This guide covers everything you need to know about how to detail a car or truck on the outside and inside.
This is the most complete detailing guide on the Internet.
When you finish reading this guide and manage to retain the wealth of info contained in here, you’ll be an extremely well informed detailer.
Let’s dive in!
Detailing a car is usually a very involved process. It can be less or more so depending on how far you want or need to go with your detailing. In this article we will cover almost every possible step for detailing a car from start to finish.
This is the ultimate article for detailing a car step by step like a pro. If you were to hire a detailer for a standard detail job they will not cover all of these steps unless you have specifically discussed all of them and requested they all be performed on your vehicle. The average detail job you are likely to receive from a professional detailer would likely include wash, dry, wax/sealant, wheels and tires, glass, and interior. This will obviously vary from detailer to detailer but these are the typical areas that would be covered on a standard detail and satisfactory for most people.
Clay and polish are usually additional and done to address clear coat swirls and scratches. Clay is typically a prep for polishing that thoroughly cleans the finish. Although clay can simply be used to help remove stubborn road grime that washing couldn’t remove. Polishing is the process of using a mild abrasive to remove the swirls and scratches.
Exterior trim may or may not be attended to specifically by a detailer and would largely depend on the vehicle being detailed and the needs of the exterior trim. It is unusual for a detailer to detail an engine bay unless the car is a show car that may display the engine or is a classic, antique, or exotic.
Now that we’ve covered things at a high level let’s dive into the specifics.
Washing and drying are the foundation for a proper detail job. Washing and drying a car may seem like a pretty simple process that needs no explanation but there are several things to consider to do the job well and not cause light scratches or swirls in the clear coat of your finish.
To begin, you need to use a proper car shampoo if you don’t want to strip away any existing wax or paint sealant. Dish washing soap for instance is too harsh and will break down any protective coatings that have been applied to the paint to protect it. Also, there are 2 main methods used to wash a car to prevent scratching – touchless and 2 bucket.
There are 2 main car wash methods that we’ll cover in this article. While there are several others, these are the best options for most people who want to properly wash their car while minimizing the possibility of scratches and swirls. If you’d like a detailed explanation of these methods you can check out our detailed article about washing without scratching. These are the touchless method and the 2 bucket method. Both of these methods are intended to be as safe as possible for your paint finish.
The touchless car wash method is exactly as it sounds – you don’t physically touch the vehicle. The basic premise is you spray the car down thoroughly to remove as much dirt and grime as possible with the force of a pressure washer.
The upside is that if you don’t touch the car you are highly unlikely to scratch it in any way. The downside is that this isn’t the most thorough method of washing.
While it is intended to be done with a pressure washer which will help significantly with removing dirt, it isn’t as effective as using a wash mitt and physically removing road grime.
This method is really best when performed once a week or every two weeks at a minimum. It won’t be very effective for extremely dirty vehicles. Eventually you’ll need to get hands on to properly clean your car but going touchless will extend the duration between washes that you will need to physically touch your car.
The 2 bucket method is designed to help minimize grit and dirt from getting trapped on your wash mitt and potentially scratching your clear coat.
You’ll need 2 5 gallon buckets, 1 microfiber wash mitt, and at least 1 grit guard.
One bucket is for rinsing your mitt and the other is for soaping up your mitt. At a minimum you’ll want to have a grit guard in the bottom of your rinse bucket but it is a good ideal to also have one in the bottom of the other bucket as well.
Ideally you’d have a pressure washer for this job but it isn’t absolutely necessary. A good pressure washer will remove a good bit of dirt and debris prior to you needing to put your hands directly on the finish.
Car shampoo should be ph neutral so as to not break down any protective coatings but still be powerful enough to loosen dirt and other road debris.
In addition to being gentle on your finish but tough on dirt, a good car shampoo must be a good lubricant for your wash mitt to help protect your finish from abrasions.
Last, you want to be a responsible member of society and ensure that your car shampoo is biodegradable since it is likely going to eventually run off into sewers and then streams.
A pressure washer that is appropriate for washing a car is critical for the touchless car wash method and very handy for the 2 bucket method.
Gas powered power washers are typically far more powerful than necessary and care would be required to ensure that you don’t damage your car. Also, gas powered pressure washers are expensive and not very maneuverable.
NOTE: Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of good quality electric pressure washers. Most use plastic for constructing the motor which will fail quickly under any extended use. Look for an electric pressure washer that builds their motor with metal. They’ll cost significantly more than the ultra-cheap plastic models but it’s money well spent and still very reasonably priced. We highly recommend the Karcher K5 electric pressure washer for its quality construction and awesome performance.
A foam gun is a garden hose attachment you put car shampoo into to allow you to spray down your car with shampoo easily.
A foam cannon is essentially the same thing but designed to be attached to a pressure washer instead of a low pressure garden hose.
A foam cannon is essential for the touchless car wash method and quite handy for the 2 bucket method. If you don’t have a pressure washer you won’t be able to properly perform the touchless method but having a foam gun will allow you to easily heavily coat your car with shampoo and allow the shampoo to begin breaking down the grit and grime without having to physically touch your car. This will help cut down on opportunities to create swirls and scratches.
If you have an electric pressure washer you don’t need to be too picky about your foam cannon. You’ll just want to get a good foam cannon with a reputation for reliability. If you have a gas pressure washer or a particularly powerful electric pressure washer with a PSI over 3000 you’ll want only the best foam cannon that can handle high pressure.
When thoroughly detailing a car you’ll need to get hands-on to properly wash it. A quality microfiber wash mitt is the ideal tool for this job since it is the least likely option to create swirls or scratches when combined with the 2 bucket method.
Quality microfiber is very gentle and will not scratch your finish. The risk for scratches comes from road grime and grit getting trapped on the mitt and ground into your clear coat when wiping back and forth. Microfiber is very good at trapping contaminants deep within its nap thereby better protecting your car than other options. It isn’t foolproof which is why you should always follow the 2 bucket method to further minimize the possibility of scratching.
The grit guard doesn’t allow your wash mitt to get to the bottom of the bucket and pick the grit back up onto your wash mitt. This is an essential addition for the 2 bucket method.
You’ll need two 5 gallon buckets and at least your rinse bucket to have a grit guard. It wouldn’t hurt to have a grit guard in your soap bucket as well.
Bugs and tar buildup on your car are inevitable and usually difficult to remove. A thorough wash isn’t going to get the job done on its own. You’ll need a good quality bug and tar remover that won’t harm your finish or trim.
When it comes to bugs you won’t want to let their smashed guts remain on your car for long. Bug guts are acidic and will etch into your clear coat.
Oddly, most of the bug and tar removers we’ve tried that are branded as bug and tar removers aren’t very efficient at removing bugs and tar. Degreasers are much more effective in our experience.
Not only does a good degreaser power through bugs and tar but they are safe for your paintwork. It is smart to try to avoid getting degreaser on rubber and trim however.
Drying a car is important to eliminate potential water spots. If water on the finish evaporates naturally it can leave deposits that will appear as spots.
Care will need to be taken to not scratch the surface so your car. You should either dry it with an air dryer or a quality microfiber drying towel.
An air dryer is ideal because it is a touchless method.
A microfiber towel is a good alternative because it is very gentle and can trap grit within its fibers so they are less likely to create swirls and scratches.
A good ph neutral shampoo will help with this but depending on your water source it may not be enough. A drying towel is the easiest and most efficient method for drying your car.
A waffle weave microfiber towel is what you want. This is the most absorbent solution as well as being the most gentle aside from touchless drying.
Microfiber is extremely absorbent and will hold an extreme amount of water. Also, like with the microfiber wash mitt, it is very good at trapping dirt and grime in its nap.
Even though we just finished washing the car there is still the chance there is dirt around that we may have missed somehow and we don’t want to grind it into the finish. Using microfiber is an added layer of protection.
If you’re trying to stick to the touchless method you’ll want to pick up an air dryer for your car.
If you don’t want to spend the money you can get away with using a leaf blower although you’ll find it a little less than ideal most likely.
A purpose built air dryer is much better at getting into nooks and crannies where water can hide. If you don’t get all of that water out of those hard to reach places and go to drive away water will begin running down the sides of your car and if not dried off it can leave water spots.
Even if you’re not trying to stick to the touchless method you may prefer to use an air dryer since a microfiber drying towel can’t get into the difficult crevices. Drying first with a towel and then air drying is a more efficient route to go.
Wheels usually suffer from not just getting very dirty but from excess buildup of brake dust.
There are many different types of wheels in all sorts of unique shapes and various finishes. For these reasons you’ll want a dedicated set of tools to help you solve their unique problems.
The same is true for tires although they are much easier to tackle in general.
Brake dust buildup can be really tough to remove without the right tools for the job. A quality wheel cleaner spray will effectively break down brake dust buildup and make it easy to remove.
Often people look to an iron remover to do the job on very difficult to clean wheels with caked on brake dust but a good quality wheel cleaner that contains iron remover can also get the job done very well. Plus, a good wheel cleaner is a better all-around solution.
Wheels come in a wide variety of styles and often they have nooks and crannies that are very difficult to get into. Having a couple of good wheel brushes will make quick work of even the most challenging set of wheels.
If your wheels are fairly simple and you’re only concerned with detailing your own car you may be able to get away without a wheel brush. Most people however are going to want to have one wide wheel brush and one thin wheel brush. These will allow you to handle most challenging situations easily.
Like your bodywork, your wheels usually at least have a clear coat that you want to protect from scratches as much as possible. Make sure you purchase gentle brushes that won’t damage the finish of your wheels.
If you’re unfamiliar with tire blooming the tldr is that a chemical called antiozonant is included in tires to help protect the rubber. Over time it works its way out of the rubber and turns brown. Although it does help protect the tires it doesn’t look great.
It isn’t uncommon for people to use a wheel cleaner to clean their tires but there are better options available. To help lift dirt and remove brown tire blooming we recommend a couple different all purpose cleaners. Meguiar’s All Purpose Cleaner is excellent as well as Optimum’s Power Clean. Either one of these will do an excellent job and should be a little more gentle than a wheel cleaner while still being extremely effective.
A good stiff bristled tire brush is what you want here. Something that will really work the rubber and loosen dirt, brown tire blooming, or other contaminants that have penetrated and stained the surface.
Tire dressing is a topic that can be hotly debated. Some people just don’t like a shiny look and I definitely fall into that camp.
While tire dressing usually looks shiny there are some matte tire dressings on the market for those of us that don’t want shiny tires but aren’t happy with tires that aren’t dressed at all.
If you want a good long lasting shine but also want to minimize sling Meguiar’s Gold Class Endurance High Gloss Tire Gel.
For the matte finish with maximum life and minimum sling check out Meguiar’s Hyper Dressing.
With both of these products you will want to do your best to wipe off excess as much as possible before driving to eliminate sling. Also you can fine tune the amount of shine you get with the Hyper Dressing by diluting it a little bit with some water.
Using a clay bar on your paint surface is the best way to remove small bits of dirt and road grime that has stuck to your finish. These bits of dirt and debris are usually very small and difficult to see.
The way it works is you glide a clay bar across the surface of your paint and tiny bits of dirt and grime that are firmly stuck onto your paint will get trapped into the clay and pulled away.
To get the clay bar to glide smoothly without doing any damage to the surface of your car you need to use a clay bar lubricant.
It should be obvious that you should do this after washing your car thoroughly. You want to remove as much road grime as possible before using clay.
Claying doesn’t always need to be performed. To decide if you need to clay your car you can gently run your fingertips over the finish. If it feels silky smooth then you probably don’t need to spend time claying your finish. If it feels slightly rough then it may be a good idea to spend some time claying the surface.
There are plenty of different clay manufacturers. Some manufacturers produce various grades of clay which are designed to either be more or less aggressive at its ability to remove stuck on dirt. To be completely honest, there really isn’t any need for you to worry about all of this. Regular clay from almost any manufacturer will work just fine. Sweating over which clay bar is better is a waste of time in my humble opinion.
What’s more important is ensuring that you fold and rotate your clay regularly to keep dirt and debris that is picked up by the clay from potentially scratching your paint. Check it frequently as you use the clay bar and fold and rotate as necessary to switch to a clean section of clay.
Also, if you drop your clay on the ground DON’T USE IT. There will be a lot of harsh sand and grit that will have gotten picked up by the clay and it will almost certainly scratch your finish.
A good practice is to break off small pieces of clay for use. If you happen to drop a small piece you can throw it away with ease and just break off a new piece. If you’re using your entire clay bar and drop it you’ll be less compelled to throw it away and may try to get away with using it. That could end in disaster.
It is possible to clay your car with just water as a lubricant but it doesn’t work as well as a dedicated lubricant. When using water, the clay will frequently stick and grab.
A good clay lubricant will allow the clay to seamlessly glide across your clear coat and easily pick up grit and dirt stuck to the surface. Like clay bars, there are many different lubricants. Some are better than others but there isn’t much difference between them for this purpose. I’ve found it best to just stick to one that is reasonably priced and works well for you.
Polishing a car is the act of using a mild abrasive to remove light swirls and scratches from the clear coat of your cars finish. This is often referred to as paint correction. This is not a process that you will want to perform on a regular basis but it will need to be done from time to time.
Dark colored cars, especially black cars, show these swirls and scratches the most. The most difficult color to see them on is bright white although they can still be seen.
When these marks build up they can create a dull look to your finish. They can also look very unsightly in bright sunlight.
Polishing can be done by hand but it would be difficult to do more than a square foot or two before you became worn out. It just isn’t practical to polish and entire car by hand. For this reason you’ll want to invest in a quality dual action polisher. These are much safer to use than a typical orbital polisher and will be much less likely to produce unsightly holograms or cause too much wear on the clear coat.
A dual action polisher doesn’t just spin a polishing pad but it also varies the midpoint of the pad so that the pad doesn’t sit in a single spot and wear down the clear coat.
Another great benefit of a quality DA polisher is that if too much pressure is applied it will stop spinning. This is a great safety feature to help protect your finish.
This is one of the tools that you want to be picky about purchasing for sure. A top quality polisher will be:
It can be intimidating to use a polisher on your finish but armed with a quality polisher designed to make the task easier and safer will give you more confidence when tackling the job.
Polishing pads generally come in softer and firmer types. As you might have guessed, softer pads are more gentle and hard pads are more aggressive. For typical use, and especially for a beginner there isn’t much need to worry about all the different types.
There are usually great sets of pads that include a hard, medium, and soft pad. The medium being the one you’ll want to start with. You’d step up to a hard pad if you find you’re having difficulty with a particularly bad area. The soft pad would be fore a final polish to give the finish a glassy look.
Polishing compounds, like polishing pads, come in a wide variety of aggressiveness. The best course of action here is to go with a simple kit that contains just a few good polishing compounds.
A typical basic polishing compound kit will contain an aggressive, medium, mild, and finishing polish. Start with the medium and step up or down based on how it’s working. When you’re happy with the results go back over everything with the finishing polish to ensure that there are no holograms.
Good old fashioned carnauba wax doesn’t last long but it does produce the deepest and richest shine of any of the available paint protection products you can buy. This is why it is still popular with people who own show cars. Given that it only lasts a couple weeks when exposed to the elements it has fallen out of favor as a regular protectant.
Unfortunately the term wax is very common and many products that are referred to as wax aren’t truly a pure wax. It’s not uncommon to see terms like synthetic wax or hybrid wax. These are usually a hybrid of wax and sealant that attempt to merge the outstanding appearance of wax with the longevity of a sealant. Most of these hybrids are a compromise sadly. Some of these hybrids do work pretty good however.
Paint sealants are outstanding for protecting your finish as opposed to wax. A good quality sealant only needs to be applied once a year and will produce a deep gloss that comes close to the shine of wax for the duration of the year.
They do an excellent job of allowing water to bead off your car and also make it difficult for dirt and road grime to adhere to your finish.
The cost is also typically very reasonable, especially given all they can do compared to traditional wax. The bang for the buck is also great when compared to ceramic coatings. With performance nearing that of consumer grade ceramic coatings, paint sealants are our paint protection of choice.
These advanced paint sealants are extremely durable and outperform basic paint sealants in almost every way.
They are more difficult to apply and cost a good bit more but for your effort and dollar they perform amazingly well. Consumer grade ceramic coatings last a little longer than most basic paint sealants but professional grade ceramic coatings that must be applied by a trained professional detailer last longer than most people will own their car.
The cost of professional grade ceramic coatings is prohibitive for most people though. It often costs thousands of dollars to coat your average four door sedan. Larger trucks and SUVs are even more expensive.
There are 2 main categories of exterior trim we’ll cover in this article. Rubber and Black Matte Plastic.
Rubber is typically found as window seals and black matte plastic is sometimes found on bumpers, wheel arches, and occasionally on lower body panels. Both of these suffer more from UV rays than your finish will over the same amount of time. Rubber will tend to dry out and loose its elasticity and black matte plastic will fade becoming dull and chalky.
To maintain both of these trims you’ll want to make a point of regularly applying either a rubber rejuvenating solution or a plastic trim restorer. By staying on top of these you’ll prevent the need to replace them later or catching them later than you like and getting less that desirable results.
On the exterior of glass you deal with a lot of the same problems that occur with your paint finish. Dirt and road grime build up and need to be removed, first by washing and if necessary, by clay bar.
You can clay your glass just like you would the rest of your car. You likely won’t need to do this except on the windshield but it may need to be done from time to time. You still need to be wary of creating scratches in your glass just like you do with your paint so all the same rules will apply.
You also have the addition of windshield wipers which you’ll want to maintain regularly. They’re inexpensive to change out yearly and if you want to help prevent scratches this is a must.
When it comes to protection rain repellent is the equivalent of paint sealant for your glass. The most popular rain repellent is Rain-X however it tends to fade in its abilities after a couple months. There are plenty of much more effective alternatives available but they will cost quite a bit more. The best rain repellents will be capable of lasting years as opposed to months.
When it comes to the interior side of glass you need to deal with oils and films that tend to build up. These can be from people touching the glass or the plastics and glues used within the cabin of your car off gassing and depositing a filmy buildup on them.
No matter what it is that’s clinging to your windscreen a good streak free glass cleaner and lint free microfiber towel are the go to tools for solving this problem.
In some cars, reaching all of the areas of the glass can be a challenge. If you find this is a problem for you there are some handy tools available to help you reach those difficult spots.
Carpets unfortunately capture all sorts of dirt that gets tracked into a car. Vacuuming out this dirt is relatively simple with a good 5 horsepower shop vac and may be all that is required.
Carpets become more challenging when there are stains from spills or things tracked in from outside. Shampooing the carpet is a common solution. Using a proven automotive carpet shampoo that will do a good job of lifting stains out and a good carpet brush is the best approach. You can even get brush attachments for your dual action orbital polisher that will make the job much easier. Once you’ve scrubbed thoroughly you can use a good microfiber towel to wipe up the shampoo and lifted dirt.
It may be worth either renting or investing in a carpet steam cleaner that has an attachment that will allow you to easily steam clean your carpets and mats. This will do wonders for pulling out stains from carpets especially when used after shampooing and agitating vigorously with a good carpet brush.
Upholstery is similar to carpets in how it is to be cleaned.
Like with carpets, a steam cleaner can be used to do a supreme job cleaning and lifting stains after shampooing and scrubbing.
A headliner is typically just an upholstered surface like your seats and can essentially be cleaned the same way. It will need to be cleaned more gently however since the fabric is usually much thinner on the ceiling of your car. It is also usually adhered to the ceiling with an adhesive as opposed to stitched into place.
You’ll want to use upholstery cleaner on any stains or spots and a more delicate brush to agitate the area and work the cleaner into the stained fabric.
You can also use a steam cleaner with a microfiber rag wrapped around the steamer attachment but you’ll want to be more gentle. You also shouldn’t use an excessive amount of steam that may cause the adhesive to moisten and loosen, allowing the fabric to sag.
Leather can get quite grimy looking with oils and dirt. Cleaning a leather seat can be performed similar to how you cleaned an upholstered seat but it will require a little more care.
You can simply spray a leather cleaner onto your leather and wipe away if it isn’t very dirty.
For dirtier leather you’ll need to use a quality brush that is much more gentle than what you’d use on upholstery.
For very dirty leather you may need to use a steam cleaner to get the grime to fully release.
To help protect the leather it is a good idea to wrap the end of the steamer with a microfiber rag. This will not only absorb some of the brunt of the steam but also keep the end of the steamer from scratching and damaging the surface of the leather. Once it’s been vigorously steamed you can wipe away any remaining filth and muck.
Once you’re done cleaning all of your leather and you’ve wiped it all down you should go back over all of it with a good leather conditioner to keep the leather well protected and moisturized.
For your dash, doors and various other places that aren’t upholstered in cloth, leather, alcantara, or something similar you’re probably going to be dealing with various grades and types of plastic. These plastics should be wiped down with a damp rag and then dried.
You will want to use a brush similar to a paint brush or one specifically for detailing to get into difficult to reach places like crevices or air vents. A can of compressed air or an air compressor with an air gun attachment can also be great for blowing out debris from difficult to reach places.
If areas are particularly oily and grimy from body oils and dirt you will want to apply some plastic cleaner and wipe away. Be careful around electronics. It’s better to spray the cleaner onto a microfiber rag and wipe as opposed to onto surfaces to prevent spraying into openings where electronics are exposed.
For the most filthy spots such as arm rests, grab handles, or other places frequently contacted by hands you may want to use a steam cleaner with a microfiber rag over the opening of the steamer attachment. The steam will not only lift the grime away but it will disinfect the surface.
Once you’ve finished cleaning all of the interior surfaces it would be good to apply a quality UV protectant such as Aerospace 303 Protectant. It is simply wiped on and buffed off. It doesn’t leave a shiny sticky finish but a dry matte look. It’s the ideal product for protecting all of the interior plastics, vinyls, and even leather from breaking down over years of exposure to the sun’s harmful UV rays.
If you’ve hung in there for this ultimate detailing guide not only are you now extremely well informed about how to properly detail a car, but you’re a trooper. The bad news is that as massive and detailed as this post is, there are loads of things we haven’t covered and many things we’ve covered but haven’t dove into all of the details.
There are also many techniques and products that others use that you may hear about that don’t line up well with what is outlined here. This guide isn’t a set of golden rules. It’s just a good guide to general detailing techniques. Your unique car and your experience will inform how you approach various problems.
That said, we have covered a lot and you should be around 90% informed about almost anything that needs to be cleaned on a car. If there are topics this article doesn’t cover or you have questions, drop us a line and let us know. Good luck and happy detailing.