How to Detail Your Car Like a Professional and Make It Car Show Ready
Ordinary people take their cars to the car wash every month. Real car guys (and girls) detail the $h!t out of their vehicles. It’s a sign of respect and pride for your vehicle and in the car lover community, and not only does detailing your car make it look amazing, improve resell value (if you ever decide to part with your car) and it helps to preserve your car’s condition year after year. From making their girlfriends take their shoes off, to refusing to let you eat your fast food until you get home, hardcore auto enthusiasts will go to any lengths to keep their car in pristine condition. Today we’re going to teach you how to detail your car like a pro, with the most incredible detailing hacks you won’t want to miss out on.
How to detail your car (like a professional).
1. Detailing your vehicle’s interior.
- Take everything out of your car, including your car mats.
- Feel under the seats, and between the cracks to make sure you don’t miss anything that may have been shoved under there or fallen between your seats.
- Vacuum every surface you can and remove all dirt, debris, and dust.
- Remove all pet hair that won’t vacuum up with a lint roller or duct tape until there is no trace of it.
- There are some really great handheld vacuums that can get anywhere and everywhere in your car, especially in, around, under and between the seats.
- Shampoo your floor mats with a carpet cleaner (or soap and water if they’re vinyl) and leave them out to dry.
- Use a stain remover and a brush to remove any upholstery stains.
- Don’t be afraid to treat your car with a auto-approved stain resistant scotch guard type product.
Mothers is an expensive, highly rated automotive carpet cleaner that we recommend. There are quite a few on the market that will do a pretty good job.
- Use a specialty cleaner made specifically for cleaning leather such as Lexol. It’s one of the top rated leather cleaners on the market for cleaning very high quality leather. This can also be used on other areas of the interior other than the seats, that are leather.
- After cleaning your leather throughly, make sure you use a leather conditioner to keep the leather protected and soft, to prevent damage, drying, stains and cracks. You can use a towel, and the product, or Lexol also makes leather wipes that are convenient and amazing for detailing and cleaning, especially in small areas.
As far as leather cleaners and conditioners go, there is nothing I trust more than Lexol products for the care of high quality leather. I also even recommend it for shoes, boots, and even leather wallets, and accessories. This stuff is amazing and is the only thing I'll use. The wipes are perfect to keep in your car for a quick detailing to keep your seat and dash looking great.
- The part they never clean when you take your car to the car wash. Door jambs collect tons of dirt and grime and are often missed because they’re only seen when the doors are open. You want to make sure you get a rag, and exterior cleaner and clean this area thoroughly, making sure to wipe it down completely to remove all the dirt.
- To clean the interior windows, make sure you use an auto glass approved window cleaner. Glass cleaner like Windex contains harsh chemicals which can damage your auto tint and even your interior.
- For a streak free finish, use newspaper to wipe off and dry the windows after applying the glass cleaner.
How to Detail your Steering Wheel, Dashboard and Console:
- Use your interior cleaner to wipe down and clean this area thoroughly. Depending on what each part of the interior is made out of (cloth, vinyl, plastic, wood, or leather) use the appropriate cleaner and then apply the appropriate protectant and shine to preserve and condition the material.
- Use Q-tips to carefully clean the small and intricate areas of your dash and console. There are other detailing brushes you can buy for this, but Q-tips work just as well. You can even use plastic knife covered with a tissue or auto wipe cloth to get into sharp corners and small spaces.
- You can also used canned air to blow dust out of small, hard to reach areas.
- Instead of using interior silicone-based products such as Amor All, that can leave a film on surfaces, use silicone FREE matte finish products that help to block UV rays.
This handheld vacuum is the best $30 I've ever spent to keep my car immaculate. It's great if you're a notorious "in-car" fast food eater, or if you have kids. They spill everything. Fits right in your trunk.
- You’ve got your pick here from endless choices of deodorizing agents from the ever traditional pine tree, rear view mirror air hanging air freshener, to organic or high end products designed to keep your car nice and fresh smelling. It’s really all personal preference.
2. How to Detail Your Car’s Exterior:
- Car wash soap/detergent
- Washing mitt - preferably microfiber or lambswool
- Several buckets
- Bug and tar remover or clay
- Detailing rags for extra dirty areas like tires.
- Drying towel
- Glass cleaner
Most people will go to a carwash to get their cars cleaned. Complete amateurs. If the car wash they’re using does not carefully maintain their wash system, they can introduce new scratches or swirl marks into your vehicle’s surface, especially if your car hasn’t been waxed in awhile or is an older car with an older paint job.
Truthfully, there is no safer way to wash your car than with a soft wash mitt, soap made specifically for washing your car, and some type of product or clay stone for removing tar, bugs and other hard to remove substances from your car’s surface. However, you have to learn the correct technique to prevent scratching your own car. Loose dirt or sand or debris stuck on your car can actually create new scratches, sort of like sand paper, as you’re brushing them off.
With a 5 star Amazon rating, this Chemical Guys Scratch free mitt is the best on the market. It's so soft I'd wash a baby with it. Wait, I already do. My car.
- The best way to start washing your own car is to prepare two buckets. One with soap and water, and the other with plain water to rinse off your car washing tools so you’re not mixing dirt and grime into the soap solution you’re trying to clean your car with.
- Get an appropriate “scratch free” car wash mitt. Don’t do what my dad did when we were younger, and just cut up old towels as “rags”. The car mitts make sure that you don’t accidentally scratch the surface of the car, and they are much better at holding and distributing suds all over your vehicle, taking you less time.
- Start with the top of the car first, or else you’ll have dirt from the top of the car running down and messing up the parts of the car you’ve already cleaned. Plus, the bottom of the car is usually dirtiest. To avoid quickly contaminating your cleaning tools, work from the top to the bottom. Sometimes people use a separate cloth or mitt for the bottom of the car.
- Some people like to hose down their car first, before starting the washing process. I’ll be honest, this isn’t necessary and you just waste water, that drys before you even get to that section of your car, especially when washing on a hot summer day. Just wash your car section by section by using the water/soap solution on to your car.
- DO NOT use ordinary dish soap on your car. It’s designed to remove tough contaminates like grease… so this can strip off the protective wax already on your car, leaving the paint susceptible to future damage.
- Use a tar remover to remove bugs, tar or any other debris stuck to your car’s surface. Be very careful to read the directions on the bottle or can to make sure that the remover is safe for parts of your car that may be plastic.
- To dry your car, use a scratch free microfiber waffle towel. The shape of this towel actually prevents you from “sand papering” your car with debris. It allows any left over dirt to sit high in the waffle divots of the towel, and not be dragged across the surface of your car as you continue to dry.
3. Detailing your car’s wheels:
- A decent wheel cleaner
- Dedicated wheel detailing scrub brushes (including a tooth brush depending on how detailed your wheels are).
Probably the most rewarding, yet most difficult part of your car’s general exterior you will have to clean. You never realize how truly dirty they are until you start washing and you see the difference between the wheel, and the part you’ve just cleaned. Your cars wheels are also one of the most important areas to clean, since they are always in contact with the road, including the salt and debris that can cause issues with your car’s paint and body.
- If you are a dedicated car pro, you may be able to easily clean your wheels with the same soap you’re using on your car’s body… but if you have neglected detailing your car, and let the grime build up, you may need a special product to get the grease and dirt build up off them.
- Use a separate sponge or rag for your car’s wheels. They’re traditionally always filthy and require some major scrubbing. Despite all the hype about the “spray and wipe” wheel cleaners, they’re good for removing light dust, but for the average car, you’re definitely not getting away without hand washing and wiping every crack and detail of your tires and wheels.
Sonax wheel cleaner is one of my top favorites, but you'll find tons on Amazon.
Wax & Polish:
One of the most overlooked, yet most important aspects of cleaning your car is waxing. Most people, or rather the average car owner, unfortunately don’t have an appreciation for waxing until they are staring at an ugly hairline scratch in their hood and by that time, unfortunately, it’s too late. Waxing is essentially like a combination of putting both a sun screen and a wind breaker on your car all at once. A dirt and sun force field if you will. It not only protects your car from the sun’s UV rays that could fade your paint job, it keeps your surface smooth, slick and protected from flying sand, gravel and other debris, including rain, that will bead up and fall right off. It helps to fill in micro cracks and holes, preventing elements from getting inside and making them worse as well as paint chipping.
- There are many different types of wax products. Some are just wax, some are wax and polish. If you’ve got a car in great condition, with a flawless paint job, you will be fine just to give her a good wax, and in fact, it’s recommended to ONLY wax a car who’s paint job in in great condition. Some people who don’t know better think “hey… I want my car polished too!” but in reality you don’t want to be using anything abrasive on you car if you can avoid it. If you have an older car, with a dull or faded paint job, a wax and polish will help to restore the exterior luster and shine. But be VERY careful with them. They are sometimes created with very find particles or abrasives in the formula to actually buff off a slight amount of the car’s damaged or faded paint to remove the shine underneath. If you apply it wrong, you can damage your car’s paint even further.
- If you are going to wax and polish your car, the polish goes on first (after the car has been completely cleaned) and then the wax to seal and protect.
- When choosing a wax for your car, you have two choices - liquid and paste or for lack of a better term “waxy” wax. Most people prefer liquid wax because it’s easy to both apply and rub in, but other people feel that the paste-like waxes provide a deeper and longer lasting protection for your vehicle.
- Now unless you go to a auto detailing place, there is no car wash that is going to do this efficiently, even if you pay the extra $5 for the “gold package wax & wash”. You need to do this yourself to make sure you protect every inch of your car’s surface properly.
- All you do is take your wax of choice (most come with an applicator pad) and apply the wax all over your car in a circular motion. Then you wait the allotted time stated on the particular wax you’re using and you buff it off in circular motions as well, until the car is beautiful and shiny. Exactly like Daniel Son in the Karate Kid, wax on, wax off.
- There are products that make the task of buffing the wax off your car much easier - these are electronic buffers. They’re great to save time, but make sure you know how to use them properly or else you will damage your car. Do not use them with polish that contains abrasives unless you are a complete pro and know what you’re doing.
- Do not wax your car when it’s hot outside. The wax will slide off your car and never set into the finish to protect it.
Turtle Wax and Meguiars are probably the two top consumer waxes on the market. Pretty much the industry standard in car wax. I've used both and both do a great job.
Plastic Trim Protector:
Lets face it. There are parts of your car that are well… plastic. Typically the side view mirrors in particular. To keep them from fading or to help restore their darker color, you can even add a special wax to these parts the same way you would wax on your car. Wipe it on, and buff off the excess.
When it comes to understanding scratches it helps to understand your car’s paint. Typically there are three layers of paint… the primer, the base coat (which is the car color) or the clear coat (outer clear cover). Depending on which layer of paint the scratch goes through will determine how difficult it will be to remove.
- The general “swirl marks” can be removed or smoothed out by using a polish.
- Deeper scratches in the clear coat will require either a more aggressive polish or cleaner, or a scratch buffer and/or scratch-removal kit which is usually a two step combination of a sandpaper and finish polish. Be very careful when considering to repair these types of scratches yourself, especially the deeper ones with the repair kit. You don’t want to accidentally make the damage look worse.
- If your scratch goes through the paint, you can attempt to repair using a touch up paint. While auto stores offer a large variety of colors to match your vehicle, it’s best to order perfect match colors straight from the dealer, instead of risking putting the wrong color on your car and making it look worse. But even then, if your car’s paint has faded it may be difficult to match it, even with the exact color. Pretest all paint to see how it dries and compares before using on your car. The touch up paint, in combination with wet sandpaper and an abrasive cleaner will help you to blend it in well. Or you can have a professional do it for you, for the best results.
Nothing makes your car look “old” and “uncared for” than hazy headlights. This is caused by the deterioration from the exposure to the sun, which produces a cloudy, hazy appearance, that not only makes your car look 10 years older than it is… it also greatly reduces visibility of your headlights.
- Any local auto store will sell “headlight restoration kits” to fully restore the smoothness and opacity of your car’s headlights. Some people have actually had great luck in fully restoring their headlights using arm and hammer toothpaste. They apply and buff the toothpaste into the headlight to remove the dirt and smooth out the damage. Much cheaper than a $30 headlight restoration kit.
Incase it weirds you out to put toothpaste on your car- you can grab one of these restoration kits for relatively cheap - $15-30.
4. Detailing your car’s engine.
This is what separates the men from the boys is whether or not you “keep your motor clean”. Anyone can keep up with exterior and interior detailing in their vehicle, but the people that take the extra step to keep their engines so clean you could eat off of them are the ones who live, eat, sleep and breath cars.
There are some important things you need to prepare for when detailing your car’s engine, so make sure you read this carefully before taking a crack at it. Keeping your car engine clean can improve the condition and lifespan of the motor’s parts, and to prevent rust and rot.
- Make sure your engine is completely cool. Common sense, but I’ll mention it anyway. Don’t attempt to clean your engine after you’ve driven your car, unless you want some nice burn marks or to crack or damage parts of your hot engine by spraying them with cold water and cooling them off too fast.
- Use a hand brush to clean off all surface debris. Dust, dirt, leaves, particles or anything else that’s collected or been trapped up under your hood.
- Most important. Prepare your engine for getting wet. Sure you may think that it’s ok to get your car’s engine wet, but you’ve got to cover all sensors, the distributor, spark plug openings, and any electrical devices that have the potential for water accumulation which can cause an engine short. Your engine’s hood typically protects from general water accumulation or over saturation of these components. You can use plastic baggies, rubber bands and plastic wrap to seal and protect off these areas. They don’t need to be 100% waterproof, just pretty close.
- Now do what I told you not to do in step 1. Start your engine up briefly and let it get WARM to the touch, but NOT HOT. Turn it off right before it becomes too hot that you can’t touch it without flinching. This will help to loosen and soften up the grease, oil and contaminants that you’re going to be scrubbing off your car.
- Use your degreaser. Avoid using harsh petroleum-based cleaners on your engine. While they may cut through grease like a champ, they are going to corrode your wires, rubber and vinyl. There are many safe and milder alternates that won’t eat through engine components, but still do a great job cleaning your engine. Apply the degreaser all over the engine, but be careful not to get it on exterior parts or parts that are painted. It will remove any protective wax coating on your vehicle.
- Let the degreaser sit on your engine for several minutes to allow it to work. Make sure it doesn’t dry up on the engine or it doesn’t do it’s job properly and you will struggle to remove it.
- Use a soft to medium bristle brush to work on cleaning off and loosening up all the grease and grime on your car’s engine.
- Hose off your car’s engine as best as you can, washing away the dirt, grease and degreaser.
- Allow your car’s engine to air dry for a few minutes and then wipe the rest down with a towel, but do not let it completely air dry, you will get water spots. Remove all the plastic coverings from your engine completely.
- Start your engine back up and allow the rest of the moisture to evaporate off for a spot free finish.
- Once your engine is dry, and has completely cooled back down again, apply an engine protectant. You’ll find separate protectants that you can use to coat the vinyl, rubber and plastic, and a different protectant for metal surfaces. These detailing sprays will give you a nice finish. Wipe off any excess with a towel. This is REALLY IMPORTANT. The reason is that the factor that manufactured the car applied a very dense coat of wax to your car’s engine to protect it for years. When you degrease and clean your engine, you actually remove this coating, and leave your engine susceptible to corrosion. You need to replace this protective layer to keep your engine and it’s components in top shape.
Depending on your car's engine, any decent decreaser will do. Again, just make sure you are careful with how you use it and to protect your engine after cleaning.
Additional Pro-Detailing Tips and Hacks:
- Do not let your kids help. Sounds mean, but this is for several reasons… (unless you really don’t care what happens to your car…). When I was younger my dad either made us help as a punishment or as a way to earn our allowance, but if you have a really nice car, especially if it’s an older classic or a high end exotic sports car… I wouldn’t even let the rug rats breath on it, let alone wash it. You are most likely going to have to redo whatever they’ve washed already. What’s clean to them is not clean to you. As soon as car washing becomes “work” they’ll get lazy and leave dirt spots all over, especially on the wheels. They are more than likely to scratch your vehicle’s paint, by being too rough, not cleaning correctly or dropping the hose nozzle on your hood or hitting it to the side of your car, trying to spray their sibling with water.
- To make sure you’ve removed all surface contaminates from your car before you wax, put your hand in a thin, ordinary plastic bag and run it over the surface of your car. The plastic bag will help you detect any imperfections or bumps that still need to be removed.
- When you dry your windshield do it in two directions… i.e. wipe the interior horizontal and the exterior side vertical, that way you know which side of the windshield the streaks are on and be able to remove them quickly.
- Brush down your car’s interior with a stiff brush before vacuuming. It will help to pull up and loosen dirt and hair beforehand.
- If you have pets, put on a pair of latex gloves and rub your hand across your carpet. The static electricity will help to bring the pet hair up to the surface, facilitating it’s removal.
- Use newsprint paper for a streak free shine on your car’s windows.
- Use a cheap foam brush to detail and dust in between your vents and in other hard to reach areas.
- Vacuum up dust as you brush it off. This way it doesn’t fly up in the air, recirculate in your car, and land back down on your dashboard.
- Magic Erasers work well to get sticky and gross stuff off of vinyl and leather interiors.
- If dirt has ground itself into your leather surfaces, you can use a tooth brush to give it a deep cleaning.
- A tooth brush and vacuum work well to remove dirt in your upholstery cracks and stitching. Don’t be too aggressive with the brushing on stitching and upholstery. You don’t want to fray the fabric or pull the stitching.
- For you organic fans out there, you can use olive oil to polish and condition the dashboard and leather. Use sparingly.
- A spray bottle filled with water and a squeegee are a useful combo for removing pet hair from upholstery.
- Depending on what your floor mats are made out of, you may be able to spray them with stain remover and throw them in your washing machine. Do not put them in the dryer. Let them air dry. Lint brushes can come in handy for removing pet hair as well as crumbs and dirt on the seats of your car or in hard to reach areas.
- Roll down your windows when detailing them to make sure you get the edges completely clean.
- After rinsing and wiping your car, use a clay bar to remove debris that won’t come off.
- Keep up with your car detailing regularly each month and cleaning your car will never be a hassle.
If you have any additional detailing tips or hacks that you think our readers may enjoy, feel free to leave them in the comments below! Looking forward to hearing from you!
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All touch up paint is not created equal! The generic paints you buy at auto part stores will likely NOT match your vehicle’s paint exactly. Believe it or not, even the OEM dealers usually stock “close enough” colors. We recommend PaintScratch.com since their high quality paint is freshly made, they custom mix each order for you upon receipt, and they offer a color match guarantee.