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How to detail a car

Car detailing isn’t something you need to do that often. You might roll up your sleeves once a year to perform a top-notch cleaning – sweeping, scrubbing, wiping every nook and cranny – on your car. The level of clean you need? It’s really whatever you prefer. Here’s a helpful guide to get you started.

Man detailing the interior of a car

Before you begin

The difference between an "OK" and an "incredible" result is tied to the tools you use and the time you spend on the job. It helps to use specialized car detailing products for specific tasks. For instance, toothbrushes come in handy for small areas that are harder to clean, like vents and grilles. Cotton swabs are useful in these spots, too.

Also, try to use name brand products to play it safe, but be certain to read the labels. Even name brand products aren’t suitable for all paint finishes. If the product does not list that it’s safe for clear coat finishes, it’s probably not. And keep in mind that this likely won’t be a five-minute commitment; a high-quality car detailing job can take between four and eight hours.


Step 1: Getting the hard-to-reach places

Work on the interior first. Use compressed air in a can to blow dirt out from the tiny crevices. Save exterior cleaning for later. By taking this approach, you’ll prevent all the dirt you brush out from undoing exterior detailing efforts.


Step 2: Working from the top down

Cloth headliners present a problem since they’re glued to the roof. Removing marks and stains can be tough, but it’s important to remember that headliners shouldn’t get wet. Use a microfiber cloth and an upholstery cleaner designed for use on velour or suede.

Brush the entire headliner lightly with a dry part of the cloth. Then, apply cleaner to the cloth – not directly to the headliner – and continue to gently brush everything. For stubborn spots, wet only one corner of the cloth with cleaner, brush lightly and dry off with the rest of the cloth.


Step 3: Cleaning vinyl, plastic and windows

Hard interior surfaces can be cleaned with a cloth dampened with all-purpose cleaner. Use a window cleaner and paper towels on the interior glass. Pro tip: Finish the glass by rubbing with balled-up newspaper to give it a gleaming shine.


Step 4: Scrubbing the seats

Specific products are important when you get to the seats. Treat dirty fabric upholstery with foaming cleaners designed for the task. Always follow the manufacturers’ instructions. Remember, it also helps to have an upholstery brush. Use only a leather conditioner on real leather – never a vinyl cleaner. For tears in vinyl seats, repair kits can work wonders. Pro tip: If you have pet hair on fabric upholstery, wrap duct tape or wide masking tape around your hand with the sticky side out. Then, roll your hand over areas until the tape is full of hair. Repeat with new tape until all areas are done.


Step 5: Taking out the floor mats

When it concerns floor mats and carpeted areas, it’s best to create extra room by getting all of the heavily soiled items out of your car. Follow these tips:

  • Rubber and fabric floor mats should be washed outside of the car.
  • If these mats are worn, consider replacing them with new ones.
  • If you use a dressing on rubber floor mats, use one that will not make them slippery.
  • Use a foaming cleaner for minor carpet stains.
  • Avoid getting carpets saturated with water or cleaner, so mildew won’t become a problem.

Step 6: Considering the nitty gritty

This is definitely an optional step. The dashboard and steering column present some of the most time-consuming tasks. Any knobs that can be removed without damage should be taken off so that the bezels beneath them can be more easily cleaned. After you get the air vents cleaned up, spray a light mist of aerosol rubber or vinyl dressing for a polished, "brand new" look. Pro tip: Some crevices can be cleaned with a thin cloth placed over the end of a plastic knife.


Step 7: Stopping by the car wash

It’s a good idea to visit the local self-serve car wash to use their high-pressure hoses to rinse your wheels and wheel wells. Remove any heavy buildup. While you’re there, you can also use their high-powered vacuum on your upholstery, dashboard and carpeting before heading home to tackle the rest.


Step 8: Finishing touches to the exterior

Detail the doorjambs first. Any heavy grease should be wiped off with dry paper towels. After that, a soapy water solution is fine. Finish with small brushes for the tight areas, and don’t forget to wax the doorjambs. Wash small areas at a time, and keep finished areas wet with frequent hosings to avoid water spots. Change the rag and the water in your bucket often to avoid rubbing dirt back onto your car. Use a toothbrush to get into tight areas, such as around headlight and tail light trim, door handles and mirrors.

A stiff brush and soapy water should take care of most everything on wheels and wheel wells, but remember to keep spraying down the whole car to avoid water spots. Also, avoid acid-based cleaners on clear coat painted or polished metal surfaces of the wheels.


Wrapping up

When you’re finished washing everything, dry the entire car with a heavy terry cloth towel. You can use a clear coat-safe cleaner on scratches and blemishes in the clear coat layer of paint, but a cleaner wax will likely address most of the visible irregularities in your paint finish. Just be careful to avoid applying wax or polish to plastic or vinyl areas. So how are things looking? Even if you skipped a step or two, your car is definitely in much better shape now – inside and out.


Dan Cooper is an award-winning writer with more than 35 years experience. He specializes in automotive content and is based in Kerrville, Texas.

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