Auto Detailing

Vehicle Detailing 101 is Part One of a three-part series written by Bull Whitaker for the Mountain Passages newsletter.  This webpage expounds on newsletter article due to space limitation.  Stay tuned for Parts Two and Three in the upcoming months.

Vehicle Detailing 101

 A freshly detailed vehicle can be not only a source of personal pride, but regular detailing adds value to a vehicle over the long term, particularly when being sold.

There is a big difference between cleaning a vehicle and detailing a vehicle.

For most people the term “vehicle detailing” is rather vague. To many, it’s a simple vehicle wash and wax job. While to others, it’s an in-depth cleaning and protection service, which includes shampooing the vehicle interior and steam-cleaning the engine. We will stick to the latter for this article.

Evaluate Your Vehicle Prior to Detailing

The most difficult part of any process is knowing what to do first, and detailing a vehicle is no different. Ask three professional detailers and you’re likely to get three different answers. The most important first step of all is to evaluate the work required.

Conduct a Paint Evaluation

We’ll start with an evaluation of your vehicle’s paint. Take a walk around your vehicle. Do you see bug stains, water spots and tar spots, or is it completely free of contamination? How does the paint feel to your hand? Is it rough- having small surface bumps? Or, is it smooth like glass?

If your paint is smooth and free of contaminants, the only maintenance it needs is regular hand-washing (30 to 45 minutes a week). If the paint is stained and rough, it needs a deep cleaning. Clean paint should feel like silk. Cleaning your paint can take 30 minutes or 3 hours, depending on the level of perfection you want to achieve.

Most automotive detailing shops use a paint pre-wax cleaner (a special cleaner/polish like the Griot’s “BOSS” Best in Show System) or a paint-cleaning clay bar to remove surface contamination. It’s like exfoliating your skin to deep-clean the pores. This is a necessary step because bonded contamination starts the oxidation process.

Inspect for Imperfections

Once your vehicle’s paint is clean, you can closely inspect the paint for scratches, swirl marks and water spots. These minor imperfections can be fixed with a good polish and some elbow grease (usually 1 to 2 hours), and should be taken care of prior to waxing. If available, you may use a good orbital polishing machine for faster results.

If your paint has deep surface scratches (meaning not scratched through to the primer or metal), you may need to use a polish specially formulated for scratch removal. Most scuffs and scratches can be polished so they will no longer be seen or even noticed (1 to 5 minutes per scuff or scratch).

When your paint is contamination-free and polished to a high gloss, it’s ready to be waxed (45 minutes to an hour). Most vehicles require a deep-cleaning and polishing twice a year, whereas wax should be applied at least four times yearly. With proper care, your paint will remain in good condition for many years.

Check the Tires and Wheels Closely

Look closely at your tires and wheels. Are the tires brown and dull? Do the wheels have brake dust buildup? If so, plan on spending 15 to 20 minutes on each wheel with brushes and cleaners.

Within approximately one hundred miles of driving, wheels begin to show a film of brake dust. If washing weekly, it’s usually easy to clean with simple soap and water. However, the longer the brake dust film remains the more difficult it is to remove. Without weekly washing and periodic waxing, wheels will become pitted and develop black stains from brake dust and road tar. Long-term neglect of wheel maintenance turns into permanent damage to the finish. For any modern luxury or sports vehicle, the cost of repair or replacement can be in the thousands of dollars. Likewise, if tires don’t receive regular washing, and treatment with tire dressing, they will quickly turn brown and dull. Neglected tires and wheels take a lot of effort to bring back to life.

Evaluation of Your Vehicle’s Interior

Once you’ve sized up what needs to be done on the exterior, you can turn to the interior. Some people care more about the interior of their vehicle than they do the exterior. This makes some sense, as that is where we spend our time. The condition of the vehicle’s interior generally reflects how you use the vehicle.

If you haul kids around, the inside of your vehicle will likely have more dirt and stains than that of a corporate business vehicle. Likewise, if you drive a truck and use it for construction, you have a completely different set of cleaning needs.

Evaluate your vehicle’s interior. Does it need heavy or light vacuuming? Is it dusty? Does the upholstery need cleaning? Is the leather dry? Do you have stains or spills to clean? How does the interior smell? Is it musty?

A good interior detailing can take longer than an exterior detailing. A good interior detailing can take longer than an exterior detailing. A poorly maintained interior may take 4 to 5 hours to properly vacuum, shampoo and treat so it looks and smells nice again.

If you vacuum regularly (twice a month), it usually takes no more than 10 to 15 minutes. If you vacuum infrequently, it can take 30 minutes or more. If you wipe down the interior (3 to 5 minutes) each time you wash the exterior, then keeping the dash and upholstery clean is a cinch.

Doing so infrequently (or never), makes cleaning the dash and upholstery a 1 to 2 hour chore. So doing a little interior preventative maintenance every time you wash the vehicle is a lot easier than trying to do a full interior detailing once or twice a year.

If you plan to do your own detailing, divide the work into manageable tasks. It’s a lot of work to do it all in one day. Keep after the interior a little bit at a time. Plan to do your shampooing and fabric protection in spring or summer, as nice weather helps speed up the drying.

If you don’t do the work yourself, consider having a full interior detailing once per year. A full interior detail includes vacuuming and shampooing the upholstery, carpet and floor mats, as well as cleaning the dash, console and vents. After cleaning, leather and vinyl dressings and fabric protection should be applied.

To best maintain a full detail, have the interior vacuumed each time your vehicle is washed. Also, apply dressing to the dash, vinyl and leather each time the vehicle is waxed (every 3 months). This is the minimum interior detailing necessary to keep your vehicle in good condition.

How to Dress for Success

A good tire dressing will help your tires and wheels look their best. Apply tire dressing after each wash. Wipe off the excess to prevent it from slinging onto the side of your clean vehicle.

A big part of the vehicle detailing process includes applying dressing to those surfaces that can’t be waxed or otherwise protected. As already mentioned, your vehicle’s dashboard and other vinyl and leather surfaces need regular protection. Leather, especially in Colorado’s dry climate, can dry out and crack if not properly and regularly maintained. Leather, vinyl and rubber dressings protect and beautify.

For best results, dressings should be used sparingly and frequently.

Many people who detail their vehicles go overboard applying protective chemicals and dressings. Maybe they think that if a little is good, a lot is even better. Not so. Porous surfaces, such as leather and rubber, can absorb only very small amounts of dressing. Typically the leather, vinyl, or rubber has absorbed as much as it can within three to five minutes of application. The rest of the dressing is waste and should be wiped off. If the excess isn’t wiped off, it can create a greasy mess that attracts dust and dirt.

Focus on the Details

The difference between a good-looking vehicle and a great-looking vehicle is in the small details. If you take your vehicle to a professional detailer, make sure they will take care of the small details before you hire them to do job!

If you look at the estimated average time assigned to each task (below), you can see that a complete vehicle detail is no less than a full day’s job. Most professional detailers will charge a good sum to do this level of work. If you have an expensive or neglected vehicle, expect to pay up.

DIY 20-point detailing check list:

  • Wash and dry exterior paint with vehicle wash shampoo (soap) and a vehicle wash mitt (20 min.)
  • Scrub tires and wheels using a wheel cleaner and a vehicle wash brush (20 min.)
  • Clean and polish exterior windows and mirrors using a good glass cleaner (15 min.)
  • Clean and polish paint using a clay bar followed by vehicle polish (60 to 90 min.)
  • Wax paint using the liquid vehicle wax or paste vehicle wax of your choice (45 min.)
  • Polish chrome trim using a chrome & metal polish (15 min.)
  • Clean door, hood and trunk jambs with a microfiber cleaning towel (10 min.)
  • Clean and dress rubber seals using a rubber conditioner (10 min.)
  • Treat tires and trim with a tire & trim dressing (15 min.)
  • Vacuum (2 min.)
  • Scrub or shampoo floor mats (15 min.)
  • Shampoo carpet using a carpet & upholstery cleaner (45 min.)
  • Clean fabric upholstery using a carpet & upholstery cleaner and leather with a leather cleaner (45 min.)
  • Clean the dashboard and console (20 min.)
  • Clean vents using a vent duster (10 min.)
  • Apply a leather conditioner or vinyl protectant to console, vinyl and leather (20 min.)
  • Clean interior windows and rear-view mirror with an ammonia-free glass cleaner (10 min.)
  • Empty and clean ashtrays (5 min.)
  • Deodorize vents and carpet (10 min.)
  • Protect carpet and upholstery fabric (20 min.)

Click here to download a PDF copy of DIY 20.

Some simple tips that will make detailing easier…

Stay Out of the Sun (direct UV Rays)

If possible, work in a cool garage or in the shade. Most detailing products don’t work well on hot surfaces. Washing your vehicle in the sun is a sure recipe for water spots and streaks.

Work from the Top Down

Your vehicle is dirtiest on the bottom and cleanest at the top. Washing from the top down keeps your wash water clean longer and helps prevent swirl marks. Similarly, dry your vehicle from the top down leaving your bumpers, rocker panels, tires and wheels for last.

Roll Lint & Pet Hair Away

Invest in a masking tape lint roller designed to remove lint from clothing. These rollers are great for removing lint and pet hair from interior upholstery. Lint rollers also work equally well on canvas soft tops. Roll away for a beautiful, lint-free top!

Be Cool!

Never wash your vehicle fresh off the road. Cold water can severely damage hot parts including brake rotors, exhaust components and your engine. Let it cool down for 20 to 30 minutes first.

Less Is More

Have you ever wondered why the instructions on most hair shampoo bottles read “Wash, rinse, repeat”? It’s pretty simple; they want us to use more product. Most vehicle detailing products are meant to be used sparingly and the instructions will say so.

Also, consider using a two bucket system with grates in the bottom to allow particles and dirt to settle underneath the “usable” water.

New Vehicle?

That nasty film on the inside of your windows is a polyvinyl fog created by new plastics and vinyl. As your vehicle ages, the polyvinyl fog diminishes. Reduce the amount created by using interior dressings and protective chemicals sparingly, and wiping the dash and console dry. On new vehicles, keep a window cracked as often as possible to allow the polyvinyl gases to escape. Use of a front window sun screen also helps.

Driving Topless

Sweat, oils from your skin, lotion and sunscreen may soil fabric upholstery as well as damage vinyl and leather upholstery. If you drive scantily dressed, cover your seat with a seat cover, towel or an old Porsche t-shirt. In addition to upholstery damage from sweat, sunscreen and lotions, driving topless brings additional wear from ultraviolet (UV) rays. This can quickly cause fading and rapid deterioration of the materials.

Details, Details & Details

You’ve just finished polishing and waxing your vehicle. Maybe it glistens, but all of your hard work is overshadowed by white waxy residue around the trim. This problem is easily solved while the wax is still fresh by using a few shots of Griot’s Speed Shine and a detailing brush or micro-fiber towel.

(Don’t) Lean on Me…

Be careful not to damage your vehicle’s paint with zippers, belt buckles, rings and other jewelry. Wear appropriate clothing and take off the hard stuff.

Be a Porsche-holic

Fewer than 10% of all vehicle owners detail their own vehicles. Chances are you’re reading this because you want to learn more about caring for your vehicle yourself. That makes you a vehicle enthusiast! Most vehicle enthusiasts find cleaning, detailing and waxing rewarding, possibly even relaxing.

Next month (part 2) we will discuss Detailing Supplies & Chemicals. The right products make detailing easier and go a long way towards keeping your vehicle looking “fresh & new” longer. In part 3 (of 3) we will discuss detailing to the extreme for car shows and sales.

The author (Mark “Bull” Whitaker) is the owner of Whitfield Motorsports Inc. in Falcon, CO, a Griot’s Certified Car Care Dealer specializing in automobile restoration and detailing. Additional content provided by Griot’s Garage and

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