Auto Detailing


A General Overview/Intro of Auto Detailing

Auto detailing has been around for a long time now. It's rapidly becoming a multi-billion dollar industry. But you don't want to spend lots-o-cash now do you? I know most of the mustang fan-natics out there are into do-it-yourself mods and would really prefer to wax their own cars.

That's where I come in. I give out a lot of advice almost every day to readers of the mustang list as well as other USENET groups so I decided to put it on the web where everyone can access it. The purpose of this information is intended to educate people who have the motivation but lack the know-how to detail their own vehicles. It will show a general "how-to" from start to finish, in the order I recommend proceding. Detailing is hard work, an average car will take me roughly 3-4 hours(not including the engine) That's just a run-of-the-mill car. Some cars, the interior is so bad it'll take an hour and a half just to do that! Oxidation removal is also time consuming, even with experience and power tools. With oxidation removal you absolutely must seal/glaze the paint. I could go on and on.....

For any specific questions feel free to email me.

Also, I always respond to every email I get and recently I have been unable to get email through to some users. I know the problem hasn't been on my end so I want to ask that if you send email and don't get a reply, send mail again but this time include your EXACT email address in the body of you message. Generally I respond very quickly unless I'm bogged down with real work (uggh!).

First, my name is Scott Wakeman and I own a "part time" detailing business here in Danbury, CT. I've been detailing cars for a little over nine years now, and I've been on the Internet for the past six years. By day I'm an Electro-Mechanical Designer/Sys Admin and after 5pm, and on weekends, I'm out detailing cars. I also try to go out to the auto supply stores to try out the latest products so I can make sound advice to others. New products are coming out extremely quickly these days so my ability to look into every product out there is almost impossible. Generally I can tell an average product just by looking at the label. You get what you pay for, but cost does NOT necessarily mean it's good. Some of these gimmick waxes like Durashine or Touchless cost $30-plus dollars on TV, but in my professional opinion they offer no benefit over the products I will later recommend. Professional rumor has it that "Touchless" is indeed too good to be true and can damage paint jobs. Best advice I can give is to stay away from low quality products like this and stick with the known products such as Mothers, Meguiars, Zymo, etc ...

In my business I use only professional grade products on my customers cars which generally aren't available to most people. Typically the quality of these pro-grade products is higher than retail, but a combination of the right retail products can still yield excellent results. I'll make some recomendations as I go on. If you have products you feel work best for you, go ahead and use them. Some prefer Meguiars products, others Mothers or Zymol. Whatever it is you use, don't let my advise stop you. Again, these are just my recomendations. Special note here about the products I use; I for the most part use only environmentally safe products, such as all-purpose cleaners, shampoos, car wash. In cases that require more powerfull cleaners I will use a product that is not, shall we say, politically correct. In these rare cases the amount of products I use are extremely small and pose no threat to myself. others, or the surrounding environment.

I will include some tricks here and there, but not nearly all of them - other detailers on the net would have my head on a platter if I did!

A few words about clearcoat paint ...

I get lots of email from people with clearcoat questions so I feel I should include some very basic info at this point that may answer some questions. First off clearcoat is just that, a clear coating applied over some color(basecoat). Clearcoat adds the illusion of a shiny finish even when mildly dirty. Very important to remember is that it is still paint! It is not something that the dealer applied when you bought the vehicle. Clearcoat is applied at the factory. Just like enamels and laquers, clearcoat is still vulnerable to oxidation and scratching. Scratches are a clearcoats first enemy. Even the smallest scratch will stand out. Many people think "Well my car has clearcoat so it doesn't need wax". Wrong! It's still paint and will always need proper maintenance from the elements. Clearcoat can be very tricky to maintain. You cannot you harsh compounds on it to remove scratches or oxidation, you must use a clearcoat-safe compound. All the name brands I recommend make clearcoat-safe compound/cleaners.

Okay on with the How-to!


Here are some supplies you will need:

1. Rags/towels. You'll need upwards of 8-12 good-sized clean towels to do the the job. One or two will be used to dry the vehicle off, others to remove wax, and still more for the interior windows etc ... Some small towels are handy also. If you can find the old diaper type cloth use them because they make excellent rags for polishing the finish to a bright-shiny glow! They also are great for windows.

2. Brush's. You'll need a few different varieties and sizes. First a 1" soft bristled brush with bristles cut down to 1/2" length. Next a stiff bristled tire brush. A 1" round semi-firm bristled brush. A long handled wheel well brush is a good idea. If you have an old toothbrush you may want that too. For "tough to remove" brake dust, you may want one of those green scrud pads, but be gentle!

3. Big wash bucket - five gallon type is fine.

4. Spray bottles. The 32oz type are most beneficial here. Fill them with glass cleaners, vinyl dressings, etc...

5. Large, soft cotton wash mitts. (never use a dirty wash mitt!)

6. Synthetic chamois. (Such as the "Absorber")

7. Bug sponge and regular sponges. Available in your local super market.

8. Power Washer. Karcher makes a nice 1100psi unit. (not mandatory - but nice if you have one) These are getting very affordable now. Check for pricing.

9. Wet/Dry Shop Vac or equivalent. The stronger the better.

10. Rug steam cleaner. This isn't totally necessary, but rug steam cleaners can really provide a deep clean to your auto carpets.

11. Orbital Buffer. I use them only when faced with a vehicle that is so oxidized that my arm would fall off trying to get it all off. Generally speaking I hit the major surface areas and still go around by hand in all the nooks and crannies. Let me say now that I do not recommend anyone try to use a Rotary buffer. These take a special degree of skill and practice which I'm sure most people would rather not learn on their own vehicles. I personally learned on a few old clunkers that really didn't matter - much ;)

Detailing the Engine

Engines can be tough to clean, especially todays cars with all their computer systems and hoses all over. It make's it real tough to get in there with your hands. My hands are constantly cut up from trying to get in closer!

Before your get started, cover any sensitive equipment with heavyduty aluminum foil. If you're using a pressure washer don't spray them directly, you'll might blow them right off or blow a hole in the foil!

For at-home cleaning a pressure washer may help but isn't necessarily needed, a hose will do just fine. If you can't find a heavyduty degreaser, use kerosene mixed 50/50 with water as a degreaser. With the engine warm(not hot!) apply the kerosene mix to stubborn grease deposits before you wet it down - water will dilute the mix and reduce the cleaning strength. Use a pointy brush to get any stubborn deposits off the valve covers, etc... You may want to repeat this step a couple times. Let me add that this kerosene mix can also be used to degrease door jambs, as well as a pre-soak for tar & bug removal. Nothing like high speed bug splatter on the front end of that mustang! If you get some degreaser on the paint, rinse immediately.

  • NOTE: I recently came across a really good cleaner/degreaser at Home Depot (a large do-it-yourself home supply store) and they had a very good citrus based degreaser called Thistle. I tried it out and it works nice. Environmentally safe as well. Costs about $14 bucks for a gallon. My original intention was to use it a concrete cleaner but found it's degreasing ability to be a big bonus - well worth it IMHO.

Once you're satisfied with the degreasing and have rinsed well, start up the motor and let it run for a while with the hood down. The heat will evaporate a lot of the water. Use your shop vac to blow off any remaining water, have a rag handy to degrease the parts you had covered earlier. Lowering the hood will help speed the evaporation process.

Now it's degreased and ready for rubber dressing. Silicone will work best here. Spray everything really well(except the belts!). You may want to apply some wax to the painted areas. If you don't want a shiny look, you can wipe the silicone down, just let it soak in for a while first. STP protectant liberally applied works well here.

Some detailers actually repaint certain parts of the motor, and then clearcoat everything, but I'm personally not in favor of this. This paint starts to flake off after a short while and anything you do to remove it later won't be enough, short of pulling everything out! The silicone leaves a new-car look. This is just my style though!

Also, some guys like to get out steel wool and brass brushes. This is usually done on motors that are for show, and these guys sometimes pull the motors before every show! It depends just how far you want to go ...

Washing Your Vehicle

Before you can wax it, you have to wash it!

Use a soft, CLEAN wash mitt and a pH balanced car wash such as Mothers or Meguiars, or your preference. Don't use anything harsh!

Mothers now has a Web page at Check it out! I highly recommend any of their products! Another site to check out is Car Wash Online.

Never use dish washing detergent or a wash brush on your car! The dishwashing detergent damages the finish, stripping it of vital oils causing it to dry out. The wash brush scratches the paint leaving millions of hairline scratches.

Hand washing is MUCH preferred over an automated car wash. If you happen to have a truly touchless type car wash in your area - become a regular there. Touchless car washes use high-pressure water and special clean agents to clean the vehicle without damaging the surface or stripping wax. They aren't as good as a hand wash (no automatic wash is IMHO), but are are less likely to scratch the paint or violently rip off radio & celluar antennas!

Wet the car down first to knock any of the big mud off. Also remove any bug grime at this time using tar & bug remover with a sponge. You can also presoak the door jambs and hatch/trunk areas now using an all-purpose cleaner such as Simple Green or mix kerosene 50/50 with water in a spray bottle. Scrub if you have to with a bug sponge, but not too hard, rinse areas before you wash the vehicle. Body side mouldings can be scrubbed with a soft brush and all-purpose cleaner such as Thistle.

The rims should be done first, before the body. The rims collect brake dust very easily so you'll need a small brush and a cleaner appropriate for your rims, by this I mean you'll need to know if your rims are clearcoated or not. Remember the brake dust that's deposited is extremely hot and bonds very strongly with the irregular surface of the rims. Don't wet down the rims/tires first, you want to make sure the chemical is strong and not diluted with water. Eagle One has several good products for rim cleaning, just read the labels closely when you make your selection. Don't overlook the under side of the vehicle, and the gas cap lid as well! Simple Green works well for cleaning rubber surfaces.

When washing, start from the top and work your way down. Rinse the vehicle a couple times as you work your way down. Don't forget to wash those door jambs too! Don't forget - always wash/detail your car in the shade and to a cool surface!

When drying the vehicle off, you can use a synthetic chamois to get the bulk of the water, but finish it off with soft cotton towels. You don't have to do a perfect drying job if you're planning to do the interior as well, it'll be dry by the time you're done. you just want to avoid any water beads from damaging the paint surface - especially of you have hard water.

When you're done washing and the car is mostly dry, apply your rubber dressings to the tires and bumpers. Tire Wet is a good product for this - also No Touch. I recommend to do this now because if you wax the car first, then spray the dressing on the tires, all the little airborn droplets will get on the fresh wax, though you can also apply it to a sponge but many dressings are meant to sprayed on directly. You can also spray the plastic parts with silicone now too, like the grill by the wipers for example.

A note about Armor All, I'll leave it up to you to decide, but I recommend you not use Armor All as a protectant. It's not very good, and has been known to actually do damage from time to time. Use other products such as STP, No Touch, or Tire Wet - they're much better and cost the same. Any product with formaldehyde or harsh preservatives is no good for that matter.

Vacuuming The Interior

The interior is really where you make or break a detailing job. This is what my customers look at all the time. It has to be great looking. Most people don't realize the level of detail I go into when I clean a car. All the nooks & crannies where dirt can build up!

If you're doing a full detail(3-5hrs), wash and dry the car(mostly) first then move to the interior. This way the exterior is fully dried when you finish up the interior and are ready to prep/seal/wax.

To start, you'll need to vacuum the car out. Get anything that's not nailed down out of the car, floor mats etc ...

A good wet/dry vac is necessary for this. While you're vaccuming have a pointy semi-firm brush at hand to get the junk out of the cracks of the console and dash or whatever. A firm bristled brush is good for stirring up the carpet matt so you can get most of the junk out of the carpet. Don't worry about getting absolutely everything at first, you'll be vacuuming again after the shampoo.

Once you've vacuumed out the vehicle, use an all-purpose cleaner to get the stubborn stains off the vinyl etc ... Don't forget the stirring wheel, this is where lot's of gunk builds up! Use a window cleaner sprayed on a rag to get the headliner clean. There are several good all-purpose cleaners on the market, such as Simple Green in it's strongest form. For caked on grease stains get a fabric stain remover from a grocery store. Kerosene mixed 50/50 with water is good too, but it might bleed the color from fabrics. Use it carefully and not on leather! . Don't forget the trunk/hatchback areas as well!

Shampooing The Interior

Once the car has been vacuumed, you're ready to shampoo. Carpet stores sell carpet shampoo(go figure) that work well in cars. Also, a stiff tire brush is needed here as well. Mix in the shampoo with water, you'll want a lot of nice foam. The foam is what you'll use. Using the foam, start with the carpets on the drivers side, then the seats. This keeps the water to a minimum. Move around the whole car until you're done. If the carpet isn't too dirty you don't have to scrub every square inch, just get the dirty areas. As for the floor mats, wet them down real good(this an excellent opportunity for the power washer) and spray the all purpose cleaner on them. Scrub them real good, then rinse very well. Hang them vertically and they'll dry off pretty quick. Also, grocery stores sell fabric dyes that can be mixed with water in a spray bottle. For carpets that are sun faded, dyes can bring back some life. Companies like Simoniz make dry-foam automotive shampoos that work pretty well. Apply them LIBERALLY and let stand for about a minute before scrubbing. You may need more than one can to do the whole car and seats. Before shampooing use a mild all-purpose cleaner to get isolated stains out.

With the shampooing complete, you have two options. One, you can vacuum up the shampoo residue which will pull up the dirt, or you can use a carpet steam cleaner(you can rent these or even buy one for a fair price at sears or where ever). Steam cleaners really pull up the gunk that's been imbedded in the fabric matt, but they'll leave the carpet slightly damp for a short while. Most of the time I only use them on carpets that are sooo dirty. I could do it three or four times and still be sucking up dirt (the water turns really black!).

Applying The Vinyl and Leather Preserve.

With the carpeting cleaned, it's time for the leather and vinyl. I recommend Liquid Glass' Leather treatment/condtioner - even for vinyl. It has mink oil and lasts quite a while. Just don't get it on you're speedometer cover, it'll stain it. What I do is spray the areas directly and let it soak for a minute or two, then I wipe it. I spray it on a rag for tight or senstive areas. Again, AVOID ARMOR ALL! Sometimes I spray all the vinyl and leather before wiping it down, It depends on the vehicle though. On some cars it's better to just apply it to a cloth first so you don't stain any clear plastic. If you can't locate the Liquid Glass, try to find Lexol and/or Vinylex. I was just at one of those bed 'n bath stores, the type of store your Significant Other takes you out to so you can buy towels only the guests are allowed to use. Anyway, in the cleaning supply section they had Lexol, Vinylex, and leather/vinyl cleaner. If you happen to live in an area that has many horse farms like mine they is bound to a be a supply shop like Agway somewhere - they sell Lexol in gallon jugs for leather saddles.

Cleaning The Windows - Streak Free!

Next, the windows. This is straight forward. Don't spray directly on the window, but onto a rag. All the little droplets will mess up the nice n' shiny dash! Have a dry cloth ready to wipe it dry. Coat the windows thoroughly with cleaner. You can even use newspaper to wipe it dry, the abrasiveness acts like a polish and it won't leave any streaks.

With all this said and done it's time to add the fragrance. I use commercial products that leave a fresh, clean smell. I spray the carpets, seats, and directly into the vents. This way when you turn on the air - mmm a nice and clean smell comes out again! The air conditioner is a trap for bacteria. Many people get sick and they can't figure out why, it may be these vents. A citrus type fragrance will disinfect the air vents(so will Lysol but I don't think you want that smell coming out of your vents!).

Intro To My Three Step Method

I prefer a 3-step approach to detailing. This is almost mandatory for cars that haven't been waxed recently. Cars that have been waxed, or are somewhat new, can use a good one-step product, such as Meguiars cleaner/sealant/wax. If you wax the car often(every 2-3 months) you can just use a good carnauba wax, such as Mothers Pure Carnauba Wax or Zymol, or a quality cleaner wax such as those made by Meguiars.

On the retail market today most waxes aren't very durable or long lasting. If you just use a run-of-mill wax you're not really protecting your vehicles paint finish very well. This is because most of the waxes actually have small amounts of wax and a lot of petroleum- distillates. The petroleum is a by-product from the processing of the carnuba/palm/montan(sp?) waxes. There's no real gain from it except that it will aid in stripping some grime off the finish but that's about it. With very little wax in the product your hard work won't last much more than a month realisticlly. 3M and DuPont did a study on waxes and found that many waxes on the shelves today won't last more than 22 days on the paint finish. 3M by the way makes some excellent wax/compound products. If you can find them, substitute them where appropriate.

Watch out for those infomercials! Let's remember it's TV and they are just hardcore salesmen trying to make a buck! Every wax I've seen on TV so far is junk, just a waste of your good money. The latest one shows a wash/wax product that goes on with water. Well guys/gals, if it go's on with water, what do you think it comes off with? Sure it might give some protection for a day or two but nothing like the protection of a good carnauba wax. How about the one with the laser beam! What type of laser beam was that anyway? Some lasers don't react with certain materials ... like paints etc ... Nice try though! Basic rule, don't buy them!

Prepping the Paint. (step 1)

Prepping is necessary to get a clean, smooth surface ready to receive sealer/glaze. This also removes mild oxidation, some that you can't even see with the naked eye, as well as some swirls and very minor scratches. There is a rule of thumb with scratches "if you can feel it with your fingernail, it's permanent short of re-painting". I recommend Dark Magic by The Wax Shop. It's mildly abrasive and clearcoat safe. Apply this just as you would wax. Meguiars also makes a good prep product. I recently tried out No.7 Clearcoat Compound and was very satisfied with it. It's cheap and does a good job removing small scratches and swirls. Look for the grey can with a green label. The Meguiars product line has excellent prep products as well.

A note about oxidation. Essentially you can think of oxidation as dead paint. The sun and other natural elements have reacted with the surface of the paint causing a chemical chain-reaction called oxidation. This is the most common flaw on paint, but happily it's almost always curable, some restrictions apply. Basically my 3 step approach will remove mild oxidation, but many people are faced with a more serious problem. Not to worry. Clearcoat oxidation can be removed with a clearcoat-safe compound, such as those made by Meguiars or 3M. For standard finishes you can step up to some more serious compounds such as polishing compound, which is mild but still too harsh for clearcoat, or just regular red compound which can do damage in the wrong hands. If you feel this oxidation is too much for you to tackle, I strongly advise you to take it to a professional to be safe. 3M and Number 7 make some good compounds. Whenever you compound you MUST seal the paint after. Wax alone is not good enough. You commonly see most oxidation on the tops of vehicles since that's where the sun hits direct. Other flaws in the paint can cause similar problems such as oxidation which may not be curable. Also, sometimes oxidation can be so severe, so deep, you cannot remove it without going down to bare metal. If the paint is crazed, many hairline cracks going in all directions, don't bother compounding or waxing because the paint is shot. Places like Maaco can be a cheap fix but you have to use your best judgement. Many people have had mixed results with them, but it depends on how much prep you do cause they don't do much at all - that's a whole other story. A good paint job relies on excellent prep work, and skill with a paint gun of course. You can be good with a paint gun, but bad with prep. Bad prep=bad paint job.

Sealing The Paint. (step 2)

Sealer/glaze is just what sounds - almost. Since the surface is ready and the paint is basically exposed you'll need to seal the pores of the paint. I recommend Meguiars glaze/sealer for this. Apply this just the same as the prep. Use soft towels to remove it after it has hazed over, 5-10 minutes. 3M makes a good glaze also. It's just hard to find! Many times a glaze will contain some silicone/wax as well as clay powders and can be used as a cleaner wax. A sealer will usually contain no wax/silcone, or at least very small amounts.

Waxing Your Car! (step 3)

The paint is sealed and prepped, you're ready for wax. The wax will add depth and shine to the paint, and even more durability. I recommend Mother's Pure Carnuba Wax for this. This has some of the most carnauba wax in it than anything else on the retail market. After applying this, don't let it sit more than 5-8 minutes before removing, it's tough after more than that! Two thin coats of this is much better than one thick coat, and apply it with a side to side motion instead of circular to prevent swirls. I haven't tried the newest Zymol product yet but Todd from DETAILS (another shop owner on the net) tells me it's pretty good too. Todd also recommends a new product called Finish First, a synthetic product. I haven't tried it yet (I've been too busy) but from the literature I've read, it's worth a shot. Again, only apply to a cool surface. A hot surface causes rapid evaporation of the wax and cause it to bond to paint leaving nasty streak marks. Also, pre-dampen your applicator pad before waxing. If you do get some streak marks, go over the surface with a damp cloth and then buff it up.

Tips And Tricks.

Most newer cars can get by with a high-quality one step wax, such as Meguiars or Mothers. But cars that haven't been waxed in a while need much more TLC.

After removing it all, go around and remove any excess from the cracks and emblems using the 1" brush and a towel, buff it up with a real soft towel and you're almost done! Cloth diapers are exellent for buffing up a shine!

Avoid detailing in the sun, especially on a hot surface.

You can also wax the side and rear windows if you want, and don't forget those door jamb/hatch lid areas!

Here's another thing you can do. Apply RainX to the windshield. I always finish every vehicle with this. When applying this, pour it onto a paper towel and then buff it in, up and down, side to side. Repeat until thoroughly coated. Let it dry to a haze then remove it with a very soft towel. If the window happened to be extra dry you may have to apply it twice because it soaked in. This step may leave the windows slightly hazy, but very minor. Feedback I've gotten from my customers has been very positive.

Here's another tip: break the car down into 6-8 equal sections. Apply the prep/sealer/wax to one section at a time before moving on to the next. This let's you concentrate your efforts on small areas at a time. Also, make certain you're doing all this in the shade to a cool surface, the same goes for washing.

Pick up some chrome polish if you need it. Most chrome polish is essentially the same. Use in combination with steel wool when necessary.

A "california duster" is EXCELLENT for getting the dust that some products leave behind, not to mention very minor dust settlement. Don't use it instead of washing your car - you'll only ruin the duster and scratch the paint.

Rag tops need extra special care. If you have stains on it and it's white, soft scrub w/ bleach should get them out. For darker colored tops, a good degreaser such as Simple Green is good. Follow up with your vinyl protectant. Use a firm bristled brush to agitate the stain.

A word about electric buffers, rotary and orbital: An orbital buffer is safest for the inexperienced user and can achieve the same results as a rotary. An orbital is heavier than a rotary though. The rotary buffer is much faster than orbitals but in the wrong hands can easily damage paint. I mostly do all my waxing my hand, and heavy oxidation removal with a buffer. Rotarys should be used only by experienced users and not by your average at-home detailer. Severe paint damage can occur!!!!

One last note. There is another detailing book available from your local bookstore. It's called "Auto Detailing: The Professional Way". I recommend it, it's published by Chilton.

Finishing It All Up & Credits

Okay, this should be enough to keep you busy for quite a while! Walk around the car a couple times and look for anything you may have missed. Have a really soft cotton towel handy to buff up the shine!

Good luck to all!

Scott (1992 Mustang GT, Emerald Green, mostly stock ... for now!)

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