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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

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.


Detailing your own vehicle saves a lot of money 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. We'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 Meguiar's Smooth Surface Clay Kit ; available through our affiliation with amazon.com) includes a lubricating spray and several pieces of synthetic clay. It's time consuming, but 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).

All About Polishers, Pads and Compounds

You can't polish a car with a $25 wax applicator/buffer, so don't waste your money on one. And avoid professional high-speed rotary polishers. In unskilled hands, those babies can burn the paint off your car in three seconds flat. Instead, buy a dual action (DA) polisher with changeable foam polishing pads. (Two choices are the PORTER-CABLE 7424XP 6-Inch Variable-Speed Polisher, and Meguiar's Professional Dual Action Polisher, both available through our affiliation with Amazon.com). Or, if you want to try your hand at polishing smaller areas but don't want to spend big bucks, try a drill-mounted DA unit (such as Meguiar's G3500, also from Amazon).

When it comes to foam pads, each manufacturer has its own color code to denote foam density and pore size. So check the seller's application chart to get the right pad for each type of job. To remove oxidized lacquer or enamel paint from older vehicles, use a “cutting pad” made from stiffer foam with larger pores. To remove fine scratches and polish the clear coat on newer cars, use a medium-density foam pad with smaller pores. Then use a soft foam pad with fine pores to apply wax and paint sealant.

Rubbing and polishing compounds are two very different products, and DIYers often confuse the two. Rubbing compound removes heavy oxidation and deep scratches. Think of it as coarse sandpaper. Because this compound is designed to remove more material, never apply it with a polisher. Apply it only by hand with just enough pressure to remove the scratch.

If you have an old container of rubbing compound lying around your garage, toss it. Those older compounds aren't compatible with the clear coats used on late-model vehicles. If you need to remove a scratch from the clear coat, find a rubbing compound that's clear-coat-safe and contains a “diminishing abrasive.” It'll have smaller particles to remove scratches without adding more.

Polishing compound, on the other hand, is like fine-grit sandpaper you'd use to get the smoothest finish on wood. Use it with your DA polisher to remove light scratches and swirls and to bring the finish to a uniform gloss.

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).

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

Some people swear by carnauba wax. It produces a deep, warm shine. But we prefer the wet-gloss look of the newer synthetic polymer waxes (also known as paint sealant) such as Meguiar's Ultimate Liquid Wax; 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 Leather Care Kit with Ink Lifter, available through our affiliation with Amazon.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.

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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, a sponge, a 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

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