Chances are, your car isn’t as clean as it could (or should) be. You’ve taken it to the hands-free car wash once every couple of months for the past 3 years, but these days, the robotic brushes and industrial blow dryers just don’t seem to do the trick — you can still see paint swirls, minor scratches, and bird poop stains — and boy oh boy, the interior could use some love. If this scenario sounds familiar, you and your car could benefit greatly from a thorough DIY detailing.
The simple answer? Washing isn’t enough. While washing does an ok job of cleaning surface contaminants off of your paint, it can also remove protective layers like wax, sealant, and even clear coat. Plus it doesn’t protect your paint, leaving it exposed and vulnerable to natural contaminants and debris. And I haven’t even mentioned the benefits detailing provides to your interior …
A proper detailing helps repair your car’s minor imperfections and protects it from the harsh world it lives in, extending your car’s life and helping it maintain value. In other words, you’ll save money by reducing the effects of depreciation and avoiding expensive repairs.
The price difference between getting a professional detail and doing it at home isn’t that significant. In fact, they’re almost the same — costing anywhere from $150 to $300+ depending on the steps taken and quality of products used. But if you DIY, many of the tools and products you purchase will last for more than one detail, greatly reducing the cost of additional sessions. You’ll also be filled with pride knowing you’re the one that made your car a luminous beacon of clean. (Personally, I just love the methodical, Zen-like process of cleaning something so thoroughly.)
How often should you detail?
You should only need to perform a full detail once or twice a year depending on your local climate and parking situation. However, you should wash your car once every month or so and wax once every season to keep it protected and looking clean.
Convinced DIY detailing’s for you? Good! Let’s get started.
Gather the tools and products
The list of tools and products you’ll need may be intimidating at first, but think of how it’ll pay off in the long term. Furthermore, all of these products can be purchased online, making the preparation process painless.
Once you’ve got the goods, wait for a clear day, find a place in the shade (but near a water hose), and get down to business.
1. Rid the interior of dust, dirt, and debris
What you’ll need: vacuum, foaming carpet cleaner, scrub brush, microfiber cloth
Optional: Q-tips®, air-spray can
First, use a microfiber cloth to wipe away particles and dust from the dashboard, seats, and center console. If you want to be thorough (or you’re a perfectionist like me), consider using Q-tips and an air-spray can to reach all the nooks and crannies.
Then, use the vacuum’s crevice tool (the flat end attachment) to extract loose dust, dirt, and debris from the carpets and floor.
Next, wash the carpets. Remove them from the car (if possible) and apply the foaming carpet cleaner. Work the scrub brush over your carpets using a back-and-forth motion. After you’re satisfied that the carpets are clean, twist a microfiber cloth into the carpets, like you’re turning a doorknob, to remove residual foam. Don’t forget to rotate the cloth and expose a clean part every so often. Finish your carpets off with the vacuum.
2. Cleaning the insides of your windows
What you’ll need: glass cleaner, glass-specific microfiber cloth, plush microfiber cloth
Many people neglect the the insides of their windshield and windows (I know I often do), but this can result in the buildup of a nasty, difficult-to-remove chemical film. Luckily, it’s simple to remove — here’s how.
Spray 2 or 3 squirts of glass cleaner on a glass-specific microfiber cloth, and rub the insides of the windshield and windows using straight-line strokes (no circles). You may have to do this a few times for a perfect clean (be sure to use a clean part of the cloth). Once your windows are clean, use a plush microfiber cloth to remove any remaining streaks.
If stubborn scratches or surface imperfections remain, you may need to polish your glass.
3. Restore leather and vinyl
What you’ll need: all-purpose cleaner (made for cars), soft brush (small), all-purpose scrubbing pad, microfiber cloth
Optional: cleaning solution, spray bottle, surface moisturizer or protectant
If you purchased an all-purpose cleaner concentrate, begin by mixing the concentrate with water according to package directions, and add it to a spray bottle. (Skip this step if the cleaning solution came premixed in a spray bottle.)
Dashboard and console
For the dash, console, and other hard surfaces, apply 1 or 2 squirts of all-purpose cleaner on a microfiber cloth. Rub the cloth on these surfaces. When the cloth becomes dirty, flip it over. Repeat until all surfaces are clean.
Seats and leather
For seats, leather, and other soft surfaces, spray a generous amount of cleaner directly onto the surface. Then, use the soft brush and tiny circular motions to gently loosen the dirt and debris. This’ll help lift and absorb contaminants more effectively. Next, use a microfiber cloth to wipe the surface clean. If additional cleaning’s needed, apply the cleaner again and gently scrub with an all-purpose scrubbing pad. Wipe clean with a microfiber cloth.
Tip: To further extend the life of your interior, consider adding a moisturizer or protectant. This not only improves your interior’s appearance, but it can also help protect against stains and spills. It’s best not to skimp when purchasing these products, though, as the less expensive ones can be greasy and ineffective.
4. Clean your wheels
What you’ll need: wheel cleaner, wheel brush, microfiber cloth, bucket
Optional: paint clay, spray wax
Wheels can be frustrating and difficult to clean, but with the right tools and techniques, it’s not so bad.
There are different types of wheel cleaner, but the best are acid-free, water-based solutions. Avoid toxic wheel cleaners because they can damage your wheels and are, as you may’ve guessed, bad for the environment.
Most directions call for applying the wheel cleaner, waiting 3 to 5 minutes, brushing to loosen grit, and then rinsing with water. If your wheels are still dirty, additional brushing and cleaning can be done using the same method. Always use a designated bucket to rinse your wheel brush, and don’t let cleaner dry on the wheels.
Give your wheels a final rinse with water, and dry with a microfiber cloth.
Tip: If you encounter stubborn brake dust or grime, used or leftover paint clay works like magic to remove any residual contaminants. Just make sure you apply a lubricant like spray wax to the surface and clay beforehand.
5. Wash and dry the exterior
What you’ll need: 2 buckets, car soap, lamb’s wool mitt, spray nozzle, plush microfiber cloth
Optional: Grit Guard® Insert
Of all the steps in the detailing process, washing and drying are the ones people are most familiar with. However, they’re also the ones where mistakes are frequently made. Often these mistakes seem harmless — not scrubbing the dirt out of your mitt in between body panels, using dish soap instead of car soap, or using a beach or shower towel for drying — but they can damage your paint and leave behind unwanted swirls or scratches.
So how do you give your car a proper wash? Before you start, make sure you’re using a soap product designed specifically for car paint — normal dish soap’s too abrasive and will likely do more harm than good. Find a spot in the shade, and check that the surface paint isn’t too warm. A warm or hot temperature will speed up water evaporation, leaving behind unwanted contaminants.
Begin by mixing your car soap with water in 1 of the 2 washing buckets — the proper ratio can usually be found on the bottle — and add only water to the other. Then, rinse your car with water from the hose, drench your lamb’s wool mitt in the soap bucket, and begin washing. Use straight-line strokes to remove surface contaminants. Once a panel is complete, spray the surface with water from your hose. Before moving to the next section, cleanse the mitt in the water-only bucket, using your hand to loosen and remove any dirt particles.
Once the entire car’s washed, use a couple of plush microfiber cloths to dry. To remove any remaining streaks, apply spray wax to a microfiber cloth and wipe until the surface is dry.
Tip: To help reduce the likelihood of dirt and debris remaining in your mitt, you can use a Grit Guard Insert in the bottom of your rinse bucket. Rub the mitt on the Grit Guard Insert before rinsing with your hand.
6. Removing residual contaminants with paint clay
What you’ll need: paint clay, spray wax, microfiber cloth
The detailing community agrees — the clay bar has been one of the most important advancements in detailing technology over the years. Paint claying began in Japan in the ’80s, slowly made its way to the U.S., and never left. That’s because it really works — it’s incredibly effective at removing any residual surface contaminants after washing. This results in a cleaner, smoother surface, which’ll increase the effectiveness of polish and wax.
Claying has 2 rules, but they’re paramount: use a generous amount of spray wax and always rely on friction instead of pressure. After you’ve washed and completely dried your car, tear off a small chunk of clay and flatten it into a patty. Then, squirt spray wax directly on one section (a quarter to half of a panel) and on the paint clay. Use straight-line strokes to move the clay back and forth over the surface. Continue until the surface feels smooth (there should be no more snagging as the clay moves).
Once you’re satisfied that a section’s clean, use a microfiber cloth to dry and start the next section.
Tip: Never use clay after it falls on the ground! The clay will pick up dirt and other particles from the ground, which can scratch your paint. Just use a new piece.
7. Polish to perfection
What you’ll need: masking tape, mild one-step polish, random orbital polisher, polish applicator pad(s), microfiber cloth
Many people don’t understand the difference between polishing and waxing — essential knowledge if you’re going to do both correctly. So let’s all get on the same page. Polishing always comes first. Its job is to remove small layers of clear coat by buffing an abrasive compound onto your car’s paint. This process makes small scratches and swirls disappear, leaving you with a level, like-new surface to work with. That’s where waxing comes in. Waxing adds a protective layer that’ll repel contaminants and resist new imperfections. As an added benefit, it gives your paint the deep shine seen at car shows and dealership showrooms.
If your car paint’s in relatively good condition, you can use a mild one-step polish. This’ll remove light swirls and scratches. If your car’s old or the paint’s heavily damaged, you may want to defer to a professional detailer (or read up on compounding).
When polishing, you should work in sections. It can be tempting to rush ahead, but the process requires attention to detail (especially if it’s your first time) so you don’t ruin your paint. First, protect any delicate areas like rubber molding or trim pieces with masking tape. Then, center an applicator pad on your random orbital polisher. Next, add polish to your pad, and at a low speed, lightly spread the polish around the working section. Then, adjust your random orbital to a higher speed (generally there’s a recommended speed in the manual, but if not, between 3 and 5 is a safe bet). Finally, work in the polish using back-and-forth strokes creating a crosshatch pattern. Continue until the layer of product’s thin and evenly applied, and wipe clean with a microfiber cloth. Use the same process for each section until the whole car’s complete.
8. Wax on, wax off
What you’ll need: synthetic wax (paint sealant), hand-wax applicator pads, microfiber cloth
Optional: carnauba wax
Synthetic vs. carnauba
There are 2 types of wax, synthetic and natural. Synthetic wax (often called paint sealant) is made of synthetic particles, which form a bond with the surface and seal your paint. It lasts longer than natural wax (4 to 6 months on average) but almost always produces a moderately inferior, “hard” shine. On the other hand, natural wax is typically produced using an organic substance called carnauba (the waxy layer that coats the leaves of the Brazilian “tree of life”). It’s an incredibly hard substance in its natural form, so most carnauba waxes aren’t made entirely of carnauba, even if they’re labeled 100 percent. Carnauba wax produces the deep, warm shine you see at car shows and does a great job protecting your paint.
Many one-step polishes also include synthetic wax. If that’s the case with your polish, waxing’s not needed. However, if your choice of polish doesn’t include wax, you’ll want to add a layer of synthetic first, as it’ll be more durable and less expensive. You can always choose to add an additional layer of carnauba for optimum results.
Tip: Synthetic wax usually needs to cure between one hour and a full day — look for the exact time on your specific product or wait the full day just to be sure. Not allowing wax to cure greatly reduces its effectiveness.
Applying and removing the wax
So you’ve chosen your wax, and now you need to apply it. I prefer to do so by hand (I have a small car), but a random orbital polisher will work on a low to medium setting. First, add a small amount of wax to the applicator pad. Then, using straight-line strokes and light pressure, rub the wax onto the surface, working on 2 or 3 panels at a time. Once an even, thin layer’s covering the section, it’s finished. Begin to remove the wax with a microfiber cloth before it dries completely.
Tip: If you’re having trouble removing wax, try using a microfiber cloth with a couple squirts of spray wax.
Remember to always keep your pad clean, and once the whole car’s finished, check for any wax you may’ve missed.
9. Make your tires shine
What you’ll need: tire shine gel, tire applicator pad
You can always tell when a car’s just left a detailer: the whole thing shines, including its tires. While this look isn’t right for all cars (especially some vintage cars), it looks great on most, and it’s easy to achieve. There are 2 types of tire shine product: liquid and gel. Generally, gels are preferred in the detailing community because they stick around much longer.
To apply, simply put a small amount of tire gel on an applicator pad and rub it into the tire wall. To avoid “slinging” (when gel spins onto your car’s paint as you drive), use as little gel as possible. Your tires should shine for weeks to come.
Admire and enjoy your work
Phew! You’re finally done, and I bet your car looks amazing. Now all that’s left to do is admire your achievement, and oh yeah, go for a drive!
These directions are only recommendations. When in doubt, always follow the directions provided with each detailing product or consult your owner’s manual.