Cleaning your car can often feel like a chore, but to car enthusiasts detailing is like car washing on steroids; a search for a cleaning perfection that goes beyond showroom quality.
There are many different levels of auto detailing, hundreds of different techniques and theories, and tens of thousands of products. And the advice and techniques out there often contradict each other. Ask 3 professional detailers what to do and you’ll most likely get 3 very different answers.
As with anything else though, just knowing where to start and actually getting to it is the hardest part. That’s why we’re here to get you off on the right foot with this simplified DIY guide on how to detail your car the right way, with practical steps and proven methods so you can achieve a detail-finish worthy of a professional.
But just remember: proper detailing is just as much about the protection of your car as it is about getting it shiny and glossy.
For the purpose of this guide, we’ll focus exclusively on detailing the exterior, getting it to look it’s best without a lot of time, hassle, or expense. Here’s what we’ll cover today:
- What supplies do you need?
- How to wash your car
- How to protect and maintain your car
- The most common mistakes
Detailing a car isn’t a particularly difficult or technical task but even if you’re just washing it, you can actually do more harm than good if you follow the wrong procedures or using the wrong products. And most often, knowing the steps is half the battle.
First things first. If own any towels, mitts or alike which are not microfiber: Throw them out. Yep, the trash bin is the only place for any product which can leave scratches on the surface of your vehicle, when the very thing you’re trying to do is restore it.
I’ve seen countless vehicles being completely murdered with mini-scratches, swirl marks, marring, etc. only because the owners had been using cheap products that had been doing more harm than good.
Beyond that the single most important thing you can do to keep your car’s finish looking good is to wash it regularly. The right way.
The reason is all the contaminants that your car is exposed to – the dirt, the mud, the road grime, not to mention things like bird droppings and dead bugs – can harm your paint if left for too long.
But before you get started, remember these 5 golden rules:
1. Don’t wash your car in direct sunlight
Seriously, almost all detailing products don’t perform well in the sun’s rays or on a hot surface.
Heat also speeds the drying of soap and water, and while it’s tempting to enjoy the sun outside you’re asking for water spots and streaks. Work indoors or in the shade.
2. Avoid cross-contamination
Basically, don’t use the same items (towels, brushes, buckets, water, etc.) for multiple purposes or locations. You don’t want to move the contaminants from one location to another. This is particularly important on areas of the car which get extra dirty like the rims, wheel wells, or lower panels. Keep your supplies separated.
3. Work your way from the top and down
You don’t want to splash all the dirt and grime on parts of your surface you have just cleaned!
Importantly though, this does not include the wheels and tires. You should always clean your wheels and tires first as they are often the dirtiest part of the vehicle.
4. Always use lubrication
No joke. If you’re touching the paint you must use some sort of lubrication. Don’t wipe, clean or touch the paint without lubrication and with improper or dirty towels.
5. Get the right supplies and towels
As I mentioned previously, forget your dirty old sponges. Those old yellow things are basically like using sandpaper. Get a proper wash-mitt and make the marginal investment in some nice soft microfibre towels which make it much easier to dry your car’s paintwork without the risk of scratching. Get a proper car shampoo too. There’s a reason household washing liquid can remove bacon grease and you don’t want it doing the same to your paint.
2. Must Have Supplies
Now, of course, you could take your car to a professional detailer and get a thorough clean and detail without getting your own hands dirty. And cost-wise, if you’re only going to perform this once in your life, it’s not going to be that much of a difference between doing it yourself and paying for it.
But hear us out.
The price of professional car detailing is going to vary depending on the size of your car and the level of detailing you require. For context, a basic detailing service for an average-sized car is going to range anywhere between $75-150 for an average sized vehicle. Larger vehicles such as SUVs are typically in the $125 to $250 region for the same service.
If you decide to detail your car at home, a basic initial kit is going to be between $75-150 – which will account for most of what you need including the interior and wheels. It may seem costly at first, but keep in mind you’ll be able to reuse almost everything in the future. And by doing it more frequently, it’s going to be a much less intensive process each time (which will counter-intuitively save money).
Car care does not have to be complicated or particularly pricey:
Here’s what you’ll need:
Product Price Car-wash soap $10 2* Wash mitts $12 2* Big buckets $20 12* Quality Microfiber Towels $16 Claybar / Detailing Mitt $13 / $45 Wax / Ceramic Coating $20 / $70
With that out of the way, let’s get to the next part.
3. How to Wash Your Car The Right Way
Contrary to belief, you don’t necessarily need to be washing your car every weekend. You can actually do more harm than good cleaning too frequently with poor technique or with the wrong stuff.
This is especially true during winter when the roads are treated with various products to ensure a safe driving experience for the population.
To combat this, a lot of car owners think they need to wash their car more frequently in these conditions, but the reality is when there’s winter road grime involved you’re much more likely to damage your car when cleaning.
We’ll get to this later on in the guide, but as part of the detailing process, you want to protect your car’s paint by using a suitable wax, sealant, or ceramic coating.
Step 1: Set up
Set everything you will need near the car. Make sure you have your 2 buckets ready (one for washing, one for rinsing), plenty of microfiber towels, two or three wash mitts on hand, and a scrubbing brush if you plan on doing your tires.
As noted in the golden rules, make sure you’re parked out of direct sunlight, and make sure to remove belts, jewelry, watches or rings. You’ll want to wash your entire car in one session, which should take an hour or so depending on the size of your vehicle and how dirty it is.
Step 1: Prewash your car
This is simple; just hose or lightly pressure wash your car down. This is essentially giving your car a wash before you actually wash your car!
This is often neglected as everyone rushes straight to scrubbing their car (usually with one of those yellow sponges) which often results in more surface damage, simply by pushing all the dirt & grime all over the surface.
Prewashing is absolutely crucial as it helps minimize the swirl marks and scratches that can be caused by a sponge or mitt during the next washing stage. You can also use a foam gun at this point which besides extremely practical are actually great fun to use.
What you’re trying to do here is simply remove the worst of the heavy gunk before you touch the paintwork. Don’t use a strong jet of water from the hose, as this can rub the dirt over the paint and scratch it. Obviously, the procedure varies depending on the level of contamination, but mostly it’s as easy as using a pressure washer to physically remove heavy grime.
Step 2: Clean the wheels & tires first
Your wheels are undoubtedly going to be the dirtiest part of the car, having been constantly collecting road grime and brake dust. In winter time, you have the added bonus of road salt which can cause corrosion.
So clean these first – you don’t want to have to rewash your car later after the thousand tiny little razors of brake dust fly onto your paint whilst scrubbing your rims.
- Use a Spray-on, wipe-off cleaner, and let it sit for a bit, then hose off.
- Scrub your tires in a circular motion to remove the rest of the dirt and grime.
- Use a sudsy wheel sponge & clean the tighter areas
- If necessary use a smaller scrub brush to clean inside the wheels
IMPORTANT: Always rinse out your wheel wash bucket thoroughly before using it for the regular wash.
Step 3: Wash using the 2-bucket system
First; get a proper car shampoo and whatever you do, don’t use washing up liquid. Dish detergents and household cleaners are extremely harsh on your car’s finish.
Make sure to use the two bucket method, it makes more of a difference than you might think. This is simply one bucket filled with shampoo and one with clean water for rinsing out your mitt. Steer clear of those cheap yellow sponges as they are prone to scratch.
The process is very easy.
- Fill a bucket 2/3 full with cool water. Add the recommended amount of shampoo to the water. Using a strong jet of water, fill the bucket to fully activate suds. Fill the second bucket with clean, water for rinsing your wash mitt.
- Soak a large wash mitt in the soapy water and wring it out over the wash surface. This acts like a pre-soak, adding further lubrication and helps loosen gunk on the surface.
- Begin washing the car. Working in sections, start at the top of the car and work your way down, regularly cleaning your mitt in the rinse bucket.
- Wash in straight, overlapping lines as opposed to circles and remember to be gentle with the wash mitt on the first pass. This first pass will pick up the majority of the dirt and loosens the remaining dirt for pick up on the second pass.
- If the water in the bucket begins to get cloudy or gritty, throw it out and refill with clean water.
By leaving the dirtiest areas at the bottom until last, this will help avoid bringing dirt and grime up to the top.
After one section is washed, rinse it with the hose before moving on. You don’t want the soap to dry on the paint and stain it. When rinsing sections, use the same top to bottom process. As you progress from one section to the next, it’s important that you use the hose to keep the entire car wet. This will prevent water droplets from drying on the paint and leaving water spots. You want to be able to dry the car with towels before it air dries.
*For stubborn spots, like bugs, bird dropping, or tar, use a specific “bug and tar remover” to gently remove sticky contaminants without scratching.
Step 4: Drying
Yes, this has it’s very own step. Don’t air dry or be tempted to cruise 100mph down the highway in an attempt to dry the car.
Once you have rinsed your motor, it’s equally important to properly dry it. You’re looking to avoid watermarks created by leaving the car to air dry and to make blemishes easier to spot before claying or polishing. You may need to use several microfiber towels while drying your vehicle.
Wipe down all surfaces that you’ve washed, in order to prevent rust from building up. Make sure not to leave any water standing on your vehicle once it’s dried.
Step 5: Use a detailing mitt or claybar (really only necessary once a year)
If you haven’t used a clay bar or detailing mitt before you’re in for a treat as the clarity and luster they add to the surface are unparalleled. They both serve the same purpose which is to smooth out the surface of your car.
It’s best done infrequently (yearly or bi-yearly) or just prior to a good car polish or ceramic coating.
We personally prefer a detailing mitt as they can be used multiple times and are easily cleaned after or during use. (Clay, on the other hand, is 1-time use and must be discarded if dropped on the ground). Additionally, a clay mitt fits over your hand, similarly to a wash mitt making it easier to use than a clay bar which you have to hold as you rub over the vehicle. They’re also typically much larger since they have to fit over your hand, so can cover more surface area.
For the purposes of this guide, we’ll follow the detailing mitt process as we find them much more practical & quicker for the average user. They are initially more expensive, but trust us when we say they are incredibly simple to use.
Both must utilize a lubricant to help them glide across the painted surface.
- Working small areas at a time – saturate the painted surface with your detail spray/lubricant. We suggest spraying the clay mitt as well to ensure proper lubrication. I
- Lightly glide the clay mitt along the surface in a cross-hatch pattern. You’ll notice that there is some resistance/drag at first, but as you continue to glide the mitt and remove contaminants it will become smoother and smoother.
- Once you no longer feel any resistance/drag in that area, take a clean microfiber towel and wipe the paint clean. Feel the surface with your finger tips and compare to an area you haven’t clayed yet, you should notice a distinct difference in how slick the surface is.
- Repeat on all panels of the car until you have finished.
Step 6: Polishing
The processes of polishing and waxing your car’s paintwork can make a huge difference to its overall appearance. You should only polish as and when required, usually during a full detail once or twice a year. We advise using a buffer for quality results, as this distributes pressure more evenly than a manual pad. A buffer also achieves optimal polishing results as you can change the speed depending on the different areas of the car you are working on.
4. How to Protect and Maintain Your Car
After you’ve washed your car, you can help protect the paint finish by applying a good wax or another sealant. We do recommend going to with a ceramic coating as the protection it offers is unrivalled, and practically all of the legwork involved in applying is in the preprep (which you will have already accomplished).
It would be a shame to go through this whole process and risk your car getting dirty almost instantly afterwards!
- Ceramic coating
Waxes are an inexpensive and easy way to add some extra shine to your car, but unfortunately, only last for a few weeks. Meaning that best practice would be re-applying a wax every two to three months because most of the waxes tested “showed a significant loss of protection within about five weeks”.
Ceramic coating, on the other hand, offers unparalleled protection and shine on a permanent basis. Sure, it takes a little bit longer to apply, and costs a little bit more, but will pay for itself quickly compared to waxes. If you’d like to know more, I wrote a really popular article you can find here.
Regardless of what you wish to choose, as when washing, apply only when the car is cool to the touch. And be sure to only use clean, non-abrasive cloths and pads.
For weekend DIYers who want a product that protects the paint and is inexpensive and easy to apply,
5. Auto Detailing Mistakes You Must Avoid
Everyone has their own preferences and techniques for detailing a car, but these mistakes & habits below are some of the most common and easily avoidable. If you do anything, make sure you don’t do these:
Mistake 1: Using the wrong or same cloths
Don’t use a sponge or chamois for cleaning your car. Just get a microfiber mitt. Get some decent Microfibre towels.
Mistake 2: Washing in direct sunlight or when the car is hot
Most detailing-, aftercare-, or protective products react poorly when exposed to the sun or a warm car body. Work indoors or in the shade. It also reduces the risk of water spots and unseemly pooling.
Mistake 3: Using household or dish soaps to clean
Just don’t. It’s not intended for that specific use and could potentially damage your surface.
Mistake 4: Using the same bucket for soap & rinsing
2 buckets. One for your car soap, one just plain water for rinsing.
Squeeze your dirty Wash Mitt out in a separate bucket before dipping into soapy water to get more suds.
Mistake 5. Cleaning your wheels and tires last.
Ignore this and you will be splashing grime from the dirtiest parts of your vehicle onto freshly washed surfaces.
Clean the soap and rinse buckets and start fresh after washing the tires, too.
In the end, it all comes down to what level of finish-perfection you’re after and at what cost. For the average consumer, these steps are simply a means to educate you on how you can do things yourself without blowing the bank or risk ruining your surface. Some of these tips, I’ve learned the hard way.
So think about if you’re either the person who’d rather want to pay for a detailing service, or do things yourself and save a few bucks. If you’re in the latter category, this guide is for you.
I’ll be writing up another article in the near future, which will go through the next steps for paint correction. Stay tuned.