I’ve been detailing cars since the late 1970s. I am the only detailer in our industry that has had 2 TV shows, authored 5 car detailing books and 1 boat detailing book. Have written over 1000 articles on the topic of car and boat detailing and have taught and documented more car and boat detailing classes than any other detailing class instructor on planet Earth. So, for what it’s worth, below are my favorite and must have car detailing tools.
Tools for detailing the exterior of your vehicle
The FLEX XC 3401 VRG aka the BEAST - All brawl, zero stall
Why I like it
Unlike the majority of car polishers on the market, the FLEX BEAST is a GEAR-DRIVEN orbital polisher. What makes this gear-driven tool unique and my first choice for an orbital polisher is because it’s gear-driven there is ZERO pad stalling.
The majority of other orbital polishers on the market from the least to most expensive are FREE SPINNING random orbital polishers. Instead of being gear-driven, they maintain, or try to maintain pad rotation via a counterweight and inertia. The problem with these types of tools is no matter how good you are, it doesn’t matter – the buffing pad has enough leverage over the reciprocating drive unit to cause the buffing pad to slow down and even STOP rotating and oscillating. This is what is meant when you hear the term pad stalling.
If the pad isn’t rotating and oscillating, you are wasting your time
Here’s the deal, in order to remove swirls, scratches, water spots and oxidation, you must remove a little paint to level the upper surface with the lowest depths of the defects you’re trying to remove. And here’s the deal, if the pad is stalling out – you’re not doing anything as in, you’re not removing defects thus you’re wasting time.
At the time I’m typing this article, October, 21st 2002, the manufacturer’s recommended retail price is $550.00 - so this tool is not cheap, but it will pay for itself by saving you so much time when doing the paint correction step. Plus they are built like Tanks, you’ll be passing this tool on to your children. When I teach classes on this tool, I refer to it as a Money Making Machine.
The FLEX Cordless PE14 Rotary Polisher
Why I like it.
A lot of paint correction work is simply done better and faster using a rotary polisher. The reason I like the FLEX cordless PE15 Rotary Polisher versus any other rotary on the market is because the gears inside the head of the polisher are precision machined out of stainless steel. This makes this tool very quiet even at high speeds. To my knowledge, all the other cheaper rotary polishers on the market use stamped steel gears and there is a lot of slop between where the gears mesh and this is why they growl when you operate them at low or high speeds.
At the time I’m typing this article, October, 21st 2002, the manufacturer’s recommended retail price is $600.00 - so this tool is not cheap, but it is the BEST rotary polisher on the market.
Spider-Cut Foam Buffing pads
Why I like these pads.
After you purchase your polisher, you’re going to need a lot of buffing pads. One of the biggest problems people have when buffing out a car is they do not have enough buffing pads to do the job effectively, at least when it comes to foam buffing pads. There are three primary types of foam buffing pads,
For my style of detailing, I use the 6.5” Light Purple Spider-Cut Foam Polishing Pads the most because for any paint correction that requires a more aggressive process, I simply use the FLEX PE14 with a wool cutting pad as this is the fastest way to do the heavy paint correction step.
I recommend getting at least 6 of the foam polishing pads as you want to switch to a clean DRY pad often in order to maximize your time and efficiency. Because I always use the FLEX XC 3401 VRG gear-driven orbital polisher for my choice of orbital polisher, because it has a 5.5” backing plate I use the 6.5” pads. If you use a polisher with a smaller backing plate, there are smaller size pads available.
ProLock Pro Grade Heavy Duty 12-gauge Extension Cord
Why I like these extension cords.
Whether you purchase a quality polisher or an inexpensive polisher, the tool needs a quality extension cord in order to flow enough electricity to the tool to avoid burning up the power switch or the motor. Don’t go cheap on your extension cord especially if you purchase a pro-grade polisher like FLEX tools. The best extension cord on the market is the 25’ or 50’ ProLock Extension Cords. These use high quality copper wire and also provide a plug-in that locks onto the plug on your polisher, so your polisher won’t come unplugged as you're working.
3D Foam Pad Conditioning Brush
Why I like this pad cleaning brush.
A great pad cleaning brush like the 3D Pad Conditioning Brush helps you to clean your foam pads fast and enables you to work or buff clean. As you buff a section of paint, you’re going to have 2 things build-up on the face of the buffing pad,
- Removed paint
- Spent product
Just like you wipe off the residue off the paint after buffing a section you need to wipe-off or BRUSH-OFF the removed paint and spent product off the face of the buffing pad. If you don’t, you’re going to pollute and dilute the fresh product you apply to the pad. Plus, you’ll be grinding the removed paint and spent product back into the paint when you move onto a new section of paint to buff.
Pad Cleaning Spur
Why I like a steel pad cleaning spur for wool pads.
The 3D Pad Cleaning Spur is a steel tooth pad cleaning spur that enables you to keep your wool pads clean while buffing out a car. This is important for the same reasons I shared for why it’s important to clean your foam buffing pads.
Why I like microfiber over all other options.
Microfiber towels work much better than other types of cloths because the fibers are miniature in size and this makes them safer for use on delicate surfaces like clearcoat paints and also plastic surfaces like you find on the inside of your car, like plastic trim on and around the dash and console.
If you’re going to detail cars as a do-it-yourselfer or a professional, you’re going to need a lot of microfiber towels. It’s a good practice to use a color code system for your towels and dedicate specific colors for specific job duties. Then, to maximize the performance and longevity of your towel collection, separate your towels by their color and function and wash and dry them separately.
Here’s the simple but effective 3D color coding system.
Green Microfiber Towels – Paint care towels for removing compounds, polishes, waxes, and ceramic coatings.
Blue Microfiber Towels – Glass & Mirrors.
Yellow Microfiber Towels – Interior work – Leather, Vinyl & Plastic surfaces
Black Microfiber Towels – Wheels, Tires, Engines, Door Jambs
For tips on how to keep your towels from becoming contaminated, see my article here,
SCANGRIP Swirl Finder Light
Why I like the SCANGRIP Swirl Finder Lights
If you’re going to do paint correction and ceramic coatings, you need a great hand-held light in order to clearly see paint defects as well as to inspect for ceramic coating high spots and/or wax smears. SCANGRIP is the innovator and leader in swirl finding light technology.
These come in real handy to get a closer look at paint defects to identify if they are above the surface or in the paint. This can help you determine the best and safest approach to remove the defect.
Paint Thickness Gauge
It’s a good idea to measure the thickness of paint on each body panel before doing any major paint correction. A Paint Thickness Gauge will warn you of thin paint so you can choose the least aggressive product and approach to polish the paint.
Masking tape is important to cover and protect delicate surfaces from spinning pads on your polisher. Masking tape will also prevent you from accidentally staining exterior plastic surfaces with compounds, polishes, and waxes.
Rolling Detail Chair
A lot of real-estate on a car you’ll be cleaning and detailing is down low and that’s why you want a rolling detail chair. Most rolling detailing chairs offer a padded seat and compartments to hold products and other tools.
To make detailing the inside, outside and even when washing your car faster and easier, a Detailing Cart is a must-have tool. I use my Detailing Cart for everything.
Tools for washing your car
There are two different types of car washing,
With this style of wash you are focused on getting the car as clean as possible to prep it for paint correction and detailing.
With this style of wash you are focused on cleaning the car as carefully as possible so as not to put any swirls, scratches or marring back into the paint.
Tools for a Prep Wash
I teach people to always start with the wheels and tires first and then move to the top of the car and work your way down and around the car. The reason why is because it takes up to an hour to thoroughly wash 4 wheels and tires. If you wash the car first and then wash wheels and tires, you’ll have water drying on the car while you’re on your butt washing the wheels and tires and this can lead to water spots on and even IN the paint. Water spots are one of the worst types of paint defects to have to remove. So do yourself a favor and copy my style, wash the wheels and tires first.
Getting a car clean requires quality brushes. Here’s the brushes I like.
5” Nylon Rotary Brush
Why I like this brush.
I like this because it’s the perfect brush for use on the FLEX cordless PE14 for machine scrubbing tires, vinyl tops, rubber and carpet floor mats, non-skid surfaces in boats and pretty much anything you would scrub by hand.
5” Green Rotary Backing Plate and EZ-SWITCH Adapter
The 3D 5” Green Rotary Backing Plate fits on the back of the 5” Nylon Rotary Brush. You’ll need both the backing plate and the EZ-SWITCH Adapter in order to attach the 5” Nylon Rotary Brush onto the FLEX cordless PE14 Rotary Polisher. Besides enabling you to switch to other size backing plates when doing paint correction, the EZ-Switch Adapter places the backing plate and 5” Nylon Brush further away from the tool making it easier to reach all areas of the tires on a car when machine scrubbing the tire sidewalls.
FLEX Cordless PE14 Rotary Polisher
I always machine scrub tires. If you don’t own a FLEX cordless PE14 Rotary Polisher, add one to your tool collection in the future and thank me later. I use the 5” Nylon Rotary Brush mentioned above with a 3D cleaner like 3D Yellow Degreaser or 3D Orange Degreaser.
Wheel Woolies 9 Inch Boar's Hair Wheel Brush
I’ve been using this brush and sharing it with others for probably a decade. They are hands-down the best wheel brush, but they also work great for engine detailing and interior detailing.
Wheel Woolies 3-Piece Kit
With these 3 brushes you can get the barrel of the wheel clean without removing the wheel. The handle is tough so you can lean into it and really scrub hard when cleaning neglected wheels. You can also use the smaller brushes to clean in-between spokes and around the brake calipers.
Flexible Wheel Cleaning Brushes
These enable you to clean the backs of the wheel spokes plus get into tight areas like around the brake calipers. These brushes also work great when doing a Wet Wash Engine Detail.
Round Detailing Brushes
These are incredibly handy for cleaning and scrubbing around small components and tight areas.
Safe wheel and tire cleaners
The wheels and tires tend to be the dirtiest parts of a car to wash and clean. Wheels get a build-up of Brake Dust and Tires get a brown discoloration called blooming. 3D BDX is acid-free and dissolves brake dust off the rims. 3D Yellow Degreaser removes old tire dressings and blooming.
You need a great water sprayer with multiple settings. I like a sprayer that offers both Jet and Shower settings for use when doing engine detailing and wheel cleaning. I use and teach in my car detailing classes to use the SHOWER setting when doing a Wet Wash Engine Detail. And of course, the JET setting is great when you need a powerful focused blast of water when rinsing wheels and other areas of a car.
See my article showing the SHOWER setting in action here,
A foam cannon like the 3D Ultra Foam Blaster hooks up to a pressure washer and creates rich, thick foam similar to shaving cream, which enables the car soap to dwell longer on vertical panels where it can emulsify and loose traffic film and dirt. Two great options for high sudsing soaps are the 3D Pink Car Soap, available in 16 ounce and by the gallon. Also the 3D Super Soap available as a super concentrate in our Nano Pail line of products. Be sure to also get the No Drip Pump Dispenser as it delivers the recommended 2/3rds of an ounce for a proper soap to water ratio mix for shaving cream like foam.
Mike’s Tool Tip
Pressure washers normally come with very long wands to make it easy to reach high places or areas out of your normal reach. These are too long for practical use with a foam cannon especially when you consider the weight of the foam cannon when filled with soap and water.
Get a short wand
These can be found online like places like Amazon. They will replace the long wand and make it much easier to hold and spray the foam cannon.
Most pressure washers come with different size tips to enable you to tackle a host of different cleaning duties faster than with just a water hose and water sprayer.
Unlike a foam cannon, you can use a foam gun with any normal garden water hose. A foam cannon, like a foam gun, creates thick, frothy foam, which you can spray all over your car to make washing your car faster and safer.
In order to safely wash your car, you need a quality wash mitt that can loosen dirt and traffic film while being gentle to scratch-sensitive clearcoat finishes. My favorite style is the type with the microfiber fingers like the 3D Microfiber Chenille Wash Mitt. Not only do they work great to wash your car, but they rinse out really well instead of becoming contaminated like most other mitts. Contaminated wash mitts are the number one cause of swirls and scratches in your car’s paint. So it’s important to choose and use the right wash mitt.
3D Detailing Clay Towel
These are a replacement for traditional detailing clay. The 3D Detailing Clay Towel can be used with a clay lube after washing and drying your car or during the washing process while the car is already wet. The key thing to remember is to first wash and RINSE the car thoroughly, and then use the 3D Detailing Clay Towel.
Foam seat cushion
These come in real handy for sitting on while washing wheels and tires. They can also keep you from having your pants get wet.
When washing a car, you don’t want to mix the brushes you use to clean your wheels and tires with the soapy water you use to wash the body panels of your cars. The reason why is because there are tiny particles of metal that come off the brake rotors and brake pads and if you mix your brushes and wash mitts into the same bucket this can end up causing accidental scratching on the paint and plastic surfaces on the outside of your car.
Drying towels and chamois
After washing your car, you need to remove the water and dry the car. A quality microfiber or synthetic drying chamois will remove the water fast while being gentle to your car’s clearcoat finish. My favorite is the Magna Shine MICROVA Hybrid Drying Cloth. This is a hybrid combination of a microfiber towel impregnated with PVA or Poly Vinyl Alcohol to create a super strong, super soft and super absorbent drying towel.
A leaf blower works great for blowing water off your car and especially out of all the cracks, crevices, and body seams. It’s also great for blasting water out of emblems, door handles, headlights, taillights, fuel doors, etc.
Hand Held Air Blower
The MetroVac Sidekick is super handy for blowing out interiors, engine compartments as well as blowing out standing water after washing a car like side mirrors, door handles, emblems, lights, etc.
IK Foaming Sprayer
These come in real handy for foaming liquids like waterless washes, degreasers, wheel cleaners etc. The 3D Foam Sprayer holds enough product for any detailing project without being too heavy to hold with one hand. The Foaming Pump Sprayer will foam most product and the 3D Foaming Waterless Car Wash works great in it.
Having a bottle of touch-up paint that matches the color of your car and a selection of fine-tipped brushes enables you to touch-up rock chips and scratches. This is important because if you don’t fix rock chips and scratches rust will form and cause even more problems.
Tools for detailing the interior of your vehicle
Like the name implies, a quality all-purpose-cleaner enables you to clean a multitude of surfaces. 3D All-Purpose-Cleaner offers powerful cleaning without any risk to the surface being cleaned. Best of all it can be used inside the car, outside the car and also in the engine compartment.
Leather and Vinyl Cleaner
Modern leather is coated with a surface that is more like vinyl than actual cow hides. The leather portion of a car seat is usually the face and bottom of the seat while the sides and backs are either plastic or vinyl. You need a safe leather, vinyl and plastic cleaner that cleans well while also being safe for all these surfaces and materials. 3D LVP Cleaner will clean all the different surfaces inside your car safely and without any foul odors.
Leather and Vinyl Conditioner
After cleaning leather and vinyl surfaces, you’re only halfway done, you still want and need to apply some kind of conditioner and protectant to restore a beautiful appearance while also protecting these surfaces from regular wear-n-tear. 3D LVP Conditioner is safe on all interior surfaces while leaving a natural look without a greasy shine.
While many people focus on the outside of the car, specifically polishing and waxing the paint, the most important area of any car is the windshield because we need to see through it clearly in order to remain safe while driving. 3D Glass Cleaner is ammonia-free and cuts through even the worst glass cleaning tasks like removing vinyl fog and smoker’s film.
Every time you get into your car your shoes drag the dirt and other contaminants on the ground to the inside of your car. It’s also common to have things like potato chips, candy, French fries, etc. under the seat and in-between cracks and crevices. A quality vacuum will extract all of these things to restore a clutter-free interior.
Miscellaneous foam and microfiber applicator pads
These small, hand-held applicators are necessary in order to apply cleaner, conditioners and protectants. Hand applicators come in a variety of materials including a medium density red foam applicator, a softer black foam applicator pad and also microfiber applicator pads.
With the above kit of car detailing tools, you can tackle ANYTHING! And always remember, quality products and tools don’t cost money - they make you money.
If you ever have any questions about your detailing project, shoot me an e-mail, I’m always happy to help.