How to Detail Your Own Car - Part 1

Posted by James Dudra on 29th Jan 2014

Thinking auto detailing is just for the pros? Think again. Anyone with a bit of knowledge, time and patience can detail their own car at home. It just takes getting the right products and processes together to make it happen. 

First, what exactly do we mean when we say "detailing"? To be honest it means different things to different people. Some people may look at a car with swirl marks and still call it "detailed". Some may look at a car with stains still embedded on the seats and call it "detailed". Basically what it comes down to is that the meaning of what it means to have a car detailed is in the eye of the beholder. 

For those in the professional detailing industry, detailing has a more finite definition. Typically it is a methodical process of cleaning the car's interior and exterior to remove any and all blemishes. The degree to what level of clean you go to again depends on the final customer. 

Regardless if you want to detail your own car at home you can. Here's what you'll need to get started: 

Microfiber Towels
Glass Cleaning Towels
Wheel Brushes
Soft Bristle Brushes for Car Seats
Cotton Swabs

Cleaning Products:
Car Wash Product
Car Wax
Wheel Cleaner
Tire Dressing
Dashboard Protectant
Leather Cleaner and Conditioner (if applicable)
Window and Glass Cleaner
Carpet Spot Cleaner

Start by creating a methodical process for cleaning the car. Will you wash the outside or detail the inside first? We've created this handy auto detailing checklist you can use to ensure that no part of the vehicle is missed:

Wash the Exterior
To get started on the exterior detailing, you'll want to clean the car's paint. A high-quality wash product is the way to go here. There are two basic methods for cleaning the car's exterior: waterless car wash or traditional suds car wash. If you're in an arid climate with water restrictions, go with the waterless method. If you're more of a traditional fan, you can use a regular hose and bucket wash, just be prepared for a bit more of a mess. 

Make sure you wash out of direct sunlight and work one panel at a time. As your cleaning mitt or towel gets dirty, rinse it out in a bucket of clean water. You can also just pick up a new towel and continue around the vehicle. Be sure to work from the top of the car downwards, as the lower rocker panels are where most of the dirt accumulates.

Be sure to give it a good dry after you're done. One final word on the wash process, use microfiber towels! Terry towels or old t-shirts are can potentially damage the clear-coat due to their aggressive construction. 

Wax the Paint
Once the paint has been washed it's time for a good wax. Again you have a few choices on which way you'll go here. Stick with a traditional liquid or paste wax or opt for a high-speed spray wax. If you are not in a big rush and want a bit more durability, go with a paste wax. You'll typically see a maximum of two months worth of protection from paste waxes. 

If you have a need for speed, go with a spray wax. These high-efficiency spray and wipe waxes can do an entire car in about 15 minutes. While they don't offer the same durability, most spray waxes will last between 4-6 weeks. 

Clean Wheels and Tires
Wheels and tires needed to be treated with the same care as paint. If ignored they will build up residues that are tough to remove. Start by selecting a wheel and tire cleaner that is free of any harsh solvents. Petroleum solvents are not only damaging to the environment, but can also crack and fade the rubber on the tire over time. Move the car into a shaded location and liberally spray down the wheels and tires. Grab your wheel brush and get scrubbing. You'll notice how quickly the dirt, brake dust and other debris start to fall off the tire. In fact, you may even need to do a second application if they haven't been cleaned in awhile. 

Now that the wheels are cleaned, take a microfiber towel and dry them down. Many wheel cleaners will state that they should be "rinsed" off. Never under any circumstance go this route. Why? Brake dust is a known toxin to aquatic organisms and can greatly damage our waterways.

Dress Tires
Lastly, after your wheels and tires have been dried it's time to apply a tire dressing. This will bring back the original luster to the tires like the day they were put on the vehicle. Again, you'll want to opt for a water-based dressing that is solvent-free. These dressings go on easy and will leave an excellent finish. The key to getting a tire shine to stick on the rubber for the long term is the allow it enough time to bond to the rubber. Give it at least 10-15 minutes before driving away. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 which will encompass how to detail your car's interior!