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A sponge cleaning a car during a detail

How to Detail a Car

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Don't Detail with Dish Soap

Household cleaners may be appealing because they're cheap and available, but they may damage your car.   

Detailing a car can prove to have significant advantages when done correctly. Detailing also maintains the car’s value. If you have a car professionally detailed, it could cost in the upwards of $300. Many people detail their car themselves to save time and money. Here are a few tips and tricks to help make detailing easier.

A microfiber cloth resting atop a newly detailed car

Gathering supplies

Supplies required for different types of interior and exterior surfaces.

For the interior, you will need:

  • Vacuum cleaner with hoses
  • Interior cleaner (an example would be Armor All)
  • Carpet and upholstery cleaner
  • Window cleaner
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpicks
  • Q-tips
  • Several dry cloths or paper towels
  • Trash bag

For the exterior, you will need:

A bucket of soapy water

  • Water hose with nozzle
  • Buckets (one with soap and water and one with clean water for rinsing)
  • Car washing soap
  • Car wash mitt
  • Car wash sponge
  • Dry towels
  • Window cleaner
  • Tire cleaner
  • Car wax

Detailing the interior of a car

First, if the floor mats are waterproof, spray or soak them while you are cleaning the rest of the car.

Use the toothbrush, toothpicks, and Q-tips to remove all unwanted dirt build-up in the cracks and small crevices. Pay close attention to the dashboard, vents, cup holders, gear shift, steering wheel, and gas and brake pedals. Use your upholstery cleaner and your cloth or paper towels where needed for this process.

Clean the transparent plastic panel over the speedometer with window cleaner, not upholstery cleaner. Upholstery clean could leave smears and smudges making it harder to see the gauges.

Clean windows and mirrors from the inside of the car with window or glass cleaner. It is often easier to spray as you go in sections. Wipe off the window cleaner with a paper towel or clean, dry cloth. Use enough force that all smears are gone.   

Next, vacuum the entire car; start from top to bottom and move from front to back. Use a small hose to get into all cracks and crevices in the car. Do not forget to vacuum underneath the seats.

It is time to clean the floor mats. If there is dry dirt, it is easy to use a brush to brush off loose dirt or debris. Normally, the mats are waterproof and can be hosed down. Use a water hose and spray off any dirt or mud build up. Dry the mats with a clean, dry cloth and place back inside the car.

Last, clean out the trunk in the same manner as above to keep dirt from building up and minimizing unwanted smells over time. Make sure you put back all tools for changing a tire or items needed for emergencies.

Detailing the exterior of a car

First, move the vehicle to a shaded area or garage and let the exterior cool. Direct sunlight or extreme heat could damage the paint job when using cleaning products.

Washing the hood of the car with soapy water

Rinse off the entire car with the water hose. Do not use the strongest nozzle setting. The powerful stream of water could remove paint.

In one of the buckets, mix the car wash soap with water (use the instructions on the soap bottle for mixing directions). Then, fill the second bucket with plain water or use the water hose, if you prefer. Dip your sponge or mitt into the soapy mixture and start washing from the top of the car and work from the front to back top to bottom. Ensure you are rinsing your sponge or mitt every few minutes in the plain water bucket, so you are not reapplying dirt to the car. Lift the windshield wipers on the windows to ensure thorough cleaning. Pay special attention to outside mirrors, emblems, headlights, and tail lights.

Spraying the tires of a car with a stream of water

Then, focus on the tires. Spray the entire wheel down with the tire cleaner. You can use a toothbrush, scrub brush or sponge on the tires and clean any dirt or mud build up on the wheel. Remove any small rocks and debris from the tires, as needed. Wipe down all mud flaps.

Do not forget to change your rinse water frequently. Using the bucket of plain water or the water hose and spray nozzle, rinse the entire car; again from front to back and top to bottom. You either let the car air dry or, to ensure a spotless finish, use a clean, dry cloth to dry entire vehicle. If you are at a car wash, they generally have air dryers for your vehicle.  

Waxing the car

The last step in detailing a car is waxing.  You will need car wax, one dry towel for application and one dry towel for buffing. You can also purchase specific waxing cloths at your local auto parts store. Car wax may vary, so be sure to follow directions on the bottle. It is advised to never wax a car in the extreme heat or direct sunlight as it can cause streaking, as well as damage to the paint.

egin applying a small amount of wax to the car. This application process is best taking sections from the beginning of the front of the car and working your way back. Rub the wax into the car using a dry clean cloth in small, circular motions. Allow to set for a minute or two, then buff off using a different dry clean cloth.

Waxing and buffing a car in circular motions

If your car has plastic trim on the fenders, bumpers, outside mirrors or around the windows, it is necessary to use a plastic trim cleaner. Over time, the sun, and weather can dull or fade the look of the plastic trim. Plastic trim cleaner, causes the same effect as waxing the exterior of a car. It will restore the look of the trim and make it look new again. This cleaner is applied and removed the same way as car wax. Always wear gloves and apply in an open area, to prevent inhaling any vapors from the chemicals.

Repairing scratches on your car

After you have waxed your car, you may still notice scratches. Some scratches you may be able to fix. First, you must determine how serious the scratch is. It is important to know there are three layers of paint on your car; the primer, the color coat, and the outer clear coat.

Generally, scratches in the clear coat are the easiest to fix. Some minimal scratches may look like swirls in the paint,  caused by the weather or poor car maintenance or cleaning. Many times if there is dirt or grime on the exterior of the car when you go to wash it, it is easy to scrub this dirt into the clear coat and cause scratches. The good news is, these scratches are often easily repaired by correctly using car wax or polish.

For scratches you can catch your fingernail on, you will need a more powerful polish or a buffer. Fine grit sandpaper (2500 grit) is recommended to smooth the scratches lightly. Then finish by using car wax or polish as directed above.

If you can see white or gray in the scratch, then this usually means it is through the color coat. Many auto parts stores sell scratch-repair pens. Often these pens make the damage look worse than what it is by covering the scratch with a clear coat; it does not fill in the scratch and cover it with paint.

For best results on repairing a deep scratch, use wet sandpaper with an abrasive cleaner to smooth the area. You will need to get matching paint from a dealer by giving them the make and model of your car. Some auto parts stores carry generic colors, like red, black, blue or white. The problem, however, is if your car’s paint has faded due to age and weather, it may be nearly impossible to match the color without having the whole section or car repainted by a professional.

Detailing a car can take anywhere from 1 - 2 hours depending on the size, make, and model, and how dirty the vehicle is. Ensure that you have enough time so you can do your best. This can be enjoyable and prove to be a satisfactory way of ensuring the vehicle looks its best. Whether it be your car or owning a detailing business, using the best products and being consistent is the best way to maximize a car’s value. Experts can help you if you need more information on how to keep your car in its best shape.  

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