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
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Photo 1: Rinse before you reload
Swish the wash mitt in clean water before you reload
it with fresh suds. Dump and refill the rinse bucket
with clean water before you start washing the opposite
side of the vehicle.
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
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
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Photo 2: Make a clay pancake
Tear a piece of clay into four sections.
Flatten one section into a small pancake
in the palm of your hand and store the
rest in a clean place until you need them.
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Photo 3: Wipe and knead
Rub the clay over the paint with a back-and-forth
motion. Fold the clay against itself,
knead it and reflatten until the clay turns
gray. Then toss it and get a fresh piece.
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
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
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Photo 4: Polish with a light touch
Run the polisher at a slow speed to spread
the compound over the entire area. Then
boost the speed and let the polisher do
the work for you. Quit when there’s just a
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
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Photo 5: Apply synthetic wax
Apply the wax to the foam applicator
and rub it into the finish with a swirling
motion. Then wipe off the haze with a
microfiber towel. Swap in a clean towel
as soon as the first one loads up.
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
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Photo 6: Suck it up while you dust
Sweep the dust out of the cracks with a
detailing brush. Catch all that crud right
away with your vacuum.
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Photo 7: Protect without reflection
Prevent glaring dashboard reflections in your
windshield by using a matte-finish vinyl protectant.
See the difference in this photo.
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Photo 8: Brush and vacuum
Use a stiff brush to "raise" the matted carpet
and upholstery fibers. That will loosen
trapped dirt so you can vacuum it away.
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
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Photo 9: Spray smoke neutralizer
Turn the fan to high and switch the system to
recirculate mode ("max. A/C" if you don't have
that option). Find the intake opening by holding a
tissue near the blower motor. Then spray the mist
into the opening.
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Photo 10: Inject mold-killing foam
Thread the plastic hose into your A/C evaporator
case. Then shake the can and depress the valve
until the can is empty. Replace the drain hose and
any other parts you removed.
The two most common
car smells are tobacco
smoke and that gym socks
from your A/C ducts.
We’ve got the fixes for
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.
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Photo 11: Apply ink remover right away
Wipe the ink lifter directly on the pretreated
leather and rub it in. Let it sit for
30 seconds, and wipe it with a clean
cloth. Then apply leather cleaner and
the leather protection cream.
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