How to detail a car: Tips for detailing your car like a pro
We know how difficult it can be to keep your car looking as good as when you bought it, but giving it some well needed TLC every once in a while can help to keep it looking like you've just driven it out of the showroom. Although visiting the car wash or giving your vehicle a clean yourself every once in a while, can help to remove any build ups and keep your paintjob in a good condition, there are plenty of other areas you'll need to maintain properly. And, a thorough routine like this is frequently referred to as detailing.
Whether you tend to neglect your windows and windscreen, can't seem to get that dirt out of your carpets or think your car's exterior needs a polish, it's worth knowing how to detail your car yourself. And, in this guide we will be sharing tips for how to do all of this.
- What is car detailing?
- Why detail your car?
- How long does it take to detail a car?
- What do I need to detail a car?
- How to detail a car
Car detailing (also known as auto detailing) is a thorough top-to-bottom deep clean of your vehicle. It involves maintaining both the interior and exterior of your car with the aim of restoring it to a factory finish level, or at least the original condition you bought it in if it was second hand.
In comparison to the simple car wash that you do every couple of weeks, car detailing ensures that all imperfections are buffed, polished or vacuumed out. The biggest difference is therefore that a car wash is more of a superficial clean, whereas detailing is more thorough and restorative. And, while this can cost hundreds of pounds when done professionally, it's possible for you to detail your car yourself at home.
A good detailing can help to preserve many elements of your car, including the paintjob, seats, wheels and more. Not only does this mean that your car will look great for longer, but there are also many other advantages, including:
- Improving your health: Your car's interior is a breeding ground for bugs and microorganisms which could cause respiratory problems like asthma, as well as allergies and other ailments. So, it's important that you tackle these with a deep clean of your seats
- Improving your safety: Driving with dirty windscreens, wipers and headlights can get you into trouble with the law, but it can also make you more vulnerable to road accidents if you're unable to see or be seen properly. In addition, brakes that are caked with mud can be ineffective and therefore cleaning them will give you more control of your car .
- Reducing your expenses: Detailing your car often can help you to save a lot of money in the long run. This is because preserving and protecting your car from the outset can reduce the likelihood of any problems down the line. Plus, detailing gives you an opportunity to spot any current minor issues before they turn into more significant problems, which could end up costing you hundreds or thousands of pounds to repair.
- Maintaining the value of your investment: When you've spent a pretty penny on your vehicle, you'll want to maintain its value, and detailing it is a sure way to do this. Not only will keeping it looking new be a benefit in itself, but if you do choose to sell your vehicle down the line, you could get more money for it.
The length of time taken to detail a car is not set in stone, and rather it depends on the condition of your vehicle. At the very least, a car detail can take half an hour if your vehicle is in nearly new condition, but this can extend to a good few hours for cars that will need a significant amount of restoration work.
Car detailing involves a lot of different processes, which means that your kit may need to be quite extensive. But, while it may vary for different makes and models of cars, there are some basics you'll need:
- Soft jumbo sponge
- Microfibre cleaning towels
- Leather cloths (also known as chamois cloths)
- Cleaning brush
- Car shampoo
- Window cleaner
- Bumper, trim and dash cleaner
- Glass cleaner
- Car polish
- Leather cleaner (if you have leather interiors)
- Vinyl and plastic/interior detailing cleaner
- Vinyl protector
- UV protector
- Foam applicator pad
- Clay kit
- Car vacuum cleaner
- Detailing water hose
- Detailing air blower
- Old toothbrush
- Two plastic buckets with grit guards
- Clean water supply
- Mild washing up liquid
- Carpet cleaner
Detailing your car yourself can save you a significant amount of money along the way, and it isn't a particularly difficult or technical task to do even for the most inexperienced of car owners.
But, before you get started, we'd like to share our top tips:
- Don't wash your car in direct sunlight
Where possible, you need to avoid direct sunlight. This is because many detailing products don't perform well with the sun's rays or on a hot surface. In addition to this, the sun will speed up the drying of any water, and while this might sound like a good thing, it can result in water spots and streaks occurring before you've had time to buff them out.
- Avoid using the same sponge across tasks
Although it might just seem like a little bit of dirt, the cloths you use can damage your car if you're not careful to remove any grit or debris. This means that it's particularly important to use different cleaning sponges for different areas, especially when you're going from soiled areas like the tyres to cleaner ones. Your supplies for these should also be kept separate when you're done with them.
- Work downwards from the top
Starting with the top of the car will ensure that you don't muck up the bits you've just cleaned, as you would if you started with the lower areas. However, there is an exception for cleaning the tyres and wheels as these are the dirtiest parts of your vehicle and should be done first to avoid transferring this dirt to other clean areas.
- Get specialist car products
It can be easy to panic and grab the nearest alternative for your detailing products, but by doing this you run the risk of damaging your car rather than preserving it. Getting a specialist car shampoo is imperative as it'll perform a thorough enough clean but won't strip away your paint, however trying to make your own cleaning solution with grease-cutting washing up liquid might.
Now we've covered those, it's time to learn how to detail a car step-by-step.
It doesn't matter whether you detail the interior or exterior of your car first, but as the outside is more susceptible to dirt and grime from the elements, it could be a good idea to tackle this part first.
Before you get started, it's important that you set up all the things you need. Not only will this make your cleaning time a little more efficient, and acting quickly when you're cleaning the exterior can reduce the likelihood of water marks and spots.
For this, you'll need 2 buckets (one for rinsing, and one for washing), a few microfibre cloths, two or three wash mitts and a scrubbing brush for your tyres.
Prewash your car
Hosing or lightly pressure washing your car down before you begin cleaning it with sponges and car shampoo can help to make your job a little easier. This is because it can remove any loose dirt or debris, cutting down the time you need to spend thoroughly cleaning. Plus, prewashing reduces the amount of sponge marks or scratches that may occur when you're cleaning.
Clean the wheels and tyres first
As the dirtiest part of your vehicle, it's important that you clean these first to limit the spread of contaminants like brake dust from being transferred onto other parts of your car. To clean the wheels:
- Spray a wheel and tyre cleaner and leave to sit for at least five minutes (this may be more if your wheels are heavily soiled)
- Hose this off and scrub your tyres in a circular motion with a cleaning brush.
- Create a solution of water and mild washing up liquid and use a sponge to wash round any corner areas.
Create a 2-bucket system for washing
Having two buckets can make a huge difference to the clean: one should be filled with a car shampoo solution and the other with water for rinsing. You can then begin cleaning by following these steps:
- Fill one of the buckets two thirds of the way with water and add the recommended amount of car shampoo according to the manufacturer's instructions.
- Fill the second bucket with water — this'll be used for rinsing your wash sponges.
- Work in sections from the top downwards, in overlapping straight lines rather than circles and regularly washing your sponge in the rinsing bucket.
- After each section is done, hose it off immediately to ensure the soap doesn't dry onto your car's paint and stain it.
- Empty out the rinse bucket and refill with clean water if it becomes too dirty.
You should clean your windows after you've washed your whole car. Simply spray the windows with glass cleaner and use a microfibre cloth to wipe it away, firstly going in a vertical pattern and then horizontal.
Dry your vehicle
Wipe down all of the surfaces that you have washed with a microfibre cloth (you may need a couple for this). Be sure that you don't leave any standing water as this can create rust.
Use a clay bar
Using a clay bar over your car's paintjob and before a polish can make a world of difference to the look of your car. But, this should only be done once annually or bi-annually. To use the clay bar effectively, follow these steps:
- After washing your car, spray it with a clay lubricant spray and gently wipe the bar back and forth until you no longer feel any drag from the bar across the car.
- Wipe each clayed area with a microfibre cloth to remove any residue from the bar.
- To check if you've clayed the area properly, feel the recently clayed part with your fingertips and compare to one which hasn’t been done yet — the clayed part should feel slicker.
- Repeat this process until you've clayed the whole of your vehicle.
Polishing and waxing your car's paintwork can really enhance its overall appearance, so you should dedicate some time after claying your vehicle to do this. Be aware that darker coloured cars are more vulnerable to swirling the paint when you polish the car, so you'll need softer pads and compounds for these.
- Apply a small amount of polish to your cloth or foam pad and spread it evenly around your paintwork.
- Begin working the polish into the car's paintwork in circular motions, following the contours of the car and rubbing the polish in until it goes transparent.
- Leave the polish to cure (if the instructions require you to do this). Run your fingers across it and if they come away clean, it's time to buff it off.
- Use a clean microfibre towel to buff off the polish residue. Continually fold the cloth to ensure you're always using a clean area.
While giving your car a quick vacuuming every couple of weeks is great for minimising the amount of dirt, debris and crumbs becoming embedded in your carpets and seats, there is more to maintaining your car's interior than this.
To keep your car's upholstery in top condition, you'll need to deep clean these two or three times a year. This could include:
Vacuuming the upholstery
For this, you'll need a couple of attachments depending on the space inside of your car. Although the way you clean your car isn't set in stone, we recommend doing it the following way:
- Remove your car mats and shake them outside to remove any loose debris. Use an upholstery attachment (usually 4") to meticulously vacuum your mats.
- Push your back seats forwards and use a crevice tool to get into all of the tight areas to vacuum between the cracks of the seats, between them and any carpeted areas. Pay special attention to the seat tracks and door panels.
- Repeat step 2 for the front seats, making sure you vacuum around the seat tracks and the pedals.
- Use a 4" attachment to vacuum the carpet in the foot wells.
- Use a round dust attachment to vacuum the console, air and heating vents and in the door panels.
To get the deepest clean, it can help to pat your seats firmly with the palm of your hand to release as much dust and debris as possible.
Care for your carpets and floor mats
Once you've thoroughly vacuumed the carpet and floor mats in your car you can get stuck in with the cleaning process.
To do a complete job, you may need to remove the front seats using an Allen or socket wrench. However, if you don't think you need to do this simply apply your carpet cleaner and a little water directly onto the carpets and use an upholstery brush or a cotton rag to scrub.
Once you're done shampooing, use a dry microfibre cloth to dab and absorb as much water as possible from the carpets.
Note: you should use as little cleaner and water as possible to get the job done to preserve your carpets and allow them to dry as quickly as possible.
Maintaining your dashboard and console
Your dashboard and console are the elements of your car you'll notice the most when driving, so it's nice to have them in good condition. Plus, as these parts are more exposed to sunlight than others, it's important that they're maintained to prevent cracking and fading.
You should be giving these a wipe down with a damp, microfibre cloth every time you wash your car and treating them with a vinyl or leather protector once a month. To do this, use a foam applicator pad and spray your vinyl protector onto this rather than the dashboard or console and then work it in thoroughly. You can also use this on your steering wheel, turn signal levers and the gear stick — simply spray the protector directly onto the areas and leave for 3–5 minutes to soak in and then buff the product in with a soft and dry microfibre towel.
We would also advise investing in a UV protector for your dashboard and console to reduce the effects of the sun.
Clean your vents
Your vents are particularly vulnerable to dust and debris, which can blow out into your car when you're trying to heat or cool it. This can irritate or cause allergies or respiratory problems.
To clean these out, you can use a small detailing brush and turn your vents onto a blow cycle where any loose dirt can easily come to the surface and be cleaned out. However, if you suspect your vents are packed with dirt, using a cotton bud to wipe inside of these can help. Team this with vinyl protector and you'll have sparkling vents in no time.
For really tight spaces, try using a toothbrush and a dry microfibre cloth. This can also be used around buttons and dials.
Clean and treat door panels and jambs
Door panels are made of many different materials from fabric to leather, so you'll need to figure out what are the best products for your car. General purpose cleaners or specialist vinyl and plastic ones can help to remove scuff marks from shoes, while leather ones will require other specialist products.
When cleaning these areas, remember to:
- Clean around door handles and window cranks using a toothbrush and warm, soapy water.
- Clean and dry the speaker grilles as well as any armrests.
- Clean storage pockets in your door panels with a damp sponge or cloth to collect up dirt.
- Clean round the door frame and sill with a sponge or cloth that's dampened with soapy water.
- Dry all of these areas with a clean microfibre cloth or towel and treat with a vinyl, fabric or leather protectant.
Detail your vinyl and plastic components
Vinyl and plastic are very durable interior materials, which is why they're widely used in car interiors. However, they do still need frequent cleaning as they generate static and therefore attract a lot of dust.
To clean these areas, you'll need to invest in a good interior detailer cleaner that's suitable for vinyl and plastic.
- Spray your vinyl and plastic surfaces with the cleaner and work it into all of the nooks and crannies of your car's seats.
- Scrub any small crevices with a toothbrush.
- Wash the vinyl and plastic surfaces with clean water and a microfibre cloth (only if your cleaner states that it'll need washing).
- Dry your vinyl and plastic upholstery with a microfibre cloth.
- Apply a vinyl dressing according to the product instructions.
Cleaning leather upholstery
Your leather upholstery is susceptible to wear, especially when you add dirt and oil from your skin into the mix, so it's important you know how to properly maintain these if you want your car in top condition.
Leather is best cleaned when you do it in smaller sections before moving onto the next. And, the colour of your leather upholstery can dictate when you should be cleaning it. For example, light beige coloured leathers will show dirt and marks more easily and therefore will need cleaning every 3 months. In contrast, you can wait a little longer to clean darker coloured leathers — around every 6 months will be adequate.
To clean your leather:
- Apply your leather cleaner to your seats one section at a time and work it in with a clean sponge.
- Use an upholstery detailing brush for any areas that are heavily soiled.
- Wipe any soap away with a damp microfibre cloth.
- Repeat the above steps until you've covered all of the upholstery.
- Dry the upholstery with a dry microfibre cloth.
- Apply a leather protector one section at a time and work it in thoroughly.
- Allow the leather protector to soak in for 2 minutes.
- Buff off with a dry microfibre towel.
There you have it! A complete guide to detailing your car. Hopefully the tips here have shown you that you needn't shell out a small fortune for car cleaning and maintenance, and that it's possible to do it yourself.
Here at GSF Car Parts, we stock many car cleaning and maintenance products, so you're sure to find what you need to help get your car back to up to scratch. Not sure which will be suitable for your vehicle? Our helpful product finding tool will help. Simply add your registration number into the box provided on the home page and you'll find everything your car needs — read our buying guide for more information.
If you'd like to chat about car parts for your vehicle or anything you see on site, don't hesitate to get in touch with us. And, be sure to keep up with our car advice centre for more of our helpful guides on all things automotive, including tips on how to change wiper blades and other essential maintenance tasks.