Making a car truly shine and look a mile deep when you gaze into the finish is a combination of steps.
The main one is the protective finish applied at the end but that will largely depend on the prep work prior to that point.
This article will focus on the basics necessary to get that show car quality shine on your vehicle.
The steps we’ll be covering are wash, dry, clay, and protect. We will not be covering inspecting and paint correction since that is much more advanced.
We want to focus on the most important and easiest to perform steps to get you as quickly as possible to the point that your car will almost glow it’s so shiny.
Again, while the protection step is the step that really gives your car that shine, not paying attention to properly cleaning the surface of your paint first will limit your results.
You may be inclined to skip the clay step, feeling that it may be overkill but you would be mistaken. If you’ve never clayed a car before you’ll likely be surprised at the amount of buildup that gets impregnated into the clear coat of your car.
Obviously we need to begin by giving the car a proper bath but we need to pay attention to how we do this so that we don’t cause problems that will have to be resolved later.
It’s very easy to create scratches and swirls in your clear coat if you’re not careful so we need to ensure that we get the road grime off the car and off your wash mitt so that it doesn’t get scrubbed around on your paint surface causing scratches.
We also want to ensure that we don’t leave water spots that we need to clean off. To achieve these 2 goals we’ll want to use a method for washing a car called the 2 bucket method.
One bucket is reserved for soap and the other is reserved for rinsing your wash mitt. In the bottom of each bucket you’ll want to place a grit guard which is designed to prevent you from pulling grit back up and onto your wash mitt.
Last, to ensure that we don’t leave water spots you’ll want to use a ph neutral automotive shampoo. Ph neutral shampoos are gentle on your paint and leave no spots but are tough enough to remove dirt and debris.
What you’ll need to wash your vehicle:
Place grit guards in the bottom of each bucket.
Add the ph neutral shampoo to one bucket and fill it with water, foaming up the shampoo well in the process. Fill the other with just water.
Rinse your car thoroughly trying to get as much road grime off as possible before needing to physically touch the car.
Saturate your wash mitt well and soap it up. Gently wash and rinse your car or truck as you go. Start at the top and work your way down. Frequently rinse your mitt in the water only bucket and soap it back up in the shampoo bucket.
Try to get all of the grit out of your mitt before placing it back on your car or truck or you run the risk of creating swirls and scratches in the clear coat.
When you’re done inspect the car thoroughly to ensure you’ve covered it well and rinse it one last time.
In an effort to minimize touching the surface of your vehicle and preventing opportunities to create scratches and swirls, you can blow dry your car with a leaf blower or a dedicated car air dryer.
It’s also common for people to simply use a large microfiber towel to wipe down the car thoroughly.
Microfiber towels are excellent at absorbing water and are very delicate on the surface of your car or truck.
What you’ll need to dry your vehicle:
There are two main parts to decontamination – Iron Remover and Clay Bar.
Iron remover is a product that is sprayed on the finish and rinsed off with water after it has been allowed to sit and react for some time.
Iron remover does exactly what the name implies and removes iron deposits on your paintwork. Iron particles in the air will collect on your car or truck over time and adhere strongly to the clear coat.
Iron particles come mostly from the brake pads of other cars in traffic but there are plenty of other sources such as trains and industrial facilities.
Once the iron remover has been sprayed on the surface of your finish it will begin to react with the iron particles and break them down. Most iron removers will cause a chemical reaction with the iron and turn a purplish color.
You obviously should follow the directions for your iron remover of choice but most will suggest spraying on, wiping around to work the iron remover in, and allowing to sit for 5 minutes or so. You don’t want to allow the iron remover to dry on the car so work in the shade and rinse off if you see any signs of drying.
What you’ll need to remove iron from your vehicle:
Claying is the process of using a literal piece of clay and rubbing it across the surface of your paint.
The clay will pull out all sorts of road grime that has adhered so firmly to your vehicles clear coat that simply washing won’t remove it.
For the clay to glide across your paint you need to use a dedicated lubricant.
There are a few products that are recommended for use as a clay lubricant but you won’t want to get creative here or you can potentially create a real problem.
Once you’ve thoroughly clayed the entire surface of your paint you’ll want to give it one more quick wash and dry. Be sure and follow the same process as above.
What you’ll need to clay your vehicle:
Paint correction is mostly the process of removing fine swirls and scratches from the clear coat of your vehicle’s paintwork.
Over time very light scratches appear on your finish and will cause it to look dull and old. If you want to restore that new car shine to an older vehicle this is probably the most crucial step.
I was driving home from work not too long ago and past an older black Lexus that looked like it had just left the detailer after a proper paint correction. It was a true head turner because you don’t expect to see such a pristine finish on a 15 or so year old car. The paint looked perfect and the shine was amazing.
The overview of the process is that once you’ve followed all of the previous steps in this post, you’re ready for polishing out those scratches.
You apply a small bit of polishing compound to your dual action polisher and gently guide it over the panels of the car with a light amount of pressure. You want the polishing compound to do the work. When you’re done you should be free of all of those light spider-web like scratches.
Many new DIY detailers are apprehensive about trying to remove swirls and scratches themselves. In the past it was much easier to damage the finish but todays dual action polishers are very gentle and if too much pressure is put on the polisher it will stop spinning to prevent damage from occurring.
What you’ll need to polish your vehicle:
There are 3 main types of products used to protect the finish on your car: Wax, Sealant, and Ceramic Coating.
Waxing provides the best shine but the shortest protection. Typically only a couple months.
Paint sealants have gotten very good and coming close to the shine of wax but provide as much as 2 years of protection. Wolfgang Deep Gloss Paint Sealant is my paint sealant of choice and it holds up well for close to 2 years.
Ceramic coatings also can provide good shine but improve upon durability by as much as 5 years or more for the consumer grade ceramic coatings you can buy as a non-professional.
If you’ve decontaminated your finish as described above your clear coat is in a perfect state to consider applying a ceramic coating. All you have to do is an IPA wipe prior to applying a ceramic coating. An IPA wipe is simply a diluted isopropyl alcohol spray and wipe down of the finish to remove any residual oils and waxes that may be left on the finish before applying a ceramic coating.
Of the DIY ceramic coatings on the market I’m a big fan of both CQuartz UK 3.0 and Adam’s UV Ceramic Coating. CQuartz shines and beads slightly better and has a lifespan of 2 years or more typically. Adam’s comes close to the gloss and beading of CQuartz but lasts an astounding 5 years or more.
What you’ll need to protect your vehicle:
The key to getting that show car glass-like shine is not just the protectant you apply to the paint, but the prep work that comes prior to doing so.
If you’re clear coat is in particularly rough shape you may want to spend some time on paint correction. This step isn’t necessarily for the average beginner to detailing but it’s easier than you think. You can find a good detailer local to you that could get the job done as well. It won’t be cheap and honestly, if they’re going to be doing paint correction you might as well have them apply a good paint protection like a ceramic coating while they’re at it.
Properly wash, dry, decontaminate, paint correct, and protect your car or truck and you’ll end up with a stunning finish. The products you choose for protecting your vehicle are often looked at as what makes the shine but it’s the entire process that get’s the results.