How To Maintain Your Exterior

Regular exterior care is part of any good preventive maintenance program.

With the price of diesel fuel hovering near $2 a gallon, truckers are looking for ways to cut other operational costs. The most business-minded among them, though, won’t be scrimping on truck washing and polishing.

Regular exterior care is part of any good preventive maintenance program. It limits the damage from caustic road chemicals, reveals other budding problems and contributes to resale value. A clean, shiny rig also boosts driver morale and impresses customers and roadside inspectors. The effort is, in short, worth every nickel.

The amount of cash truckers pour into vehicle cleanliness varies widely, depending on the frequency of washing and their tolerance for wet socks. Those willing to do much of the work themselves obviously spend less than others who, believing that time is money, patronize commercial truck washes and professional detail shops. Whatever the method of personal involvement – physical or financial – persistence is key for getting the best results.

“I normally try to spend one to two hours every day cleaning my truck,” says Rick Walker, a driver for Western Distributing Transportation in Denver. “You can easily find that time while waiting for a load or fueling. A lot of guys just wash their windows at a fuel island, but I might go around and apply some spray wax. I’ll also use the time when I’m at a customer’s place, waiting for an open door. In 30 or 40 minutes, I can polish two or three wheels or maybe a step box.”

Walker drives a fully rebuilt and customized 1954 Peterbilt. He says his continuous upkeep makes it easier to maintain a higher level of luster. The alternative – letting the surface deteriorate, then restoring it – isn’t an option he’s willing to consider.

His cleaning regiment entails frequent washes – “at least once a week” – and daily polishing. Walker, one of a handful of truckers who brew their own polish, uses a homemade formula based on blue rouge, the least aggressive of polishing rouges. “I was looking for something that made surfaces a little shinier, and blue will do that,” he says. “It’s a little finer than white rouge and a lot finer than green or red. No [manufacturer] offers blue-rouge polish, so I decided to make my own.”

Partner Insights
Information to advance your business from industry suppliers

One product missing from Walker’s detailing kit is regular wax. The company’s management urges drivers to avoid using the stuff. “We spec our trucks with Imron 6000 paint,” says Dino Guadagni, vice president of Western Distributing. “If that type of paint is waxed, it looks good until you run it through a wash bay. Then the surface gets dull. DuPont [which developed the paint] also advises against waxing.”

Imron 6000, one of several so-called base-clear automotive paints, is applied with a clear topcoat to protect the underlying color coat. Some waxes – and most polishing compounds – contain chemicals, solvents and abrasives that can damage the clear coat, allowing contaminants to reach the color layer. Guadagni encourages drivers to use a spray-on wax if they want their trucks’ paint to shine. Spray-on products are considered safer for clear coat. Some even have nutrients that help protect the vehicle’s outer layer – plus they’re fast and easy to apply. Unfortunately, they also tend to degrade more quickly than regular paste wax, requiring frequent applications, or “slick-ups,” as one trucker says.

For most situations, Guadagni says, the best way to maintain a truck’s appearance is by washing it often and drying it by hand. “I always recommend towel drying,” he says. “That gets rid of the crap hidden in the crevices. The more you wipe that stuff off, the better the surface will look [as it gets older].”

Yes and no, says Alan Goldstein, manager of research and development for Proctor & Gamble. Washing is important, of course, but “hand-drying a vehicle is actually bad for the surface because you’re rubbing it dry, and the towel or chamois often gets dirty in the process,” he says. “This can result in swirl marks.”

Proctor & Gamble recently introduced a washing system called Mr. Clean AutoDry, designed to eliminate the need for hand drying. The self-contained device, the company’s initial offering for the vehicular-care market, consists of a special polymer soap, water filter and sprayer. Goldstein says AutoDry works on any type of automotive finish and material. The final rinse will reportedly dry without streaks or spots, no matter what sort of water is used: hard, soft, municipal or well.

“We’ve been washing vehicles the same way for nearly 100 years,” says Goldstein. “Now there’s really a new way to [do that]. It’s a better, easier and more efficient way.”

While some detailers have given Mr. Clean AutoDry reasonably good reviews, the system might not be suitable for many truckers. First, those who live in apartments or crowded urban settings lack the necessary space and water privileges to wash their rigs at home. Second, trucks accumulate a variety of filth, and some of that crud won’t budge without the use of a more aggressive soap.

“Soil types are all different,” says Dave Hart, director of transportation sales for Zep Manufacturing. “It’s impossible for one blend of surfactants (soap) to do a good job on everything.” He suggests truckers seek out expert advice on the proper products for their specific applications. Zep sells a wide assortment of cleaners, intended for transport equipment ranging from cars to trains to aircraft. The company’s biggest general-purpose seller for trucking is called TNT. Hart says it’s strong enough to remove exhaust soot, yet won’t damage paint or vinyl decals.

Professional detailers carefully investigate the products they use to ensure the best results for their clients. Truckers could benefit from doing the same, says Renny Doyle, owner of Attention to Details Ltd. in Sun Valley, Idaho. He says that knowing the ingredients in a cleaner, wax or polish – before buying it – will lower the danger of getting something that’s ineffective or harmful.

Much of this information is available on auto detailing websites, he says. “And the people who post at these sites aren’t afraid of sharing their knowledge and opinions.” Sometimes that’s not enough, though. “If we can’t find the answers we need, we’ll [contact] a chemist.”

Several years ago, Doyle’s research led him to conclude that traditional waxes were inefficient and not particularly good for modern automotive paints. “Most of them are made with carnauba, a natural substance,” he says. “The stuff breaks down pretty easily, but it also has a tendency to gum up a surface. Repeated waxing, especially with products that have Teflon, greatly reduces a paint’s ability to ‘breathe.’ For the past eight years, we’ve used only polymer-based sealers, which act a little like Gortex: They prevent water and corrosives from reaching the finish but allow for ventilation.”

Doyle and his crew recently tested an acrylic-resin sealer developed by Denver-based Long Haul Co., a new player in the “appearance” market. He says he was impressed with the results. “It’s super hard when dry and isn’t water soluble,” he says.

Bob Reiffinder, Long Haul’s president, says those characteristics give his product superior longevity. “Sunlight will deteriorate normal wax in a fairly short time,” he says, “but it has no effect on our sealer. About the only thing that will remove our product is solvent or time.” One application is said to last six months.

Reiffinder says a truck’s paint endures much more abuse than that of most cars. Big rigs travel many more miles a year, and they go through a wider variety of weather conditions. “That fluctuation will cause normal waxes and sealers to break down more quickly,” he says. Many manufacturers of polishes and waxes, however, overlook those vehicular differences and make bold claims based on optimal operating conditions.

The same is true for metal polishes, says Tommy Wortham, owner of Mr. Buffer Metal Polish. “Everybody in the trucking business has, at one time or another, bought polish that didn’t live up to the manufacturer’s promises,” he says. “I’d bet that 70 to 80 percent of the stuff on the market won’t do what you’re led to believe it will do.”

Wortham has taken the opposite approach in launching his company. Instead of bragging up his product to inquiring buyers, he simply sends a bottle and asks them to try it. “The best way to demonstrate it is in the hands of actual users,” he says. Wortham says his strategy is succeeding.

The management at Schultz Laboratories, maker of White Diamond metal polish, also believes in the value of a hands-on customer experience. “At trade shows, we allow our booth visitors to participate in product demonstrations,” says Benja Godfrey, Schultz’s marketing manager. “There are a lot of polishes on the market, and people are naturally skeptical. So it’s important that we get them to actually use our polish and see what it can do.”

Godfrey says that White Diamond is a trucker favorite, and has become especially popular among truck beauty contestants. Harvey Zander, a frequent trophy winner, is one of the company’s loyalists.

Zander says he wants two things from a polish – a great shine and easy application. “I like a polish than lets me apply a coat to all the metal surfaces, then come back later and remove it,” he says. “Some don’t work that way, and if they’re left on too long, they won’t come off without a lot of work.”

Leased to Dart Transit in Eagan, Minn., Zander already has plenty work trying to keep his truck looking good while running across sand- and chloride-laden roads during the winter. He has his truck commercially washed about once a week, in an attempt to maintain a good appearance and limit corrosive damage. The effort isn’t easy or cheap, he says. But it is necessary.

That philosophy is shared by Shirley Maney, who helps her husband Herby run their small coal hauling fleet in Frenchville, Pa. She says there are three reasons to keep a truck as clean as possible: “First, they look good,” she says. “Second, you pay a lot of money for them. And third, you’re less likely to be bothered by the authorities. They’re going to see that your truck is clean, and they’ll figure that you’re probably maintaining it as well.”


  • Consider using clear vinyl covers to prevent rock chips in fenders and other frontal areas. These are fairly inexpensive, but they should be professionally installed. Check with your local detail or window-tint shop.
  • Wash your truck in the shade. Dark paint exposed to midday summer sun can reach 200 degrees – hot enough to flash-dry soap. If shade is unavailable, spray your truck with cold water before washing it to lower the surface temperature.
  • Regardless of what type of paint is covering a truck – base or base-clear – many detailers recommend protecting the surface with some kind of sealer. There are plenty of these products on the market. Professionals suggest using one that has either no abrasive or a “degradable abrasive” because it won’t harm the paint’s topcoat, whether that is a base or a clear.
  • Always follow the manufacturers’ recommendation for mixing soap. Using more than necessary won’t produce better results.
  • Some owner-operators use household floor wax to protect their polished metal during the winter, applying two thick coats in the fall and stripping them off in the spring.
  • When possible, avoid parking under trees or electrical lines. This will reduce the amount of tree sap and bird byproducts that fall on your truck.
  • Bug screens and winter fronts can leave rub marks on a grille. With a little ingenuity, you can mount these items behind the grille. Padded covers for fenders, air cleaners and fuel tanks should be removed regularly and cleaned. If they’re left on too long, the accumulated dirt and debris underneath them will eventually mar the surfaces you’re trying to protect.
  • Inspect the brushes at a commercial truck wash before its crew starts washing your truck. Doing so will prevent grease and other sticky substances from getting smeared across your truck’s paint.
  • Thoroughly dry door gaskets and crank up the heater after washing your truck during the winter. This helps prevent the gasket damage that sometimes occurs when frozen doors are forced open. A butane lighter will help thaw ice-filled locks. Just be careful to avoid scorching the surrounding paint.
  • The best material for polishing is cotton, in the form of terrycloth towels, old T-shirts or cloth diapers. Anything with a polyester blend, including “official” shop towels, should not be used.
  • A good-quality wash mitt and soft-bristle brush are good investments that will pay dividends every time you have a spare hour and the occasion to use them.