A DIY Guide to Detailing Your Car

It’s said that there is nothing sweeter than the smell of a new car. As professional auto detailing and manufacturers of superior car care solutions, we slightly disagree. For us, the blood, sweat, and sometimes tears that goes into car detailing is a passionate experience. If you’re going to invest your time and money into detailing your daily driver, you want to ensure it’s done right.

That’s why we’ve put together this article, which provides you the ultimate guide to DIY auto detailing.

Our team of professional detailers have put their heads together to provide this detailed list of pro tips for correctly washing your car, cleaning and detailing your interior, wheels, chrome and other accent pieces. Many of these tips are what our auto salon detailers and mobile car detailers use on their own rides, and those of their customers – so you know it’s coming from the best resources.

But most importantly, the techniques listed below are intended for the average DIYer – not a professional training guide. We’ve got classes for that type of detailed and complex information. So, let’s get going.

Breaking Down the Basics – What is Car Detailing?

You know the old saying – “ask 3 car guys a question – and you’ll get three different answers?” Well, that’s applicable when it comes to understanding the range of individual services for auto detailing. Generally, if you stop by one of our professional auto salons and have your car detailer do this for you, it’s going to cover three areas, the exterior, wheels and windows, and the interior.

These three sections of the vehicle are those that impact the visual appeal the most. However, there are also detailing tasks for the undercarriage, the engine bay, and vehicle suspension. Those tasks tend to be classified as mechanical cleaning or maintenance vs car detailing.

The global auto detailer industry is one that offers more than 30,000 individual products, some of them generic formulas, and others formulated for specific applications. Most of the shampoos, cleaners, and enhancers are made for specific materials or substrates. But they are also designed for specific types of protective coatings or materials.

This is important to clarify, as when you detail your ride, it’s crucial to use the correct products for your individual vehicle’s paint protection solution and/or interior protectant.

What Should a Full Car Detailing Service Include?

Let’s face it – not everybody is keen on detailing their daily driver. But there are some that love the DIY car detailing process. Most full detailing tasks require a minimum of three hours to complete. So, if you’d rather opt for a professional auto salon, to request a full detailing service, your ride will receive the following special attention.

Washing the Exterior

Cleaning the body, windows, wheels, and other exposed parts is the first step with any detailing project. A professional detailer (whether it’s a mobile service or auto salon) will begin the car detailing service with a full car wash.

This begins with a pre-rinse (where they’ll remove the excess debris, dirt, and road grime by using a high-pressure water hose).

Wash the wheels and tires: The reason they start here is simply due to brake dust. Your brake system is comprised of multiple ferrous materials (iron in nature) including the brake rotors, pads, and the calipers.

While there are some high-performance vehicles with carbon fiber brake systems, they still produce dust, which can be harmful to the paint if it’s dried. To avoid this problem, they’ll wash the wheels and tires first.

Foam cannon pre-wash: The next step is spraying a high-suds producing car shampoo which serves as a pre-wash. The soap is applied with a foam cannon, which is attached to a high-pressure water sprayer. The foam wash is usually a specially formulated car shampoo – that is customized for different purposes. But we’ll get into that in the information below.

Two Bucket Hand Wash: Once the detailer sprays off the foam, the hand washing begins. Most experts recommend the two-bucket method of car washing. This includes using a bucket filled with car shampoo and one with fresh water.

The dual-bucket concept is simple – wash using soap from one bucket, rinse the wash mitt or media with fresh water, and repeat. Using this technique reduces the potential of dirt collecting on the wash media and scratching the car’s paint.

Rinse & Dry: When everything is done, the detailing job will continue by rinsing with fresh water and drying with a professional microfiber drying towel. The best detailers use a terry weave, high GSM microfiber towel – typically from South Korea, as this material and assemble techniques produce amazing products.

Cleaning the Interior

After the car has been washed, the detailer will proceed to the interior. Some will start with the interior then finish the outside, but it’s just a matter of preference. The interior car detailing involves vacuuming, wiping down all surfaces to remove dirt, dust, and other ‘stuff’, and cleaning windows.

Most pro detailers will complete everything on the interior – meaning they’ll use protectant sprays or liquids on plastic trim, leather, or complete any decontamination tasks (such as using Ceramic Pro TAG anti-microbial spray).

Protecting the Exterior

The final step of the typical car detailing project is applying protection. This is really where the creativity and price can skyrocket. But, before the detailer will apply a new protectant, they’ll usually use a clay bar or clay mitt, and wipe the surface down with an IPA or isopropyl alcohol solution.

The clay mitt / bar is used with a lubrication spray and will remove surface contaminants that might be stuck in those tiny imperfections found on porous surfaces (like paint clear coatings and glass).

Once this has been completed, the detailer will then determine if paint correction or polishing is required. This is where they will ‘buff-out’ minor scratches and imperfections found in the clear coat of paint, or on plastic or glass covers such as headlights.

If the polishing is needed, they will complete this, then use an IPA or prep spray panel wipe to remove the oils and waxy residual that is left behind during the paint correction process. This is also a good time for a headlight restoration if the old ones are foggy.

Once any prep work has been finished, there are several products that can be applied to a vehicle’s paint surface including:

Natural Carnauba Wax: This is the old reliable of paint protection products. It’s a hand applied car wax that is formulated in a paste or liquid form. To apply, you’ll use a special applicator cloth to rub the wax onto the surface, let it dry, then buff off with a cloth or orbital polisher. The lifespan of carnauba wax is about 3 to 5 months.

Paint Sealants: The next level up on the paint protection ladder is a synthetic paint sealant. As it’s created in a lab, it’s sold in a liquid form, and can hold up for about a year. There are some spray-on or liquid paint sealants, but many of them are branded or advertised as a ‘ceramic coating’. In all truth – these products are NOT anything close to a genuine nano ceramic coating.

Spray-On Polymer or Ceramic: The final type of product that can be applied to paint surfaces is a spray on coating. This is generally a polymer or Teflon-based spray that can be hybrid blend including paint sealants or waxes. These products tend to replicate some of the properties of a professional nano ceramic coating, such as producing a hydrophobic surface and enhancing the luster of the paint. The life span of these products is about six months – with some formulas lasting a year.

Protecting the Wheels and Trim

The final step of the typical car detailing job is to polish rims and apply a treatment or shine-enhancement to plastic trim, badging, and the tires. There are several products that can be used for this task, which are based on the material needing protection.

With tires, most detailers will opt for a hand applied treatment that is meant more for protecting. But there are some tire shine products that are meant to keep them looking ‘wet’. Plastic trim pieces are also important to enhance and protect, but usually are the last to be touched.

Why Should You Detail Your Car?

We get a lot of questions about car detailing, and one of the most common is why this is important? It’s hard to provide a definitive answer as to why detailing – or going beyond the normal maintenance car wash and interior vacuum is “needed”.

However, there are some parts of your vehicle that need to be protected against exposure to the elements, such as UV rays, road grime, saltwater, and natural toxins – like bird droppings, bug splatters, tree sap, and pollen.

On the interior, UV exposure tends to be the leading source of premature damage. However, spilled coffee, sodas, and other products can cause stains on carpet, cloth, leather, even hard plastic.

Going the extra effort to protect the exterior and interior parts of your car by detailing or using protectants, you’ll reduce the potential of damage, improve the overall appearance of your vehicle, and can increase your cars resale value.

How to Begin the Car Detailing Process

So – you’ve read the information above and you’d like to detail your car. Now what? Which products do you use, is there a recommended step-by-step guide that works for all cars, and are there certain things you can do to reduce mistakes?

Let’s answer some of these questions below.

Tips for Gathering Car Detailing Supplies

The first question you’ll need to ask is how much detailing are you wanting to do yourself? This will help you with the most important task – gathering the right supplies. However, there are other factors that are crucial to determine before you hop on Amazon.com to order car detailing supplies.

First – What is Your Current Paint Protection Product?

With any car detail project, washing the exterior is an obvious step. Choosing the right car shampoo for your ride is a crucial first step. But what most car owners don’t realize – is that all car shampoos are not unique.

There are generally three types of car soap and shampoos that you need to choose from – based on what you’re trying to accomplish:

Decontamination or Wax-Stripping Car Shampoo

If you ask most professional detailers, using a good decontamination car shampoo is a great way to start any detailing project. This is especially crucial if you’re going to apply car wax or a new paint sealant / spray on coating in the final step.

The wax stripping or decontamination car shampoo is essentially a detergent-based formulation – similar in many ways to dawn dish soap. It’s got a pH balance of about +9 to +11, so it’s on the ‘base’ side of the pH scale. It helps to break down oils, grease, and waxes, which is required before applying a new layer of wax or many spray coatings.

So, here are a few examples of when you’ll need to start with a decontamination car shampoo:

  • If you haven’t washed your car in over a month.
  • If you are planning on applying a new layer of car wax or spray paint sealant.
  • If you live in saltwater regions and don’t have a ceramic coating or paint protection film.

Traditional Car Shampoo

Most car shampoos on the market are pH neutral but have added lubricants – mainly carnauba wax. This is the shampoo that most car owners should use under the following situations:

  • You don’t have a ceramic coating or paint protection film.
  • You use car wax, paint sealants, or spray on coatings.
  • There is no paint protection product applied.

pH Neutral No Wax Car Shampoo

The final type of car shampoo that is used for pre-detailing car washes is a pH neutral, no-wax, high-suds producing car shampoo. This is mainly used for people with a nano ceramic coating like Ceramic Pro 9H or a DIY nano coating, paint protection film or clear bra like Kavaca, or vinyl wraps.

The main reason for using a non-wax infused car wash that is pH neutral is that it will not damage or remove a lot of the protective qualities of ceramic coatings, PPF or vinyl. You can use this type of shampoo as a foam cannon touchless car wash or two-bucket wash. Plus, the high suds formulation makes it super slippery to wash on the surface, which reduces scratch or swirl marks.

So – if you’ve got a nano ceramic coating, PPF, or vinyl wrap, always use a pH neutral car shampoo without added wax for optimal performance.

This brings us to gathering other supplies needed for detailing your car. Any project will involve using a few different media – or the materials used to wash or dry the vehicle. Regardless of what type of vehicle you use, it’s always recommended to choose high-quality microfiber cloths, towels, and rags.

Why is Using the Right Microfiber Towels Important for Car Detailing?

Microfiber is a blend of two primary ingredients – polyester and polyamide. Most automotive microfiber towels or cloths contain a blend of 70/30 (with the higher being polyester) or 80/20. The general rule of thumb is that the more polyamide you have in the microfiber, the more absorbent they will become.

diy car detailing microfiber towels

When you’re detailing your car, you’ll use three different type of microfiber products:

Microfiber wash mitt: Our professional detailers are big fans of microfiber wash mitts, which slip easily on your hand, hold a ton of suds and soapy water, and streamlines the washing process. There are a few different types of microfiber wash mitts – one that looks like thick noodles, and the other that’s “wooly” in design.

Microfiber Detailing Towels: These are used when applying detailing sprays or liquids – such as a ceramic boost spray, tire enhancers, and cleaning glass. Most of these microfiber towels are a tight-weave construction, are 80/20 blend, and have a GSM between 300 to 500. The main thing to remember is to avoid cross contamination.

We recommend buying a few different colors of microfiber towels including for glass (green works good), for car paints (red), for plastic trims (yellow), for wheels (silver), tires (black), and for interior materials (white). Any color combination will work – just make sure you know which color is used for specific materials.

Microfiber Drying Towels: Science is awesome. In recent years, the microfiber manufacturers – mainly in South Korea, have developed awesome drying towel technology. In years past (like last year and before), the hot item was a cross-weave drying towel. It was good at removing water but got saturated too quickly.

The hot new item is the one we love. It’s a terry weave drying towel. The GSM on these towels range from 1,000 to 1,300, are usually 24 x 36 inches in size, and one towel can dry your average pick-up in a matter of minutes. Plus they’ll remove all the water, leaving a completely clean car in the process without water spots.

Gathering Car Interior Detailing Supplies

Like determining which car shampoo to start the detailing project, the decision of interior cleaning products is just as customized. Let’s clear up a big rumor – and flat out myth – there is NO, one-size-fits-all interior cleaning and protectant spray that can be used on all surfaces.

Different interior materials should use a spray or wipe cloth that is designed for those substrates. They should also use a separate one for treating the inner materials, specially formulated for cloth, leather, vinyl, or plastic pieces. If you have wood or polished aluminum/metal interior parts, use supplies intended for those surfaces.

Here are some general guidelines to follow about interior detailing products:

Use a dedicated shop vac for your vehicle: Every vacuum operates the same way – suck debris into a chamber, filter the big stuff, and blow the air through an exhaust vent. The problem that many vacuums have is spreading germs from different rooms, vehicles, and others. To keep the interior of your vehicle as free of harmful bacteria or cross contamination, use a dedicated shop vac for your vehicles only.

  • Use separate cleaning and treatment supplies: Like we stated above, it’s vital to use specific products for cleaning and others for treatment. This will be determined by the material type.
  • Always vacuum and wipe down first, which will help reduce spreading contaminants through the vehicle’s cabin.
  • Consider replacing the interior cabin air filter every time you detail. If you’re going to disinfect the inside of your ride, it makes sense to remove the air filter – so your indoor air quality is improved.

The 5 Golden Rules of Car Detailing

To wrap up this first article on car detailing, we’re going to leave you with these five GOLDEN RULES of detailing your car.

#1 – NEVER WASH IN DIRECT SUNLIGHT

Car detailing supplies (specifically car washing and enhancement or protectant materials) do not work well on warm surfaces. When you complete this work in direct sunlight, they will cure quicker, harden, and likely create more damage than help.

#2 – ALWAYS USE DIFFERENT MICROFIBER FOR DIFFERENT SUBSTRATES

We mentioned this above, but always avoid cross contamination by using dedicated microfiber or detailing supplies by using color-coded microfiber cloths.

#3 – WASH FROM TOP TO BOTTOM

When you’re washing your vehicle, it’s always best to work in small sections, and always from top to bottom. This will ensure dirt and debris works its way down the vehicle and onto the ground, and not collect on the vehicle.

#4 – SET ASIDE PLENTY OF TIME

A major mistake many car enthusiasts make is trying to rush the detailing jobs. Always make sure to give yourself plenty of time to finish everything on the same day. With experience, you’ll develop a detailing process that works perfectly for you.

#5 – DON’T BE AFRAID TO CONSIDER BETTER PROTECTANT SOLUTIONS

Arguably the biggest pain in the butt with car detailing is the time-consuming process of applying protectants. Whether it’s car wax, or spray on coatings, using leather conditioners or specific treatments for plastic trim, these supplies cost extra money and take more time to complete.

Using a professional-grade nano ceramic coating like Ceramic Pro 9H to protect your exterior, wheels, and interior parts will eliminate the protection step of car detailing. This type of coating is formulated specifically for different substrates or materials including:

…and several more material-specific treatment coatings.

In the next article, we’re going to introduce some specific tips for each step of the car detailing process. But, if you’d like to learn more about Ceramic Pro products or receive a free estimate for any of our car coating solutions, click the link below.

Aiden Forde

Author Aiden Forde

Aiden Forde serves as the Pai Mei of Ceramic Pro Americas content management team.

More posts by Aiden Forde
X