Whether you break out that bucket of supplies for a driveway scrub-down or you leave it to professional cleaners, we all wash our car from time to time. It’s a basic rule of the road.
Detailing your car, however, is another level where serious gearheads and auto enthusiasts dwell—the kind of people who can tell the difference between a regular cleaning and a deep cleaning.
Sure, you could still visit a professional and pay top-dollar for the deluxe detailing package, and your vehicle will shine like it’s brand new. Or you could settle for a regular car washing that gets rid of dirt and grime but not much more than that.
But if you really care about your car, there are plenty of detailing practices you can do in your own driveway to keep it looking fresh.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN
Before you stock up on the products you’ll need for a full-scale detailing, make sure you read the labels! Certain products are designed to be used only on certain surfaces or materials, and using the wrong product could end up damaging your vehicle.
Naturally, since the exterior of your vehicle is the side that most people see (and the side that’s most susceptible to the elements), it’ll take a bit more time than the rest. So we’d recommend starting here.
- Step 1: First thing’s first, wash your car before you get into the more advanced processes. Not only will this give your car a basic cleaning to preface the deep clean, it’ll remove larger pieces of dirt that may scratch your car during the next steps. (Note: Make sure you use a special car washing soap rather than detergent or dish soap, which could damage your paint job.)
- Step 2: Once you’ve washed your car, you should be able to easily spot scratches, swirls, and oxidation and then pluck the surface with a clay bar. Wherever you feel bumps on the body of the car, take the clay bar (lubricated with detailer and flattened into a thick disc) and run it across the surface of your car. (Note: For deeper scratches, you’ll need to use compound like applicator pads or a dual-action polisher.)
- Step 3: If you really want to maximize your waxing, polish your vehicle beforehand with a good polishing compound. A dual-action polisher will get the job done, or you could even apply it by hand. This will help improve the color and gloss on your vehicle, especially if it’s a darker color.
- Step 4: When you wax your vehicle, it doesn’t just make it look good—it protects your vehicle’s coat from UV rays that cause fading, too. You’ve got two options when it comes to waxing: a caranauba wax, which produces a nice, deep shine, or a polymer wax, which is a bit more expensive but is easier to apply and won’t leave a film or haze on the vehicle as it dries. Whichever option you choose, simply apply the wax to a foam applicator, rub it into the car with a swirl motion, then wipe it clean with a microfiber towel. Wax on, wax off, if you will. And don’t forget to follow the instructions on the back, no matter which product you choose.
- Step 5: Washing and waxing is the hard part, so if you want to avoid doing that often, maintain your shine by keeping a spray detailer and a clean microfiber towel in your trunk.
- Step 6: Once the body is sparkling and brilliant, you have to keep the rest of the car in tip-top shape as well. Clean your windows thoroughly, but make sure to use a special auto window cleaner; most regular household glass cleaners contain ammonia, which can damage your tint. Don’t forget to wash the top edges of the window where grime collects more abundantly.
- Step 7: Don’t forget to wash your wheels as well! They’re usually the dirtiest part of the vehicle, especially if you go off-roading often. The most important thing to know here is that there are different types of wheel cleaners for different types of wheels, so you’ll need to find your specific formula and follow the directions on the product container. (Note: If you don’t know what kind of wheels you have, go with an acid-free pH balanced aluminum wheel cleaner, the least powerful formula. Or even basic soap and water if you’re unsure about your options.)
- Step 8: If the paint on your vehicle is chipping in any spots, touch-up your paint job as best as you can. This will prevent any chipped areas from growing into rust spots. (Note: If you already have rust spots forming, or your chipped spots are also dents, you may need to see a professional to fix those.)
Since you’re the one who has to spend the most time inside your car, you want it to be nice and clean, right? There are several steps to keep your interior just as spotless as the exterior.
Just remember to start from the top and work your way down. You wouldn’t want to do a deep clean of your carpet and then ruin it with dust from the air vents!
- Step 1: You’ll need different formulas to lubricate the interior. Use white lithium grease to lubricate squeaky door hinges (and apply a good penetrating lubricant if they’re corroded), use silicone spray or dry Teflon to lubricate the window tracks, and then use that same silicone spray to lubricate the weather stripping on your doors. And while you’re at it, use that penetrating lubricant to lubricate the gas tank lid.
- Step 2: Since there are so many nooks and crannies throughout the interior, you’ll want to clean the trim lines to get out all the gunk that slips through the cracks. A simple screwdriver wrapped in a cloth and sprayed with an all-purpose interior cleaner, or even a Q-Tip, is the only tool you’ll need, but you may want to follow up with a rejuvenator spray as well.
- Step 3: Once the nooks and crannies are clear, clean the vinyl and plastic surfaces with a scruff pad and some SEM Soap, scrubbing extra hard on textured areas. You may want to spray on a few coats of colorant as well; just make sure you allow 5-10 minutes between coats and let the colorant dry for 24 hours.
- Step 4: If you’ve got leather seats, clean the leather seats. In fact, it’s wise to invest in a leather-cleaning kit and keep it in the vehicle whenever any incidents happen to your seats. If there are already stains in the leather, a good kit will include formulas to treat them. You might also want to invest in a leather/vinyl repair kit for holes and tears, even though it’s likely that the tear will still be visible and the color will be slightly off.
- Step 5: When you vacuum the floorboards, make sure you get under the mats and under the seats as well. Don’t forget to use the brush attachment to vacuum the dashboard, door panels, console, and headliner. (Note: It might help to use a small brush, like a thin artist’s paintbrush, to dust the air vents and other tight spaces before vacuuming.)
- Step 6: The last step to a beautiful interior is to deep-clean your carpet. The proper technique will involve a carpet-cleaning machine that will wet down the carpet with a solution and then suck the dirt and grime away. (Note: If you don’t have access to a carpet-cleaning machine, which can oftentimes be rented, a spray cleaner with a scrub brush would suffice.) If your carpet is just too far gone, however, remember that you can always purchase a new preformed carpet for your make and model and install it in an afternoon.
UNDER THE HOOD
The last step is optional but highly recommended, especially if you think you’ll want to sell your car at any point. Cleaning under the hood will not only add to the resale value of your car, it’ll make your mechanic very happy next time you bring it to the shop.
- Step 1: One spurt of white lithium grease or a few drops of clean motor oil is all you need to lubricate the hood hinges, wiping before and after with a clean rag. Make sure you get both sides of each hinge. (It wouldn’t hurt to lubricate your trunk hinges too, while you’re at it.)
- Step 2: Take a moment to clean the hood latch as well with a clean rag to wipe off the grease and dirt that’s accumulated. If any part of the latch appears rusted or stuck, spray it with a good penetrating lubricant, jiggle the mechanism a few times, wipe it again, then apply a coat of white lithium grease.
- Step 3: Lastly, clean the engine bay by wiping it down with a rag to remove as much of the dirt and great as you can. It’s a simple step, but it’s worth it. And remember, don’t use a hose to clean under the hood since water can ruin the electronics and cause major issues. If your engine is too dirty, have it cleaned by a professional.
As you can see, detailing your car is a full afternoon of work. But once you’ve done it, your car will look, feel, and smell almost as clean as it did when it was driven off the lot. And we think that makes it worth the effort.