What Is Car Detailing? | Take These Steps Toward Show-Quality Cleaning Perfection

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Author | Julia King

Car detailing involves thorough restoration, cleaning and finishing of the outside and the inside of an automobile vehicle in order to obtain show-quality level of details. It’s the perfectionist’s car cleaning, the “home staging” of the automotive world, and a mandatory path to presenting a car in showrooms.

Auto detailing is a comprehensive care of the whole vehicle including but not limited to extensive cleaning, minor reparations, clay bar decontamination, polishing and waxing. Although detailing a car at home is possible, it takes some basic equipment and a significant amount of time.

Nonetheless, if you’re ready to make a small initial investment and got a good dose of patience, here’s how to do a full interior and exterior car detailing yourself.

Detailing A Car Interior

car detailing


Interior detailing consists of cleaning and shining the whole cab interior. Since most cars hold a wide variety of materials, it’s important to get equipped accordingly before getting to it.

You will need:

  • a good heavy duty vacuum
  • a steam-cleaning machine
  • a microfiber or lint-free cloth
  • a leather brush
  • detailing brushes (various sizes and materials)
  • a compressed air can or an air compressor
  • sponges
  • a coarse brush

For cleaning products, you should have:

  • mild all-purpose cleaner
  • a window cleaning product (preferably ammonia and vinegar-free, since those could harm certain types of window tinting)
  • vinyl or rubber protectant or dressing
  • leather or vinyl cleaner
  • leather or vinyl conditioner
  • automotive upholstery shampoo

For starters, always clean from top to bottom (since dirt rarely falls the other way around) and from the inside out, so you don’t have to clean the same surface twice. Nothing is more frustrating than polishing the dashboard perfectly, only to realize you forgot to clean the inside of the windshield.

Start by removing everything you can from inside the car: carpets, mats, removable devices, personal objects, etc. Vacuum the floor (don’t forget to go under the seats), trunk, seats, dash and all compartments thoroughly, then do the same with the mats and garments you removed after shaking them off to remove the biggest residues.

Wash the carpets and mats with car fabric shampoo and a coarse brush. Rinse them well and try to dry them as much as possible with microfiber cloths. Doing this as a first step will allow them to dry during the rest of the process. Don’t put back moist mats or carpets in the vehicle, as it could create mold or mildew.

With upholstery shampoo or an adapted foam stain remover and a cloth, remove the stains from the seats and upholstery and rinse the area with a damp sponge to avoid soap stains. Once again, try to get out as much moisture as possible from the fabric after cleaning it with a microfiber cloth.

To remove dirt and dust from air vents and small cracks and notches, use a compressed air can, an air compressor or microfiber and regular detailing brushes.

Then, clean the seats. For cloth interiors, start by lightly shampooing the fabric and rinsing it thoroughly, then steam clean the seats to kill any germs and help the water evaporate from the material. Use microfiber cloth to absorb any moisture left and try to air out the car as much as possible.

Vinyl or leather interiors should be cleaned with a cloth and adapted cleaner, then lightly brushed with a soft leather brush. You can get the excess cleaner off with a microfiber cloth and apply leather or vinyl conditioner afterward.

Finally, clean the windows, windshield and mirrors with glass cleaner, and wipe rubber and plastic surfaces clean with a mild all-purpose product. Apply rubber or vinyl dressing to make it shine brighter than Doris Day, and there you go!

NOTE: Upon using any kind of dressing, letting it soak in the material will result in a glossy finish, whereas wiping it up immediately will offer an equally classy matte finish.

To remove smoke smell or bad odors from inside the car, try leaving a small bowl of baking soda sprinkled (or not) with tea tree or cinnamon essential oil in the cabin overnight. Soda absorbs lingering smells and cinnamon and tea tree oils kill bacteria and smell delicious.

Detailing A Car Exterior

car detailing

The mother of all car detailing tips and tricks still applies outside of the vehicle: get the job done from top to bottom so you don’t have to clean the same spot several times. Once again, to get exterior car detailing done like a pro, you’ll need some basic stuff:

  • wheel degreaser or cleaner (ideally not acid-based as it can harm polished alloy or clear coated wheels)
  • metal polish
  • tire cleaner
  • tire dressing
  • all-purpose cleaner or degreaser
  • vinyl or rubber protectant or dressing
  • window cleaning product (ammonia and vinegar-free)
  • car wash soap
  • clay bar or liquid clay bar
  • car wax and/or polish, paint sealant, coating or glaze
  • pre-wax cleaner

As for tools and equipment:

  • a wheel brush
  • cable ties or plastic bands
  • compressed air can or air compressor
  • sponges
  • microfiber or lint-free cloth
  • chamois or towel
  • water hose
  • 2 pails or buckets
  • buffing machine and polisher

Though it’s not mandatory, it’s better to remove the wheels from the car as it makes it easier to clean them completely. If you’re not equipped for such a process, no worries. Your car will look great nonetheless.

You can also wrap electric cords inside the hood with plastic bands and spray the whole thing with degreaser, rinsing it off with a pressure washer for a cleaner look on the inside.

Start by cleaning the car with car wash soap and a sponge. It is best to use 2 water buckets or pails: one for clean soapy water, and the other to rinse off your dirty sponge. You should rinse the car step by step with the water hose instead of waiting until the whole exterior has been soaped up; it won’t allow the soapy water to dry, leaving soap spots on the body of the car. Don’t use detergent soap! It harms the vehicle’s paint and oxides it.

Dry the car with a chamois or a towel.

To clean the wheels, use an air or water compressor and all-purpose cleaner. You can use a wheel brush for the rims, as well as a wheel degreaser or cleaner. For the tires, use a cloth and tire cleaner. You can then apply tire dressing, shine chrome wheels with metal polish or plastic wheels with vinyl dressing.

Use glass cleaner and a microfiber cloth for the windshield, windows and mirrors, and dress up all the plastic and rubber parts of the car (inside and outside the hood) with vinyl dressing.

How To Use A Car Detailing Clay Bar

To remove contaminants from the car paint, use a traditional or liquid clay bar. To use the traditional clay bar, spray clay lubricant over a small section at a time and glide the bar back and forth. Don’t put too much pressure, and be sure to lubricate the area thoroughly so the clay won’t stick.

When it moves effortlessly and you don’t feel any rough patches anymore, you can move to the next area. Check the bar often and flip, fold or reshape it as needed, so you always expose a clean side of it to your car.

Claying your car once in a while will make the process shorter over time, but be prepared for at least an hour work on your first try.

The Difference Between Paint Sealants And Car Waxes, Coatings And Polishes.

For an ultra-glossy look, use car polish, a soft abrasive liquid that refines the paint’s clear coat and offering stunning results on the overall vehicle’s appearance, although it has no protective properties.

You can also use paint glaze to hide minor defects of the surface and give it a temporary extra shine, but this cheap and generally low quality product will wear off at the first rain shower. Wipe polish or glaze off before using any other product on your car.

If you used a clay bar and no polish, use a pre-wax cleanser to make sure the surface is squeaky clean before waxing.

For paint protection, you can then apply car wax or a paint sealant or coating (the difference between the two mostly being the viscosity and longevity of the protection: paint sealants are oilier than paint coatings, which are water-like and longer-lasting). Both are quite easy to apply, and can efficiently replace liquid or paste-like carnauba-based car wax, though nothing can provide the same depth of shine.

How To Wax Or Polish Your Car

The application process will largely depend on the product and tools you use, i.e. if you have a polisher, an orbital or rotary buffer, etc. All you have to do is follow the instructions!

Let it dry, buff the vehicle by hand or with a buffing machine, and voilà!

If you don’t find the courage to do it yourself and want to get the stunning result of a professional car detailing, choose your detailing professional wisely! Even with the best intentions, an amateur could easily damage your car in many ways. Get a trusted business to do it! Every town typically has a few small businesses that specialize in car detailing! 

Guest post submitted and written by | Julia King

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