I’ve been detailing cars for over 30 years. That’s a long time and I’ve seen a lot of products come and go and I’ve also seen a lot of products endure the test of time. With the introduction of the Internet and the World Wide Web, we all have access to the latest and greatest products around the world.
The downside of the Internet is there are just as many mediocre products as there are truly great products and sometimes the only way to separate the good from the bad is to either purchase and use the product yourself or find a person that’s been there and done that and has a long-time honest record for sharing honest information. I will volunteer for this job and at the end of the day or the end of the detailing job, you can make up your own mind as to whether my information is accurate, helpful and above all honest.
Here's the BIG question…
What products do you need to detail a car?
Great question and in the order, I teach people to detail cars in my car and boat detailing classes, I’ll answer this question. I will also share products in the order you would detail a car to help anyone that may be new to car detailing. The normal order of step to detail a car,
- Machine polish glass to remove traffic film.
- Restore headlights if needed.
- Clean engine compartment if doing a Wet Wash Engine Detail.
- Wash wheels and tires first – if the car has rubber floor mat, remove and clean at this time.
- Clean and scrub any exterior plastic trim if it’s faded.
- Wash car starting at the top and working your way down and around the car.
- Dry car including all jambs, door, hood, trunk lid and hatchback.
- Clean and detail the inside of the car starting by removing all debris.
- Vacuum interior to remove loose dirt and dust.
- Wipe down all leather, plastic, vinyl surfaces.
- Condition and protect all leather, plastic, and vinyl surfaces.
- Clean dash vents, gauges and displays including steering wheel, column, and control arms.
- Clean all interior glass including, windshield, side glass, vanity mirrors, rearview mirrors, sunroof.
- Polish and protect paint on all jambs.
- Inspect paint for above surface bonded contaminants using the baggie test.
- Mechanically decontaminate paint if contamination is discovered.
- Visually inspect paint for swirls, scratches, water spots and oxidation.
- Perform any paint correction steps to remove paint defects.
- Seal the paint using a car wax, synthetic paint sealant or ceramic coating.
- Clean engine compartment if doing a Cosmetic Engine Detail.
- Dress tires with a tire dressing.
- Seal exterior glass windows with a coating.
- Apply a dressing to all exterior plastic, vinyl and rubber trim and components.
- Perform a final inspection.
- Stand back and smile at a job well done.
Tools, supplies and products needed for each step of a proper detail job.
Here’s the approach I teach in my classes and use personally, and this is, you want to do the things that make the car messy BEFORE washing the car.
Here are the things that make a car messy,
1: Machine polishing glass to remove traffic film.
- Quality rubbing compound – I use 3D 510 Premium Rubbing Compound
- Rotary polisher or dual action polisher – I prefer the FLEX Cordless PE14 or the Cordless CBEAST
- A quality foam cutting pad
This type of glass polishing is called Topical Glass Polishing. What this type of glass polishing does is remove anything on the surface off the surface. Thus, the word topical. There is another type of glass polishing called Sub-surface Glass Polishing. This requires a special glass polish and a rayon glass polishing pad plus a high-speed rotary polisher.
Before you wash the car, you machine compound all the exterior glass. You can wipe the compound residue off if you like but what I do is remove the residue when I wash the car using my car wash soap and wash mitt. This saves you time and steps.
You can also do this after you wash and dry the car but then it’s a good idea to use masking tape to tape off the outer perimeter of the side glass windows to avoid staining any rubber, vinyl, or fuzzy gaskets. After you machine polish the glass on a washed and dried car, you’ll next have to wipe the polish residue off the glass. Not a big deal, I just prefer to do the messy stuff before washing the car and save time and steps.
Overtime, the exterior of your car gets a build-up of traffic film that will not wash off. This includes the exterior glass on your car. You cannot easily see this film on glass but it’s there. Where does it come from?
Cars that are daily drivers get a build-up of what is called traffic film on the outside of the car, this comes from all the various oils cars drip when they are being driven down the road. As cars get older, they tend to drip motor oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, gear oil etc. This builds upon the roads and highways and oftentimes shows up as a darker portion in the middle of the highway.
See how the center of the road is darker?
Then when it rains, this oily dirt mixes with rainwater and the cars driving in front of you splash this grimy rainwater onto your car and over time this becomes traffic film.
2: Restore headlights if needed
- Quality rubbing compound – I use 3D 510 Premium Rubbing Compound
- Rotary polisher or dual action polisher – My favorite rotary is the FLEX Cordless PE14
- Any quality wool cutting pad will work.
If your car is older, the plastic lens that encases the actual light bulbs will tend to fade via oxidation over time. The plastic lens that was originally clear as glass can look dull, faded, cloudy and in extremely neglected cases, the plastic will even turn yellow. You can machine polish the headlights after you wash the car but most people when doing this will get polish splatter onto the nearby panels like the hood, fender, bumper, and grill. If you have already washed the car, now you’ll need to re-wipe these areas to remove the polish splatter. This means extra steps and more time.
Instead of polishing the headlights after washing the car, polish the headlights BEFORE washing the car. Then if you get any polish splatter on the nearby adjacent panels, the splatter dots will wash off when you wash the car. You have just saved time, energy, and steps.
For normal oxidation and aged looking plastic headlight lenses you can usually polish the plastic lens and restore a crystal-clear headlight simply by using a normal paint polishing compound like 3D 510 Premium Rubbing Compound. Best results are achieved when you use a rotary polisher with a wool pad, but you can use a foam cutting pad on either a rotary polisher or any dual action polisher.
Holograms in plastic
If you start with a rotary polisher to remove oxidation, cloudiness, and yellowing – follow this tool and process with a dual action polisher and a foam polishing pad to remove any holograms out of the plastic and to also maximize clarity. It may not seem important, but all professional detailers understand this is standard operating procedure for professional quality results that look good and hold up over time.
For severely oxidized headlights that have turned yellow – these will require sanding to remove the dead, oxidized plastic and I cover this in another how-to article.
3: Clean engine compartment if doing a Wet Wash Engine Detail
When it comes to detailing the engine compartment, there are two very distinct styles of engine detailing. One style is called Cosmetic Engine Detailing and the other style is called Wet Wash Engine Detailing. The style you use depends on the age of the car and thus the design of the engine and engine compartment. I’ll explain below.
Cars built after the year 2000 - Use the Cosmetic Engine Detailing Method
Supplies needed for Cosmetic Engine Detail
- Compressed air to blowout engine compartment
- A variety of brushes to agitate cleaners and dressings
- Quality glass cleaner, all-purpose-cleaner, spray detailer, vinyl & rubber dressing
- Microfiber towels
- Masking tape, plastic bags, kitchen plastic wrap, aluminum foil
- Nitrile gloves
- Safety goggles
When you open the hood on most modern cars all you see is plastic covers and cladding. You can remove these plastic covers, but you still really won’t see anything that’s recognizable. And because of the marvel of modern engineering, new engines simply don’t leak like old-school engines and what this means to you and me is we can do what’s called a Cosmetic Engine Detail.
If you’re going to do a Cosmetic Engine Detail, I recommend doing it after you finish the paint correction and paint protection steps because after doing these steps you normally have to clean and detail the jambs around the hood and also around the windshield wipers.
I have a full how-to article on this topic, and I’ll include the link below and also cover the basics in this article.
Cars built before the year 2000 - Use the Wet Wash Engine Detailing Method
Supplies needed for Wet Wash Engine Detail
- Compressed air to blowout engine compartment
- A variety of brushes to agitate the degreaser
- Quality, safe engine degreaser – I like 3D Grand Blast
- Water hose with spray nozzle that has a shower setting
- Microfiber towels
- Masking tape, plastic bags, kitchen plastic wrap, aluminum foil
- Nitrile gloves
- Safety goggles
As stated above, most modern cars have very high-tech engines, which don’t leak oil like the engines built back in the old days. As such, the engine block, and related components plus the engine bay, simply don’t get a thick build-up of oily sludge. Thus, you don’t need to do what is called a Wet Wash Engine Detail.
For older cars however, the Wet Wash Engine Detail process includes covering up and taping off any electrical components or sensors to protect them from getting wet. Next you spray on a degreaser, allow the degreaser to penetrate for up to a minute and then agitate the degreaser using a variety of brushes. After this you rinse the engine compartment and if you do everything right, you’ll restore a factory new looking engine and engine compartment.
If you have an older car and it needs this type of engine detail, then see my article here for a step-by-step guide and I’ll include the supplies you need below the link.
Washing the car
Now that you’ve performed all the messy work, that is polishing the glass, polishing the headlights, and cleaning the engine compartment, now it’s time to wash the car. Here’s the order I teach and use myself.
Step 1: Wash wheel and tires first – if the car has rubber floor mats, remove and clean at this time.
Step 2: Clean and scrub any exterior plastic trim if it’s faded.
Step 3: Wash car starting at the top and working your way down and around the car.
4: Wash wheels and tires first
If the car has rubber floor mats, remove and clean at this time.
- Quality wheel cleaner – I use 3D BDX Acid Free Wheel Cleaner
- Quality tire cleaner – I use 3D Yellow Degreaser
- Wheel cleaning brushes.
- Tire cleaning brushes.
- Optional: FLEX Cordless PE14 – for machine scrubbing tires.
- 5” Machine Tire Scrubbing Brush – (for the PE14)
- Seat cushion to keep your pants dry while you’re sitting on the ground.
- Dedicated 5-gallon bucket for your car wash brushes.
The reason you wash and clean the wheels and tires first is because with wheels and tires that are regularly and professionally cleaned, (like the wheels and tires on my car), it will take about 15 minutes per wheel and tire, and this adds up to an hour to do the job right. Longer if the wheels and tires are grossly neglected. Knowing it’s going to take at least an hour to clean the wheels and tires, you want to do this first because if you wash the car first, while you’re sitting on your bottom cleaning the wheels and tires the water on the car will dry and leave water spots on and even IN the paint. IN my experience, one of the worst kinds of paint defects to try to remove are water spots. So, work smarter instead of harder and start at the bottom of the car, the wheels and tires and then move to the top of the car and work your way down and around the car.
This is also a great time to wash rubber floor mats. It helps to have a table you can scrub them on as this makes it easier on you.
5: Clean and scrub any exterior plastic trim if it’s faded.
- FLEX Cordless PE14.
- 5” Machine Tire Scrubbing Brush.
- An APC like 3D All Purpose Cleaner, or a degreaser like 3D Yellow Degreaser or 3D Orange Degreaser.
Some cars, trucks and SUVs have a plentiful amount of exterior plastic cladding and trim. If the car is new and the plastic is still in good condition you can simply wash these surfaces with a wash mitt and soapy water. If the plastic has faded and oxidized, then what I do is machine scrub these plastic surfaces. Machine scrubbing will remove some of the oxidation, at least better than just a wash mitt and this will help when applying a trim dressing to bring back the original factory appearance. This is an optional step. And of course, you can also hand scrub the plastic cladding and trim.
6: Wash car starting at the top and working your way down and around the car
- pH balanced car wash soap – I like 3D Pink Car Soap.
- Quality wash mitt – I love the Chenille type mitts like the 3D Microfiber Chenille Wash Mitt.
- 5-gallon bucket with a dirt trapping bucket grate in the bottom.
- Water hose with water sprayer.
- Detailing Clay Towel.
- Foam Cannon and a Pressure Washer.
- Work platform for reaching the roof on taller vehicles.
Doing a great job of washing a car is the foundation for a great detail job. The actual rubbing of a car wash mitt over the body panels is pretty straightforward. There are a few professional techniques that will help you to avoid instilling swirls and scratches as you move a wash mitt over the surface. One of these techniques for carefully washing your car is to only make a few straight line passes over a body panel and then either move on to a new panel or rinse. Don’t rub the wash mitt in circles as this will tend to grind any dirt you loosen with the mitt into the paint causing swirls.
Optional steps - Chemical and Mechanical Decontamination
One of the things I teach, and practice is to do both chemical and mechanical decontamination during the washing process.
Your car’s paint gets a buildup of not only traffic film, (see the section above on glass polishing), but it also gets a build-up of iron contamination and general air pollution and industrial fallout pollution. Before washing the body panels of the car, but after washing the wheels and tires, you can spray an iron remover like 3D BDX onto the various body panels.
The active ingredients in the BDX will turn a dark red or purple if any iron contamination is present. As the iron contamination is dissolved, the chemical reaction results in this red/purple appearance or what some call the bleeding-effect.
After chemically decontaminating the paint, the next step would be to wash and rinse the car.
Another thing that builds up on the exterior of your car is called above surface bonded contaminants. This can be things like, overspray paint, tree sap mist, industrial fallout, and airborne pollution. Most of this type of contamination will not wash off.
The way you remove bonded contaminants is to use a mechanical means like detailing clay. Detailing clay is one option but since detailing clay was invented newer tools have been introduced that do the same thing but last longer. One of these tools is called a detailing clay towel. The cool thing about a detailing towel is it can be used during the wash process to mechanically decontaminate the paint or in other words, remove the bonded contaminants.
Doing the mechanical decontamination step during the wash process saves you time and steps. The way this works is after washing and rinsing the car, (it’s important to flush off all loose dirt before using a detailing clay towel), you then use your bucket of soapy water as a lubricant by dipping the detailing clay towel into the soapy water and then rubbing the detailing clay towel over a section of paint. You repeat this over all the painted body panels until you have decontaminated the entire car and then rinse again.
Use a detailing clay towel with a foam cannon or foam gun. Here the process is the same only instead of using the soapy water you spray the car down with foam from either a foam cannon or foam gun and then rub the detailing clay towel over the paint.
If you were to include chemical and mechanical decontamination as a part of the process, the process would look like this,
- Polish glass
- Restore headlights
- Clean engine
- Clean wheels and tires
- Chemically decontaminate paint and rinse car
- Hand or machine scrub any neglected plastic cladding
- Wash and rinse car
- Mechanically decontaminate the paint
- Final rinse
Yes – that’s 9 steps to do the most thorough or extreme job of washing a car to get it ready for paint correction. This is how I was a car before paint correction and how I teach my class to wash a car before paint correction.
Prep Wash versus Maintenance Wash
Just to note, this style of wash is called the Prep Wash. This is for cars that are going to be machine polished afterwards. If your car is in perfect condition, for example if it’s brand new or was recently professionally detailed, (a person did all the steps listed in this article), then you would NOT do a Prep Wash, you would do a Maintenance Wash. With a maintenance wash you skip the glass polishing, headlight correction, engine detailing, chemical and mechanical decontamination steps. Instead, you wash the car in this order,
- Clean wheels and tires first.
- Wash the car starting at the top and working down and around the car.
See the difference in the number of steps for the different types of washing a car? And the key thing with a Maintenance Wash is you CAREFULLY move the wash mitt over the surface so as to not put any new swirls and scratches.
7: Dry car including all jambs, door, hood, trunk lid and hatchback
- Quality drying chamois or towel – I use the Magna Shine MICROVA Drying Cloth.
- Microfiber towels.
- Air blower – Leaf blower.
The first thing you do after the final rinse step is to remove the majority of water off the car. If the car is neglected and water is NOT beading up, then it’s useless to try to blow the water off the car with some type of compressed air as this simply doesn’t work. Instead, use your favorite drying towel or chamois.
Once you have removed the majority of water you can now use compressed air like a cordless leaf blower to blow-out all the water that still remains in places like, door handles, side mirrors, body seams, emblems, grills, wheels, etc.
Next, open all the doors, the hood and the trunk lid or hatchback and using your drying towel or some microfiber towels, wipe down all the jambs. At this point there is usually rinse water in these areas so wiping these jambs dry not only removes the excess water it also cleans the paint and any gaskets or rubber door seals at the same time.
When professional detailers open all the doors, hood, trunk lid and/or hatchback to wipe the jambs clean and dry, they call this stretching.
8: Clean and detail the inside of the car starting by removing all debris.
- Storage totes or clean storage bags to place personal items into.
Whether it’s your car or a customer car, before starting on the inside, remove all objects and personal items and place them somewhere safe.
9: Vacuum interior to remove loose dirt and dust
Normally when you vacuum you start at the highest points and work your way down. With a brush attachment you can vacuum the air vents, knobs, buttons, and switches on the dash, then vacuum the seats, center consoles, map pockets, glove box, etc. Next move down to the floor and start by moving the seats all the way forward then vacuum behind the seats. Then move the seats all the way back and vacuum in front of the seat.
10: Wipe down all leather, plastic, vinyl surfaces
This is pretty basic stuff for interior detailing. The way I do it is to spray one side of a microfiber towel down with my cleaner and then wipe all leather, vinyl, and plastic surfaces with the towel. As you work around the interior, spray more cleaner onto the towel and/or if the car is really dirty, switch to a fresh towel and continue the process.
11: Condition and protect all leather, plastic, and vinyl surfaces
Once the interior surfaces have been wiped clean, now switch over to a foam or microfiber applicator pad. Pour some of the 3D LVP Conditioner onto one side of the applicator pad and then massage the product over all the leather, vinyl, and plastic surfaces. Lastly, use a clean microfiber towel to re-wipe all the treated surfaces to remove any excess product.
12: Clean dash vents, gauges and displays including steering wheel, column, and control arms.
- Spray detailer - I like the 3D Final Touch for interior detailing plus you can use it on the outside of the car too.
- Microfiber towels.
Dampen a clean microfiber towel with a spray detailer and carefully wipe all these areas to remove dust and restore a factory fresh appearance.
13: Clean all interior glass including windshield, side glass, vanity mirrors, rearview mirrors, sunroof.
The key to getting glass clean without fighting streaks and smears is to use plenty of clean microfiber towels and switch to a fresh, dry towel often.
14: Clean and protect paint on all jambs
Mist the paint and door sills with a spray detailer or spray wax, I personally like to use Bead It Up for this, and then wipe these areas to a dry shine using microfiber towels.
15: Inspect paint for above surface bonded contaminants using the baggie test
· Clean sandwich baggie
Place your hand inside a clean sandwich baggie and lightly feel the paint on your car with an emphasis on the horizontal panels. If you feel little bumps, this is a sign you need to use detailing clay or a detailing clay towel.
16: Mechanically decontaminate paint if contamination is discovered
I listed this as part of the steps you do when washing the car, but it can also be done after you have washed and dried the car.
Starting at the top of the car and working your way down and around the car, mist some spray detailer onto a section of paint and then rub the detailing clay or detailing clay towel over this section of paint. Once the contamination is removed, wipe this section dry with a clean microfiber towel. Continue this process until you have clayed all the body panels.
17: Visually inspect paint for swirls, scratches, water spots and oxidation
- Strong hand-held swirl inspection light.
Basically, you want to walk around the car and use the light to inspect the paint for paint defects.
18: Perform any paint correction steps to remove paint defects
Rotary polisher – FLEX Cordless PE14 rotary polisher
Assortment of foam pads – cutting, polishing, and finishing
Wool cutting pad for doing heavy correction with the rotary polisher
Polish – 3D 520 Finishing Polish
3D SPEED All-in-One - Compound/Polish/Wax
This is an important step to do right. You start by doing what is called a Test Spot. The Test Spot is where you test different products, pads, tools, and techniques to remove the paint defects to your satisfaction and once you dial-in and prove your process, then you simply duplicate this process to the rest of the car. For more information about doing paint correction, see my article here,
19: Seal the paint using a car wax, synthetic paint sealant or ceramic coating
- 3D Wipe plus 3D Ceramic Coating
- 3D WIPE plus 3D Ceramic Touch
- 3D POXY
- 3D Bead It Up
- Microfiber towels
At some point you need to decide what category of paint protection product you want to use to protect the paint after doing the paint correction step. There are lots of great options with some options like using Bead It Up being very fast and straightforward and with other options like installing a ceramic coating, which provides better and longer lasting protection but also requires more time and more steps.
Here’s a video on how to do the paint correction steps and then apply 3D Ceramic Touch. The car featured in the video is a classic Bizzarrini, but the steps shared apply to any car.
If you need help with this contact me at email@example.com
20: Clean engine compartment if doing a Cosmetic Engine Detail.
If you didn’t do a Wet Wash Engine Detail during the washing process because you have a newer car with lots of plastic in the engine compartment, this is a good time to do the Cosmetic Engine Detail. The reason for doing the Cosmetic Engine Detail after the paint correction and paint protection steps is because as a part of machine polishing the hood and front fenders, you’ll tend to get compound and polish residue around the hood jambs.
You need to open the hood to wipe down the jambs and also cowling around the wiper arms after you do the paint correction steps so might as well do the Cosmetic Engine Detail at the same time.
See section 3 above for the products and process for doing a Cosmetic Engine Detail.
21: Dress tires with a tire dressing
You scrubbed the tires clean during the washing process and now it’s time to apply a tire dressing to create a deep, dark black shine.
22: Seal exterior glass windows with a coating
You machine polished the glass during the washing step and now is a good time to seal the glass to make it shed water faster and easier plus keep the glass cleaner, longer. My personal favorite is to use Bead It Up. Simply mist and wipe and the glass will bead up water when it rains and after about 35 miles per hour you won’t need your wipers as the water will fly off the glass. Bead It Up will not last as long as a true ceramic glass coating but the upside, (and why I like it), is it’s fast and easy to apply. Because it’s fast and easy, I re-apply to the windshield after each time I wash and dry the car. I also use it as a glass cleaner in-between normal washing.
23: Apply a dressing to all exterior plastic, vinyl and rubber trim and components
After washing and drying the car, it’s time to apply a trim shine to restore a factory new appearance and also protect the trim from fading and oxidizing.
24: Perform a final inspection.
I recommend getting a fresh set of eyes to inspect your work as by the end of the detailing project you’re going to be snow blind or car blind. That is, you’ve been looking at the car since early in the morning and it’s simply better to have a fresh set of eyes inspect your work. It’s also a good idea to move the car into different locations where light will shine on it differently.
25: Stand back and smile at a job well done.
If you did everything right… you’re going to have a big smile on your face as your car is going to look fabulous.
Detailing a car from start to finish can take most of a day depending upon how neglected the car is and how close to perfect you want to make it look. I recommend starting early in the morning and if possible, break the project up over two days, like over the weekend. This way you won’t get too tired, and it will be physically a lot easier on you.
If you have any questions or need help, please contact me, I’m happy to see you through to success in your garage or shop.