Car Detailing 1 – Washing

Automotive Detailing

Part 1: Washing

Car being washed with hand mop


There are many who subscribe to the maxim that if the weather is nice enough to wash their car, they would rather be driving in it. The perception of anyone having a clean car must not drive great distances or often or they would prefer to clean the car, than drive around in it. Well, they do not necessarily have to be exclusive.

Consider cleaning your car a part of routine maintenance and should be done regularly given the same commitment as a 3,000-mile oil change. The advantages to periodically cleaning your car, truck, SUV or minivan are numerous. But suffice it to say that maintaining your investment is reason enough.

Tools of the Trade

Start by purchasing, stealing, or otherwise procuring two buckets to be exclusively used for your vehicle(s). You don’t want harsh household cleaning chemicals used on your car’s finish or, conversely, automotive fluids transferred to the fine Italian marble floor of your Loudoun County mansion.

Next, buy at least two or three of the softest car wash mitts available. Mitts with a thick, plush mat/pile are best since they easily lift and carry dirt, prehistoric insects, Buicks and other debris away from the painted surface without leaving a scratch on it. I do not recommend using sponges on painted surfaces since they are not as effective in removing grime as thick mitts. Use a synthetic chamois for drying, as it is the most effective.  The chamois can be machine washed when dirty and does not break or become brittle after a long time.

Car Detailing Products

Microfiber towels as well as 100% cotton cloth towels and diapers can be worth their weight in gold, and can cost just as much. But they are by far the best when it comes to applying and removing waxes and polishes.  Also buy several heavy-duty cleaning (“shop”) rags and/or sponges to be used on areas of your vehicle where you don’t want to use a mitt (e.g., wheels, engine, drivetrain, etc.). Other items that could prove invaluable for those hard-to-rach crevices or wheel cleaning are a nylon (not brass) toothbrush, a stiff-bristle, a toilet bowl type brush, and a wooden-handle (not metal) paintbrush.


The fastest way to prematurely age any vehicle is to simply do nothing and allow the dirt to attack your car’s engine and/or finish. Having the right tools helps.  But knowing how to use them is equally important, and it all begins with soap and water.

We recommend using a liquid soap specifically designed for washing cars/automobiles, vice powder soaps since undissolved particles from powder soaps can be abrasive. Also, avoid dishwashing liquids that are designed to remove the dried-on and encrusted Lobster Florentine you had for brunch 3 years ago — they will remove the wax from your car with the same efficiency. All wax manufacturers (Meguiars, Eagle One, RainDance, Turtle Wax, etc.) sell their own brand of car wash soap, which can be purchased at virtually any automotive parts retailer, retail warehouses (Costco, BJs), or big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target.

Generally speaking, the stronger the concentration of soap, the more wax you are likely to remove. Read the manufacturers suggested directions, and then use half the recommended amount of soap. Also, avoid using hot water when mixing the soap in your bucket since this will soften and facilitate removal of the wax.

If you can’t wash your vehicle first thing in the morning, the next best option is to park it in the shade, but make sure it’s cool to the touch before starting.  Begin by using a dedicated “dirty” bucket and washing the rims, lower trim pieces and bumpers first.  If you start with the painted surfaces, they will likely be dry by the time you’re done cleaning the wheels thereby leaving water spots.

Next, thoroughly hose down your car with a garden hose, not a pressure washer. Even Holy Water will eventually find its way past seals and bearings if a 10,000-psi deck washer or a fire hydrant is used. Start at the top and work your way down using a continuous stream of low-pressure water and a clean wash mitt, being especially careful that it is free of dirt, gravel, plum pits or moon dust. Use your dedicated “clean” bucket and start at the top of the car and work your way down (this avoids transferring heavy dirt, grease, etc., into the bucket before most of the bodywork has been washed). If you accidentally drop your mitt on the ground, set it aside and get a clean one.

(Note: A word about bird poop is in order. Not only is this substance highly acidic, but a close inspection of this offering could disclose small pebbles that are used by some of flying rodents in the digestion of their food. So don’t spare the water and remove bird poop as soon as possible after you discover a deposit. If not removed soon after and properly, it will ruin your paint.)

The car should then be rinsed thoroughly and dried as soon as possible. As suggested earlier, the best method of accomplishing this is to use a quality synthetic chamois, 100% cotton cloth diaper, or a soft, clean terrycloth towel. We do not advocate using compressed air to facilitate the drying process since this can easily force water into unwanted areas of automobile.

Cleaning the Engine

There are as many opinions about which techniques, methods and solvents to use when cleaning/detailing the engine compartment as there are lamb chop sideburns at an Elvis convention.  Some of the information is useful, and some is not.  We do not, for instance, advocate warming the engine first to loosen/soften the oily/greasy areas.  There is an engineering/chemistry principle known as capillary action where liquids are drawn into areas when adhesive forces exceed cohesive forces.  In layman’s terms, water can be “sucked” into unwanted parts of the engine (particularly as it cools).  So we let the degreasers do the work (Foamy Engine Bright, Simple Green and Castrol Super Clean to name a few) to minimize the time spent “watering down” the engine.

Car engine being wiped down

Regardless if you use a pressure system or a hose to rinse the engine off, it’s important to first protect sensitive engine components like the distributor, rotor, carburetor, air filter/cleaner, coil and other electrical connections.  One way to do this is to place tin foil over non-electrical parts and plastic baggies over electrical areas, and then secure them with a rubber band before applying the solvent.  And for heavily soiled parts, we suggest using stiff-bristle, wooden handle brushes to help the degreasers do their job before hosing it off.  Some customers prefer a dressing on the hoses and plastic pieces within the engine compartment.  Meguiar’s and 3M make rubber treatment sprays, or you can use something as readily available as WD-40.  Finally and for obvious reasons, do NOT spray dressings in the area compartment that are close to pulleys and belts.


Car Detailing 2 – Waxing

Automotive Detailing

Part 2: Polishing and Waxing

There is a common misconception among the unwashed masses that waxes and polishes can be used interchangeably.  Since this is nothing less than blasphemy among detailing aficionados, we thought we’d help set the record straight.

POLISHES.   Often referred to as cleaners, polishes are designed to remove contaminants and oxidation, restore the paint/metal to a rich, light-reflecting luster, cover swirl marks/scratches, and prepare the paint for wax. For the most part, polishes contain abrasives and “clean” by friction.  There are three types of friction polishes: hand glazes, clays and rubbing compounds.  It is almost always best to start with the least aggressive means first and begin with a fine abrasive (glaze or clay), instead of a coarse abrasive (rubbing compound).  Furthermore, do not confuse metal polishes with paint or plastic polishes or try substituting one for another.

Auto Detailing

WAXES.  Wax is designed to sacrifice itself and protect your paint from suicidal flying insects, acid rain, salt, tree secretions, UV rays, X-rays, stingrays, and a myriad of other demonic substances.  Most waxes are either organic or polymer-based. Polymer waxes, often referred to as “sealants,” are chemically manufactured and often contain silicone or Teflon. They tend to be more reflective than organic waxes and can last up to six months. However, sealants need a clean surface in order to bond to the paint, which usually requires an additional step prior to application; i.e., claying the paint surface.

The most common organic waxes are from tropical plants (caranuba) or from bee’s wax. Organic wax differs from a sealant because it sits on the top of the paint instead of bonding to it. While it provides a deeper, “wet” shine, it isn’t as durable as polymer wax and usually lasts 4-6 weeks. Our experience has been that a quality paste wax containing carnauba offers a superior protective finish and is applied and removed with less effort than products containing bee’s wax. And contrary to doctrine, you do not have to wait until the wax is completely dry before removing it.

Auto Detailing Drying

CLEANER WAXES.  We think it is counterintuitive to expect one product to perform two completely different functions.  Products that claim to clean and polish, while SIMULTANEOUSLY applying a protective coat of wax, are best suited for a lawnmower, not your family hauler.

Generally speaking, we recommend polishing a car only about once a year, and always apply a coat of wax immediately after polishing it. Most, if not all, major wax manufacturers also make polishes. But how often you wax your vehicle depends on how often it’s used. If your SUV is garaged and driven 3,000-miles a year, and only on nice days, you might need to wax it once a year. If it’s a daily commuter, then 2-4 times or more a year might not be more reasonable. (Tip: Die-hard detailers apply paste wax with their fingertips. This method minimizes the potential for accidentally rubbing a piece of sand or grit into the paint and scratching it.  Many professionals, on the other hand, use an orbital buffer, not to be confused with a circular buffer, to apply and remove wax to because it saves them time.)

We also highly recommend applying and removing polishes/waxes in the direction the wind flows over the bodywork, NOT in a circular motion.  Simply stated, scratches and swirl marks are more visible when they are perpendicular to the lines of the vehicle and your eye. This is especially important if your prize possession is a dark color where imperfections are more apparent. Also, applying a thick coat of wax or sealant does not give you better protection – it only makes it harder to remove the product.

Using Pledge ™ or any other household products to shine automobiles is not a good idea. The chemicals in some household products might not be compatible with the chemicals in the paint.  So why risk it?  Furthermore, household products do not protect paint against UV, bird poop, salt, etc.

Car Detailing 3 – Interior

Automotive Detailing

Part 3: Cleaning the Interior

Detailing the interior of your car, truck, SUV or minivan requires the same care as the outside.  If you intend on giving the inside of your vehicle the full monty, knowing which products to use and how to apply them is equally as important.

Detailing Interior


VINYL:  Vinyl seats, dashes and door panels are constantly subjected to UV, dirt and abrasion.  Caring for vinyl is as simple as using a soft cloth and wiping the area with a vinyl dressing.  There are a number of these products on the market and most wax companies make their own formulas.  Some of the better vinyl dressings are Turtle Wax’s Formula 2001, Refresh by 3M, and Lexol Vinylex.  These are specially formulated to resist UV degradation and leave behind a low gloss sheen that will not be blinding when the sun is out.  And just as we recommend against the use of silicone on paint, the same warning applies to vinyl as well.  Silicone can literally dry out the vinyl and facilitate “out-gassing,” the byproduct of which is a nasty thin layer of film that appears on the inside of your windshield.

LEATHER:  It really is amazing how well the leather in our cars holds up.  Seats and leather-wrapped steering wheels, in particular, are subject to a wide range of temperatures, sweat, liquids and constant friction.  As a result, leather needs to be cleaned and conditioned regularly.  In this regard, try to think of it in the same context as your own skin:  If not properly cared for, it will prematurely age and eventually dry and crack.  Therefore, treating the leather should be part of your standard cleaning regimen.  The first step is to use a pH-balanced cleaner with warm water and a soft cloth.  This should then be followed by a quality leather conditioner.  Lexol makes excellent pH balanced products specifically made for leather and can be found at automotive specialty retailers as well as big-box stores like Target and Wal-Mart.

Detailing Interior

GLASS:  Over-the-counter automotive glass cleaners are made to resist streaking, leaving behind a film – unlike some household window cleaners. Glass Cleaner by 3M and Invisible Glass are two excellent and readily available products.  Begin by washing your hands to remove any contaminants/oils.  Then, using a 100% cotton cloth, wipe the exterior glass in horizontal direction and the interior glass in a vertical motion.  When inspecting your handiwork, if a vertical streak is noticeable, for example, you know it’s inside the car.

CARPETS:  If after thoroughly vacuuming the carpeted areas, including the trunk, you still find some heavily soiled areas, it’s best to try to identify the contaminant first before trying to remove it.  Whereas household carpet cleaning products like Resolve are very effective at getting rid of the worst kinds of dirt like clay, grime, al-Qaida, etc., they are not as helpful at removing grease or oil.  In these cases, using a strong detergent like Simple Green, Castrol Super Clean or a citrus-based product like XENIT Citrus Cleaner/Remover is probably better suited to tackle those obstacles.  Make sure you identify an inconspicuous area first to color-test the solvent before using.  Working with a small scrub brush, gently work the cleaner into the affected area and repeat as necessary.  Don’t use muscle – let the cleaner do the work to loosen or dissolve the soiled area.