The Beginner's Guide to Detailing a Car Like a Pro

Last Updated December 29, 2018 by . First Published in 2005.

I would not ever pay to have my car professionally detailed by somebody else, it spoils the fun and after hours of slaving over it, you can stand back with pride and say "wow! I did that".

Never use "automatic" or "drive through" car washes to clean a car, even the ones that claim to be brushless. Automatic washes tend to accumulate debris in their brushes, which will scratch your car's surface. Even the brushless drive through car washes uses strong solvents in their water, in combination with very high-pressure water. High-pressure washers will damage the paint surface, and sandblast scratches into the clear coat. If there are any minor defects on the surface, the pressure could rip into these and spoil the finish. If you love your car, avoid these!

How to properly detail your car
How to properly detail your car

Why Detail your Car?

Washing and detailing your car gets you in the habit of looking over your vehicle and noticing anything new - dents, scratches, rust, tire defects and other things you might need to look into having repaired before serious damage is done.

When to Detail your Car

Do not wash or polish a car when it is in direct sunlight - cold water on the hot paint can damage it, also the soap and water will dry leaving a white residue. This is especially important if your car has a dark coloured finish. Never polish in direct sunlight as the heat will bake the polish on and it will be very difficult to remove. Also never, polish when it is too cold - if condensation forms on the paint it will mix with the polish and become an oily mess. Ideally, you want a sunny day, working in the shade.

What Materials to Detail a Car

Use only a quality detergent designed for washing cars. Dishwashing liquids are too harsh for a car's finish and will damage the surface. Try to use a natural sponge, rather than a synthetic one. Use multiple passes, instead of one hard scrub, and work in a smooth circular motion, using gentle pressure.

Ideally you should also use a mild polish and a good quality wax to finish the process. Each of these will need two good quality cloths - one to apply and the other to buff.

You will also need a good quality chamois cloth for drying.

Optionally you can use clay bars, tyre foam, spray on wheel cleaner, back to black silicone, cockpit shine and metal polishes.

How to Detail a Car - The Car Detailing Process

Start by pulling up the wiper blades then hose the car down. This will remove and large deposits of salt, sand, dirt or grit. This is important so that they are not picked up by the sponge which will then scratch the paint. Once it is has been full hosed down, wash the roof. Rinse off and then wash the windows, rinse again and move down to the bonnet and boot, rinse again and move onto doors and panels. Always wash from the top of the car first moving down. This avoids a) dragging dirt from the bottom to the top of the car, and b) dirtying areas already washed. After you wash each area, rinse off the entire car. This prevents the soap from drying hard on the paint and keeps the water from drying and leaving water spots.

How to properly detail your car
How to properly detail your car
How to properly detail your car
How to properly detail your car

Do not forget to wash along the underside of mirrors, along the lines between panels where dirt will collect and around the trim. Remember the door slams. Depending on the type of door, you can soap the area, close the door and hose down, but I found in my Civic that the rubber does too good a job. Instead, I use a soft damp cloth and wipe the slams over and the top of the sills.

Wash the tires, then wheels and exhaust pipe then finally wipe under the sills and inside edge of the wheel arch last.

Now is the time to spray on any alloy wheel cleaner or tyre foam. I use Meguiars Hot Rims, which I spray on, and leave for half a minute then hose off and move onto the next wheel. If you use a spray on type tyre cleaner, now is the time to use it as overspray will be removed when hosing down again.

Rinse off the car again and soak your chamois leather, it should be very soft. I use nothing but 100% real leather, synthetic can scratch paint and isn't anywhere near as effective. Ring it out and dry the body, again from the top down. Pay attention to the creases along the panels where water might sit, especially on a Civic the rear side windows.

Detailing your car

After the car has completely dried, you can begin the detailing process. Some people use masking tape to cover plastic trim so that it does not get polish or wax on it. Personally, I do not do this, but it's up to you.

If your paintwork still has tiny black dots stuck to it these are typically tar spots from the road surface, bits of rubber or baked on squished insects. These are best removed using a clay bar. Clay barring involves spraying on a lubricant and rubbing the area with a piece of fine clay. The idea is that the specs will be lifted off and stick inside the clay without scratching the paint. We'll come back to clay barring in a minute.

Power tools and fine finishes, in my opinion, do not mix. There is nothing that an orbital buffer can do, that you cannot do by hand. The advantage of power is speed. This also applies to getting yourself into trouble. The edges of your body panels and raised/creased areas of the sheet metal have the thinnest layer of paint. When the body is painted, the liquid paint will tend to flow away from these raised areas. An orbital buffer will concentrate its energy on the thin paint of these high points. This is another way of saying hello to your primer or as the professionals say, "burning an edge".

To determine the type of detailing you need, determine the condition of your car's paint surface. Run your hand down the cars body, and feel for bumps. Look for scratches. Look for chips. If your car is not glassy smooth, then you need to detail with clay. If your car has any deep scratches, they should be repaired before polishing and waxing.

If you are not a compulsive and you have just waxed your car within the last month, you may be able to get away with simply a wash and dry. If you are going out on a very hot date tonight, and really want to impress, save an entire day and do all three steps.

Clay Barring

Start by clay barring the entire car. The product is very simple, a piece of clay, and some lubricant. On your newly washed car, spray the lubricant, and gently run the clay over the surface. It will pick up most surface contamination like paint overspray, tar, bugs, and tree sap. These things keep the surface from being glassy smooth. As stated before, go from the cleanest part of the car, and finish with the dirtiest (the top and rear of the car are generally cleaner than the bottom and front of it).

How To Polish Your Car

How to properly detail your car
How to properly detail your car

Having finished with the clay it is time to polish, and then wax. A polish is normally a non-abrasive product based on a nutrient oil matrix and may or may not have a chemical cleaner as part of the package. Most polishes use fillers to help cover swirl marks. Wax is nothing more than a clear protectant and will not remove or hide scratches or swirl marks. It seals in oils and polish, which would normally evaporate over time.

Make certain your car is dry. Water spilling down from a join or window will make it difficult to buff out the wax. Water on your buffing towel will make it much harder to buff out the car. Change rags frequently when buffing, as they will be clogged with waxy residue, and lose their ability to remove wax and polishes. Shaking and whipping out the cloth may help. Promptly remove wax that inadvertently touched plastic trim using a soft cloth.

Always move from top to bottom and try to break the car down into panels. Use a foam applicator pad to apply the polish onto the paint's surface, and clean 100% cotton stockinette (I use Mr Moggs 100g cotton) to buff the polish off. I polish-on one panel, then another. Polish-off the first, polish-on third, polish-off second, polish-on forth and so on, such that I have one panel with polish, while I polish-off another. Always apply and polish off using a smooth circular motions.

How To Wax Your Car

After polishing do the same with the wax. Apply the wax with an applicator and let it dry, the same as we did with the polish. Remove the wax with a clean stockinette cloth and then buff to a shine. You can put on as many coats of wax on as you like. The synthetic waxes will generally outlast carnauba waxes.

Finishing Touches

Clean all of the exterior glass with the glass cleaner and a glass cloth. Polish the wheels, watching out that you do not damage the painted surfaces, and then the exhaust, antenna, and any other exposed or visible metal. Dress the tires with a tire shine product if you like. Roll the car forward or back a couple feet so you can cover the area that was sitting on the bottom of the tire. Finish the detailing with a walk around the car and buff out any polish or wax you might have missed.

How to properly detail your car
How to properly detail your car

Car Interior Detailing Guide (Valeting)

The interior should not see as much abuse as the exterior will. It might be a good idea to clean inside the car first in order to keep it dry (water could drip or come in on your shoes after the washing)

Vacuum the interior very well to remove dirt and dust, gravel, stones, leaves etc. Spot treat anything that might need it. A steam cleaner is a good idea on used vehicles too. Wipe down all of the hard interior plastics, etc. with a wet cloth. If you chose, you may lightly dress your interior plastic with an interior protectant. Armor All leaves a residue which will dull the surface eventually. If you do use a protectant, spray it onto the cloth, then wipe the cloth on the surface. This will lessen splashing and spraying on the glass and other parts of the interior. Try to limit how often you wash the insides of the windows. It has a tendency to smear. Removing tar from smoking will require a bit of hard work. After you wash then get out of the car and check to see that they are clean and streak-free.

For anyone with a used vehicle or one few years old, use a soft toothbrush wetted to clean inside the car too. You can scrub the "PRESS" button on the seat belt clasps and the shifter knob clean. Do not use the toothbrush on the paint of your vehicle though. Its bristles are made of nylon and it will scratch your paint.

Now sit back, grab a beer and congratulate yourself on a job well done!


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