed. Generally, a Carnauba wax job is only going to last about 3 months. If it’s been longer than that, you probably won’t have much removing to do. Synthetic waxes tend to last much longer. If it’s been less than a year, you’ll likely have to put in some manual labor.
4 Steps For Removing Old Wax From Your Car
For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume your wax has been on your car for a while. If you’re stripping wax that’s less than 3 months old, you’ll likely need to use a buffer. That’s going to require an entirely different set of steps and skills.
However, if you’re just looking to put on a fresh coat after many months, a few specialty products will work.
Specifically, you’ll be using a degreasing soap and a clay bar. Clay bars are useful tools for removing all sorts of vehicle blemishes. Degreasing soap, on the other hand, is specifically designed for washing away old wax. Here’s how to use both.
1. Get The Right Supplies
Like most of our DIY repairs, the first step in wax removal is to gather the right supplies. In this case, your most vital item will be the degreasing shampoo.
Our preferred product is the Clean Slate Wax Stripping Wash from Chemical Guys. Chemical Guys is a frequent flyer on our preferred products list. That’s because their products work great, and they’re reasonably priced.
In the case of their wax stripping wash, you can usually pick up a 64-ounce jug for under thirty bucks. Not only will it strip away old wax, but it also removes tiny scratches from your paint’s surface. Like the name implies, this will leave you with a “clean slate” for applying fresh wax.
In addition to the wash, you’ll also need a couple of buckets, a microfiber wash mitt, and the clay bar. You’ll also want to pick up a bottle of lubricant to use with the bar. We’ll get into those details in a moment.
This part is pretty straight forward. You want to give your entire vehicle a good washing with a normal car shampoo. We prefer Meguiar’s Gold Class. Start by finding a nice, shaded spot to work. You DO NOT want to use the degreaser in direct sunlight. It’ll dry too fast and you’ll have to work much harder to prep your vehicle.
Soak your entire vehicle in clean water, then apply a healthy layer of the soap. If you have a foaming gun you can attach to your hose, it’s even better. We like the foam gun from SwiftJet. It will attach to any garden hose and you can easily adjust the pressure.
Simply pour your soap into the reservoir and adjust the foam level. You’re going to want A LOT of suds when preparing to strip old wax. When you’ve coated the entire vehicle, let it sit for a few minutes. That means A FEW minutes! Any longer and it’ll start to dry and you’re back to doing more work than needed. When those three minutes are up, spray everything off with fresh water.
3. Use The Wax-Stripping Shampoo
To effectively use stripping shampoo, you’re going to need two buckets. One bucket will contain your stripping shampoo and water. Make sure to follow the recommended guidelines for the water-to-product ratio. Your second bucket will contain nothing but clean water.
You’re going to work on one section of the car at a time. For example, you’ll start with the roof—completely washing and rinsing before moving on to the hood. From there, you can work the quarter panels, then the doors, and so forth.
Dunk your wash mitt in the degreaser bucket and scrub your vehicle. However, when it’s time to rinse your mitt and load up more soap, make sure to use the clean water bucket. This “two-bucket” method will ensure you’re not re-introducing dirt and grit to your car. Make sure to completely rinse the section off with clean water before moving on to the next section.
Continue this pattern until you’ve washed your entire vehicle with the degreaser. At that point, you can perform one of the tests mentioned above to see how much wax you have left. Oftentimes, the stripping shampoo is enough to remove old wax. However, if you have some stubborn areas, you’ll need to move on to the clay bar.
4. Use A Clay Bar
A clay bar is designed to remove some serious contaminants from your vehicle. Old wax certainly falls into this category. However, using a clay bar requires some finesse to prevent causing even more damage. The bottom line is that a clay bar is abrasive, and improper use could cause scratches in your paint. So, use plenty of lubricant and go slow, working small sections at a time. And for Pete’s sake, if you drop the bar on the ground, throw it away and start with a fresh one!
Start by working on a section that’s only a couple of square feet. Spray the area down with a quality clay lubricant. We like the Clay Luber Synthetic Lubricant from Chemical Guys. Then, rub the clay bar over the area. You’ll likely feel the bar “catch” and drag on the surface. That just means it’s picking up those contaminants the degreaser missed. Keep the area lubricated and repeat until the bar glides smoothly across the surface. Then, wipe the area with a microfiber towel and hit it with some more lubricant to remove any clay residue.
You’ll repeat this process for the entire surface of the car. The key is to keep the surface lubricated and make sure you’re reshaping your clay. Simply fold and mold the clay so that you’ve got a clean surface before moving on to a new section. In the end, you’ll be left with a mirror-smooth finish that’s ready for new wax.
There you have it! Stripping old wax certainly requires more legwork than a normal wash and wax. However, when you put in the time, you’ll be left with a pristine surface and your next wax job will really pop. Check out this article for some of our top wax recommendations.