How to detail cars

How to detail your car

Difference between washing and detailing

So many people just wash their car and they get done pretty quickly. Just a sponge and some warm water and you are done. The car will look clean but won’t gleam as it does after it has been to a detailing shop. Here are some detailing secrets that we at Jim Autos apply.

Detailing goes beyond the ordinary wash-and-wax job. Detailing is paying close attention to – you guessed it right – small details. Sure, it takes a lot more time and effort, but the results are very much worth it.

Professional detailers have developed their own tricks of the trade for everything from vehicle washing to cleaning windows to getting ventilation grilles looking super-crisp. To get their results, use products designed for specific areas–wheels, trim, windows, etc. Name-brand products are a safe bet. Be sure to read labels to get the best finish.

Clean glass or plastic gauge lenses with a glass or plastic cleaner, not wax. Pull off any removable knobs to clean the bezels underneath. Ever wonder where the haze on the inside of your windshield comes from since you don’t smoke? It consists of plastisols given off as the plastics used in many new cars slowly cure. Not to worry–a good glass cleaner should remove it. If your windows are really cruddy, you may have to resort to stronger measures, such as scrubbing with 4-ought steel wool.

Begin detailing car interior first

The interior is a good starting point, so the dust and dirt you brush out won’t settle on a pristine exterior. Remove any floor mats and give the carpeting and upholstery a good vacuuming. Also vacuum the dash and rear parcel shelf. Move the front seats full fore and aft to get to all the accumulated dirt and loose change. If the carpets are clean except for a minor stain or two, use a foaming cleaner to get them out. Saturate the stain with cleaner, working it in with a damp sponge. Let it sit awhile and then blot it out with paper towels or a dry cotton cloth. Repeat if necessary, and then go over the area with a damp sponge before final blotting. Don’t over-saturate the carpet and risk getting mildew.

You can repair burns and holes in your carpet by cutting out the offending area with a razor blade or scissors. Then cut a similar-size piece from a hidden spot, such as underneath the seat, and cement it in place using a water-resistant adhesive. Blend in the repair by brushing the nap.

Wash the floor mats, if they’re rubber, and apply a dressing that does not leave a slippery finish, for obvious reasons.

Clean interior hard surfaces with a damp cloth and a mild all-purpose cleaner diluted about 10:1. If you have vinyl-covered seats, use a conditioner made for that material. Avoid products that give a high-gloss, slippery surface, so passengers won’t feel like they’re on a roller coaster. If you have leather upholstery, dress the surfaces with a leather conditioner. Never use a vinyl product on leather!

Worn or torn areas of vinyl can be repaired using kits made for this purpose that are available at auto supply stores. Repairs are made with a patch that lets you match the color and grain of your upholstery. Worn areas of leather can be touched up with dyes or a high-grade shoe polish. Just make sure you match the color as closely as possible.

The dash presents a special challenge, with buttons, crevices and bezels that you can’t get to with a cleaning rag. You can blast dust and dirt from these areas by using small cans of compressed air made for cleaning camera and computer equipment. Cotton swabs also work well here. Pay attention to the cleaning products you use on your dash. If your dash has a flat finish, don’t use a product on it that will leave you facing a shiny gloss.

Clean air vent grilles with cotton swabs and brighten them up by misting on some spray-on vinyl/rubber dressing or accent spray–just a touch. You can also use these products to cover up light scuff marks on wood trim. Spray the stuff on a soft towel and then apply it to the wood.


He went the detailing route–a process that goes beyond the ordinary wash-and-wax job. Detailing is just that–paying close attention to small details. Sure, it takes a lot more time and effort, but the results can be nothing short of eye popping.

Professional detailers have developed their own tricks of the trade for everything from vehicle washing to cleaning windows to getting ventilation grilles looking supercrisp. To get their results, use products designed for specific areas–wheels, trim, windows, etc. Name-brand products are a safe bet. Be sure to read labels to get the best finish.

A Word Of Caution

If you have aftermarket window tint film, it may be degraded by cleaners that contain ammonia or vinegar. Factory tinting is in the glass and is not affected by these cleaners. One trick used by some detailers for the final touch on window glass is to rinse it down with seltzer and do a final wipe with a ball of crumpled newspaper.

Detailing car’s exterior

When you’re ready to begin move the car to a shaded area, if this is not possible plan on washing in the morning or evening when the car’s finish will remain cool throughout the process. Start by washing the tires and wheels, you don’t want to knock brake dust and road grime onto your clean finish. After the tires and wheels are clean spray the entire car with a medium spray, don’t knock the paint off, just get the entire car wet, and loosen the dirt and grime from the finish. Start at the top and work your way down so that gravity can help you wash the grime away. With a fresh bucket of water and Body Wash Shampoo start your wash from the top down as well. Always wash in a back and forth motion, not a circular pattern, this will ensure that any fine scratches or marks that may be left behind are all in the same direction. A good rule of thumb is to only wash, apply wax, or buff, in the direction that the wind passes over the car. Circular motions cause circular swirls which catch light from every direction making them more noticeable. As you work your way around the car rinse often, and squeeze the sponge out after every section is washed.

It is very important to use a detergent that is designed for washing a vehicle. The only time you would use a dishwashing detergent is to strip all of the wax from your cars finish. There are times when this is necessary, or even desirable. I’ll expand on some of those in future segments, but for our purpose here, which is to get your car clean, while preserving as much of the paint protecting wax or polish as possible, we will stick with ONLY products specifically designed to clean your vehicles finish. Use a brand name Body Work Shampoo. Good Body Work Shampoo actually contains oils that work to lubricate the surface of the vehicle as you wash it. For washing I also recommend using a Natural Sea Sponge. Natural Sponges are made up of billions of fine filaments that draw dirt away from the surface being washed. Synthetic sponges are flat, and only serve to scrape the dirt and grime present against your clear coat leaving fine scratches and swirl marks in your finish.

When it comes to first impressions, nothing makes a hit like a jewel finish. But this is possible only after any paint problems are corrected. Just about all finishes today are a 2-step (color) basecoat and a protective clearcoat. The top clearcoat is only about 2-3 mils thick, and when it gets scratched or abraded it refracts light and the color coat underneath doesn’t shine through clearly. It’s like looking through a scratched or foggy lens.

To evaluate your paint, first wash your vehicle. Work in the shade and make sure the surface is cool. Use a carwash soap, not a household detergent, and work in sections, from the top down. The lower panels tend to accumulate more abrasive dirt. To do a final rinse, remove the spray head from the hose and flood the finish. The water will tend to run off in sheets, minimizing spotting. Dry with a good-quality chamois or a soft thick-nap terry cloth towel.

Here is the detailing process

  • Wet the area to be washed
  • Remove sponge from bucket and wash with a back and forth motion
  • Ring out sponge to remove dirt and grime picked up into the filaments
  • Drop sponge back into wash bucket
  • Rinse the area you just washed and pre-rinse the next area to be washed.

When this is complete, finish by rinsing your entire car from the top down with a steady flow of water. I take the nozzle off and just let the water flow over the surface of the car. This minimizes water spots and ensures that you’ve removed all the detergent from your finish. It also makes the drying process easier.

Don’t forget the wheel wells. Get the crud out with an all-purpose cleaner and a good high-pressure dousing. After you’ve finished washing your car, apply a vinyl dressing to add some snap to the wells.

Wash the wheels (make sure they’re cool) with a brush made for this purpose, but do not use acid-based cleaners on polished alloy wheels or wheels that are clear-coated. You can use these cleaners on rough-textured alloy wheels. Chrome wheels can be gleamed up with metal polish or glass cleaner. Click here to read more about cleaning your alloy wheels.


After washing the car, inspect the paint. Stains and scratches can be attacked with a good clearcoat-safe cleaner. The worse the problem, the more aggressive the cleaner needed. Start off with the least abrasive product and gradually move to coarser cleaners as required. Then machine buff.


Once you’ve gone through the work to get your pride and joy all cleaned up, it’s time to ensure that your labor isn’t wasted by allowing water spots to cloud all of your hard work. If you finished the wash process by allowing water to freely flow over your car it will be a lot easier to get the remaining water off before spotting can occur.

There are two products I recommend for drying. We prefer Synthetic Chamois over natural chamois’ because it feels and performs like a natural chamois without the maintenance. You may also choose micro fiber towel designed specifically to dry your car. I keep two handy, one to get the big stuff, and one to finish with. This is admittedly over-kill because you can easily dry an entire car with one towel, usually only ringing it out once, if that. Whichever you choose the process is the same.

As always start at the top and work you way down, and only wipe in a back and forth motion so that any incidental marks are only in the one direction. If you’ve cleaned properly and are using a Water Sprite, or a Micro Fiber this shouldn’t be an issue. We typically dry the roof and C Pillars, then move to the hood and deck lid, then the sides and front and rear bumpers. This is in order to remove the water from horizontal surfaces first because they are the most visible if spotting occurs. Don’t forget to shake the water from mirror housings, gas lid, and door handles. There is nothing more maddening than getting everything dry only to find a little trail of water cutting through your freshly dried door panel. After the body is dry I get the windows and mirror glass, I’m least concerned about spotting here because I’m going to clean the glass a little later on anyway.

After the body and glass are complete I have found that this is a good time to clean doorjambs, inside the rear deck lid, and under the hood. I open all of the doors, the hood, and deck lid. This is a great time to clean here because there is usually a little bit of water present in these areas. I take a cotton detailing towel and go at it. The towel gets quite dirty during the hood cleaning, so I start by doing all four doors, then the rear deck lid, then the hood. Don’t forget to clean the painted areas on the inside of the door at this time. About once every three months I’ll shoot some Audi Silicone Spray on the door and hood hinges. After this I close everything up and do a final walk around with a Water Sprite or Micro Fiber and get any drippings from the body that occurred during the jamb-cleaning process.

Polishing and Waxing

Polishing and/or waxing is next. Be sure to include doorjambs, and the areas beneath door hinges and behind bumpers. Minor blemishes may be neutralized by wrapping a cotton cloth around your index finger and burnishing the polish into the finish.

Polish not only gives the finish its gloss, but it feeds the paint with oils to prevent it from drying out. Polymers in the polish fill in minute scratches in the clearcoat layer, restoring its clarity. If you machine-buff the polish/wax to a high luster, go with an orbital rather than a rotary model, which would be more likely to burn the paint. Treat the plastic chrome on today’s cars as if it were a painted surface and protect it with a light coat of wax.

Avoid getting wax or polish on rubber and flat black plastic areas (clean them with a nongloss product), door handles and emblems. If you do get a wax stain on rubber trim, spray it with a mist-and-wipe product and wipe it down with a terry cloth towel. If that doesn’t do the trick, this usually works: Microwave some peanut butter and apply it to the stain with a soft toothbrush. Peanut butter’s oils dissolve the wax and it’s abrasive enough to lift the stain (but it can stick to the roof of your car).

If you get a polish/wax residue around emblems or in crevices, break out the cotton swabs and toothbrushes. It’s important that you first wet the area with a mist-and-wipe product such as Meguiar’s Quick Detailer. Never brush on a dry surface.

Moving underhood, protect electronic components by wrapping them in plastic. Then spray on a diluted all-purpose cleaner, hosing it off with light water pressure. Vinyl/rubber protectant will dress up nonmetal areas. Let it soak in if you like the glossy look, or wipe it on and off for a more matte finish.

All that’s left now are the tires. Clean them first–whitewall tire cleaner works even on blackwalls–and then apply tire dressing. Here again, to get a gloss finish let the product soak in, or for a matte look wipe it on and off with a cotton cloth. Be sure the tires are dry before driving off, or you’ll spatter your nice shiny finish. And maybe even your neighbor.

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