Detailing & Treating Trim

Trim is anything applied to the car to enhance style and appearance. It is trim that makes the difference between an otherwise plain-looking car and a sharp automobile. However, due to the time involved in maintaining trim, it’s often overlooked.

Over time, trim that is not properly cared for will become dirty, dull and worn which makes the entire car look bad. Well-maintained trim stands out and makes any car look great.

Common trim items include chrome bumpers, window molding, chrome light rings, chrome door handles, rubber door and bumper guards, window wipers, emblems and antennas. Classic and antique cars may also have horns, leather straps, hood ornaments and exposed exhaust manifolds.

Black Automotive Trim

Many cars made in the 1980s and 1990s featured some black trim. Most black trim pieces are made of plastic, rubber, anodized aluminum or satin black painted metal. All black trim should be regularly cleaned with car wash shampoo.

You should use a toothbrush, paintbrush or other soft detailing brush if extra scrubbing power is required. Do not use a stiff bristle brush on black trim, as it will scratch.

To keep black trim in good condition, it must be treated with a protectant approximately 6-8 times a year. There are different treatments for different materials.

On smooth black plastic, you can use any vinyl and rubber dressing. For best long-term results, choose a vinyl and rubber dressing that contains ultraviolet (UV) protection to prevent sun fading, such as the highly recommend UV Protectant by 303.

On textured black plastic, use a vinyl and rubber dressing. A gel product, like Meguiar’s Endurance Gel, offers excellent longer protection and a rich, glossy look.

The Use of Forever Black

If your textured black plastic is heavily weathered or faded, you can bring it back to life with a product like Forever Black, which is a dye system for black plastic and rubber trim. It’s advertised as a permanent solution, but in my experience it will only last a couple of years.

Forever Black is certainly not a total replacement for vinyl and rubber dressing. After it cures, you still need to keep the trim protected and looking good with vinyl and rubber dressing.

To properly maintain black anodized trim (including vinyl, plastic and rubber), you must use a high quality UV protectant that repeals dirt and prevent fading. As you can see, there are several good products for achieving this!

In any case, anodized aluminum must be treated with great care. The coating is very thin. Even the mildest abrasives (polish and cleaners) will quickly scuff or remove the coating. The sun is a problem, too, as exposure to UV rays will fade black anodized trim.

No doubt that painted black trim is often difficult to maintain. If you wax it, the original satin finish will begin to take on gloss. If you don’t treat it, the trim will fade and become flat. A good solution is to treat satin black trim (windshield wipers are an example) with Meguiar’s Ultimate Quik Detailer.

This product is equally amazing on trim areas, it offers a natural satin finish, it dries to a grease-less finish and won’t soften the black paint. Simply wipe it on and let it dry!

Rubber Seals & Moldings

Rubber seals and moldings around windows, doors, lights, hood, trunk and bumpers are designed to protect the car from water, wind and dirt. These rubber components also enhance appearance. If you do not maintain rubber seals, they’ll become stiff and brittle and will eventually crack or tear.

Clean your rubber door, trunk and hood seals with soap and water twice a year. Treat the seals with a water-based vinyl and rubber dressing. After coating the seals, allow the dressing to penetrate for 10 to 15 minutes, then dry the seals with a clean towel.

I use Nextzett’s Gummi Pflege Rubber Care Stick on seals. It has a fantastic applicator bottle and the product dries completely oil-free and protects against cracking.

Some car manufacturers, such as Porsche and BMW, recommend using talcum powder on door and hood seals to provide lubrication. This will extend the life of the door seal. Simply sprinkle a small amount of talcum powder on a small piece of t-shirt material and wipe it onto the seal after applying rubber and vinyl dressing.

Rubber seals around windows, lights, door handles and mirrors should also be cleaned twice a year using a brush and soapy water. However, these more exposed rubber seals should be treated more frequently than door and hood seals since they get heavy UV radiation from the sun.

I recommend treating window seals with rubber and vinyl UV protectant once a month. Apply the protectant prior to cleaning your windows. Use a generous amount and allow it to penetrate before buffing dry. When working in tight areas, use a cotton or foam swab to apply the dressing. Use a quick detailing spray to clean off excess protectant from painted surfaces.

Caring for Badges and Emblems

Many cars have badges or emblems sporting the manufacturer’s crest or the name of the automobile. These badges are easily cleaned with a soft toothbrush or detailing brush and soapy water.

After cleaning, protect the badge with a coat of wax or sealant. Remove any excess wax with a quick detailing spray and a clean toothbrush or detailing brush.

Car name emblems are often much more difficult to clean and wax around than a badge. Most often, the emblem is a script that sits right on the paint.

Waxing around these emblems is a challenge, as a polishing cloth won’t reach between the letters to remove wax residue. In this case, use cotton swabs or wrap the head of a tooth brush with a single layer of cotton t-shirt material.

Door and Bumper Guards

Many cars include rubber door and bumper molding that serves to protect the car from door dings and soft bumps. Treat these pieces of trim with rubber and vinyl protectant once a month to keep them in good shape. I really like Meguiar’s Endurance Tire Gel for this particular job. It also works great under the hood.

Door and bumper molding should be thoroughly cleaned at least twice a year with soapy water and a toothbrush or detailing brush. Dirt commonly builds up on the bottom edges, in cracks or around the small caps used to terminate the ends of molding pieces. Use the brush and soapy water to get in the cracks as deeply as possible.

Caring for Light Covers

Plastic light covers scratch easily. After only a few months on the road, light covers will begin to show signs of wear. To keep them looking good, they must be regularly cleaned and polished.

I find it useful to remove the light covers, at least twice a year, for cleaning. Most can be removed with a Phillips screwdriver. Doing so allows me to inspect the seal for wear, check for corrosion and also clean the painted area around the light.

For thorough cleaning and light polishing of all clear plastics, I recommend Plexus.

License Plate Frames

License plates and their frames should be removed from the car at least once a year for cleaning, polishing and treating. You’d be amazed at the dirt that collects behind your license plate and its frame. A good time to do this cleaning is when you renew your tags.

With the license plate removed, you can take it to a deep sink and give it a good scrub. After cleaning, give the plate a quick buff with a paint cleaner or fine polish. Finally, protect the plate with a wax or sealant. Clean and protect the frame, too.

Retractable Antennas

Retractable antennas, manual or electric, require regular maintenance. The antenna mast should be cleaned and lubricated twice a year using a paper towel or rag sprayed with a penetrating lubricant. Wipe off the excess lubricant with a clean towel.

If the antenna mast shows a lot of dirt or signs of corrosion, use an SOS pad before treating with lubricant. Scrub gently and be sure to rinse all of the SOS pad residue off of the antenna and painted surfaces.

Polishing Metals

Before Polishing
Stainless steel is one of the more difficult metals to polish. It is very hard, so if the metal has imperfections, it would take a lot of work by hand to create a nice finish. However, using a polishing ball and cordless drill, it took less than 30 minutes to achieve excellent results.

Most car fanatics love bright, shiny and polished metal. There’s nothing quite like perfect chrome, polished aluminum wheels or bright exhaust tips to improve the good looks of a car. For example, engine compartments with polished manifolds really make a difference.

While polished metal is great to look at, it’s not always easy to achieve. This is especially true if it has been neglected. This section gives some quick tips on metal polishing. With the right tools and a little work, you can achieve great results.

Polishing Chrome

Chrome is by far the most common bright work on an automobile. Chromium, the metal used to chrome-plate steel and other metals, resists tarnishing and holds a shine better than all other metals, including platinum.

Chrome has a single enemy: rust. Over time, chrome oxidizes and develops rust spots. The higher quality the chrome plating, the more it will resist rusting; but eventually, it will happen. If you allow chrome to go too long, without removing rust, it will become permanently pitted.

After Polishing
I was lucky. Although rough, the tailpipes did not have any deep pits or imperfections. They polished to a bright shine very quickly.

Heavy rust on chromed parts requires a decision: polish or re-chrome. Replating small parts is pretty easy. Simply remove the part and hand it to your local plating company. A few days later you’ll have your part back looking like new.

However, what if it’s a large part, like a bumper or a window frame? Replating a medium or large part is expensive. Even modest-sized parts, such as hubcaps, can cost $100 or more. If you think there’s even a remote chance the rusted chrome part is salvageable, you should try to save it.

Removing rust and polishing chrome can usually restore chrome to a reasonable-looking condition. If the rust simply coats and isn’t deeply embedded, the chrome should come back to life. As long as the chrome is not flaking off, you have a chance of saving it.

Most pro detailers use fine grades of steel wool to remove rust from chrome. It’s quick and easy! Please use caution if you choose this route, as even fine (#000) or superfine (#0000) steel wool leaves minor scratches that you will need to polish with a metal or chrome polish to remove.

Another product that works well is a household steel wool soap pad. The soap acts as both a cleaner and a lubricant to prevent scratching (use plenty of water).

Warning: Keep steel wool away from painted surfaces.

If you have rust in cracks and crevices that you can’t reach, use a toothbrush and household cleanser. Wet the toothbrush, dip it in the cleanser, and start scrubbing. The abrasives in the cleanser remove rust very fast. Rinse well with plenty of fresh water.

The final step for chrome is to polish it with a good chrome or metal polish. Use a polish specifically made for chrome. With most metal polishes, a little goes a long way. Use just a little dab at a time. Also, the best metal-polishing cloth is soft cotton, such as t-shirt material. Cotton fleece, from an old sweatshirt, works great as well.

Polishing Aluminum

Before Polishing
Prior to polishing, my wheels were tarnished and dull. The difficulty with these wheels is polishing between all of the bolts.

Aluminum is an easy metal to polish. It’s soft enough that even the roughest aluminum parts can be quickly polished to a bright shine. A few years ago, in a fit of craziness, I decided to polish all of the aluminum parts on the top side of my 1989 Silver Anniversary 911’s engine. I went nuts! Everything was subject to being polished, including the intake manifold and the distributor. It was beautiful!

Polished aluminum has a fault in that it tarnishes quickly. Most factory-polished aluminum parts are sprayed with a clear lacquer, acrylic or urethane to seal the part. This is very common on polished wheels. If you’re trying to restore a polished aluminum part that has been anodized or clear coated, you must first remove the coating.

Many professional polishing shops use an aircraft-strength stripper for this job. You must use these chemicals with extreme caution and never let them come near your car.

After Polishing
After polishing, the wheels are very bright, almost like chrome.

You can polish aluminum by machine or by hand. With the invention of the polishing ball, there’s no reason to polish by hand. With a polishing ball, and a cordless drill, you can polish your wheels to a brilliant finish in a matter of minutes.

Note: Polished aluminum Kinesis wheels require polishing every six months or so to keep their shine.

Polishing Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is a wonderful metal. Although it does not polish as brightly as chrome or aluminum, it will take on a good shine. The only problem is that stainless steel is very hard.

A common use for stainless steel is the exhaust system, including the exhaust tip. Many people choose to cover unpolished stainless steel exhaust tips with chrome sleeves, often for as much as $400. With the advent of the polishing ball, you can polish that exhaust tip to a bright shine in just a few minutes.

The Trim Summary

It’s the small details that make the difference between a regular car and one that’s stunning. In a recent visit to the San Diego Automobile Museum, I couldn’t help but notice how the beautifully restored, polished and treated trim on some of the vintage and exotic cars made for a stunning display.

Pay attention to your trim and see what a big difference it makes in your car’s final appearance!

Got a convertible? Check out of Convertible Top Cleaning & Conditioning page!