How to Detail a Car
Time Required: Over 1 day
Automotive detailing goes beyond the kind of simple cleaning your car might get from driving through the rollers at a car wash. Detailing doesn’t include paintwork or body repairs, but involves cleaning, restoring and finishing every individual part or surface of the car as much as possible.
Learning how to detail a car can greatly improve your vehicle’s appearance and your time spent riding in it. This guide will teach you all the ins and outs of car detailing.
Detailing takes time and can require numerous supplies, so before you begin, take some time to inspect the car.
- Make sure you have the cleaning products that match your car’s specifications: cloth, vinyl and leather seats, for instance, will all need different cleaning methods.
- If any surfaces have deep stains, they may need a stronger cleaner than if they’re generally tidy.
- Car care kits carry most of the cleaning tools and products you’ll need and may be more cost effective than buying items separately.
- Begin with the car interior, so you don’t get dirt or dust from the inside of the car on a freshly-cleaned exterior.
- Remove any visible coins, wrappers and debris from the ash tray, cupholders, off the floor, etc. Empty the door storage and glove compartments and put such valuables as the owner’s manual in a safe place.
- Dust the dashboard, door panels and other hard interior surfaces. Use compressed air spray to loosen the dust in tight spaces. Clean air vents with a bristle brush. A spare make-up brush or cotton swabs will also work quite well.
- Remove the floor pads and dry-brush the carpet.
- Thoroughly vacuum the car, using the hose attachments to get into the nooks and crannies. Begin with the headliner and make your way down. When vacuuming the floor, move the seats all the way up and all the way back to make sure you don’t miss anything.
- Clean out and vacuum the trunk.
- Thoroughly shake the floor mats to get rid of dirt, then clean them off with a pressure washer or garden hose. Make sure the mats have completely dried before returning them to the car. Moisture in cars can lead to mildew.
- Clean carpet stains with a foaming cleaner. Apply the foam, let it sit for a few minutes, rub gently and blot dry with a towel.
Shampoo or clean the seats based on their material.
- Shampoo nylon or cloth seats with an upholstery cleaner and remove residue with a clean, damp cloth. If the cleaner leaves damp spots on the seat, use baking soda to absorb the moisture.
- Clean vinyl seats with either a vinyl cleaner or an all-purpose cleaner recommended for vinyl, then wipe with a microfiber cloth.
- Clean leather seats by using a towel to wipe them with a leather cleaner and then dry them with a microfiber cloth. If needed, apply a leather conditioner to keep the material supple and to avoid cracking. Some products combine leather cleaner and conditioner in a single solution.
- If the seat has perforations, avoid using products that could clog the holes.
- If needed, vacuum a final time to remove any additional debris loosened by the cleaning.
Tip: A way to get rid of indelible stains from a car seat or other location is to cut out the stained area with a razor blade and cover it with a patch of the same material (taken from a section not usually visible). Unless you have experience with this kind of stain removal, you may want to consult a car detailing service.
The wheels and wheel rims may be the dirtiest part of the car. Begin washing the exterior with the wheels to prevent dirt from splashing onto cleaned areas.
- Rinse the body of the car before washing to loosen the dirt.
- Wash the car’s exterior with car wash soap and a car wash mitt. Use one bucket of soapy water and another with clean water for rinsing your sponge or cloth.
- Wash and rinse one section at a time so that the soap doesn’t have time to dry on the surface or leave swirl marks. Dry with a microfiber terrycloth towel.
Tip: Do not use dish detergent to wash a car as it can break down the car’s wax.
- Before polishing the car's paint, use an automotive clay bar treatment to remove sap or other bonded contaminants that adhere to the car’s surface and cannot be removed by cleaning. Gently glide the clay bar over trouble spots until the contaminant is removed.
- Once the car is completely clean, apply car wash polish, which can erase light scratches. Apply some polish about the size of a one-inch circle to a buffing pad.
- Gently move the pad in a side-to-side motion to the area until the polish is gone. If using a power polisher, apply at medium-low speed.
- Wipe the area with a clean, dry cloth.
- Apply metal cleaner to a clean microfiber cloth.
- Spread the cleaner over all metal trim until it’s fully coated, taking care not to get any on the paint.
- Let the cleaner dry and wipe the metal surface clean with a dry microfiber cloth, which should leave a bright sheen.
- Clean the windshield, exterior windows and rear-view mirror with glass cleaner. Check to make sure the cleaner is approved for tinted windows, if you have them.
- Coat the surface with the cleaner, then wipe in a horizontal direction to avoid streaks.
Tip: Before you finish washing the windows, lower them enough for you to wash the edges, which can go overlooked.
Cleaning the engine bay is usually not required for resale, but can be considered a courtesy when putting your car on the market. A visibly clean engine can also make it easier for a mechanic to locate a trouble spot under the hood.
- Clean the engine bay before you clean the car exterior.
- Wrap electronic components in plastic.
- Spray degreaser on the engine parts and rinse off with a hose on low pressure.
- Apply vinyl or rubber protectant to the non-metal components and wipe with a rag.
- Remove plastic from electronic components.
Learning how to detail a car lets you give your vehicle a makeover for motoring. Detailing a car once a year can significantly improve your car’s appearance and your driving experience.