A Complete Beginners Guide To Car Detailing: Step by Step

Remember your car’s brand new look, bright shine, and glow when it first came out of the showroom? That original beauty that made it the talk of your neighborhood?

The bad news is that those looks don’t last forever. As with every vehicle, the brand new looks weather with time. And leaves you with a dull-looking car.

And the Good news is that you can restore your car’s original looks and beauty and make it look like it just came out of the showroom again by detailing it.

If you have never done car detailing before, our all-inclusive guide below will take you through all the basics of auto-detailing, plus additional tips to help you achieve fantastic results.

What is car detailing?

In the simplest terms possible, car or auto detailing implies giving your entire vehicle a detailed, thorough cleaning with the help of specialized tools and supplies.

It involves cleaning to detail and reconditioning the interior and exterior of your car to restore its good looks and make it showroom worthy.

Unlike the typical car wash that involves getting dirt on your car’s exterior, auto detailing involves paying attention to the tiniest details, restoring the paintwork, eliminating scratches and marks, etc.—making it look brand new again.

Car Detailing

The KEY benefits of car detailing include:

  • Protects against elements: applying a wax coating to your car’s exterior painted surface helps protect it from rust and contamination. This is something you’ll not get from a regular car wash.
  • Restore your car value: if you keep it in good condition, you’ll make it stand out and even restore its value. So, if you’re thinking of selling your car soon, you should start thinking of detailing it more often to restore its showroom looks and value.

Keep in mind that car detailing can further be divided into interior and exterior car detailing. As you can easily guess, the former implies cleaning to detail your vehicle’s interior, while the latter refers to cleaning the outside of your car.

Benefits of Car Detailing

TIP: If you intend to do interior and exterior detailing, we suggest you start with the interior. This way, when you start working on the inside, you won’t worry about messing up an already detailed exterior.

In the next section, we outline the steps you should follow to detail your car as a beginner…

Exterior Car Detailing

Supplies You’ll Need:

  • Two buckets
  • Car wash soap or shampoo
  • Microfiber towels (a set of 12 sheets will do)
  • Two wash mitts
  • Clay bar or clay mitt
  • Wax or ceramic coating

Step 1: Start with the wheels and tires.

You’re already aware that wheels are the dirtiest part of your car, given that they’re always collecting road dirt, grime, and brake dust, not to forget the road salt in winter weather.

To clean the wheels properly, you’ll need to use a good quality wheel cleaner that will work on the dirt, grime, grease, etc., that tends to accumulate on the rim. A spray-on wipe-off cleaner is even better as you’ll be able to apply it even on the hard-to-reach areas of the wheel.

The Wheels and Ttires

This is how you clean the wheels:

  • Apply the cleaner to your car wheels
  • Allow it to sit for about a minute so that it can penetrate as much as possible
  • Using a brush, try to work your way into the harder-to-reach areas of the rim and remove any remaining gunk
  • Now apply a tire cleaner on the tires to remove the heavy gunk
  • Scrub them in a circular motion to ensure the removal of the remaining dirt and grime
  • Hose the wheels so that they look clean

NOTE: You should not use the same bucket and washing mitt/pad you intend to use to clean your car’s paintwork. If you must use the same bucket, thoroughly clean it before washing your car’s surface.

Having cleaned your tires and wheels, you can apply the tire dressing at this stage. This will help the tires restore their true colors and look nearly new again. Apply the tire dressing and give it time to soak in to obtain a gloss finish. Or wipe it on and off using cloth cotton to get a matte look.

Step 2: Give your car a pre-wash

Most people ignore this step and jump straight to washing their cars. Unknown to them. However, a pre-wash is essential to get the most amazing results at the end of your car detailing job.

It simply helps remove the stubborn dirt and grime, which, if you clean using washing mitts or sponge, can easily cause those ugly swirl marks and scratches on your car.

Car a pre-wash

You might also want to use a foam gun to help remove the heavy gunk to make the washing step easy.

When doing a pre-wash, avoid the temptation to use a strong jet as it might end up rubbing the dirt on the car and scratch the paintwork.

Step 3: Give your car a full wash.

Since you have already given your car a pre-wash, this step will be relatively easy. You’ll use your car cleaning soap/solution, the two buckets, and wash mitts to clean your car’s paintwork.

In this step, we recommend you do washing from the bottom up. We also recommend you use the two-bucket cleaning method for the best results.

Car a full wash

NEVER heard of the two-bucket method? Well, this is how it works:

It involves using two buckets to clean your car (hence the two-bucket cleaning method). You put clean water in one bucket and the car soap/shampoo in the other. The clean water is for rinsing the wash mitt as you continue washing your vehicle. This ensures you do not contaminate the cleaning soap. It also ensures you use clean wash water to wash your car.

Here’s how you should do it:

  • Fill one bucket with 2/3 of cool water and mix it with the recommended amount of shampoo. You can use a strong water jet to help fill this bucket with foam
  • Grab the second bucket and fill it with clean water
  • Soak your wash mitt in the cleaning solution’s bucket and wring it over your car’s surface. This works as a pre-soak that further loosens any gunk on the car’s surface.
  • Start cleaning at the top of your car, and work your way down, cleaning small sections at a time.
  • How to wash the paintwork? It’s simple, move your wash mitt in straight lines, overlapping lines (and NOT in circles). You’ll also need to move the pads gently. This will help prevent the mitts from making any marks or scratches on the car in case it picks up any loosened dirt.
  • Remember to rinse your wash mitt regularly in the cleaning bucket. If you notice the water in this bucket turning cloudy, replace it with clean water ASAP!

IMPORTANT: After cleaning a section, remember to rinse it before you move to the next part. This will ensure the soap doesn’t dry and leave a stain on your car paintwork. Work your way from top to bottom when rinsing.

You’ll also need to do a final rinse—a hose—as you move from one section to another. This will prevent the water droplets from drying up and leaving your car with spots.

Step 4: Time to dry it!

NEVER let your car air-dry, else you’ll give soap spots a chance to form and send you back to the previous section. Proper drying is essential to make any marks easy to spot before you polish your car.

So, what’s the best way to dry your car? Guess it?

You got it right—using those soft microfiber towels. By the way, you’ll use several of them to dry your car properly!

The easiest way to dry the car is to do it section by section, just like in the washing part. You’ll need to do it quickly before the form of the watermark. And you’d want to do it from top to bottom.

Dry Car

TIP: If you end up with some watermarks on your car (it happens), don’t worry. You can use a quick detailer to clean it up afterward.

Step 5: Work on the windows

You also want your car windows to shine and reflect, right? Well, after you’re done cleaning the other exterior parts of the car, you shouldn’t forget to clean the windows.

Using a glass cleaner to clean the outside of your car windows will help eliminate any light scratches, fingerprints, etc., on the windows and make them shiny.

TIP: Use an ammonia-free glass cleaner so you don’t end up discoloring your window surface. Ammonia can also lead to the degradation of after-market tinting on your windows.

Step 6: Smooth it out (using a clay bar or clay mitt)

Once your car has dried up, you can now smooth it out before giving it a polish and waxing.

But first, keep in mind that this step should be done yearly. If you have recently used a clay bar on your car, you can skip this step.

If you haven’t used a clay bar or detailing mitt on your car, follow these steps below on how to use it.

BEFORE…we get into details, note that whether to use a clay bar or detailing mitt is a decision that lies in your hands.

Both products serve the same purpose—removing contaminants from your car paint to smoothen it for more impressive detailing results.

While a clay mitt fits over your hand (just like the washing mitt), it feels easier to use than a clay bar. The mitts are also larger than clay bars since they’re made to fit over your hand, enabling them to cover more surface area.

How to use a detailing/clay mitt:

  • Saturated your car surface with the detailing lubricant/spray—we suggest working small sections simultaneously. Lubricate the mitt as well for even better lubrication.
  • Now glide the mitt gently along your car surface in a close-hatch pattern. Though you might initially feel some resistance, it’ll get smoother as you continue knocking out more contaminants.
  • When you can’t feel any more resistance in the area you’re cleaning, the area is good. Grab a microfiber towel and wipe the surface clean.
  • Move on to the next section and repeat the above process.

Step 6: Polish it

Polish is a necessary step to give your car an overall glossy look that makes it even closer to looking new again.

And the MAIN reason for smoothening your surface in the previous step with your clay mitt is to smoothen and clean it in preparation for polishing. With your surface smoothened, polishing will become easier and take less time.

You can choose to do the polishing manually or use a machine polisher. Though both methods will give you results, the latter will provide more appealing results.

However, if you go for machine polishing, be sure you know how to use it. If it’s your first time using it, we suggest you try using it on a separate panel (you can get one from the scrapyards) to help you get the hang of it.

Polish Car

Otherwise, the machine might burn your car paintwork, forcing you to a full panel or even an entire car respray.

Step 7: Wax it

The final step in exterior car detailing involves waxing or sealing to help protect it from elements. If you ignore this step, you risk your vehicle attracting dirt immediately, draining all your hard work into the bin.

But you’ll first need to decide what type of wax to use on your car paintwork.

Wax car

The two most common options include wax and ceramic coating, as outlined below:

  • Wax: the wax is highly preferred by most car owners because of its high affordability, ease of use, and the great shine it puts on your car. However, it doesn’t last long, meaning you’ll have to re-apply it more frequently, say every 2-3 months. Most waxes tend to become ineffective in as short as 5 weeks.
  • Ceramic coating: ceramic coating beats wax in that it delivers unparalleled shine and protection on your car that’s permanent. But again, it requires you to spend more than wax, and the application process will take a bit longer.

Whichever option you go with, make sure you apply it ONLY when your car is cool to the touch. Also, use clean and non-abrasive pads/cloths to apply it.

Interior Car Detailing:

Complete detailing of your car should also involve thoroughly cleaning its interior. This is where you vacuum and shampoo all the interior upholstery and other parts to eliminate dirt and stains, condition any leatherwork inside, and clean/polish the interior glass.

Supplies You’ll Need:

  • Vacuum cleaner
  • Detailing brushes
  • Glass cleaner (ammonia-free)
  • Vinyl/leather cleaner
  • Leather conditioner
  • Microfiber towels

Step 1: Clean your car carpet.

You should first remove the floor mats in your car, vacuum the trunk, upholstery, mats, rear parcel shelf (if your vehicle has one), and the dash.

Sliding the seats back and forward will allow you to vacuum the carpet underneath easily.

We advise you to start from the top and work your way down. This will ensure any dust that might have accumulated at the top doesn’t fall where you have already clean and send you back to square one.

Clean your car carpet

In case you notice any stains on your carpet or upholstery, follow this guide to fix them:

  • Apply a foam cleanser and rub them with a damp sponge or cloth.
  • Let it sit for a few minutes, and then blot it dry with the help of a towel.
  • If you notice that the stain doesn’t come out, repeat the foam cleaner application.
  • Finally, wash the area using a damp cloth and do a final drying

Step 2: Wash the rubber floor mats.

Now grab the rubber floor mats you removed from your car in the above step and give it a thorough clean:

  • Wet down the mat to help remove any big dirt and grime on the mat
  • Next, spray down the entire mat using a dedicated garage rubber cleaner and work it with a brush. If you have an intricate floor mat with many groves and designs, consider using a hog hair brush to ensure you get to all the parts. Otherwise, you can use a large bristled brush.
  • Now hose the floor mat to remove any foam and dirt.
  • If the mat still looks dirty, repeat the above cleaning process.
  • When you’re done cleaning the mat, dry it with a microfiber towel
  • One more thing, apply a non-slip dressing to the mat. This will help ensure your legs don’t slip/slide, say when braking.

Wash the rubber floor mats

Step 3: Clean the dash, interior doors, and other parts

At this time, you’ll need to use compressed air plus a set of detailing brushes to help you get out any accumulated dust from the nooks and crannies of your car.

Ensure you work on all the crevices and buttons on your car dash and the interior doors to remove as much accumulated dirt as possible.

Next, grab a mild, all-purpose cleaner to wipe hard all the interior surfaces, including the doors and speaker grilles, if you’re the kind of driver with the best ​bass car speakers installed in their car for entertaining rides.

Afterward, you can use an interior dressing to finish off the surfaces and give them a more appealing look.

Clean the Interior doors

Don’t forget the air vents. Work on them using detailing brushes to help get out as much dust and grime as possible.

A detailing brush made of highly absorbent materials like microfiber will help pick up the dust and dirt more easily. When done, you can lightly apply a spray-on vinyl dressing onto the vents to give them a brand-new look.

Step 4: Clean the car seats

No interior car detailing is complete without thorough cleaning of the seats.

If your car has cloth seats, you can shampoo them using a wet-vac extraction machine. After the extraction is over, be sure to dry the cloth adequately.

You’ll need to use leather or vinyl cleaner for leather and vinyl seats and then softly detail them using a leather brush. When done, use a microfiber cloth to wipe away the cleaner.

Clean the car seats

TIP: You should also consider conditioning for leather seats after cleaning them. This is crucial to help prevent the leather from drying out and cracking. Plus, the condition gives the leather a more appealing look.

Step 5: Remember the glasses.

Lastly, grab the glass cleaner and spray the interior windows. Using a ball of 4-ought steel wool on the windows will do if you want an even stronger build-up remover for glasses.

If your window gauge cover is made of plastic, you should use a plastic cleaner.

After cleaning the glasses, use a microfiber towel to wipe them off so that you’re left with a clean-looking glass.

Clean the Car Glass

6 Common Auto detailing mistakes to avoid:

Before we close our guide, let’s outline some common mistakes beginners make when detailing a car for the first time.

1. Detailing your car under direct sunlight

We advise you against detailing your vehicle when under direct sunlight or when it’s still hot. Most car detailing products react poorly under such conditions, meaning they’ll not give your car a brand new look or protect it.

Always work in the shade for the best results. Avoiding direct sunlight or hot car will also help prevent the formation of water spots or unseemly pooling.

2. Using the wrong type of clothes

You should not use a sponge or chamois to clean your car. These feature large poles that harbor dirt particles that will make swirl marks or scratches as you continue cleaning your vehicle. Just stick to a microfiber wash mitt. And use microfiber towels for drying.

3. Cleaning your car with dishwashing soap

NEVER use dishwashing soap to clean your car. This solution can strip the polymers of your car paint, accelerating the oxidation process and leaving you with a damaged surface. Just stick to the car-specific cleaning soap/shampoo.

4. Using a single bucket for washing your car

Remember what we said about the two-bucket cleaning method? One bucket carries the cleaning solution, and the other clean water for rinsing your wash pads.

Using a single bucket will contaminate your washing solution and won’t do a good cleaning job on your car’s surface.

5. Doing the exterior detailing first

As we mentioned earlier, you should always start with the interior detailing and finish with the exterior of your car.

This is because you’ll not worry about messing up the already-done exterior when working on the interior.

6. Finishing with the wheels and tires

Another mistake you should never make is the last working on your car wheels and tires. Folks who make this mistake end up splashing grime from the wheels and tires (the dirtiest part of your vehicle) onto the freshly cleaned surfaces.

Final Verdict

So, that’s all there’s to know about car detailing. This guide provides you with all the basics you need to know as a beginner in the auto detailing world.

After reading this guide, you should be able to detail your car from start to finish, make it look brand new again, restore its original beauty, and make it showroom-worthy.

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