Beginners Guide to Detailing Like a Pro
Cleaning your car can often feel like a chore, but to car enthusiasts detailing is a passion.
There are many different levels of auto detailing, hundreds of different techniques and theories, and tens of thousands of products. And the advice and techniques out there often contradict each other. Ask 3 professional detailers what to do and you’ll most likely get 3 very different answers. This guide will walk you through the practices I currently use, or have used in the past with good luck.
Remember: proper detailing is just as much about the protection of your car as it is about getting it shiny and glossy. For the purpose of this guide, we’ll focus exclusively on detailing the exterior, getting it to look it’s best without a lot of time, hassle, or expense.
What is Car Detailing?
Car or automotive detailing means completing a ‘detailed’ cleaning, or restoration of a vehicle to produce a better shine. Detailing also helps to protect paint and other car parts against exposure to UV rays and contaminants.
What are the Components of Car Detailing?
When a car owner decides to detail their vehicle, they’ll follow a general guideline:
· Cleaning the Exterior: The first step of detailing is cleaning the vehicle. This makes sure that all of the dirt, debris, road grime, and other stuff is removed from the vehicle. Most car owners use microfiber towels, a wash mitt, and car wash soap products that reduce scratching in this process.
· Protecting the Exterior: While a car wash is important for removing debris, car detailing involves protecting the paint and other exterior components. Many people apply car wax, paint sealants, or ceramic coatings. Other exterior parts such as tires are enhanced with tire dressing. A lot of people also use glass cleaner to clean automotive glass. Prepping the car paint by using a clay bar is usually the first step of protecting the paint.
· Cleaning the Interior: Once the exterior car detailing has been completed, most car owners will move to clean the interior. Most of the time, the interior cleaning involves vacuuming, removing the trash, and removing contaminants from the leather, vinyl, or plastic parts and pieces.
· Interior Detailing: Detailing products for the interior will also vary based on each car owner. Most of the time, the owner will purchase treatment products designed for specific materials, which enhance the shine and protect the materials from exposure.
Most car experts recommend cleaning the wheels first with wheel cleaner or tire brushes. Then it’s suggested to clean the car exterior and protect it with car detailing products. The last step is to clean and detail the car interior.
No matter what products you choose, the best car detailing projects usually involve a lot of hard work, patience, and using the right supplies and techniques.
Beginning the Car Detailing Process
Detailing a car isn’t a particularly difficult or technical task but even if you’re just washing it, you can actually do more harm than good if you follow the wrong procedures or using the wrong products. And most often, knowing the steps is half the battle.
It’s also important to understand the car detailing in Portland is much different than detailing a car in Cincinnati for example. Each location you live has unique attributes that impact the way a car becomes dirty and needs to be cleaned.
First things first. If you own any towels, mitts or alike which are not microfiber: throw them out. Yep, the trash bin is the only place for any product which can leave scratches on the surface of your vehicle, when the very thing you’re trying to do is restore it.
I’ve seen countless vehicles being completely murdered with mini-scratches, swirl marks, marring, etc. only because the owners had been using cheap products that had been doing more harm than good.Dirty worn out rag you definitely don’t want touching your car
Beyond that, the single most important thing you can do to keep your car’s finish looking good is to wash it regularly. The right way.
The reason is all the contaminants that your car is exposed to – the dirt, the mud, the road grime, not to mention things like bird droppings and dead bugs – can harm your paint if left for too long.
But before you get started, remember these five golden rules:
1. Don’t wash your car in direct sunlight
Seriously, almost all detailing products don’t perform well in the sun’s rays or on a hot surface. Heat also speeds the drying of soap and water, and while it’s tempting to enjoy the sun outside you’re asking for water spots and streaks. Work indoors or in the shade.
2. Avoid cross-contamination
Cross-contamination in washing a car occurs by using the same materials for all washing activity. So don’t use the same items (towels, brushes, buckets, water, etc.) for multiple purposes or locations. You don’t want to move the contaminants from one location to another. This is particularly important on areas of the car which get extra dirty like the rims, wheel wells, or lower panels. Keep your supplies separated.
3. Work your way from the top and down
You don’t want to splash all the dirt and grime on parts of your surface you have just cleaned! Importantly though, this does not include the wheels and tires. You should always clean your wheels and tires first as they are often the dirtiest part of the vehicle.
4. Always use lubrication
We’re not being sexual here. If you’re touching the paint you must use some sort of lubrication. Don’t wipe, clean or touch the paint without lubrication and with improper or dirty towels.
5. Get the right supplies and towels
As I mentioned previously, forget your dirty old sponges. Those old yellow things are basically like using sandpaper. Get a proper wash-mitt and make the marginal investment in some nice soft microfibre towels which make it much easier to dry your car’s paintwork without the risk of scratching. Get a proper car shampoo too.
There’s a reason household washing liquid can remove bacon grease and you don’t want it doing the same to your paint.
Must Have Supplies
Now, of course, you could take your car to a professional detailer and get a thorough clean and detail without getting your own hands dirty. And cost-wise, if you’re only going to perform this once in your life, it’s not going to be that much of a difference between doing it yourself and paying for it.
If you decide to detail your car at home, a basic initial kit is going to be between $75-150 – which will account for most of what you need including the interior and wheels. It may seem costly at first, but keep in mind you’ll be able to reuse almost everything in the future. And by doing it more frequently, it’s going to be a much less intensive process each time (which will counter-intuitively save money).
Here’s what you’ll need:
Car wash soap (NOT DISH SOAP!!) $10
2* Wash mitts $25
2* Big buckets $30
This is a minimal list for traditional exterior cleaning and paint protection.
In general, you’ll want to break down your car cleaning products search into three categories:
· Exterior Car Cleaning Supplies
· Car Interior Cleaning Supplies
· Wheel Cleaner and Tire Brushes Supplies
The Key to Exterior Car Cleaning Supplies
While it might seem logical to purchase the best auto detailing supplies at a local auto parts store, sometimes they’re not always the best help. There are some great products sold at the chain stores, but most are garbage. The parts store workers are not always the best source for help about the car care products either. I was told by an old timer detailer many years ago, “give it the smell test”. If the product smells good and sweet like you want to taste it, it’s probably ok. If the product smells like lighter fluid, put it back!!
Regardless of where you purchase, wash buckets, car wash soap, spray bottles, and car wash brushes should all be purchased from reliable brands and manufacturers.
Finding the Best Interior Car Cleaning Supplies
Interior car cleaning supplies like air fresheners, carpet extractors, glass cleaner and more should always be high-quality. You don’t need to break your budget, but make sure any interior cleaning products are alcohol-free, so they don’t mess up your interior.
How to Wash Your Car The Right Way
I have been using a method a little different than most! People have been using the “2 bucket method” for a number of years now, I modified it. My “go to” for washing is actually rinseless wash, but when I do use soap, I adopted the same method for the soap wash. One bucket is for the soapy water and I soak 6 or 8 microfiber towels in it, the other bucket is to put the dirty towels in after I wash the vehicle. I use towels instead of a mit, this gives me 8 sides per towel (towel folded in 4’s), vs only 2 sides on a mit. Once I use the 8 sides, the towel goes into bucket #2, and I grab a fresh, pre-soaked towel from bucket number 1.
NO DIRT IS EVER INTRODUCED INTO THE WASH BUCKET THIS WAY!
Step 1: Set up
Set everything you will need near the car. Make sure you have your 2 buckets ready (one for washing, one for dirty towels),6 or 8 microfiber towels for washing, 2 microfiber towels for the wheels, and a scrubbing brush for tires.
As noted in the golden rules, make sure you’re parked out of direct sunlight, and make sure to remove belts, jewelry, watches or rings. You’ll want to wash your entire car in one session, which should take an hour or so depending on the size of your vehicle and how dirty it is.
Step 2: Prewash your car
If doing a rinse-less wash, this step is only needed for muddy vehicles or vehicles with loose debris on it.
This is simple; just hose or lightly pressure wash your car down. This is essentially giving your car a wash before you actually wash your car!
A simple and quick pressure wash is essential for cleaning the car effectively.
Prewashing is absolutely crucial as it helps minimize the swirl marks and scratches that can be caused by a mitt during the next washing stage. You can also use a foam gun at this point which besides fun to use, soaks the vehicle and cools it for cleaning.
What you’re trying to do here is simply remove the worst of the heavy gunk before you touch the paintwork. Don’t use a strong jet of water from the hose, as this can rub the dirt over the paint and scratch it. Obviously, the procedure varies depending on the level of contamination, but mostly it’s as easy as using a pressure washer to physically remove heavy grime.
Step 3: Wash using the 2-bucket system
One bucket is used for soaking and another one for dirty towels.
First; get a proper car soap or rinse-less wash (your preference).
Make sure to use the two bucket method, it makes more of a difference than you might think. This is simply one bucket filled with soap and one for dirty towels, the is prevent any thing getting into your clean water, period!
The process is very easy.
1. Fill a bucket with the proper dilution of soap and water.
2. Soak 6 or 8 microfiber towels in the bucket. This acts like a pre-soak, adding further lubrication and helps loosen gunk on the surface.
3. Begin washing the car. Working in sections, start at the top of the car and work your way down, regularly cleaning your mitt in the rinse bucket.
4. Wash in straight, overlapping lines as opposed to circles and remember to be gentle.
5. The towel should be folded in 4ths, this way you have 8 sides to work with. Make a swipe or two, then flip the towel to a clean section. Once all sections are used, throw the towel into the dirty bucket and grab a fresh towel from the crystal clean wash bucket.
By leaving the dirtiest areas at the bottom until last, this will help avoid bringing dirt and grime up to the top.
After one section is washed, rinse it with the hose before moving on, or dry if using rinse-less method. You don’t want the soap to dry on the paint and stain it. When rinsing sections, use the same top to bottom process. As you progress from one section to the next, it’s important that you use the hose to keep the entire car wet. This will prevent water droplets from drying on the paint and leaving water spots. You want to be able to dry the car with towels before it air dries.
Step 4: Clean the wheels & tires last
Your wheels are undoubtedly going to be the dirtiest part of the car, having been constantly collecting road grime and brake dust. In winter time, you have the added bonus of road salt which can cause corrosion. Cleaning the inside of the rims makes all the difference.
So clean these last
Use a Spray-on, wipe-off cleaner, and let it sit for a bit, then hose off.
Scrub your tires in a circular motion to remove the rest of the dirt and grime.
Use a sudsy wheel sponge & clean the tighter areas
If necessary use a smaller scrub brush to clean inside the wheels
Step 5: Drying
Yes, this has it’s very own step. Don’t air dry or be tempted to cruise 100mph down the highway in an attempt to dry the car.
Wipe down all surfaces that you’ve washed, in order to prevent rust from building up. Make sure not to leave any water standing on your vehicle once it’s dried. You can also used compressed air or an electric leaf blower to dry the vehicle.
Wiping down the washed surface to ensure no water spots are left.
For drying, use a clean microfibre drying towel, as these are less likely to scratch your paint than a chamois.
Step 6: Use a detailing mitt or claybar
If you haven’t used a clay bar or detailing mitt before you’re in for a treat as the clarity and luster they add to the surface are unparalleled. They both serve the same purpose which is to smooth out the surface of your car.
We personally prefer a detailing mitt as they can be used multiple times and are easily cleaned after or during use. Additionally, a clay mitt fits over your hand, similarly to a wash mitt making it easier to use than a clay bar which you have to hold as you rub over the vehicle. They’re also typically much larger since they have to fit over your hand, so can cover more surface area.
Detailing mitts are the way to go for achieving the perfectly smooth surface.
For the purposes of this guide, we’ll follow the detailing mitt process as we find them much more practical & quicker for the average user. They are initially more expensive, but trust us when we say they are incredibly simple to use.
Both must utilize a lubricant to help them glide across the painted surface.
1. Working small areas at a time – saturate the painted surface with your detail spray/lubricant. We suggest spraying the clay mitt as well to ensure proper lubrication. I
2. Lightly glide the clay mitt along the surface in a cross-hatch pattern. You’ll notice that there is some resistance/drag at first, but as you continue to glide the mitt and remove contaminants it will become smoother and smoother.
3. Once you no longer feel any resistance/drag in that area, take a clean microfiber towel and wipe the paint clean. Feel the surface with your finger tips and compare to an area you haven’t clayed yet, you should notice a distinct difference in how slick the surface is.
4. Repeat on all panels of the car until you have finished.
Step 7: Polishing
The processes of polishing and waxing your car’s paintwork can make a huge difference to its overall appearance. You should only polish as and when required, usually during a full detail once or twice a year. We advise using a buffer for quality results, as this distributes pressure more evenly than a manual pad. A buffer also achieves optimal polishing results as you can change the speed depending on the different areas of the car you are working on.
Polishing the swirls and scratches makes the car paintwork shine as it had straight out of the factory, at times, better than the factory.
Step 8: Glass Cleaning
We tend to do this as the final step. Even though the exterior glass wash cleaned during the wash step, we tend to do it again inside and out with our special concoction cleaner which dries streak free everytime. Our secret? ONR rinse-less wash, diluted 256:1 and a few drops of opti-seal. Then a 2 towel method is used - spray the glass, use one towel to clean/ wipe, the second to dry. You don’t even have to look at the glass when you do it, it works that good. Streak free everytime! And it’s safe on tinted windows.
How to Protect and Maintain Your Car
After you’ve washed your car, you can help protect the paint finish by applying a good wax or synthetic sealant.
Waxes are an inexpensive and easy way to add some extra shine to your car, but unfortunately, only last for a couple months. Meaning that best practice would be re-applying a wax every two to three months because most of the waxes tested “showed a significant loss of protection within about five weeks”.
Synthetic Sealant, on the other hand, offers protection of 6 to 9 months.
Regardless of what you wish to choose, as when washing, apply only when the car is cool to the touch. And be sure to only use clean, non-abrasive cloths and pads.
5. Auto Detailing Mistakes You Must Avoid
Everyone has their own preferences and techniques for detailing a car, but these mistakes & habits below are some of the most common and easily avoidable. If you do anything, make sure you don’t do these:
Mistake 1: Using the wrong or same cloths
Don’t use a sponge or chamois for cleaning your car. Just get a new quality microfiber towel.
Mistake 2: Washing in direct sunlight or when the car is hot
Most detailing-, aftercare-, or protective products react poorly when exposed to the sun or a warm car body. Work indoors or in the shade. It also reduces the risk of water spots and unseemly pooling.
Mistake 3: Using household or dish soaps to clean
Just don’t. It’s not intended for that specific use and could potentially damage your surface.
Mistake 4: Using 1 wash mitt and the same bucket
2 buckets. One for your car soap with multiple microfiber towels, one for dirty towels.
In the end, it all comes down to what level of finish-perfection you’re after and at what cost. For the average consumer, these steps are simply a means to educate you on how you can do things yourself without blowing the bank or risk ruining your surface. Some of these tips, I’ve learned the hard way.
So think about if you’re either the person who’d rather want to pay for a detailing service, or do things yourself and save a few bucks. If you’re in the latter category, this guide is for you.
I’ll be writing up another article in the near future, dedicated to the rinse-less wash method I prefer to use more nowadays. With the restrictions on water, restrictions from different HOA’s (home owner associations), regulations from different citys, the rinse-less method has been the way to go for us.