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DIY Car Detailing 101: A Beginner’s Guide

If you tell a car detailer that it’s just another term for a car cleaner, there’s a chance that you’ve just lost any potential for making friends. Car detailing is almost a science. Certainly an art form. And one that when mastered, will make anything look better than the original.

Detailing is something that needs to be mastered. You can’t just pick up a few supplies and have at it. You need an understanding of what’s involved. Also, you need to know what’s the best way to do jobs. And even knowing the full car detail cost is handy. You could be saving yourself hundreds, if not thousands of dollars by detailing your own car.

A brief history

What is car detailing?

Car ‘detailing’ only really became a well-known thing in the last two decades or so. Up until then, it was all bundled up under car valeting. The difference is that one would be a basic clean and polish job. The other being a full going over that would cost a few hundred bucks. It was really down to how much you wanted to pay.

what is car detailing

Once the two started separating, it became obvious that car detailing was actually a separate thing. This wasn’t just an expensive cleaning or polishing job. This was about getting the ‘details’ right – cleaning the air vents, the oily bits under the hood, the inaccessible areas that you can’t even see – basically, everything.

Yeah, there are different levels of detailing – exterior detailing, interior detailing, services that clean between the tire treads, under the hood detailing. It really depends on what it is you’re trying to achieve. Do you want a nice, well-maintained car that looks great or something that could enter a Concours show (and win)?

Tools of the Trade

If you want to detail your own car, the initial investment is quite heavy, but the savings (and satisfaction at a job well done) are well worth it.

Perhaps the #1 thing that you’ll need aside from expensive equipment is patience and time. You’ll need both in abundance – a full detail could easily take a day.

And while it’s possible to do everything outside, you’ll find that the most successful professional detailers have an indoor area that isn’t affected by the weather. It’s not so much about rain and wind, but keeping the car cool so any chemicals or polishes don’t just dry out on contact. It’s worth thinking about if you really want to do a professional detailing job on your car.

Vacuum Cleaner

handheld car vacuum cleaner

A decent vacuum cleaner is an essential tool of the trade. The more powerful, the better. And you’ll need all of the attachments for getting into the hard to reach nooks and crannies. If it’s capable of sucking up moisture and fluid, that’s even better.

small steam cleaners
Steam Cleaner

There are a variety of small steam cleaners on the market. Some provide steam only, while others do a combination of steam and vacuuming. Either style will do what you need. A steamer isn’t essential, but it will make life a whole load easier for you. It can remove sticky stains and clean up tar (from smoking, for example.) They’re also great for just freshening up the upholstery.

Detailing Brushes

You’ll need a few different brushes. Soft ones for reaching dusty areas (like air vents.) And stiff ones are great for removing pet hairs and the like.


You’ll need a plastic cleaner, glass cleaner, stain remover, polish – every type of cleaner, wax, and polish for a complete car.

Clay Bar

The importance of an automotive clay bar can’t be underestimated. When used correctly, it will give your paintwork a glass-like finish. However, be warned, claying a car can take a good few hours alone!

Foam Cannon

A high-quality foam cannon is on the list of ‘nice to have’ rather than essential. It simply attaches to the Sun Joe SPX3000 power washer and dispenses soap in the form of a thick foam which clings to the car and removes all manner of dirt and debris.

The process

OK, now that you’ve invested in all of the gear, it’s time to get the idea.

This is the exact process I use, and while you may not be able to do everything, you can often substitute parts of the processes. Using a hose instead of a pressure washer for example. For this process, I’m skipping under the hood detailing because that’s complicated enough to need a whole article on its own.

The basics

The very first job is to clean the exterior of the car. We need to do this as part of the detailing, it also gives you a great opportunity to spot any dings, nicks or damage to the exterior.

I always start the process with a traffic film remover. It’s like a mild acid/detergent that can be sprayed on to the dirty vehicle before washing. It helps breakdown all of the dirt and loosens it before pressure washing.

I cover the vehicle completely and liberally. I let it soak while I apply wheel cleaning solutions to the wheels, lug nuts, and brake calipers.

Time for the first pressure washing to remove the detergents and acids. Once I’ve given the car a pressure wash, I use a quality car cleaning shampoo dispensed through a foam cannon to cover the car in detergent. Typically, if the car is relatively clean to start with, this can be enough. However, sometimes you may need to give it a little agitation with a sponge to dislodge any stubborn dirt.

Round two of the pressure washing to remove the soap.

I don’t bother applying a liquid wax after pressure washing, as I’ll be buffing and waxing the car properly at a later stage. The car should now be ready to move into the undercover area.

Claying a car

After a quick drying (it doesn’t need to be 100%) and inspection, it’s time to get the clay bar out.

The clay bar is a soft, almost sticky substance that despite popular thinking, has no abrasive qualities whatsoever. It literally relies on the debris to stick to the surface of the bar to pull contaminants from the paintwork.

claying a car

Liberally apply some lubricant to an area of the bodywork. You should look to work in small patches – around a foot square. Take the bar and soften it by working it in your hands. Once softened, you should flatten it out and get busy. Move the bar in a straight back & forth motion (not circular patterns.) Remember to regularly turn the bar in on itself to keep the dirt trapped in the bar and give yourself a clean surface.

Completing a car can take around three hours when done properly. You’ll know when the paintwork is good because if you run your hand across it, it will feel as smooth as glass.

If you want to, you can apply the wax and buff it at this point. But, I always leave the finishing touches to the end, especially if I’ve still to do the interior detailing.

Interior detailing

Now that the outside is somewhere near completion, it’s time to turn your attention to detailing the interior. Due to all of the hard to reach areas, it’s perhaps one of the most time-consuming steps.

Of course, you’ve already emptied any trash from the car. The next thing to do is remove the mats. Take them outside and lay them down. We’ll come back to them.

I tend to get the wet and messy processes done before anything else. Don’t bother with the vacuum cleaner right now.

First up, a gentle steam clean of everything, including the interior glass. You should also give the headlining a good clean. Be careful not to get it too wet. In extreme cases, the headlining can actually peel away.

carpet brushing

Using a stiff brush, give the upholstery and carpets a good brushing to loosen any ingrained dirt or pet hair from the fabrics. (Believe me, pet hair is awkward to remove!) Now you can do no more with the steamer and brushes. It’s time to get the vacuum cleaner in there.


You should use a variety of treatments to emphasize the clean after fully cleaned. This includes glass polish, plastic polish (be aware that some dash or plastic polishes leave a glossy finish, and many of the modern autos have a matte plastic finish) and leather treatment (where applicable).

PRO TIP: You can get a leather treatment that polishes and buffs up (of course, slippery seats may not be a great thing.) You can also ‘feed’ the leather with a nutrient. It lasts much longer and helps to condition the leather.

Final exterior detailing

The final part of the jigsaw is waxing, polishing and buffing.

This is where there is some discrepancy between detailers. Some say that you should only work in a small area of the body (the same as for using the clay bar), whilst others will say work with the vehicle. Personally, I try to work with single areas and panels. The hood gets treated as one panel, for example.

If your car has been kept cool, you can probably get away with coating the whole vehicle with wax – the trick is not to let the wax dry completely to powder.

I begin with a damp microfiber towel to apply the wax all over the section I’m working on – hood, rear quarters, trunk and fenders. Next, you can start buffing by allowing the car buffers and buffing pads that rotate at a slow speed (so as not to throw the wax off or ‘burnish’ it.) Gently glide it over the paintwork.

Give the exterior glass a quick wipe down with something like Windex and apart from dressing the tires, you’re done!

The final detail

Your car should look pretty much like a new vehicle now. Of course, there are further steps you can take if you really want to go to town with it. Quality wheel waxes can be applied to the alloy wheels for that extra bit of shine. It also helps to protect them from brake dust being baked on.

There are also headlight restoration kits to polish the plastic lenses and back to black treatments for faded and tired exterior plastics.

While we’ve given you a rough guide as to how I detail cars, the choice of how far you go is up to you. You can decide if you want to clean the tire tread, under the hood, and the underside of the car. What we’ve tried to do is give you the basics of what’s involved and a good starting point for those wishing to save a few bucks and detail their own car.

If you find the guide useful, why not send me some before and after pics? I’d love to see them. Equally, if you have any ‘pro tips’ for detailing, let me know!

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