It's All in the Details

With detailing, the “do it yourself” nature is a gratifying and painstaking process, but we try to lock down a few key steps to help you along the way.

It's All in the Details

With the weather from El Nino winding down, it’s almost that time to get the most from your car’s appearance by focusing on cleaning, washing, polishing, and waxing. Detailing a car (the right way) isn’t easy by any stretch, it’s sometimes very expensive to have someone else do it , but it’s fulfilling and worth it when you end up with an appearance as if it just left the factory. You’ll be amazed just how much of the shine you can restore from your jalopy, or what a touch up with do to that aging paint.

With detailing, the “do it yourself” nature is a gratifying and painstaking process, but we try to lock down a few key steps to help you along the way. We’ve compiled some of the best information out there so you can focus less on the searching, and more on getting to the finished product. You can either follow each step in order or go by the ones you plan on attacking. Whatever the case, you’re going to love the results.

1. Plan Ahead

Almost everyone agrees that you should plan ahead if you’re serious about detailing the right way. Again, it will take some time to properly complete the task at hand. If the job such as compounding, or buffing will require power tools (i.e. rotary buffer/polisher), then you can expect to take a more thorough approach to the job. You’ll also need to figure out a space to work with. If you’re living in a city, you might need to plan a date around visiting parents, family or friends who might have the required water needs. Hand washing will also use less water than a DIY car wash location, so try and conserve if possible.

Most professional detailers recommend washing in open shade to avoid the sun’s harsh lighting, to avoid water spots from drying, and keep temperatures cool. They also recommend trying to separate the wash area from the polishing area, work from the inside out, and top to bottom.

2. Clean Wheels First

Wheels can collect a lot of road grime and dirt, so making sure they are cleaned first—so those nasty particulates won’t affect the rest of the car later on—is a good initial step. Making sure to get a wheel brush that is effective, but also won’t scratch the wheels, is key. Most high-quality manufacturers such as Autoglym, Griot’s Garage, and Mother’s, among others, make brushes as well as specific wheel cleaners that will help you get the proper coverage and cleaning formula for your wheels.

3. Engine Bay

Leaves, dirt, rocks, (sometimes small animals) can get trapped inside the engine bay of your car. Removing all this takes time, but the end result is something that is more for peace of mind since you’ll know the care you took to clean it. Make sure to take time to cover any electrical connections (alternator, ECU, battery) with either bags, plastic wrap, etc. and duct tape or any other waterproof material so you don’t end up with bigger problems than you started with. Again, make sure the parts of the engine are cool. Engine degreaser is great at removing stubborn stains; just make sure to not let it dry. You can use a power washer at this stage to remove degreaser, but again, make sure they’re covered well. Towels, compressed air, and even a kitchen mop can be used to soak up water from the engine bay. And when it’s dry, you can use tire shine or rubber cleaner to spruce up the vinyl.

4. Interior

Since the inside of the car is the place that you’ll be enjoying most of the time, it’s paramount to properly clean it. Interiors are a real pain and most of the time, they’re the most labor-intensive part of the car depending on how well you’ve maintained it in the interim.

You can start with the door(s) and trunk jams as a primer then move onto the interior. If you have, or can get access to a ShopVac, they will help you tremendously with sucking up everything in your way. Make sure to use a brush for the plastics, as the other hard plastic brush heads will most likely scratch the surfaces. Depending on how in-depth you would like to get, you can either use an all-purpose interior cleaner or specific products like shampoos, leather conditioners, balms, and plastic restorers. You can literally spend hours to days cleaning the car depending how anal you are so plan accordingly.

5. Cleaning the Bodywork

While you should hand wash your car, you’re still going to need to remove dirt and grime using a steady stream of water. (Be sure to check with your local municipalities about water consumption and make sure you get products that are environmentally safe.) Do not use dish detergent for this, as the chemicals will strip the coats of wax and sealants on your car’s paint. Buy a highly rated exterior wash or conditioner and work into a rich lather. Work top to bottom and make sure to clean off with water before it has a chance to dry. Usually, a chamois (pronounced “shammy”) is a good bet to get water off because it soaks up water effectively and doesn’t leave any fiber residue as cloth towels might at this stage.

6. Scratch Repair

The experts agree that you should do scratch repair before heading to the next steps of polishing and waxing. Figure out just how much damage is done to the paint first. Usually a visual inspection will accomplish this to check if scratches have penetrated the clear coat, paint coat, primer, or down to the metal. For light surface scratches, a compound—essentially liquid sandpaper—will remove damaged layers of the clear coat that contains scratches, but it’s also very labor intensive. For this, you’ll probably need an orbital polisher to help with the progress. You should work in two by two foot square areas.

If it’s a deep, nasty primer or metal penetrating scratch, AMMO NYC has a great video on how to accomplish professional results without damaging the paint further. You have to act quick because it can affect the car and it’s ability to rust.

7. Polishing

Once you’ve tackled any scratches that are bound to make you go mad, polishing will return your vehicle’s coat to a factory-fresh finish by restoring gloss and clarity. Polishing differs by waxing because it lightly removes scratching, hazing, swirl marks, and water spots. It’s a process you can do by hand as it adds a level of enjoyment watching the paint begin to shine through. Focus again on two by two foot sections of the car at a time to give yourself a better idea of the progress.

8. Wax On, Wax Off

While wax doesn’t remove imperfections, it will hide them for the most part. It’s designed to protect and enhance the finish, giving the paint color, depth and clarity. Griot’s Garage has a great saying to make you remember, “polishing is to perfect; wax is to protect.” Be sure to use a wax applicator, which some waxes come equipped with. Once the wax is applied, use a microfiber cloth to remove the hazy residue and another one to buff to a high-gloss finish. Car care specialists Mother’s recommends waxing your car every 8-12 weeks to maintain the protection and finish.

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Michael CrenshawMichael Crenshaw

Currently the full-time Editorial Director and Content Manager for RxSpeed.com, & contributing writer for Scout.com. He also loves photography, videography, his Shiba Inu Mia and driving sports cars.