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Pinnacle Car Service - Going the Extra Mile Blog

The Going the Extra Mile blog is your resource for travel-related tips and advice.

How to Detail Your Car Like a Professional - Part 1

For most people, buying a car is the second largest purchase they will ever make. After making such a sizable investment, knowing the right way to maintain your vehicle helps keep that "new car" feeling while taking care of your investment. In today's blog post, we are going to review a host of principles that will help you keep your car looking it's best.

Automated Car Washes Versus Washing by Hand

After finishing work and walking out to your car, you decide now is a good time to get the car washed. You love your new vehicle and want to keep it in pristine condition. On the way home, you decide to stop at your local automated car wash instead of doing it yourself. As you wait your turn, you watch one car after another getting loaded onto the conveyor belt. You start to wonder whether you're making the right choice. Most of the time, you set aside a couple of hours to meticulously clean the car by hand loosening up and removing each spot of dirt you can find. There is no better feeling of a job well done than seeing your precious car shine after you've invested your blood, sweat, and tears.

Thoughts like this make a lot of sense. In fact, the debate whether washing a car at an automated car wash is better than cleaning it by hand is hotly contested by experts on both sides. In practical terms, here are some important considerations for each method:

Automated Car Wash:

  • PRO: Fast and Convenient. Most automatic car washes can clean the dirt and grime and dry your car in a handful of minutes. Some are also open 24 hours a day.

  • CON: Less thorough. A common complaint of automatic car washes is they do a lackluster job of getting into the nooks and crannies of your car. Plus, drying your vehicle is usually an afterthought, and this leads to water spots.

Hand Washing:

  • PRO: High coverage. Washing a car by hand is the most traditional approach and allows you to evaluate every inch of your car's finish. Done correctly, you can leave no stone unturned.

  • CON: Considerable time and effort. Compared to an automatic car wash, the investment of time and effort is much higher. Thoroughly washing your car by hand is hard work!

In our opinion, the best results are achieved by washing your car by hand. This allows you to control the products that are used, and you can spend the right amount of time to deliver a high-quality result. You can pick up on details a machine would never notice, so it is the clear choice when only the best will suffice. If you're short on time or uninclined to wash your own vehicle, we'd strongly recommend a hand car wash versus a touchless or automatic system.

Step 1: Washing Your Car

The first step in detailing your car like a professional is to wash it. For this task, we suggest you have the following products on hand:

  • A five-gallon bucket (or two) with a grit guard at the bottom

  • Mild car wash soap

  • Two sponges or wash mitts (one for the car and another for the wheels)

  • Wheel cleaner

  • A sturdy garden hose or power washer

  • Bug and tar remover

  • Lots of microfiber cloths

  • Decontamination spray*

One of the most critical steps in the car washing process is to use soap made explicitly for automotive paint. While it may be tempting to use dish soap or other household products on your car, don't do it. Dish soap is excellent at removing grease from dirty dishes, but it is too harsh for use on your car's paint. Its aggressive composition can strip wax and other protective barriers and leave your vehicle with a dull finish.

Before you get started, try and position your vehicle in a cool, shaded area as washing and waxing your car in direct sunlight is unadvisable. The use of a power washer or sturdy garden hose comes in very handy to loosen dirt and debris. After thoroughly soaking the car, add the wash soap to your wash bucket and apply the cleanser with either a clean sponge or a lambswool wash mitt in a gentle circular motion. Start from the top of your car and work your way down. Pay careful attention to your paint's finish to make sure you're removing all the dirt and grime. The grit guard in the bottom of your wash bucket can serve as a protective barrier to capture loosened particles. A dedicated second bucket full of water can come in handy too to keep your sponge or wash mitt nice and clean. If you encounter a stubborn area, typically near the wheel wells or lower parts of your car, using bug and tar remover can frequently loosen these harsh particles.

One of the dirtiest parts of your car is your wheels and tires. Since they are in constant contact with the road, they become embedded with stubborn dirt, brake dust, grime, and debris. It is essential to use a separate sponge or wash mitt on these areas to prevent cross-contamination of chemicals and cleaners with your car's delicate paint. We strongly encourage the use of a dedicated wheel cleaner to remove stubborn stains. If you have chrome or specially painted wheels, be sure to get the right type of cleaner for your car. Wheel cleaners get sprayed on, allowed to penetrate for a minute or two, and then washed off with a steady stream of water. Cleaning your tire is ideally done with a dedicated product, or you can use your car wash soap. Again, a separate sponge or wash mitt is essential for these areas.

Step 2: Prepping Your Paint

After you've carefully washed and dried your car, the next step in getting a showroom shine is prepping your paint. For this step, we recommend the following products:

  • Quick detailing spray

  • Decontamination spray*

  • Clay bar

  • Polishing compound

  • Applicator sponges

  • Several microfiber towels

For those of you with a car in need of significant help (or for those of you seeking complete perfection), we'd recommend a two-step process starting with a decontamination spray followed by a clay bar. A decontamination spray removes industrial fallout, brake dust, and any metallic elements embedded in your paint. You apply the spray on your paint, wait a few minutes (the color changes, so you know it's working), and then hose it off. We'd recommend spraying your car in small sections to prevent it from drying on your surface and undoing all your hard work. It's also advisable to give your vehicle another quick wash to make sure you've removed all traces of chemical residue. In our opinion, a decontamination spray is an optional step unless the paint needs significant help or you are looking to hit the "RESET" button and want a fresh start.

A good step in assessing your car's paint is to get a plastic bag or a rubber glove and gently passing your hand over the paint's surface. If it isn't smooth or silky to the touch, your vehicle needs protection. If you've been doing a great job of maintaining your car's exterior, one-step decontamination with a clay bar should suffice.

How to video on using a clay bar courtesy of Chemical Guys

One of a car detailer's secret weapons is the clay bar. Just as the name implies, the bar is a square block of automotive clay used to remove impurities and imperfections embedded in the paint. This works by rubbing it along your car's surface. It is absolutely essential to use a liquid like a quick detailing spray or another surface lubricant along with the bar to prevent damage to your paint. The quick detailer and clay bar removes all manner of surface contaminants and leaves the paint in pristine condition to be waxed or sealed. When using the bar, you will notice how dirty it becomes. Simply stretch the bar out and fold it over until a clean surface has appeared. Continue to use the quick detailer and the bar until you've thoroughly gotten to all the painted areas.

Now that your paint is free of contaminants, you need to evaluate its condition. For most consumers who infrequently wash and wax their car, you will notice the color may look a little dull and have small imperfections like swirl marks. The problem with these imperfections is they cause light to scatter rather than reflect. If this is the case, then your next step is to polish your car. Polishing removes these troubles spots and improves light reflection, thus helping to achieve the sought after showroom shine. In cases where the paint has more significant damage, a polishing compound, which is a heavy-duty product, is used. The polish can be applied using small applicator sponges, or for those of you seeking maximum results, a dual-action or orbital polisher.

It's important to note when working with polish or any wax-like substance, you should work in small sections (2' squares are great) and in a cool shaded area. If the paint is hot to the touch, then it's too hot to polish. Whether you're using an applicator pad or a mechanical polisher, three or four drops of product goes a long way. Apply the polish in small circular patterns in an even coat. After a few minutes, you will see a haze develop which you can buff with a clean microfiber towel. Once the entire car has been polished, you're ready to move on to the final part of exterior care.

Step 3: Waxing or Sealing the Paint

So you've taken great care to park your car in the shade, use a quality wash soap (NOT dish detergent), diligently dry every inch, and prepped your paint like a professional. Congratulations! You're now ready to enter the final part of caring for the exterior--waxing or sealing the paint.

To tackle this step, we suggest you have the following products on hand:

  • Wax or sealant

  • Applicator pads or mechanical polisher

  • Microfiber towels

Car wax is an essential step in vehicle care because it creates a protective barrier for your paint. Traditionally, car wax is made primarily from carnauba, which is the product of a Brazilian palm tree. Carnauba is a highly regarded substance because it produces a lovely gloss and has reliable durability. It is the primary ingredient in traditional car wax, and products which contain a higher percentage of this prized substance are generally more expensive.

Over time, advancements in science have created alternatives to traditional carnauba-based wax. These new synthetic waxes are made from polymers, resins, and a host of other chemicals most of us could never pronounce. The primary benefit of synthetic wax, commonly referred to as a sealant, is higher durability versus carnauba wax. Sealants are widely sold as liquids, so they are easier to apply and buff. This is a critical consideration because detailing a car is hard work! The benefits of sealants are significant, but all this scientific advancement comes at a price--sealants don't provide the depth of shine like carnauba wax. Therefore, you need to think about what is most important to you--a mirror-like shine or more extended paint protection.

No matter which product you choose, the principals of applying this final coat remain the same:

  1. Keep the car in the shade

  2. Work in small sections

  3. Use a few drops of product

  4. Buff away

By following these principals, your vehicle is going to look like new!

A Quick List of Products We Love

We've spent a lot of time going over several critical steps to get your car's exterior looking as good as possible. Now that you know what to do, here is a list of products we've tried and have worked very well for us. Please note we receive no compensation whatsoever for these suggestions. However, if any manufacturer wants to send us some "samples," we'd gladly accept!!