Washing & Detailing Your Vehicle
Carwash Chains - Many of the carwash chains offer interior detailing services in addition to their washing activities. Just remember you get what you pay for: a $5 or $10 detailing is little more than a quick vacuum and $.50 worth of Armor-all. I do occasionally use some of the better national carwash chains, especially during the winter months, and strongly suggest buying their top-of-the-line exterior wash & wax (usually $10 - $12). But pass on their inexpensive interior jobs. The quality of the work depends entirely on the time the individual has to complete the job, and most chains won't allow their employees the time needed to do it well. A modern genuine "touchless" wash won't usually harm your vehicle, but keep away from the battering bristles found at the older and cheaper outlets as they will damage your paint. If you can afford a professional detailing ($100 - $200), go for it. Most body shops will be happy to schedule an appointment. Independent detailers usually do good work, but most of the best ones work exclusively for car dealers & wholesalers.
The rest of this article concerns washing your vehicle at home by yourself.
First Step - Cleaning Your Interior
Providing you have the spare time (4 to 8 hours), a lot of patience, and the right supplies, detailing your vehicle's interior can be a rewarding experience. For what it costs for a single visit to a professional detailer ($100 - $150) you can easily pay for most of the equipment and supplies you'll need. If your vehicle is especially dirty inside, or has never been detailed before, give yourself even more time.
Hardware You'll Need - You'll need a wet & dry vacuum cleaner with an extra long hose and a small-crevice tool attachment; lots of clean rags (some thin shop rags, some cotton pillow cases, and some thicker terry washcloths); two different-sized cleaning brushes (large one for your carpets; small one for your seats and upholstery); a small natural-bristle pastry brush or detailing brush (about 3/4" diameter); a small plastic knife (available free at any fast food outlet); a couple of old toothbrushes; and a couple of new empty spray bottles (used to mix solutions).
Where To Buy Your Cleaning Products - I strongly recommend that you not buy the cheapest chemicals and cleaning products you can find. I buy my detailing supplies by the gallon at a local car-dealer supply store. Look in the phone book and call ahead, as a few of them don't sell to retail customers. Most commonly-used supplies are available there in bulk at a cost of $10-$20 per gallon. If you go to a retailer like Pep Boys, stick with brand-name products such as those available from Castle, Meguires, Eagle One, Lexol, or Mother's.
Products You'll Need - You'll need a good all-purpose non-silicone vinyl and upholstery shampoo; dry-cleaning fluid or spot cleaner; a silicone-base interior protectant (preferably non-glossy); a leather dressing preparation (if you have a leather interior); and a good automotive glass cleaner. (Avoid ammonia-based tinted household glass cleaners as they can dry out plastic, rubber, & vinyl surfaces - I prefer hot water mixed with a small amount (20 to 1 ratio) of car-wash liquid.)
Door Jambs - Now is the time to clean your door jambs and sill plates (the area between the exterior of the car and the interior of the car). Use the same (non-detergent) car-washing solution that you would normally wash your car with. Opening the door wide, take a clean rag soaked in the solution and thoroughly clean around the door opening. Do the same for the edges of the doors, cleaning all of the areas you can't see when the door is closed. When done take a dry rag and wipe the inner door and door sills dry. Once the door jambs are clean and dry you can apply a wax to them, just as if you were waxing the exterior of your vehicle. Remember to keep the wax away from rubber seals and trim pieces, as it's almost impossible to remove once it dries. Finally, take a pointed object like a small screwdriver or knitting needle and open the drain holes on the bottom of each car door. There are usually a few holes along the bottom of each door that let the rainwater out (water leaks down the outside of the windows into the doors). When these holes become plugged, they trap water inside the door, causing the doors to rust out from the inside.
Vacuuming - First remove all of your possessions and trash from the vehicle. I suggest putting the non trash items in a large box for safekeeping. Don't forget your side pockets, ashtrays, and storage compartments. Remove your floor mats and start vacuuming everything: seats and seat crevices first, then the floor. Make sure to get underneath the seats, in between seats and center console, and inside ashtrays and side pockets. If you can remove the seats (minivans & SUVs) or seat cushions it will make the job much easier. You'll be suprised how much junk accumulates underneath the back seat, especially if you have children.
Floor Mats - To clean your floor mats, place them in a wash tub, soak them with your carpet-cleaning solution, then thoroughly scrub them with a stiff brush. Rinse them off with water until the runoff is clear, then vacuum them with your wet & dry vac. Dry them in the sun if possible.
Shampooing - After your vacuuming is complete, you can decide the best way to clean your seats and carpets. Lightly-used carpeting and upholstery can be easily cleaned using an interior shampoo and a soft scrubbing brush. The same holds true for seat belts and shoulder harnesses. For vinyl seats, try a warm, damp rag first. If they still look dirty try some mild scrubbing with a rag soaked in shampoo. Leather seats should be cleaned and conditioned regularly, every two to three months, with a specialized leather-cleaner and dressing (most pros use Lexol). Use dry-cleaning fluids and spot-removers sparingly: some fluids can slightly discolor your upholstery, so always test them on a small spot first. Important: Use separate brushes for cleaning upholstery and carpets, because carpets are so much dirtier.
Salt Stains - If you have gone through a winter in the salt belt, you'll find salt embedded in your carpeting. First use a stiff bristle or wire brush to break up the deposits, then vaccum again. If deposits remain, wetting them with water followed by substantial brush-scrubbing usually removes them.
Grease - Grease and dirt stains must be removed by applying a strong detergent, scrubbing, and then vacuuming with your wet & dry vac.
Odors - The smells associated with mildew, children, and pet accidents can usually be masked by a thorough shampooing followed by an odor-eliminating spray. Beware: some stains and odors will not go away no matter what you do, in particular baby smells, barnyard odors, cigarette and cigar odors, and my favorite - "essence of dog." Dog hair, like dog odor, can be very difficult to remove. After a thorough vacuuming I go over affected areas with the adhesive side of very wide (2") masking tape wrapped around my hand. This removes most of the offending hair; with persistence and new pieces of tape, you should be able to get it all.
Carpeting - Professional detailers commonly paint discolored carpeting with color-matched carpet dye (available at your detailing supplier). Horrible smells caused by water damage or large holes caused by cigarette burns or wear indicate that the carpeting will need to be replaced - a fairly involved process that you might be able to do yourself if you have mechanic's tools (the seat belts and seats must be removed along with the carpeting).
Door Panels - Next come the door panels. Take a clean rag moistened with your car-washing solution and thoroughly clean all the interior surfaces of the door panel. Pay special attention to crevices where dirt and dust accumulate. Clean the dust and grime on and around switch assemblies using a damp (not wet) toothbrush and a cloth-wrapped plastic knife (constantly move the cloth around the edge of the knife to avoid scratches as the knife cuts the cloth). Make sure not to drip any liquids into switch assemblies, as the moisture could cause the switches to fail or short circuit.
Windows - Cleaning the interior glass surfaces comes next. Do not use household glass cleaners as the ammonia tends to dry out rubber and vinyl surfaces. I suggest a clean rag dampened with a solution of hot water and a small amount of car-wash solution (20 to 1). Dry the windows with some old clean pillowcases (they leave very little lint behind). Castle makes a nice foam glass cleaner which also yields good results (just be careful not to get any foam on the dash because of the drying effect).
Dashboard & Steering Column - First clean off the dirt and dust from the top of the dash using a damp cloth. Carefully use a the pastry brush or detailing brush (dry) to get dust out of crevices such as AC vents and panel joints. Switches can be cleaned using your toothbrush and cloth-wrapped plastic knife combination. Remember to keep the toothbrush and rags damp, not dripping. The same procedure can be used for your steering column and control stalks. If your vehicle has a center console, now is the time to clean that as well. Annoying scratches in clear plastic dash lenses (instrument cluster, radio faces) can be removed (actually masked) by using clear plastic polishes or baby oil. Finish the dash and non-upholstered, non-glass interior surfaces with a silicone-free UV-blocking interior dressing in order to prevent cracking and fading. Although Armor-all is probably the most popular interior protectant sold today, it is silicone-based and shiny, which can cause sun and headlight glare problems when used on top of the dash. In addition it leaves a slimy film on everything it touches (including your hands & clothes), and overspray is difficult to remove from window glass. Look for a matte finish, non-silicone, UV-blocking vinyl dressing instead.
2nd Step - Cleaning Your Exterior
Washing Your Exterior - Aside from normal car-washing supplies (hose, buckets, lots of 100% cotton cloths, sheepskin carwash mitts, and a chamois), make sure you start with a non-detergent professional car washing solution. Do not use household dishwashing detergents, as they strip off any remaining wax, which causes premature paint failure and oxidation. Do not use any polyester blend towels, diapers, sponges, or mitts, as their fibers are abrasive and can easily scratch your finish. Stick with 100% cotton products 100% of the time.
I strongly recommend that you not buy the cheapest chemicals and cleaning products you can find. As I mentioned above, I buy my detailing supplies by the gallon at a local car dealer supply store. You'll need wheel cleaner (most modern alloys are covered with a clear coat, so make sure to get the right kind for your vehicle) and a tar remover as well.
Avoid Direct Sunlight - Never wash your vehicle in direct sunlight, or after it has been sitting directly in the sun. The hot metal & paint surface promotes accelerated evaporation which will leave chemical deposits (water spots) on the surface. Sunlight also reflects through water droplets in much the same way that it passes through a magnifying glass. This can cause more spots to be burned into the clearcoat (the clear exposed top layer of your paint surface). Wash your car on a cloudy day, under the shade of a tree, or inside your well-lit garage, providing it has adequate drainage.
Drain Holes - If you haven't opened up the body drain holes (rubber eyelets located underneath each fender, quarter panel, and door), do so now. They let the rainwater and melting snow that leaks down the outside of the windows into the doors and fenders exit the body. If plugged, they trap water inside the body, causing your vehicle to rust out from the inside.
Cleaning Your Wheels - Use a pressure nozzle to hose out as much dirt as possible from the insides of your wheel-wells. Now is the time to wash your wheels (using a separate rag reserved for the wheels) with your car-wash solution. After rinsing, you'll quickly discover that an application of a specialized brake-dust remover (wheel cleaner) is needed. Warning - do not apply wheel cleaner to hot wheels, the chemical reaction can permanently stain them. Read the label carefully as different products need to be applied in different ways (and usually more than once). I use a brush reserved for wheel-cleaning to remove stubborn stains, and a toothbrush to get at the smaller holes the big brush can't reach. Be careful not to get the wheel cleaner on any of the car's paint: most cleaners contain acid that can quickly eat through a car's finish. Older cars may have permanent brake-dust stains or oxidation caused by road salt that cannot be removed. Some wheels can be stripped and re-painted ($50-$100 per wheel), others must be replaced ($100 - $700 per wheel). Brush-scrub any remaining dirt and debris from your wheel wells that didn't come off when you pressure-sprayed them. Your tires should probably be clean by now, but give them a quick once-over just in case. Some detailers apply a shiny tire dressing to the tires at this point; I prefer a matte finish product (just like my interiors) or none at all. When you're satisfied your wheels are clean, it's time to start washing the rest of the vehicle. It is important to make sure that rags, brushes, buckets, and dirty carwash solution used for cleaning the wheels and tires are not used on the rest of the vehicle.
Water - Be sure to use lots of water. Your goal is to clean the finish without destroying it. Today's 3-step (base - color - clear) finishes are as thin as a typical business card. Ideally the dirt should float off your vehicle without the need for any scrubbing. Dirt particles can be ground into the clearcoat if you use insufficient water. These particles will show up as permanent scratches and swirl marks, which may be impossible to remove. Wet the complete car down thoroughly from top to bottom before applying your carwash solution with a soft cotton terrycloth rag or sheepskin carwash mitt.
Next Comes The Roof - Wipe it completely with the soap solution and then rinse it with clean water. Wash small areas one at a time, taking care not to let them dry. Move on to the hood and trunk (bonnet & boot), rinsing them thoroughly. Be sure to rinse completely under plastic and chrome moldings. Dirt and debris collect there, causing condensation that eventually leads to rust. Move on to the upper portion of your side panels, cleaning from the top down to the vehicle's beltline (top half of the lower body).
Below The Belt - Replace the rag or mitt you have been using with one that you'll use exclusively on the lower body. If caught in your washing mitt, the stones and black lumps stuck on the lower portions of your vehicle (around the wheel-wells, on the rocker panels, and below the beltline) will destroy your vehicle's finish. After a gentle washing, use a tar remover to soften these spots and wipe them carefully according to the manufacturer's instructions. Remember dirt, sand, and small stones are trapped in the tar, so take your time and don't scratch your paint. If your cleaning rag is dirty, don't take the chance of rubbing sand or stones into your paint, get a new one! Several applications of tar remover will be necessary to remove large spots without using force. After completely removing all tar deposits, wash the lower portion of the vehicle again, this time with a new mitt or cotton towel. Tar removers are petroleum-based and leave an oily residue that must be removed.
Tree Sap - The hardest thing to get off a car's finish is tree sap. I suggest that you avoid it altogether by avoiding parking underneath trees. There are several sap-removing products on the market, but they all work slowly and patience is neccessary to remove all of the sap. Change your cleaning cloths frequently so you don't re-apply the sap you just removed to another part of your car. Your car must be washed again after removing sap, as most of these products are petroleum-based and leave an oily residue. Another thing to avoid collecting is decaying leaves: the acids produced during their decay will etch their outline into a car's finish. If you live in the snow belt, keep your car clear of snow and ice in the wintertime. Sliding pieces of hard ice can scratch your paint as well.
Don't Drip Dry - The most common method used for drying a car is to let it drip dry. This is certainly the easiest, but it will leave spots on your finish caused by mineral deposits left during evaporation. Wiping the car body dry with a chamois ( soft absorbant leather made from a sheep or deer skin) is the best method of preventing water spotting. The leather quickly soaks up the water as it is wiped over the surface and it can be used over and over. Instead of a chamois, a soft 100% cotton cloth can be used to wipe the car. Bath towels work well and don't leave any lint behind, but quickly become waterlogged, so several will be needed. If you have an air source, blow out the door handles, mirror cavities, window surrounds, and moldings so water spots don't get on your finish when you drive away.
Rubbing & Polishing - Electric buffer/polishers are used by detailers to restore a finish that's lost its lustre. An inexperienced user, however, can quickly ruin today's ultra-thin finishes, so I recommend going to a professional body shop or detailer if your paint is badly faded or scratched. Minor scratches can be removed with a modern polishing glaze made specifically for clearcoat finishes. Under no circumstances should you use harsh abrasives like rubbing compound or sand paper. Leave extensive refinishing jobs to the professionals. Clay-compound polishing bars are becoming popular as polishing agents. They can remove small particles that remain on the finish, leaving the surface smooth as glass.
Chips & Scratches - I always get a bottle of touch-up paint mixed for me whenever I detail a vehicle. Your local automotive paint specialist can furnish you with the exact color for under $8. Chips and scratches that go through the pigment need to be covered before the metal oxidizes (rusts). Providing your car is clean and you haven't waxed it yet, now is the time to fill those chips and scratches. First clean the chip or scratch carefully using a special-purpose cleaner available at the paint store. A fine artist's brush (1/16th inch tip) will work for most chips and scratches. Very small chips can be filled with a match stick corner or toothpick. Don't brush the paint onto the chip. Instead, carefully let the paint flow from the brush, slowly filling the hole caused by the chip. The brush should only have enough paint on it to fill the chip: more than is needed will make a puddle. Warning: don't wax your car if after you've done any touch-up. Let the paint dry for a few days before you apply the wax. If wet paint gets on your waxing pad, you'll have a big mess.
Waxing Your Car - Contrary to popular belief, modern paint surfaces need periodic waxing to keep their shine and protect the finish. Use only a non-abrasive wax and do only a small area at a time (1 or 2 body panels at a time). Abrasive waxes and cleaners remove oxidization from painted surfaces by removing layers of paint and should only be used by professionals. Most professional detailers use a part-Carnuba (look for one with 20-30% Carnuba wax) paste or liquid. Before you start, make sure the humidity is below 50% and there's no precipitation in sight (wax will streak if applied when it's humid). Start by applying the wax in a swirling motion, one body panel at a time, using a 100% cotton cloth or applicator pad. As the wax begins to dry, wipe off the residue with a second 100% cotton cloth. Finally, buff the area with a 3rd cotton cloth; then move on to the next panel. When one buffing rag becomes clogged with wax, replace it with a new cloth. When the body is done finish the job off by waxing your painted bumpers. Alloy wheels need wax as well.
Warning! - Never wax over freshly painted surfaces! New paint can take up to six months to cure completely. Don't let any wax touch rubber moldings or plastic trim pieces, as it is difficult to remove once dry. (A small amount of laquer thinner on a clean rag usually works; be sure not to let it touch any painted surfaces).
Final Details - After a thorough waxing & buffing you'll find that wax dust and residue has gotten into your vehicle's cracks, seams, and underneath the chrome trim. Use a natural-bristle detailer's brush (or pastry brush) and carefully brush away as much dust as possible. Use a clean cotton cloth to wipe any wax residue remaining on the body. To complete the job, take some newsprint and go over the outside windows and mirrors. I suggest waxing your car every three to six months in order to protect its finish, more often if you keep it out of doors or drive it during the harsh winters associated with the "rust belt."
Winter Washing Tips - Washing your car in cold weather doesn't have to be a concern as long as you make sure that the areas around the doors, trunk and power antenna are wiped dry after each and every wash. Just in case, I also recommend that you keep a spare lock de-icer in your house, purse, and glovebox for frozen lock insurance. Most inoperative or frozen locks result from washing your car without drying off your doors and lock assemblies. When the temperature rises above freezing, melting snow and road salt can take a serious toll on your car's finish. Moisture formed by the melting snow and ice combines with chemicals in road salt to wreak havoc on the painted surfaces of your car, eventually causing the paint to corrode along with the metal underneath it. Regular waxing protects car finishes from this kind of corrosion.