The term car detailing has many meanings. To some, it’s a simple car washing and wax job. To others, it’s a full cleaning and protection service, including having the car interior shampooed and the engine steam cleaned. To car enthusiasts, a freshly detailed vehicle is a work of art to be displayed.
Whatever your intentions for detailing your car, this page will introduce you to the basic process and terms commonly associated with detailing a car.
Evaluate Your Car Before Detailing
The most difficult part of any new skill is knowing what to do first and detailing a car is no different. Ask three professional detailers what to do first, and you’ll get three different answers. So, perhaps the most important step of all is to evaluate the work required.
Do a Proper Paint Evaluation
The first step in any detailing program is an evaluation of your car’s paint. Take a walk around your car. Do you see bug stains, water spots and tar spots, or is it completely free of contamination? How does the paint feel to your hand? Is it rough, does it have small surface bumps, or is it smooth like glass?
If your paint is smooth and free of contaminants, the only cleaning maintenance it needs is regular washing (30 to 45 minutes a week). If the paint is stained and rough, it needs a good cleaning. Clean paint should feel like silk. Cleaning your paint can take 30 minutes or 3 hours, depending on the level of perfection you want to achieve.
Most auto detailers use a paint pre-wax cleaner (a special cleaner/polish) or a paint-cleaning claybar to remove surface contamination. It’s like exfoliating your skin to deep-clean the pores. This is a necessary step because bonded contamination starts the oxidation process.
Inspect for Imperfections
Once your car’s paint is clean, you can closely inspect the paint for scratches, swirl marks and water spots. These minor imperfections can be fixed with a good polish and some elbow grease (usually 1 to 2 hours), and should be taken care of prior to waxing. If you prefer, use a good orbital polishing machine for faster results.
If your paint has deep surface scratches (meaning not scratched through to the primer or metal), you may need to use a scratch remover polish formula. Most scuffs and scratches can be polished so they will no longer be seen or even noticed (1 to 5 minutes per scuff or scratch).
When your paint is contamination-free and polished to a high gloss, it’s ready to be waxed (45 minutes to an hour). Most cars require a deep-cleaning and polishing twice a year, whereas wax should be applied at least four times yearly. With proper care, the paint finish will remain in good condition for many years.
Check the Tires and Wheels Closely
Neglected tires and wheels take a lot of care to bring back to life. If tires don’t receive regular washing and treatment, with tire dressing, they will quickly turn brown and dull. Likewise, without weekly washing and periodic waxing, fine wheels will become pitted and develop black stains from brake dust and road tar.
Long-term neglect of wheel maintenance turns into permanent damage to the finish. For any modern luxury or sports car, the cost of repair or replacement can be in the thousands of dollars. People often learn that the hard way!
Closely evaluate your tires and wheels. Are the tires brown and dull? Do the wheels have brake dust buildup? If so, plan on spending 15 to 20 minutes on each wheel with brushes, tire and wheel cleaners as well as a bucket of soapy water.
Evaluation of Your Car’s Interior
Once you’ve sized up what needs to be done on the exterior, you can turn to the inside. Some people care more about the interior of their car than they do the exterior. This makes some sense, as that is where we spend our time. The condition of the car’s interior generally reflects how you use the car.
If you haul kids around, the inside of your car will likely have more dirt and stains than that of a businessperson. Likewise, if you drive a truck and use it for construction, you have a completely different set of cleaning needs.
Evaluate your car’s interior. Does it need heavy or light vacuuming? Is it dusty? Does the upholstery need cleaning? Is the leather dry? Do you have stains or spills to clean? How does the interior smell? Is it musty?
A good interior detailing can take longer than an exterior detailing. If you vacuum regularly (twice a month), it usually takes no more than 10 to 15 minutes. If you vacuum infrequently, it can take 30 minutes or more. If you wipe down the interior (3 to 5 minutes) each time you wash the exterior, then keeping the dash and upholstery clean is a cinch.
Doing so infrequently (or never), makes cleaning the dash and upholstery a 1 to 2 hour chore. So doing a little interior detailing maintenance every time you wash the car is a lot easier than trying to do a full interior detailing once or twice a year.
If you don’t detail your own car, consider having a full interior detailing once yearly. A full interior detail includes vacuuming and shampooing the upholstery, carpet and floor mats, as well as cleaning the dash, console and vents. After cleaning, leather and vinyl dressings and fabric protection should be applied.
To maintain a full detail, have the interior vacuumed each time your car is washed. Also, apply dressing to the dash, vinyl and leather each time the car is waxed (every 3 months). This is the minimum interior detailing that will keep your car in good condition.
If you plan to do your own detailing, divide the work into manageable tasks. It’s a lot of work and if you try to do it all in one day. Keep after the interior a little bit at a time. Plan to do your shampooing and fabric protection in spring or summer, as nice weather helps speed up the drying.
How to Dress for Success
A big part of the car detailing process includes applying dressing to those surfaces that can’t be waxed or otherwise protected. As already mentioned, your car’s dashboard and other vinyl and leather surfaces need regular protection. Leather, vinyl and rubber dressings protect and beautify. For best results, dressings should be used sparingly and frequently.
Many people who detail their cars go overboard with applying protectants and dressings. Maybe they think that if a little dressing is good, a lot is even better. Not so. Porous surfaces, such as leather and rubber, can absorb only very small amounts of a dressing.
Typically the leather, vinyl, or rubber has absorbed as much as it can within 3 to 5 minutes of applying a dressing. The rest of the dressing is waste and should be buffed off. If the excess isn’t buffed off, it can create a greasy mess that attracts dust and dirt. So, for best results, dressings should be used sparingly and frequently.
The Devil’s in the Details
The difference between a good-looking car and a great-looking car is in the small details. If you take your car to a professional detailer, make sure they will take care of the small details before you give the okay to do the job.
Here is a 20-point detailing check list:
- Wash and dry exterior paint with Car Wash Shampoo (soap) and a Car Wash Mitt (20 min.)
- Scrub tires and wheels using a Wheel Cleaner and a Car Wash Brush (20 min.)
- Clean and polish exterior windows and mirrors using a good Glass Cleaner (15 min.)
- Clean and polish paint using a Clay Bar followed by Car Polish (60 to 90 min.)
- Wax paint using the Liquid Car Wax or Paste Car Wax of your choice (45 min.)
- Polish chrome trim using a Chrome & Metal Polish (15 min.)
- Clean door, hood and trunk jambs with a Microfiber Cleaning Towel (10 min.)
- Clean and dress rubber seals using a Rubber Conditioner (10 min.)
- Treat tires and trim with a Tire & Trim Dressing (15 min.)
- Vacuum (2 min.)
- Scrub or shampoo floor mats (15 min.)
- Shampoo carpet using a Carpet & Upholstery Cleaner (45 min.)
- Clean fabric upholstery using a Carpet & Upholstery Cleaner and leather with a Leather Cleaner (45 min.)
- Clean the dashboard and console (20 min.)
- Clean vents using a Vent Duster (10 min.)
- Apply a Leather Conditioner or Vinyl Protectant to console, vinyl and leather (20 min.)
- Clean interior windows and rear-view mirror with an ammonia-free Glass Cleaner (10 min.)
- Empty and clean ashtrays (5 min.)
- Deodorize vents and carpet (10 min.)
- Protect carpet and upholstery fabric (20 min.)
If you look at the estimated average time assigned to each task, you can see that a complete car detail is no less than a full day’s job. Most professional detailers will charge a good sum to do this level of work. If you have an expensive or neglected car, expect to pay up.
Some simple tips that will make detailing easier…
Stay Out of the Sun’s Rays
If possible, work in a cool garage or in the shade. Most detailing products don’t work well on hot surfaces. Washing your car in the sun is a sure recipe for water spots and streaks.
Work from the Top Down
Your car is dirtiest on the bottom and cleanest at the top. Washing from the top down keeps your wash water clean longer and helps prevent swirl marks. Similarly, dry your car from the top down leaving your bumpers, rocker panels, tires and wheels for last.
Roll Lint & Pet Hair Away
Invest in a masking tape lint roller designed to remove lint from clothing. These rollers are great for removing lint and pet hair from interior upholstery. Lint rollers also work equally well on canvas soft tops. Roll away for a beautiful, lint-free top!
Hey You, Cool Your Jets!
Never wash your car fresh off the road. Cold water can severely damage hot parts including brake rotors, exhaust components and your engine. Let it cool down for 20 to 30 minutes first. This is a case where your enthusiasm can work against you. Chill, literally!
When Less can be More
Have you ever wondered why the instructions on most hair shampoo bottles read “Wash, rinse, repeat”? It’s pretty simple; they want us to use more product. Most car care products are meant to be used sparingly and the instructions will say so.
Let’s face it, most of what we apply ends up being wiped right back off again. Use less and save money. You’ll get the same results, maybe better.
Hey, is it Foggy in Here?
That nasty film on the inside of your windows is a polyvinyl fog created by new plastics and vinyl. As your car ages, the polyvinyl fog diminishes. Reduce the amount created by using interior dressings and protectants sparingly, and wiping the dash and console dry.
On new cars, keep a window cracked as often as possible to allow the polyvinyl gases to escape. Use of a sun shield also helps.
Be Careful Driving Topless
Sweat, oils from your skin, lotion and sunscreen may soil fabric upholstery as well as damage vinyl and leather upholstery. If you drive scantily dressed, cover your seat with a seat cover, towel or an old t-shirt.
In addition to upholstery damage from sweat, sunscreen and lotions, driving topless brings additional wear from ultraviolet (UV) rays. This can quickly cause fading and rapid deterioration of the materials.
Details, Details & Details
You’ve just finished polishing and waxing your car. Maybe it glistens, but all of your hard work is overshadowed by white wax residue around the trim. This problem is easily solved while the wax is still fresh by using a few shots of detailing spray and a detailing brush or towel.
Keep Your Zipper Up!
Be careful not to damage your car’s paint with zippers, belt buckles, rings and other jewelry. Wear appropriate clothing and take off the hard stuff.
You’re Becoming a Fanatic
Fewer than 10% of all car owners detail their own vehicles. Chances are you’re reading this because you want to learn more about caring for your car yourself. That makes you a car enthusiast! Most car nerds find cleaning and waxing rewarding, possibly even relaxing.
Your next step is to learn all about Detailing Supplies & Chemicals. The right products make detailing easier and go a long way towards keeping your car looking “just detailed” longer.