Your bike looks like it’s been ridden through an insect abattoir. Blood, guts and body parts are smeared across the chrome and plastic alike. There’s months of road grime occluding your paint and every nook and cranny is packed with dirt. Is it possible to get it looking new again without spending a ton of time and money?
To find out, we visited Meguiar’s, one of the oldest and best known auto and marine car product companies. With their help, we’ve put together this basic guide to wash your motorcycle.
“It may sound sort of obvious, but there are some fundamentally right ways to clean a motorcycle, and some things you definitely shouldn’t do,” explains Mike Pennington, Meguiar’s Director of Technical Training. He’s been with the company for 24 of its 112 years.
“There’s a ton of information and advice out there. Some of it is personal preferences, where people are happy with following the same routine and using the same products; it works for them. But, there’s a huge range of different washes, compounds, waxes and even tools you can choose from. Understandably, that can be a little confusing. You might not know where to begin. My advice: keep it simple.”
The first questions are: how much time do you realistically have available to clean your motorcycle. How much do you know about cleaning bikes and what tools do you have on hand?
“If you want to spend 10 hours cleaning your bike every time you ride, that’s absolutely fine,” continues Mike. “But, most people just want to make the job as efficient and as short as possible, with good results.”
Another important thing to consider is the age and condition of the motorcycle. Is it new, old or just plain trashed? This will determine your method and tools.
You also need to understand what materials are used in your bike’s construction. Is there anodized aluminum, bare aluminum or chrome? Each requires a unique cleaner. Get the wrong one and it could permanently damage the surface.
What sort of paint do you have? Is it matte or gloss? If your bike is newer, odds are it has a layer of clear coat over the actual paint. Or, maybe it’s old school and only has a single layer of paint. Both require different approaches.
“The fundamental thing to remember, when buying a product to clean your bike, is to read the instruction on the packaging before you buy,” says Mike. “Look at what the manufacturer tells you about the product. What it’s designed for and make absolutely sure it’s right for your bike and the job you have in mind.”
Also think about what your goals are with cleaning your bike. Do you just want to keep it clean and tidy, or do you want to make it look like a show bike? That’s going to effect how much you spend in time, money and effort.
To get started, Mike suggests a three step method:
1. Evaluate the situation. What do you want your bike to look like and how old is it? What condition is it in?
2. Choose the right products.
3. Use the right cleaning techniques.
Unlike cars, motorcycles have a huge array of exposed materials and components that all get dirty and need regular cleaning.
Never wash a motorcycle while the engine is hot. It’s ok to wash if it’s cool enough that you can touch the engine without burning yourself, but you’d ideally clean it when the bike is completely cold.
Always clean a bike in the shade too, for the same reason. Contaminants in water, such as mineral deposits, become much more aggressive when warm and, if water is sprayed onto a hot bike, those water spots then become much more difficult to remove.
“People think they have to use a special water with low mineral content to stop water marks,” explains Mike. “But that’s not the case. Just make sure your bike is not hot and that it’s not in direct sunlight. Cool surfaces are much, much easier to work with.”
Mike suggests three types of products to achieve a nice, clean finish:
1. A good wash. Ideally, it should have a pH balance of between six and eight, so it’s neither too acidic nor too alkaline, either could damage your paint. Check it’s safe to use on all paint types.
2. Compound. If you have swirls or scuff marks on the paintwork, use a reputable compound to take them off. Use compounds designed for modern paint finishes and never use a compound on a matte finish; it’ll damage the paint.
3. Wax. It works like sunscreen and leaves a UV barrier to protect your paint. Wax needs to be reapplied regularly to provide this protection.
“You can use a polish between the wash and wax stages,” says Mike. “Some people like it, but it doesn’t remove paint swirls and doesn’t add any protection. On darker colors, polish gives a deeper, darker finish.”
“Another good option, on an ongoing basis, is to use a spray detailer,” he continues. “Basically, it’s a wax lubricant that will remove dust and some dirt. It’s a quick and easy way to smarten up your bike. But, the bike has to be reasonably clean in the first place, and the spray detailer won’t remove scuffs. You simply wipe spray detailer on and then wipe it off. It cleans and waxes and does a little bit of everything. Its biggest advantage is time saving.”
Ready to get started? This is what mike suggests you do:
Get two buckets for this first stage of the wash. One buck as the wash solution and water in it, while the other has just clean water. Use a premium quality microfiber cloth or lamb’s wool mitt to wipe the bike down from top to bottom.
“You need the two buckets as, between washing the bike down, you should rinse your cloth in the clean water,” say Mike. “Otherwise, all you are doing is putting the dirt you have taken off, straight back on the bike.”
“If your bike is really dirty, you can use a pressure washer to get the worst of the grime off. But, be careful. Motorcycles are water resistant, not waterproof. Use high pressure water for the wheel rims and under the fenders, but be careful around the engine, where the electronics are. Pressure washers are great, but just be smart about how you use them.”
Keep high pressure water away from the electrics, cockpit, any and all bearings, the chain and other such components.
In addition to the cloth or mitt, Mike also suggests a detail brush to help you get inside all the motorcycle’s nooks an crannies. It adds time and effort, but also hits those hard-to-reach places around levers and cables and fairing parts.
For stubborn marks like squished bugs, Mike recommends a plastic cleaner. But take care that the chemicals aren’t too aggressive. The key is to soak the bugs in the cleaning solution then, when they’re re-hydrated, lift them off with a cloth. Never rub or grind them, as this will damage your paint, screen or other such parts.
Special attention also needs to be paid to the wheels. Some wheel cleaners are so harsh, they can actually damage paint or corrode the metal.
“The problem is, some wheel cleaners may look like they take brake dust and road grime off in one shake of a can, but they could also be doing a lot of damage. It’s much better to use a less acidic or alkaline cleaner and put some effort in by hand. The results will be just as good.”
“It’s also worth using a separate cloth, just for the wheels, so you don’t transfer highly abrasive brake dust back onto your bike.”
The final step is to dry the bike. You can do this by hand with a soft, microfiber cloth. But, if you want to speed things up, consider using compressed air, a leaf blower or one of those small, inexpensive household vacuums that can blow as well as suck.
“At a motorcycle dealer, air is your friend,” says Mike. “It prevents water spots from forming and you can get into all the tight spaces to make sure it’s absolutely, 100 percent dry.”
Once the bike’s dry, you can then assess whether you want to do anything about paint swirls or scuff marks. Again, quality is king, so buy a good compound that is designed for clear coat paint.
Apply it to a small area of paint, then buff with a soft cloth by hand. You can also buy inexpensive buffer pads that fit a standard power drill. Those speed up the process.
The final step is to apply a coat of wax to add luster and help protect the bike’s paintwork. If you get wax on any matte finishes or bare plastic parts, remember to wipe it off immediately, or it’ll leave white marks.
“If you follow all these steps, I think you should be able to get a great result in less than an hour,” concludes Mike. “Take your time though, on your first attempt, and use the right products for the job. Always read the instructions!”