• Share:
Car Cleaning Tips and Tricks

Professionally clean and detail your car for a fraction of what the pros charge. With the right products and a little elbow grease, you can make your car look and smell like it just came from the factory.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine


Detailing your own vehicle saves a lot of money (about $175) and can even produce better results than a professional job. But let’s not kid each other. You can’t get pro results with just a bucket of suds, old rags and a bottle of wax. And you can’t whip out a pro-level job in just a few hours—it’s a full-day commitment. I’ll share tips from the pros and steer you away from common mistakes. When you’re done, you’ll have a vehicle that sparkles inside and out—and you’ll be the envy of the neighborhood.

Wash first—with the right suds

Even though hand dishwashing liquid is a great degreaser, it’s not the thing to use on your vehicle’s finish. Yes, it removes dirt, grease and old wax. But it also sucks important oils right out of the paint’s finish. Use it repeatedly and you shorten the life of your paint job. Instead of dish soap, use a cleaner formulated for vehicles (available at any auto parts store).

Once you’ve mixed the suds, go one step further—fill a second bucket with clean rinse water. Use it to rinse the wash mitt often (Photo 1). That’ll remove most of the road grit from the mitt to prevent scratches. When you’re finished, throw the mitt in the washing machine to get it completely clean.

Pluck the finish

A car hurtling down the road at 60 mph becomes a dartboard for any crud in the air. Your vehicle’s clear coat deflects some of it but can hold the sharper grit. Washing removes the surface dirt, but clay-barring is the only way to pluck out the embedded stuff. A clay bar kit (one brand is Meguiars G1016; available through our affiliation with amazon.com) includes a lubricating spray and several pieces of synthetic clay. It’s time consuming, but trust me, pulling out all those “darts” helps you get a glass-like finish when you’re done.

Buy a clay bar kit and prepare the clay (Photo 2). Then spray on the detailing spray lubricant from the kit and wipe the clay over a small section at a time (Photo 3).

Polish the finish

Many car owners confuse polishing with waxing. But they’re separate steps. Polishing removes small surface imperfections and scratches and buffs the finish to a shine. Waxing adds more gloss and protects the finish from the elements. Most DIYers skip polishing because they don’t want to invest the money for a polisher or the elbow grease for a hand polish. But polishing your vehicle’s finish is the key to getting the best gloss (pros would never skip it).

You can buy an entry-level variable-speed dual action (DA) polishing kit (machine and pads) for about $150 at an auto parts store. Don’t confuse these polishers with inexpensive high-speed rotary buffers, which will burn paint if you apply too much pressure or rest on one spot too long. DA polishers are easy to use and paint-friendly and do a great job. Apply a dollop of polish to the pad and wipe the pad across a 2 x 2-ft. area. Then run the polisher (Photo 4). Wipe off the final haze with a microfiber cloth.

Get a mirror finish with synthetic wax

I know some of you swear by carnauba wax. It produces a deep, warm shine. But I prefer the wet-gloss look of the newer synthetic polymer waxes (also known as paint sealant). I tried one of the newest synthetic waxes for this story (Meguiars Ultimate No. G18216; available through our affiliation with amazon.com). It’s pricier than other synthetics, but it doesn’t leave a white film on plastic or trim—which is a real advantage. Plus, it’s really easy to apply (Photo 5).

Move to the interior

Most DIYers start cleaning the interior by shampooing the carpet. That’s a mistake—you’ll just get it dirty again as you clean the upper surfaces. Instead, start at the top and work your way down. Vacuum the headliner, dash, console and door panels. Then clean all the glass, and dust the nooks and crannies (Photo 6).

Once the dust is gone, clean all the plastic components (dash, console and door panels) with an automotive vinyl cleaner (household cleaners remove vinyl softening agents, causing premature cracking). Then apply a vinyl protectant to condition the vinyl and protect against UV sun damage. Use a glossy spray if you prefer a wet look, but don’t use it on the top portion of the dash (Photo 7).

Finish off the interior by vacuuming and shampooing the upholstery and carpet. But first, raise the nap (Photo 8). Then use spray shampoo and a brush, or rent an extractor machine. Whichever method you choose, don’t overdo the soap. Soap residue actually attracts more dirt in the long run.

Destink the interior

The two most common car smells are tobacco smoke and that gym socks “aroma” coming from your A/C ducts. We’ve got the fixes for both offenders.

To neutralize smoke, buy an aerosol can of Dakota Non-Smoke (dakotaproducts.com). Holding the can 12 to 14 in. away from fabrics, lightly spray the headliner (don’t soak it), seats, door panels and carpet. Then spray the rest of the can into the heating system (Photo 9). Leave the windows closed for at least one hour. Your vehicle will smell like baby powder for a while, but that’ll go away.

To kill off mold and mildew in your A/C system, buy a can of Kool-It Evaporator & Heater Foam Cleaner  (available through our affiliation with amazon.com). Find the rubber drain tube from the evaporator coil (usually located under the dash) and remove it from the evaporator housing. Following the product directions, shoot the entire can into the evaporator housing (Photo 10). The foam expands to coat the evaporator coil, killing the stinky culprits. After 15 minutes, turn the blower fan to low and let it run for five minutes. Bye-bye, locker room smell.

Leather care

This may sound extreme, but if you’ve got leather upholstery, buy a leather-cleaning kit and keep it in the vehicle (one brand is Leather Master Maxi Kit with Ink Lifter, No. LMCK250IL, from leatherworldtech.com). Because, if you clean the oops right away, you really increase your chances of a complete cleanup. If you wait, lipstick, ink and dye transfers from clothing (and plastic shopping bags) can set permanently in as little as 24 hours.

Pretreat the leather with a conditioner before you start the stain removal process. Then remove the stain.

Back to Top

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

    • Bucket
    • Rags
    • Shop vacuum

You'll also need a washing mitt, a dual action polishing kit, microfiber towel, stiff brush, and a detailing brush.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

    • Car wash soap
    • Clay bar kit
    • Car polish
    • Synthetic wax
    • Spray smoke neutralizer
    • Mold-killing foam
    • Leather cleaner

Comments from DIY Community Members

No comments on the article have been posted yet. Be the first to add your comment!

You will be required to log in or create an account to post a comment.


Add Your Comment

Car Cleaning Tips and Tricks

Please add your comment

Log in to My Account

Log in to enjoy membership benefits from The Family Handyman.

  • Forgot your password?
Don’t have an account yet?

Sign up today for FREE and become part of The Family Handyman community of DIYers.

Member benefits:

  • Get a FREE Traditional Bookcase Project Plan
  • Sign up for FREE DIY newsletters
  • Save projects to your project binder
  • Ask and answer questions in our DIY Forums
  • Share comments on DIY Projects and more!
Join Us Today

Report Abuse

Reasons for reporting post

Free OnSite Newsletter

Get timely DIY projects for your home and yard, plus a dream project for your wish list!

Follow Us