A Complete Beginners Guide To Car Detailing: Step by Step

Remember that brand new look, bright shine, and glow that your car had 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 it happens 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 as well as the exterior of your car to restore its good looks and make it show-room worthy.

Unlike the typical car wash that involves getting dirt on your car’s exterior, auto detailing involves paying attention to the tiniest details, whether it’s 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: the application of 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 your car 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 the interior and exterior car detailing. As you can easily guess, the former implies cleaning to detail the interior of your vehicle while the latter refers to cleaning the outside of your car.

Benefits of Car Detailing

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

In the next section, we lay out the steps that 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)
  • 2 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 the road dirt and grime as well as 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 on 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 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 that you intend to use to clean your car’s paintwork. If you must use the same bucket, make sure you thoroughly clean it before washing your car surface.

Having cleaned your tires and wheels, you can go ahead and 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 tend to ignore this particular step and jump straight to washing their cars. Unknown to them, however, a pre-wash is essential if you want to get the most amazing results at the end of your car detailing job.

It simply helps get rid of 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 to do washing from the bottom up. We also recommend you to 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 name two-bucket cleaning method). You simply 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 bucket containing the cleaning solution and wring it out over your car surface. This works as a pre-soak that further loosens any gunk on the car 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 dirt that has loosened
  • 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 you’re done 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. Btw, you’ll use a number of them to properly dry your car!

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 watermarks form. 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 degradation of after-market tinting on your windows.

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

Once your car totally 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 once every year. If you have used a clay bar on your car recently, you can skip this step.

If you haven’t used 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 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 fit overs your hand (just like the washing mitt), it feels easier to use than clay bar. The mitts are also larger than claybars 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 at a time. 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 feel some resistance at first, 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, it means 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 out, polishing will become easier and will take less time.

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

If you go for machine polishing, however, be sure you know how to use it. If it’s your first time use it, we suggest that you first 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 end up burning your car paintwork, forcing you to a full panel respray…or even an entire car respray.

Step 7: Wax it

The final step in the exterior car detailing process involves waxing or sealing to help protect it from elements. If you ignore this step, you risk your vehicle attracting dirt straight afterward, 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 for long, meaning you’ll have to re-apply it more frequently, say every 2-3 months. Most of the 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 then 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 a thorough cleaning of 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.

The first thing you ought to do is 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 enable you to easily vacuum the carpet underneath.

As usual, we advise you to start from the top and work your way down. This will ensure any dust that might have accumulates at the top doesn’t fall down 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 on them and rub them using a damp sponge or clothe.
  • 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 lots of 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 left on it.
  • If you notice the mat still looks dirty, you should repeat the above cleaning process one more time
  • 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 a 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 as well as 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 that has 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. Using 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, then you can simply shampoo them using a wet-vac extraction machine. After the extraction is over, be sure to adequately dry the cloth.

For leather and vinyl seats, you’ll need to use leather or vinyl cleaner 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: For leather seats, you should also consider conditioning after cleaning them. This is crucial to help prevent the leather from drying out and cracking. Plus, the condition gives leather a more appealing look.

Step 5: Remember the glasses.

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

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

After cleaning the glasses, use a microfiber towel to wipe it 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 that 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 of the car detailing products tend to react poorly under such conditions, meaning they’ll not give your car brand new look and 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 can harbor the dirt particles that will then make swirl marks or scratches as you continue cleaning your vehicle. Just stick to 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 has the ability to 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 it won’t do a good cleaning job on your car 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 for the simple reason that 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 working on your car wheels and tires last. 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 complete 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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