Car Detailing: Beginner’s Guide

Last Updated 17th May 2020

For anyone with an interest in cleaning cars, the next step is car detailing. In this beginners guide, we’ve condensed car detailing down to its core so that you’ll be detailing your car like a pro in no time!


What is Car Detailing?

Car detailing is the process of cleaning a car to such a degree that restores its condition to a quality equivalent to (or greater than) when it was new. This includes cleaning, polishing and protecting both the interior and exterior of the vehicle, usually with specialist products and tools that would not otherwise be used for a standard car wash.

Car detailing is not just for the pros, and can easily be achieved by anyone willing to spend the time detailing their car.

12 Steps to Detailing

1. Inspection

Before getting the buckets out it’s important to assess the condition of the car. Remember, most cars take more than two hours to detail, so take a few minutes to walk around the car and make a mental plan of how you’re going to detail your car.

2. Wheels

Always start with the wheels. Wheels are the dirtiest part of the car and are usually covered in brake-dust, road grime, dirt and other nasty things. By detailing the wheels first, you can take your time on each wheel without having to worry about any water or shampoo drying onto the car.

Read our “How to Clean Diamond Cut Wheels” article to get started.

3. Pre-wash

Pre-wash is an important stage of the detailing process as it will help to break down stubborn bug splats and road grime – letting the following snow foam stage concentrate on the dirt. Use a dedicated bug & grime remover like Auto Finesse Citrus Power to focus on the front-facing and lower sections of the car as this is where the bug splats and road grime will be more concentrated.

4. Snow Foam

Snow foam is great for eating away at dirt and any other particles that have survived the pre-wash. The thick blanket of foam encapsulates the dirt and lifts it away from the paint. This stage is essential to safely cleaning your car and ensure that as much dirt as possible is handled before the contact wash. The aim is to remove as much dirt before contact washing the car in order to prevent swirl marks. If you’ve got any soft-bristled detailing brushes then now is a good opportunity to give badges, fuel caps etc some attention – but this is not essential and will otherwise be handled during the contact wash.

Check out our “Best Snow Foam” Review and Buyer’s Guide for more information on this crucial step.

snow foam

5. Wash

Once upon a time, this would have been the only stage in your car cleaning process, however, to detail your car like a pro it’s important to take the precautionary stage before jumping in with the contact wash. Having already removed as much dirt as possible from the paint, use a high-quality shampoo, a soft wash mitt, and the two-bucket method to safely was the car from top to bottom.

Check out our “Best Car Shampoo” Review and Buyer’s Guide.

6. Decontamination

Chemical decontamination is exactly what it says on the tin – the aim here is the remove contaminants from the surface of the paint using chemical products. Use an iron-fallout remover to remove ferrous contamination, such as industrial fall out and rail dust that has lodged itself into the paint. You’ll see the product turn purple as it reacts with the contamination. Next, use a tar remover to dissolve any stubborn tar spots from the paintwork.

Like chemical decontamination is using chemicals decontaminate the paint, mechanical decontamination uses a physical motion to remove contaminants – that means some old fashioned elbow grease. A clay bar can be used to pull any remaining contamination, such as tree sap, off the paint.

7. Drying

Using a plush microfibre drying towel, make your way from top-to-bottom drying each panel. Ensure each panel is dry and streak-free before moving onto the next panel.

8. Polishing

The aim of polishing is to remove any imperfections from the paint such as light scratches and swirls marks. You can polish a car by hand or with a machine. Machine polishing will always achieve better results, however, this is an advanced method and is not recommended without experience. Hand polishing is a great method and if done properly will help to reduce the imperfections in the paint – leaving a deep finish on the paint.

9. Glazing

A glaze is designed to enhance the finish of the paintwork following a polish. It helps to mask any swirl marks, resulting in a deep, high-gloss finish. Although this isn’t an essential stage of detailing, it will definitely add that extra depth to the finish – making it look like it’s been detailed by a pro! Glaze offers minimal protection, so it’s important to follow-up glaze application with a wax or sealant to lock in all that hard work!

Our “How to Make a White Car Shine” article will give you an insight into glazes (even if you don’t own a white car!)

10. Waxing/Sealing

After spending a good amount of time cleaning and polishing your car, it’s very important to lock in all your hard work with a wax or sealant. Do so will help to protect the paintwork from the environment, increasing the life of the paint and meaning it will be easier to clean your car between details!

11. Glass

Crystal clear glass is the cherry on top of a good car detail. Not only does it improve the finish of the car, but it also shows that you’ve completed this detail with a pro detailer mindset, addressing every aspect of the car. Use a dedicated car glass cleaner and a microfibre cloth to spray, wipe and buff the glass to a streak-free finish.

We’ve done an entire article aimed at “How to Clean Glass Properly” to be sure to check it out.

12. Tyre Dressing

Crystal clear glass is the cherry on top of a good car detail. Not only does it improve the finish of the car, but it also shows that you’ve completed this detail with a pro detailer mindset, addressing every aspect of the car. Use a dedicated car glass cleaner and a microfibre cloth to spray, wipe and buff the glass to a streak-free finish.

Check out our “Best Tyre Dressing” Review and Buyer’s Guide for more information on this crucial step.

Car Detailing Essentials

There are so many cars detailing products on the market, and it’s very difficult to know what you actually need! For a beginner, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the different products. We’ve put together a list of car cleaning essential supplies that will get you detailing your car like a pro.

  • Wheel Cleaner & Wheel Brush
  • Bug & Grime Remover
  • Snow Foam
  • Car Cleaning Buckets
  • Car Shampoo & Wash Mitt
  • Iron Fallout Remover
  • Tar Remover
  • Plush Microfibre Drying Towel
  • Polish
  • Glaze
  • Wax
  • Hand Applicator Pads (for polishing, glazing and waxing)
  • Tyre Dressing and Tyre Applicator Pad
  • Glass Cleaner
  • Quick Detailer
  • Microfibre Buffing Towels (for general use)

Do’s and Don’ts

Do use the two-bucket method

Use two buckets when washing your car to reduce the risking of transferring dirt back onto the paint. Fill the first bucket with clean water and the second bucket with your car shampoo. Dunk your mitt into the soapy bucket before washing the car. After washing the car rinse the dirty mitt in the rinse bucket to remove any dirt – repeat the process. We recommended Meguiars Twin Swirl Free Paint Professional Car Wash Bucket Kit – two large buckets complete with grit-guards to ensure a safe wash.

Do wear protection when detailing

Always wear appropriate protection when working with chemicals. It’s always worth wearing gloves and eye-protection when detailing a car.

Don’t use wheel cleaning equipment on the bodywork

Brake dust is one of the most abrasive contaminants you will find on a dirty car. It’s an accumulation of extremely fine metal shavings, produced by the brakes. This is why it’s crucial to keep a separation between wheel cleaning equipment and car cleaning equipment in order to prevent swirl marks.

Don’t detail a car in the sun

If you want to detail your car like a pro, then it’s important not to rush a detail and to let the different products serve their purpose. By working in the sun you are drastically reducing the time that water & products can be on the paint before they dry out. When detailing a car, make sure that you’re in an area that will stay shaded for the next few hours!


FAQs

How often should I detail my car?

It’s recommended that you detail your car 2-3 times a year (roughly every 4 months. There is no right or wrong answer to how often you detail your car as it depends on your personal preference, your car, and the environment in which you live. Some detailers tend to detail their cars according to the seasons, so might detail their car once for every season, or just for summer & winter.

How do I clean my microfiber towels?

Part of detailing your car like a pro is maintaining your equipment like a pro too. Get into a habit of washing your gear immediately after detail so that it’s clean and ready for the next one! You can use everyday wash detergent, however, it’s best to use a special microfiber wash solution as this will contain surfactants and emulsifiers designed specifically to gently clean and care for microfibre fabric.