How to Wax Your Vintage Car

Waxing any car helps protect the paint, but it is especially important for classic cars. Because of their age and use of obsolete paint technologies, the paint jobs these cars came with are easier to damage than modern paint. If your car has fresh paint, it’s easier to care for. However, with most paint jobs costing thousands of dollars, it makes sense to go the extra mile to protect your investment. Here’s everything you need to know about waxing your antique, including choosing the right product and getting the best shine.

What Makes a Classic Car’s Paintwork Different from a Modern Car?

Until the late 1980s, most cars used a single step painting process. After coating bare metal with primer, the car received a coat of paint that combined the color and glaze components. This paint is permeable. Over time, oils leach out of the paint, making it brittle and prone to flaking. Since there is no protective layer, UV light, dirt, grime and bird droppings directly attack the color coat. In the short term, the surface color can fade out, leaving behind a chalky surface. Paint that is exposed to the elements for years can craze and flake off and leave behind rust. The paint also “bleeds” when polished. Your buffing pads and rags can pick up loose surface paint, turning them the same color as your car.

Cars made in the past three decades use a multi-stage process. The body panels are coated in primer, followed by a color coat and a clear coat. This clear coat creates a sealed surface, protecting the underlying color coat. Fading of the clear coat can make the paint look dull, but to a smaller degree than single stage paint.

When it comes time to paint your car, you can choose between a single stage or multi-stage paint. If you choose a multi-stage system, you’ll end up with a durable paint that has more depth and shine. Get a single stage paint, and you’ll have more work to do to maintain it, but you’ll also retain the original look. With either type of paint, it can take a while before the paint job is fully cured. Until then, the car should not be waxed. Leaving the surface unsealed allows solvents and other chemicals to evaporate from the paint, letting it harden. Your body shop should tell you when it’s safe to apply wax to your new paint job.

Original paint jobs of any type get fragile with age. Factory paint was usually applied unevenly, and after years of weather and polishing, it can be very thin. If you aren’t sure about the paint’s condition, hold off on heavy polishing until it has had a few coats of wax. The wax itself can re-saturate the paint with oils, making it more flexible and forgiving.

Which Wax Should I Use?

Car waxes aren’t all the same, but that doesn’t mean one wax is superior to the others. It comes down to what you want the coating to do.

Carnauba wax is made from a wax produced by the leaves of the carnauba palm. It’s usually mixed with bee’s wax or turpentine to create a product that can be used on cars. This wax creates a flat, glossy surface that delivers excellent shine. However, it only lasts around 4-6 weeks when exposed to the elements. Yellow wax contains more carnauba, and it generally lasts longer than cheaper white waxes. Carnauba soaks into single stage paint, replacing evaporated oils and restoring flexibility. This makes it a great choice for cars that still have their original paint. Carnauba wax is always sold as a paste.

Synthetic car waxes, sometimes called sealants, are formulated for maximum durability. These polymer-based coatings last at least twice as long as carnauba wax, but they don’t leave the surface as shiny. Spray waxes contain petroleum distillates that remove remaining residue from the paint, cleaning as they protect. Liquid wax takes longer to dry than carnauba wax, but it’s easier to apply and buff off. There are some formulas that contain both carnauba wax and polymers, giving you the restorative benefits of the former and the durability of the latter.

Ceramic coatings create a thick, hardened layer over the car paint. The result is a finish that lasts longer than synthetic wax and delivers more shine than carnauba wax. However, these coatings are expensive and difficult to apply.

On the opposite end of ceramic coatings is glaze. This product deposits a thick, high gloss layer on top of the paint, delivering maximum shine. However, it does little to protect the paint, and only lasts a few days. Some owners use glaze if they’re preparing their car for a show.

Which product should you use? It depends on your goals for the car’s paint job:

- If your only goal is making your show car look good for an upcoming event, use glaze.

- If you want maximum shine, with minimum effort, and you keep your classic car indoors, carnauba wax is the best choice. It’s also great for bringing the life back to single stage paint.

- If you want maximum durability for a car that is parked outside regularly, use synthetic wax.

- If your car stays outside, and you’re willing to do extra work for the best appearance and durability, it may be worth using a ceramic coating.

How Do I Prepare the Paint for Waxing?

Your car should be freshly washed, and you need to complete any additional detailing before waxing. That includes your regular car wash, plus any polishing, paint decontamination, and removal of any bugs, tar or ground-in particles. The paint also needs to be dry.

You can apply wax in your driveway, as long as you have plenty of shade. Due to their long cure time, ceramic coatings should be applied inside a garage.

You only want to wax the painted parts of your car, and in some cases, unpainted metal parts. Wrapping painter’s tape around badges and trim pieces protects them from wax.

Paste waxes should be applied with an applicator sponge, while liquid waxes can be applied with a microfiber towel. All waxes and coatings can be buffed off with a microfiber towel. Keep some spares on hand: if you drop a towel on the ground, it will pick up dirt that can leave scratches on your paint. Switch to fresh replacements to keep your paint shiny.

Applying Carnauba Wax

Use a wax applicator sponge to apply the wax to the body panels. Rub in a circular motion, laying down a thin layer of wax. Let the wax sit for a couple minutes to dry, then wipe off with a microfiber towel.

Applying Synthetic Wax

Spray wax can be applied directly to the vehicle. Liquid wax should be rubbed into the paint with a microfiber towel. Let the wax sit for a few minutes to dry, then wipe off with a clean microfiber towel. Synthetic wax takes longer to cure then carnauba wax, but if you let it sit for too long, it’s not as difficult to remove.

Applying Ceramic Coating

The shininess of this coating enhances scratches, rather than hiding them. For the best results, your paint needs to be as clean and flaw-free as possible. That means polishing, applying an iron remover and using a clay bar to remove any scratches or foreign material. You should perform the last few steps indoors to prevent any stray contaminants from blowing onto the paint.

The coating needs direct contact with the paint to bond with it. Most manufacturers recommend using panel wipe, which is a cleaner designed for preparing surfaces for paint. It removes everything but the paint, so you have a 100% clean surface. Other manufacturers recommend wiping down the vehicle with isopropyl alcohol, which removes any remaining residue, although it can be hard on your paint.

Your coating kit should include a microfiber cloth and a sponge. Wrap the cloth around the sponge, and apply a few drops of coating. Wipe the coating up and down or left to right across the paint, adding more coating to the cloth as needed.

It can take up to 24 hours for the coating to cure. Once it’s hardened, buff off the leftover coating with a microfiber towel.

Waxing Metal Wheels and Chrome

You can use the same wax as the rest of your car to clean these parts, but there are better application-specific products available. Wheel waxes are formulated to resist brake dust, which can become corrosive. Chrome waxes have chemicals that remove corrosion, leaving behind a shiny surface. If you have chrome wheels, you will get better results from wheel polish than chrome polish.

It can be hard to get an applicator into all the nooks and crannies of a wheel, especially if it has narrow spokes. The easiest way to coat these areas is by using your hands. Wearing non-permeable nitrile or latex gloves will keep your skin from absorbing the wax, and keep your skin oils from marring the finish.

How Do I Remove Wax?

There are three reasons why you’d want to remove wax from your car:

- You waited too long for the wax to cure, and it dried to the surface.

- You got wax somewhere it doesn’t belong, like a trim piece or window.

- You want to apply a new coat of wax or a ceramic coat, and you want to make sure you’re starting with completely clean paint to get the best results.

Let’s start with what you shouldn’t do. Many guides suggest using dish soap on your car. This soap has strong degreasers that can damage your paint, especially fragile original single-stage paint. Ammonia-based window cleaners work, but they can lift off the top paint layer. Vinegar also works, but it leaves the paint looking dull.

The best way to remove wax from painted parts is with a pre-wax cleaner, which is formulated specifically for this job. Keep in mind that most cleaners can damage plastic and rubber. Tape over these parts before using the cleaner on your vehicle. Clay bars are also effective at removing wax.

To remove wax from unpainted plastic parts, such as tail lights, use a wet melamine sponge.

To remove wax from windows, wipe down the affected area with vinegar. Be careful not to get the vinegar on your paint.

Cotton swabs work well for removing wax from the crevices inside badges.

Frequently Asked Questions about Waxing Classic Cars

Does washing my car remove wax?

No. The wax creates a hydrophobic layer that deflects water and soap. However, using stronger chemicals, like bug and tar remover, can strip off the wax layer. Polishing and clay barring also removes wax.

Should I use a cloth diaper to polish my car?

No. Diapers are made from a very soft fabric, which is why they were favored for polishing and removing dried wax on classic cars. However, modern microfiber fabrics are even finer. This makes them less likely to leave behind scratches, so you end up with a shinier finish.

Is it safe to use a motorized buffer on my car’s paint?

Yes, as long as you use the right type of buffer with the right technique. An orbital, random orbital or dual-action polisher is usually fine for applying and removing wax. Avoid rotary polishers: they spin in place, creating enormous amounts of friction and heat if they stay in one spot for too long.

Only use a buffer on large, flat areas. If you go over a crease or edge on a body panel, the force of the buffer will be concentrated on one spot. This can quickly remove paint. Cleaning your pad frequently with compressed air can keep wax buildup from marring the surface of your paint.

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