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47 DIY Tips for Detailing Cars Like a Pro

Get your vehicle looking like new with these simple interior and exterior car detailing tips that you can do yourself.

Our editors and experts handpick every product we feature. We may earn a commission from your purchases.

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Best Way to Clean a Car: Destink the Interior

Destink the Interior

To neutralize tobacco smoke, buy an aerosol can of Dakota Non-Smoke. Holding the can 12 to 14 in. away from fabrics, lightly spray the headliner (don’t soak it), seats, door panels and carpet. Then 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. Leave the windows closed for at least one hour. Your vehicle will smell like baby powder for a while, but that’ll go away. You can also change your car’s air filter once this is done.

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Best Way to Clean a Car: Wash the Windows, Including the Top Edges

Wash the Windows, Including the Top Edges

Ever notice that line of grime on the tops of windows when they’re partially rolled down? Most people overlook this detail when giving their vehicle a quick wash. A few minutes with Windex and a clean rag is all it takes.

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Watch this video to see some of our favorite DIY car detailing tips in action:

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Best Way to Clean a Car: Clean the Leather

Clean the Leather

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). 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. 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.

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Lubricate Hood Hinges

Lubricate Hood Hinges

Wipe the hinge area with a clean rag and spray it with white lithium grease or a few drops of ordinary motor oil. Move the hinge several times to work the grease into the hinge. Be sure to get it into both sides of each hinge. Wipe away the excess to keep it from collecting debris.

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Plastic and Vinyl Colorant

Plastic and Vinyl Colorant

Spray on several light coats of colorant (Color Coat is shown), allowing 5 to 10 minutes between coats. Let the colorant dry for 24 hours before using.

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car washWathanyuSowong/Shutterstock

Rinse Before Washing

If you hit your dry paint with soapy water, you’ll just grind the surface dust and road grit into your paint finish. Professional detailers always start with a clear water rinse to remove as much dust and dirt as possible.

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Best Way to Clean a Car: Polish the Finish

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. Here, find out the difference between car polish and wax.

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. Run the polisher at a slow speed to spread the compound over the entire area for the best car cleaner. Then boost the speed and let the polisher do the work for you. Don’t forget to check out the best car vinyl cleaners.

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Best Way to Clean a Car: Brush Out the Air Vents

Brush Out the Air Vents

These louvers are a real magnet for dust, and a vacuum with a brush attachment just won’t get it all. Take an inexpensive artist’s paintbrush and give it a light shot of furniture polish. Work the brush into the crevices to collect the dust. Wipe the brush off with a rag and move on to the next one.

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Best Way to Clean a Car: Deep-Clean Carpet and Upholstery

Deep-Clean Carpet and Upholstery

Use a carpet cleaning machine to get the deep dirt that settles into the fibers of the carpet. (Clean cloth seats this way as well.) It sprays the carpet with a solution of water and cleaner and then sucks the dirt and grime into a reservoir. A machine like this pays for itself after just a few uses. You can also rent one from a rental center or use a spray-on cleaner and a scrub brush instead.

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Replace the Carpet in Your Vehicle

Replace the Carpet in Your Vehicle

You got a great deal on a “preowned” vehicle, but the carpeting in the car is simply a disaster. It’s too far gone for stain removers—new carpeting is the best solution. You can buy preformed carpet specifically for your car’s make, model and color and install carpet yourself. In most cases, it’ll only cost about $200 and take an afternoon to install.

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Apply Paint Sealant Yourself

Apply Paint Sealant Yourself

Paint sealant is a good idea, but you can easily apply it yourself and save the cost of a dealer or detailing specialist application.

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Fix Tears in Leather Seats

Fix Tears in Leather Seats

A leather/vinyl repair kit is inexpensive, and the repair takes only an hour. But don’t expect perfection. You’ll still see the tear, and you probably won’t get a perfect color match. However, this fix will contain the tear and look better than a gaping hole.

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Clean the Hood Latch

Clean the Hood Latch

Wipe the grime and dirt away with a clean cloth. Try to get any bits of sand that may be embedded in the existing grease. If you see rusted or stuck parts, give the latch a spray of WD-40, then move the mechanism several times. Wipe it again and give it a liberal coating of white lithium grease.
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Best Way to Clean a Car: Scrape Off Those Annoying StickersFamily Handyman

Best Way to Clean a Car: Scrape Off Those Annoying Stickers

All of your national and state park stickers may call to mind great memories, but they can be a visual hazard as they accumulate. The high-quality stickers will pull off if you can get under a corner and carefully pull them free at a 90-degree angle. Others will leave a gummy residue and require a bit more attention. Cover your dash with an old towel and dab on a degreaser like Goo Gone. Then scrape and wipe it off.
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Remove Minor Paint Scratches

Remove Minor Paint Scratches

Pick up 3,000-grit sandpaper, rubbing and polishing compound, and polishing pads. You'll also need a portable drill or dual action (DA) polisher unit. You can buy most of the components off-the-shelf at any auto parts store. Here's the procedure for the things you do to remove paint scratches.
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Use the Right Soap

Dishwashing liquid is the go-to choice for most DIYers. But it shouldn’t be. Dishwashing detergent is simply too harsh for auto detailing. It sucks important oils out of your car’s finish and can actually shorten the life of your paint. Wondering if you might be using the wrong cleaning products inside your home? Check out our list of the best household cleaning supplies and products.

Buy Meguiar’s Car Wash Soap now on Amazon.

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Best Way to Clean a Car: Get a Mirror Finish With Synthetic WaxFamily Handyman

Best Way to Clean a Car: 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. 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. 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 for one of our clever car tricks.
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Eliminate squeaky doors

Eliminate squeaky doors

If the door squeaks every time you open it, the hinges could be bound by corrosion. If so, squirt the hinges with WD-40 to free them, and move the door several times to work in the lubricant. Once the hinges are in working condition, just squirt them with white lithium grease or motor oil, operate the door several times and then wipe any excess away. Check the door latch for corrosion. Many door latches now have a nonmetallic composite mechanism, which should be lubricated with a shot of silicone spray.
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Remember to Clean Nooks and CranniesFamily Handyman

Remember to Clean Nooks and Crannies

Detailing means just that—finding and dealing with all the trim lines and recesses that a quick once-over cleaning job misses. Wrap a cloth around an old, worn screwdriver (without sharp edges) and spray Simple Green or other all-purpose cleaner on the cloth. Move it gently along the trim lines to pick up the gunk. Keep refreshing the surface of the cloth. Go around all the buttons and controls as well. Follow up with a rejuvenator like Armor All. Grab one of the 10 best car cleaning kits to help get you started.
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Forget the Sponge, Use a Microfiber Mitt

Sponges capture and hold dirt and grit in their large pores. You can wring it out, but the grit will stay put when car cleaning. Once grit is embedded, you may as well wash your car with sandpaper. Detailers use a microfiber car wash mitt because the grit falls out when you rinse, it’ll make a do it yourself car wash that much better.

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Wash Carpet and Velour

Wash Carpet and Velour

Spray Plastic & Leather Prep on the carpet or velour and scrub lightly with a nylon bristle brush. Let dry and vacuum.
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Refinish Wheels

Refinish Wheels

Sometimes a middle-aged car can still look fine except for wear and tear on the wheels and wheel covers. Fortunately, you can fix this yourself for little cash. Removing the rust and painting your wheels take a full day. (Don't panic—mostly you're waiting for paint to dry.) Then the wheels must dry for 24 more hours after painting before you remount them. Here’s how to do the job.
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Best Way to Clean a Car: Slide Seats Forward and Clean Out the JunkFamily Handyman

Best Way to Clean a Car: Slide Seats Forward and Clean Out the Junk

You'll be surprised by what you find behind the seats. We found a lost cell phone, enough pens and pencils to equip a small office, and enough change for several vending machine lunches. Vacuum the seats, remove the mats and vacuum the carpet. Use a brush attachment for the dash and door panels. Don't forget to clean out and vacuum those handy door pockets (another source of buried treasure). Learn how to get the best vacuum for the job.
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brush vacuum

Brush and Vacuum Your Carpet

Automotive carpet doesn’t like to let go of dirt when you’re car cleaning. If you just vacuum it, you’ll leave plenty behind. To remove more dirt, detailers use a stiff brush and scrub the carpet as they vacuum. You’ll see the dirt particles bounce to the surface so you can suck them up with your shop vacuum as part of your auto detailing.

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Carpet and Velour Colorant

Carpet and Velour Colorant

Apply colorant to the carpet or velour and immediately brush in all directions with a nylon bristle brush to keep the fibers separated. Let dry. Then brush again and vacuum.
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steering wheelperfectlab/Shutterstock

Start at the Top

DIYers usually start by vacuuming the carpet when car cleaning. That just pushes dirt from the dash, seats and door panels back onto your freshly cleaned carpet. Professional detailers start at the top and work their way down to the carpet when detailing cars.

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Best Way to Clean a Car: Suck Up the Dust As You GoFamily Handyman

Best Way to Clean a Car: Suck Up the Dust As You Go

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, try our car tricks and 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. Sweep the dust out of the cracks with a detailing brush. Catch all that crud right away with your vacuum. Learn more about how to clean and restore your car's interior.
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Add lumbar support

Add lumbar support

If you want lumbar support, slide this unit under the seat back cover before strapping it in place. Route the pump and tube out to the side. Once the seat covers are fully installed, adjust the firmness with the pump.
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Apply a protective film

Apply a protective film

The low-slung hoods and aerodynamic side mirrors on new cars are extremely vulnerable to paint chips from flying road debris. To protect the paint, dealers apply a thin, clear, rubbery paint film over those surfaces. The film really reduces paint chip damage, but dealers charge about $400 for it. You can buy the film online and install it yourself in a few hours for about $120 (or less, depending on the size of the vehicle). It's not complicated, but it does take practice. So purchase an extra set of film for your mirrors and try it with them first. Once you get the hang of wetting, stretching and squeegeeing the film around your mirror, you’ll find the hood much easier.
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Repair Small Paint ChipsFamily Handyman

Repair Small Paint Chips

Remember that gravel truck traveling at 70 mph that suddenly switched lanes in front of you and bounced a few marble-size rocks off your hood? Now you've got several tiny chips in your paint finish that could grow to quarter-size rust spots in a few years. Take care of the problem right away for less than $10, and you'll save yourself big money later on, not to mention the embarrassment of driving a premature clunker. The fix we show here is for fresh chips that haven't started to rust yet. If you see a rust spot, or have a dent along with your chip, you'll need to do a more challenging fix than we show here. Keep in mind that this repair will be visible under close scrutiny, but if you buy the right touch-up color, it'll be unnoticeable from a few feet away.
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Best Way to Clean a Car: Pluck the FinishFamily Handyman

Best Way to Clean a Car: 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. Buy a clay bar kit (one brand is Meguiar's Smooth Surface Clay Kit), which includes a lubricating spray and several pieces of synthetic clay. Prepare the clay by tearing a piece into four sections. Flatten one section into a small pancake in the palm of your hand and rub it 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 use a fresh piece until you remove the "darts" and get a glass-like finish. Learn some more car tricks with these tips on dents, you can fix them yourself.
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Add Graphite to Door Locks

Add Graphite to Door Locks

We don't think much about our door locks until the key breaks off in the cylinder. Keep these delicate mechanisms moving freely with a blast of dry graphite powder. You may need to push the dust protector flap back slightly with a small metal nail file to get at the lock. A quick pump of the tube will dispense enough graphite. Move the lock cylinder with your key several times to work the graphite into the mechanism. Do this to your trunk lock as well. Buy dry graphite powder now on Amazon.
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dry carNok Lek/Shutterstock

Forget the Chamois, Dry With a Microfiber Towel

Chamois soak up water, but they don’t pick up any grit that’s left after rinsing. Instead, they just grind those particles into your paint. A microfiber towel, on the other hand, collects the particles. Rinse the towel in clean water to remove the grit. Then wring and keep drying during your DIY car wash. Here’s why microfiber cleaning cloths work so well.

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Wash Plastic and Vinyl

Wash Plastic and Vinyl

Apply SEM Soap to vinyl and plastic surfaces and scrub with a scuff pad. Put extra effort into textured and recessed areas. Wipe the surface with a clean, damp, lint-free cloth and let dry.
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Best Way to Wash a Car: Wash With the Right SudsFamily Handyman

Best Way to Wash a Car: Wash 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 for a do-it-yourself car wash, here's one of our best car tricks: 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. That'll remove most of the road grit from the mitt to prevent scratches. Then throw the mitt in the washing machine to get it completely clean. When you're finished, take a few more steps to protect your car's finish.
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Lubricate Trunk Hinges

Lubricate Trunk Hinges

Lubricate the trunk hinges using the same method you used for the hood hinge. Don't lubricate the gas struts that slow the trunk movement (you could ruin them).
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Lubricate Window Tracks

Lubricate Window Tracks

Spray window tracks with silicone spray or dry Teflon for a car detailing tip that makes a big difference. Silicone stays slick even in cold weather, so windows slide smoothly, lessening the wear on your window motors.
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Buy a Dual-Action Polisher

Detailers wouldn’t be caught dead without a dual-action polisher. Don’t confuse this incredible tool with a high-speed buffer! Buffers run at much higher speeds and can burn the paint right off your car if you stay in one place too long or press too hard when auto detailing. Polishers are different. They run at lower speeds and oscillate as they rotate. Any DIYer can get the hang of polishing in just a few minutes. Polishing before waxing makes a huge difference, so your investment really pays off.

One more polishing tip from professional detailers—apply the polish to the machine’s pad. Then wipe the pad across your paint. That’ll prevent all the polish from flinging off the pad as soon as you hit the trigger. Learn how to repair chipped paint yourself.

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Lubricate Door Weatherstripping

Lubricate Door Weatherstripping

Spray silicone on all weather stripping. Silicone will keep ice from bonding the rubber to the metal doors. That’ll make doors open smoother and may even prevent tears in the weather stripping. It's one of the secret car detailing tips.
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Add a Bun Warmer

Add a Bun Warmer

If your vehicle didn't come with seat heaters, now's the time to add them. Add-on electric seat heaters fit between your existing seat cushions and the new seat covers and secure with elastic bands and straps. The seat heater control connects to a cigarette lighter or power outlet. The model we show here has an adjustable heat setting and automatic shutoff to prevent battery drain (in case you forget to turn it off).
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Replace Wiper Blades

Replace Wiper Blades

It's easy to tell when your blades need replacing. Simply press the washer button and see if your blades wipe clean. If they streak, they're toast. The auto parts store will have lots of economy blades, but go with a name brand instead (ANCO, Trico or Bosch) for your car detailing project. They cost more than economy blades, but their higher-quality rubber wipes better, has better UV protection and lasts longer.
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Use a Non-Silicone Matte Finish Dash and Vinyl Protectant

Silicone dashboard protectant sprays leave a slick film on your dash that actually attracts more dust, so you’ll have to clean it more often. Plus, a shiny dash reflects into your windshield. That reflection and glare can reduce your vision, especially at night. That’s why professional detailers use non-silicone matte finish protectants when detailing cars. They still look great and they reduce glare. Here are 11 essential tips for keeping your car clean.

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WD 40 Uses on Cars: Lubricate the Gas Tank LidFamily Handyman

WD 40 Uses on Cars: Lubricate the Gas Tank Lid

The gas tank lid really takes abuse, especially in salty environments. Give it a squirt of WD-40 a few times a year to keep it from rusting. Wipe away any excess to keep it from dripping onto your car's finish to prevent further car detailing work.
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waxNor Gal/Shutterstock

Use Synthetic Wax

Old style paste waxes look great on antique cars. But they don’t produce the same “wet look” as modern synthetic wax, and they don’t last as long when detailing cars. When car dealers sell paint sealant, they’re really just applying a high-quality synthetic wax, which is something you can do yourself for a fraction of the price. Apply synthetic wax in small sections using a wax applicator sponge. Check out this unusual way to use car wax in the kitchen.

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Replace seat covers

Replace seat covers

Whether you fill your vehicle with construction materials, haul kids and grandkids around or just spill lots of coffee, you know how easy it is for factory seat covers to get grungy. If they’re beyond rescuing with an upholstery cleaner and you want to spruce up your vehicle’s interior, you have only three car detailing options: Pay a professional automotive upholsterer to reupholster your seats (well over $1,000), buy used seats from a junkyard, or buy and install seat covers yourself. Aftermarket seat covers cost as little as $50 per seat for a universal-fit style or about $150 per seat for top-of-the- line custom-fit covers. The installation is similar across makes and models. The job takes about two hours for front and rear seats. The only tools you’ll need are a wire coat hanger and some tape to fish the straps under plastic trim pieces (if equipped). Everything else is included with the seat covers. Here are some tips for cleaning your car seats like a pro.
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dust glass PATIWIT HONGSANG/Shutterstock

Finish With the Glass

If you cleaned the inside of your windows before you cleaned the dash and applied vinyl protectant, you’ll just have to clean them again. That’s why detailers save glass cleaning until the very end. Cleaning the windows at this point removes all cleaning and vinyl treatment overspray and leaves you with sparkling clean windows. When it’s time to clean the windows on your house, don’t forget these 10 window cleaning tips from a pro.