We've all been there. Washing up bowl, Fairy liquid and any old sponge lying around on the garage floor. Dry off with a crusty old shammy passed down through the generations and, if you're lucky, there might be a bottle of polish lying around, which you can apply with the tea towel you just used to dry the roasting trays. Stand back and admire the glistening swirl marks - your work here is done.
It's a rite of passage, but it needn't be like this anymore. The car-cleaning game has moved on. If you're asking yourself "what the hell is car detailing?", like we were up until recently, it's just a fancy way of saying you're going to wash your car. Yet to many a petrolhead, it's much more than that; some even go so far as to say it's therapeutic.
We could all do with some therapy occasionally, so here's your starter's guide to car detailing - written by a beginner for beginners. Luckily, the professionals at Auto Finesse gave us some expert tips on one of their specialist detailing training days, so we've decided to spill their secrets here - we're good to you like that. Don't be surprised if you walk away after using this guide feeling like the weight on your shoulders is a little lighter as you beam with happiness at your gleaming pride and joy.
If you didn't know, car detailing is a big industry these days and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of different products available on the market. For the purpose of this guide, we used - and will be referring to - products from the Auto Finesse range, but of course, other brands are available, if you so wish...
Basic principles and equipment
For the best results, you'll need a pressure washer with a snow foam lance, three buckets with grit guards, separate wash mitts for your wheels and bodywork, a wheel brush, a set of soft and firm detailing brushes, a drying towel and a pile of microfibre cloths.
It's important when applying any cleaning products to the exterior of your car not to let them dry onto your wheels or bodywork. Avoid cleaning in direct sunlight and if you absolutely have to, ensure that you rinse the car regularly to keep it wet.
You can wash microfibre cloths and towels and re-use them, but you should dispose of any cloths that are used for decontamination due to metals potentially being caught in the fibres.
Step 1: Wheels
This is the last time you'll make your first mistake of car detailing. Always start with the wheels; they're likely to be the filthiest part of your car and will need a thorough clean if you've not paid them much attention before.
Start by hosing them down with your pressure washer (but don't stick the nozzle so close that you risk lifting the lacquer) and if they're filthy, use a product like Iron Out to decontaminate your wheels. For lighter dirt and more routine washes, use a standard wheel cleaner (we used Imperial). Rinse them down after a good soaking and then, using a dedicated wheel bucket, take a big wheel brush to clean the barrels of the wheels, followed by a wash mitt dedicated for wheel cleaning, and smaller brushes to get into harder to reach areas.
Use a tyre cleaner like Tread to clean the tyre walls and wheel arches, then hose down.
Step 2: Engine bay
This is likely to be the one you're most intimidated by, but if you've got a modern car without exposed carbs or open cone air filters, cleaning your engine bay is straight forward. Every car will be slightly different, but as long as you don't have any exposed wires hanging out (in which case you'd have a bit more than some stray soap to worry about), your engine bay is designed to cope with getting a bit wet.
If you're really concerned about electrical harnesses or have an exposed battery or fuses, then you can cover these up. The key is to keep some distance with your hose and avoid soaking anything. Use an engine bay cleaner (we used Eradicate) and brushes to go over everything and get into those hard-to-reach areas.
Rinse with your hose and then use a dressing product like Dressle on your plastics and hoses. Having a wet engine bay will help the dressing get to hard-to-reach areas and you don't need to remove Dressle, just leave it after you've sprayed it on.
Step 3: Pre-cleaner
Firstly, you'll need to give the car a good rinse before applying any products to remove loose dirt from the top down. Use a pre-cleaner like Citrus Power to help lift stubborn grime and remove bugs, focusing on the lower areas of the car that are most likely to be affected. Leave to dwell (but don't allow to dry) and rinse off.
Step 4: Snow foam
Now the fun bit - snow foam. Apply all over the car to help break down further dirt and loose particles before you make any physical contact with the car. Getting rid of as much dirt as possible from the surface of your car is critical during this stage to prevent the chance of making swirl marks in your paintwork. As above, leave to dwell and then rinse.
Step 5: Two-bucket-wash method
Who'd have thought you've already done this much before making any contact with the paintwork? This is where the two-bucket method comes in; one for washing and one for rinsing. Fill one bucket with water and your shampoo of choice (we used Lather) and the other bucket just with water.
Rinse the wash mitt first and then wash the car from the top down, small sections at a time, rinsing your mitt as you go to remove any remaining loose dirt particles to prevent inflicting swirl marks. Ideally, you want a separate mitt for cleaning the sills and the lower areas of the car, which are more likely to have grime and dirt built up. Use feather-tip brushes to clean hard-to-reach areas that your mitt can't get to, like window seals, and then rinse the whole car down from top to bottom.
Step 6: Decontamination
As with your wheels, if you haven't used a decontaminant for a while, apply Iron Out all over your car and watch as the ferrous metals turn purple and 'bleed' out of your paintwork. Wipe the car over with a microfibre cloth to help agitate, then hose down. Once again, it's important not to let this - or any cleaning product - dry onto your paintwork or plastics.
The next step is to use a tar remover, like Obliterate, to get rid of any black tar spots. These are most likely to build up on the lower doors and wings, and around the back of the car. Apply with a cloth and gently agitate to remove the tar, then rinse again to neutralise any chemicals.
Step 7: Drying
Using a clean drying towel, start at the top of the car and work your way down, panel by panel. It's important not to let the water dry on the car, so act quickly after your rinse to ensure that you don't have any left-over water spots.
Step 8: Clay
Arguably, you can do this at the end of step six, before you dry your car, but we moved inside after drying to start with the final stages.
It's recommended to use a clay bar just before winter, and then again just after, to pick up any final stubborn contaminants like tree sap. Warm the clay up in your hands and stretch it out. If you're going to be applying polish or wax then you can just use water to lubricate the clay, rather than a clay lube. With the clay warmed up, work your way around the paintwork in small, circular motions, spraying liberal amounts of water as you go. As the clay becomes visibly dirty, fold it over on itself to reveal a clean section. Dry the car off, then you're ready to apply your polish.
Step 9: Polish
There are loads of different polishes to choose from - given that our car hasn't seen any polish for a long time, we went with Rejuvenate. You don't need a machine polisher for this and can simply apply it by hand. With polish and wax, a little goes a long way, so don't go too heavy on the product because you'll just make life harder for yourself when it comes to buffing.
Apply four, pea-size blobs onto an applicator pad and then give three to four strokes along the panel you're working on to help with even application, followed by small circular motions to work the polish across the panel. Leave it to haze, then buff off with a microfibre cloth.
Step 10: Wax
As above, you don't need much wax, and a tin should last you for a very long time. We used Illusion show car wax to make the three-stage Flame Red paintwork on our Renault shine. Just half a twist of product onto a pad and that'll be enough to do half a car. Yes, really. Apply as above with the polish and once again leave to haze before buffing with a microfibre towel with no pressure needed.
Step 11: Tyre and trim dressing
Use a tyre dressing (we used Satin) to give the tyres a nice satin finish, working in with a tyre dressing applicator. Any tired or dull looking plastics can be revived with the aptly named Revive. Apply using a foam applicator, then buff off after the product has dried with a microfibre towel, leaving an even satin finish.
Step 12: Interior cleaning
Even though you might be knackered by this point, the final stage is a very important one, given that this is the part of the car that you see the most. Start by hoovering and use a brush head to prevent damaging the leather or scratching the plastic surfaces.
When applying interior cleaner to smaller surfaces, such as Total, spraying it into a brush head will help it foam up. This is a great way to get dust out of air vents, too. For larger surfaces, including using window cleaner on windows, spray onto the cloth rather than directly onto the surface to prevent overspray.
If you've got leather seats, shiny leather is dirty leather. We used Hide leather cleaner with a brush and microfibre cloth to work leather cleanser liberally into the hide, followed by Hide leather conditioner. Apply this like polish to a polishing pad and work it into the surface. Leave to dry and then buff off. Cleaning and conditioning your leather won't get rid of crease marks that are already there, but it'll help prevent further creases from forming in the future.
If you've got an Alcantara steering wheel, the fibres become matted and shiny over time. Spray an interior cleaner, like Total, into a stiff brush and rub up and down the Alcantara until the fibres start to move and are no longer shiny.
This is not set in stone, but you should ideally repeat the decontamination, polish and wax stages roughly every six months, and clean and condition the leather every two months. In between, you can use the following stages for a maintenance wash:
- Wheels and rinse
- Pre-clean (Citrus Power) and rinse
- Snow foam and rinse
- Two-bucket contact wash method and rinse
- Lavish ceramic snow foam to protect your polish and wax, then rinse
If you've made it this far, your car should be sparkling and you should be grinning with your sense of achievement. Go forth and clean (or detail), and share your photos with us in the comments. And, of course, let us know you extra tips and secrets in the comments.
Special thanks to Auto Finesse who took us through one of their 'Detail what you bring' academy days to help us write this guide. You can learn more about their detailing academy here.
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