What is Car Detailing?

Jeff Youngs | May 14, 2020

Whether you’re looking to increase the value of your vehicle in the eyes of prospective buyers or simply want your ride to shine, getting your car thoroughly cleaned, or detailed, has many benefits. Beyond the economic and aesthetic benefits, however, detailing your car on a regular basis can also help to extend its life by removing corrosive materials from the body and mechanicals.

car detailing

How to Detail a Car

For best results when detailing a car, you should start on the outside and then tackle the interior. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to detail a car:

Gather materials: In order to perform a proper car detail, you’ll need to first gather materials. 

Frequently used items for the exterior include:

  • Hose or, if you want to get fancy, a spray wand
  • Two buckets of clean water
  • Wash mitt and soft-bristled brush
  • Car wash soap/shampoo
  • Wheel and tire cleaner
  • Microfiber towels
  • Window cleaner
  • Tire shine
  • Clay bar (optional)
  • Car polish/wax

Now that you have the right equipment for the exterior, you need to plan the materials you’ll need for the interior. In addition to some of the items used above, you’ll need:

  • Vacuum cleaner
  • Upholstery cleaner 
  • Interior detailer
  • Steam cleaner (optional)
  • Air freshener (optional) 

Most of these items can be purchased at your local auto parts store or big-box retailer.

Clean the wheels and tires: While it may seem counterintuitive, rather than starting the detail process at the top with your car’s roof, you should begin by first cleaning the vehicle’s wheels and tires. 

Why? Because wheels and tires are typically the dirtiest parts of a vehicle as they are in constant contact with the ground, picking up oil, gas, mud, salt, brake dust, and any number of other substances found on the road surface. By cleaning the wheels and tires first, you avoid splashing dirty water, grime, and cleaning products on your clean, dry paint.

When cleaning the wheels, be sure to use the appropriate cleaner depending on the surface material. For instance, avoid using harsh cleaners on chrome or aluminum wheels. Work on one tire at a time. Apply the cleaning product to the wheel and use a soft-bristled brush to remove dirt, grease, grime, etc. Wait until the exterior detail is complete to apply tire shine or polish the chrome, however, to avoid potentially marring the paint.

Rinse, wash and dry the exterior: Using a hose or spray wand hose attachment, rinse the entire vehicle to remove most of the dirt. If using a wand, spray at an angle to avoid damaging the vehicle’s paint or causing water leaks around windows. 

When washing, start at the roof of the vehicle and work your way down. Use a wash mitt and bucket of water with car wash soap/shampoo and then rinse the vehicle again. Dry the vehicle using a microfiber towel. Do not let the vehicle air dry as water spots will form.

Use a clay bar: A clay bar is used to remove microscopic contaminants from the car’s paint that washing alone can’t. First, shape the clay so that it fits comfortably in your hand and apply it to the vehicle’s body panels, letting it cover the paint’s surface. When the clay glides easily over the paint’s surface, it is then ready to be wiped down using a microfiber towel.

Apply car polish: If your vehicle’s paint surface has scratches or swirls, polishing it can help to reduce them. Polishing can be done by hand or, if you are more experienced, using a dual-action polisher or rotary buffer. Keep in mind, however, that there are many different kinds of car polish with different levels of abrasiveness, so it’s best to start with a low-abrasion polish.

Apply wax or paint sealant and tire shine: Waxing and/or sealing your car’s paint can help to protect it from the elements and give it a sparkly shine. You can choose between natural carnauba wax or a synthetic, or you can use paint sealant. The end result will differ slightly, depending on which product you choose. 

Finally, once the wheels and tires are clean and completely dry, apply tire shine to complete the exterior detail.

Vacuum and steam clean the interior: First, remove all carpets and mats and vacuum the interior. Use a household steamer to clean any soft-touch surfaces including the seating surfaces (vinyl, cloth, or leather) as well as the carpet and floor mats. Use a soft-bristled brush to clean any hard-to-reach crevices.

Remove upholstery stains: If, after steaming the interior, some tough stains still remain, use an upholstery cleaner to treat them. Make sure you use the right type of cleaner for your upholstery type (i.e., use leather cleaner if you have leather seats).

Clean vinyl and plastic surfaces: High-touch areas such as the steering wheel, shifter, infotainment and climate controls, and center console can be particularly dirty. Use a multi-purpose interior detailer to thoroughly wipe down and clean those areas.

Sanitize the air vents: To help eliminate odors and unhealthy bacteria, you can also steam clean the air vents.

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