Here is a step by step for general cleaning/maintenance to keep your vehicle looking brand new and in showroom condition.
Step 1 Washing
As far as washing goes, you need to look at it as an entire project. First and foremost, you have to wash the vehicle frequently (once or twice a week) and while doing so, you want to try and limit the amount of contact with the vehicle that will cause scratching or swirls. To do so is pretty easy but you can’t take shortcuts. I recommend the 2 bucket wash method. You can Google it for different variations, but the key is one wash bucket, one rinse bucket and two grit guards. Grit guards will protect your wash media from picking up debris from your wash waster, and the soap will take the debris down to below the guard, minimizing the risk of scratches. Simply hose the vehicle down, and section by section wash the car. Every time you need more soap on your wash medium, rinse your wash medium in the rinse bucket and agitate it against the grit guard. Then back to the wash bucket and on to the vehicle again. Repeat. Also make sure you have a nice soft wash medium like a chenille microfiber wash mitt, or my favourite, a merino wool wash mitt like the one made by CarPro.
If this is a pre polish wash, I recommend using Dawn dish soap...you don’t care if it will strip the wax, because you really want to degrease the paint anyhow...but this should be the only time you use Dawn, unless you are starting this process all over again.
For the maintenance wash, look for some good quality high lubricity car wash soap such as the Sonax Shampoo, Optimum Car Wash, Perls made by 1z, which is great and has a wax in it to aid with drying, or Meguiar’s Car Wash Shampoo and Conditioner which is pretty cheap in the gallon.
Step 2 Decontaminate
Next, I suggest using a product called IronX. This stuff is amazing, but the smell is horrific. It is great at dissolving all iron particles, and other paint contaminants and will really make the claying step easier.
Once prepped with Iron X, now you have to clay the paint. Use a high quality clay bar and clay lube. This is a necessary step to ensure all of the contaminants are off the paint. The last thing you want to do is grind them into the paint and cause more swirls or even worse, scratches.
As like many of the steps, there are many variations of the traditional clay bar, but I would recommend sticking to traditional clay like the one made by clay magic. The speedy prep towel, or nanoskin towel or pad are like clay alternatives, but sometimes are quite aggressive.
Step 3 Remove Swirls/Polish
Once clayed and cleaned, machine polish the paint to remove the swirls. Sometimes if the swirls are bad, they will need a heavier compound, but you should be able to use a good polish like Menzerna SF4500 or Optimum Finish Polish and use more and less aggressive Pads to get the cut and finish you’re looking for on your truck. The Menzerna is really the best for the hard ceramic clear s, but Sonax Nano Polish is also awesome and easy to use!
If the paint is a bit worse, I would suggest either the Menzerna PF 2500 or FG 400 for the swirl and scratch removal and Menzerna SF 4500 for your polish. Equally as good, are the Sonax Profoline Fine Abrasive Paste and the Sonax Profoline Nano Polish. Again, this would be just a preference. Both are high end products made in Germany.
As far as pads go, you will need a couple oranges for the aggressive cutting and either some whites or greens or blues for the polishing (these are Buff and Shine Pads I’m referring to). You need to clean them often, and I suggest a few of each colour because they do get dirty. I suggest 10 pads.
If you’re working by hand, you really won’t be able to get rid of the swirls, but you will def. clean the paint. The best product I’ve used by hand with the best results is hands down Sonax. They have a two step process with a Paint Power Cleaner and step 2, a Hybrid wax. It is a mix of Carnauba wax and synthetic polymers. This will make an outstanding shine and gloss on the vehicle, and a recently released product called Sonax Polymer Net Shield will take the gloss and shine and durability to the next level.
I also like the Duragloss TPP 105 which is also amazing. And I would top that with Aquawax. This is the most affordable solution, best for hand application, but won’t really remove any swirls. These two product lines are more of a chemical cleaner than an abrasive product.
Step 4 Sealant/Wax/Coating
This step can be done either by machine or hand depending on the products chosen. The machine just spreads the wax/sealant out faster and thinner. Remember, thin is in...Do multiple thin coats instead of one thick coat. The residue is hard to remove. But I do not suggest using a machine to spread a coating like cquartz or opti coat.
For a sealant, I highly recommend Menzerna Powerlock. expect to get anywhere from 12 to 18 months protection, and this can be topped with a carnauba wax if so desired to give you more longevity. Use a red pad to apply the sealant or wax if working by machine.
For a permanent coating, I suggest Opti Coat or Cquartz, however, expect 24 moths protection from Cquartz, permanent from Opti Coat. Cquartz is very nice on black.
The surface must be properly prepped for Opti coat to work its best, so I’d also recommend using eraser or prep sol to ensure all the polishing oils are gone, or else you risk the Opti coat not bonding.
Step 5 Maintenance
Once protected, wash the car using the above method as necessary, but using a gentle and highly lubricated shampoo like Sonax Car Shampoo or Optimum Car wash, and look to freshen the paint after washing and drying with a product like Optimum Instant detailer (the only thing I suggest using on top of Opti Coat) or Sonax brilliant shine detailer or AquaWax (my personal favorite).
Also for drying, I recommend using your leaf blower. It is a great way to dry your car...it blows the water out of all the crevices and prevents water spotting, which will etch the paint and bring you back to step 2 very quickly. I would also recommend using a waffle weave towel for the spots left by the leaf blower such as Sonus Drying Towels with one of the drying aids listed above.
My all time every time recommendation is to consider a coating when possible, but I only like to recommend permanent coatings when you have access to a machine polisher. The final finish depends on the prep work, and without a machine, id skip the permanent coating route and just take your time by hand with less permanent option.