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Basic Detailing

If you have read the full OCDetails Guide To Detailing then you know that our the obsession with detailing is alive and well on this site.  However, we are aware that not everybody is in a position to be as obsessed as some others may be.  For that reason we offer this more basic guide to detailing. It may be basic as far as the products being used, but its still a guide, and thus it is long.  The steps and processes outlined here are more for the local shopping detailer. The products and tools listed will be things you can find locally at an auto part store or superstore like WalMart or Target. It is possible to obtain a very respectable shine by using your own elbow grease and products purchased off the shelf.  Keep in mind that this article is not titled ďDetailing for the Economically Minded.Ē It is still a pricey hobby even if you are shopping locally. Many people prefer to order online because it is cheaper than buying from PepBoys. Detailing on a budget is a topic for a later article. With that being said, letís get started.

As I go I will be making some product suggestions. Since these will all be products you can purchase locally there will not be links provided as well.  The products will be in blue as well as being underlined and italicized.  They will look something like this. Keep an eye out for those products.  You can probably cut and paste the blue text into Google and it will show you a dozen web sites that can give you more information about them.

The steps in detailing the paint on your car are very simple.  They go something like this:





To start with, the soap is very important. You want a soap that provides you with long lasting suds that will float the dirt off your car.  That is the main purpose of the soap. Along with providing lubrication between your mitt and the car, the soap is what will help get the dirt off. It does you no good to have slick soap and no suds.  Iíve found that for good lubrication and suds it doesnít get much better than Meguiarís NXT car wash. That product is also reviewed in the Product Review page of the OCD University. The best part about the NXT wash is that an hour after washing my car I can come back to the bucket and still have suds in it. Those bubbles are bullet proof and very effective at floating dirt off the car.

Washing should never be done with a sponge or a rag. Those are two great ways to swirl and scratch the paint. Rather, you should use a wool wash mitt instead.  Sponges tend to soak up the dirty water and redeposit it back on your car.  Rags only accomplish dragging dirt across the paint and scratching it. The safest choice is really a wash mitt. Take a look at all of your choices when you go shopping for one. The best one I have ever used was purchased at a Target store. It is very soft wool with a webbed bug scratcher on the back. On the inside it is tan canvas and that keeps holes from wearing through. If you canít find one like that then just pick one that looks durable. Turtle Wax makes a great mitt as well as Viking.  Those are both easy to find anywhere that has a good supply of car care products.

Part of washing the car should be to clean the wheels and tires. I like Eagle One A2Z Wheel and Tire Cleaner for that.  This is a fantastic product that will clean the grime off the wheels as well as the brake dust that accumulates on the tires as well. The best way to apply it is to spray down all four wheels (See the Wheel Detailing article for more information on proper wheel care) with the product and then hose it off. Apply this product to dry and cool wheels. Hosing it off isnít going to necessarily remove all the crud, but you can always follow up with a towel and quick detailer later.

After you wash the car you should dry it.  The best drying tools I have ever used are The Absorber and The California Waterblade. The way I have found that those two tools work best is to first use the Waterblade (CWB) to skim most of the water off, and then use the Absorber to blot the rest off. The CWB is also awesome for drying windows.  Swiping the water off with the CWB is like having a windshield wiper for every window on your car. Just remember to run your fingers along the blade on the CWB between each pass to make sure you arenít dragging grit or anything across the paint. Any tool is only as safe as the way it is used.  You could scratch your car with a silk towel if you allow it to drag dirt across the surface.  So make sure you keep your tools for drying clean and you should be fine.

After you have washed you should clay the car. This is not a step that needs to be done every time you wash the car.  Clay pulls out contamination that gets there from driving around or even just parking somewhere the air is a little more polluted.  There is an article here in the OCDetails University that talks more in detail about clay. I will refer you back to that section at this point because I believe it says everything I can say about clay.  What I can say here is that clay is very important in the preparation process for a great shine.  A product that I mention in several places on this site that I will mention again is Clay Magic.  That is truly my favorite clay that I buy locally.

There is a popular method that many of you have probably heard of. Meguiarís has the famous 3 step waxing process that even I subscribed to at one time. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that process. In fact, it is the exact same process that I just outlined above.  The three step process is to clean, polish, and then wax. The products you use for those steps is entirely up to you. You can stick to the numbered Meguiarís bottles or you can substitute it for your own products.  Its the process that matters more than the products.  While there are definitely some products that work better than others, most will get the job done. Its kind of like how a Porsche will get you from one end of the country just like a Civic will, but one gets you there faster and you look better along the way.

As I said, the first step is to clean the paint. The clay has pulled the contamination out of the paint, but there still may be little rust dots left over or other paint contamination like oxidation.  The Meguiars Deep Crystal Paint Cleaner is a very inexpensive product that could solve this problem for you.  Another great Meguiarís product that I would suggest looking for is their Medallion Premium Paint Cleaner.  Its a little harder to track down than the Deep Crystal products, but it is worth the hunt.  Check around at automotive paint supply shops and you might get lucky.  Many of them are Meguiarís and 3M distributors.

After you have cleaned the paint you should polish it. Just driving the car will create scratches and swirls. Those can be removed, but be aware that removing them by hand is incredibly hard. There are two ways that people deal with swirls. They either remove them or they fill them. To remove them you almost have to have a machine.  Iím not talking about a $39 buffer from WalMart either.  You will never ever see me suggest one of those simply because they have no use other than ruining your car. In the hands of an experienced person they may do what you want them to do, but I have seen way too many hobbyist and amateurs burn their paint because they donít have the know-how.  The very best tool for the job if you are an amateur or hobbyist is the Porter Cable 7424 or 7336.  I donít say best very often, but I can say that about the Porter Cable.  I have seen people with all the tool operating skills of a watermelon use a Porter Cable and make quick work out of swirls without damaging their paint. I strongly recommend hunting one of those down.  You can get the 7336 at Lowes very often for around $100.  Its a worthwhile investment in a paint job that would probably cost more to replace than the rest of your car.

When you do find a Porter Cable then the polish I would suggest using is Meguiarís #83 Dual Action Cleaner Polish.  That is my product of choice when it comes to swirl removal. Its a great polish that breaks down as you use it so that by the time you are done with one panel the product is turning to dust and basically being buffed back off by the machine.  Please refer to the full OCDetails Guide to Detailing for other Porter Cable and DACP tips. It really is a great product when used with the Porter Cable. Its not a good idea to use that polish by hand though. It would be extremely difficult if not impossible to break it down properly by hand.

After the paint cleaner it is time to apply your wax or sealant. You can still get good synthetics off the shelf these days.  Now that they are becoming more popular, its almost like carnauba wax has become old news and ancient history. Those guys who paid the $1500 bucks for a lifetime supply of Zymol Vintage are probably regretting it right about now. The era of wax is over and the new age of synthetic sealants is upon us. I havenít tried all of the synthetics that the wax rack of the local auto part store has to offer, but I have tried Meguiarís NXT Tech Wax and Meguiarís #20 Polymer Sealant.  Both of those are excellent choices with their own unique benefits. #20 is an incredibly durable product that will be great protection for your car through either summer or winter. It is a little tough to buff off after letting it dry on the surface, but it leaves a rock hard shine that will give you at least a good 12 weeks of protection with one coat according to my tests. It would be a perfect base to apply some Meguiarís #26 Carnauba Wax on top of. The shine that you get with #20 is really rather sterile and not much more than protection. If you want that wet look and depth, then youíll want to top it with a wax.

If youíd rather skip the whole topping the product with another product stuff, then the other great synthetic that I have experience with is the NXT Tech Wax. Now this is a product worth looking into getting.  It has very light abrasives in it that assist in cleaning the paint as well as removing some minor swirling. It can be used by hand just as effectively as by machine simply because the abrasives are so light that the use of a machine only makes it faster to use. You can get full use out of the abrasives by working with your hands. It also has some fillers in it to help hide some other swirls. The end result of this product is a glossy smooth surface that looks like freshly molded colored steel.  The shine is incredible.  A great way to rejuvenate that shine is to use the NXT Spray Wax.  Youíve heard of paste and liquid waxes, and youíve even seen quick detailers with carnauba, but this is the first actual spray wax that I have ever seen. You spray it on the car, wait for it to haze, and then you buff it off just like a regular wax.  The shine is incredible.  It will only last you 4 or 5 days at best, but its a great way to shine up the car for your club meet or before a big night out on the town.

Sealants are one way to go, but obviously you can stick to waxing as well. My very favorite paste wax off the shelf has got to be S100.  Its a simple name for an incredible wax.  You can find this paragon of waxes at Harley Davidson shops most of the time.  For about $15 bucks it doesnít get much better than that. Slick surface and low dust attraction make this wax a winner in any environment.  Dust and grime seem to come off with just a gentle rinse and those obnoxious dirt spots that a clean car gets when it rains are hardly a problem.  Dust rinses off easily in a rain storm leaving you car looking much better than if you used an oily wax or glaze that clung to the dust.  S100 is truely a great wax.

Another great wax you can get off the shelf is Meguiarís Gold Class.  This is a really good liquid wax that goes on and off easily.  It has some cleaning power, so youíll notice that the paint seems much brighter than before as well as being glossy and wet looking.  It has some fillers in it that will mask some swirls, but be careful about getting it on black trim or rubber moldings. Unlike S100, this product will stain those parts.

Meguiarís makes a liquid and a paste version of #26. Both are excellent waxes.  If you are looking for a bulk quantity of wax then you can try around your local automotive paint supply stores for a Meguiarís distributor. You can get #26 by the gallon there.  One near me was clearing out their gallon jugs of wax for $10 apiece once.  Deals like that are things you donít see very often though.

Note: So far this guide may have sounded like a long Meguiarís commercial. That isnít what I intend for it to sound like.  I have just always been impressed with the quality of Meguiarís products and have always trusted what they make.  There have been very very few exceptions to the constant quality that I have found with them. I am pleased to suggest a product brand that is so consistent with its quality and dedication to perfection. I hope that you will trust them as well and give some of their products a shot. I think you will feel as I do that they are really top notch products.

That pretty much covers the paint. Now we all know there is more to detailing than just paint care. There is also the wheels, tires, glass, carpet, dash, and a dozen other areas. I think you can probably figure out some of these areas on your own.  Iím not going to spend time writing about the best way to clean the hood prop rod or anything like that.  I do want to spend a little time talking about some common areas of concern that you will likely be looking for good products to handle.

Windows: There are some excellent glass cleaners out there. The thing you want to be careful of is using a glass cleaner that may be fine for your kitchen window, but could be harmful to you dash or exterior trim. Windex is great and all, but there are better products for glass cleaning.  One of my favorites that I will recommend is Stonerís Invisible Glass.  This is a knockout product that will leave your glass as clear as you can possibly get it.  Many high end car shows grade very strictly on glass and I have read several testimonies from winners of such shows that Invisible Glass is their secret weapon.  It is safe for tinted windows as well, and that isnít something that Windex can necessarily guarantee. You want to watch out for glass cleaners with any ammonia in them because that will stain you dash.

One of my new secret weapons for windows is this little wonder right here.  Iíve never used a better glass cleaning tool and you can now find them locally. I picked mine up at Home Depot earlier this year for about $18.  A dry microfiber towel is also a great way to keep on top of haze inside your windows.

For the exterior of the glass there are some great treatments you can give.  Aquapel is one great choice, but its a little tough to find locally. Many detail shops and car washes charge upwards of $20 per application.  It is possible to sometimes find a shop that will sell it to you.  The other more affordable and easier to locate option would be RainX.  This is something that I think should lower your insurance rates.  What it does is make water not sheet across your glass. Water immediately beads up and zips off your glass as you drive. Most of the time your wipers just get in the way.  It is an especially helpful product to have on your car while driving on the freeway with large trucks spraying water and snow everywhere.  Being temporarily blind as a semi truck passes me is one of the scariest things I have ever driven through. There is a really easy way to apply this product too.  Buy a bottle of this and follow these directions and you wonít have any issues with glare or hazing after you finish washing your car.

* Clean exterior glass
* Apply RainX as per instructions on the bottle
* Allow RainX to dry on the glass as you wash the rest of the car
* As the final step of washing you should wash all the exterior glass with the wash mitt

If you follow those steps and rinse/dry the car as usual, then you wonít have any trouble with glare or streaking.  People who complain about RainX doing that just arenít applying it right.

Carpets: Carpets are something that every car has and every car needs cleaned.  Fortunately one of the finest carpet cleaners I have ever used is easily found off the shelf. Prestone Foaming Carpet Cleaner is awesome. I use it in my house to follow up after my toddler who likes to spill stuff and urp up everywhere.  I use it in the car after I find someone has tracked tar into my car. I use it in cars where people have spilled soda all over the place.  It has cleaned up so many different types of stains and spills that I canít number them all. This is probably the one of the only products I have ever used that has consistently done exactly what I wanted it to do every time without fail.  Just beware of imitators. Donít get just any old can of carpet cleaner in a red can. The design of the Prestone can is superior to all of those.  The brush part flips down and that prevents it from flipping while using it.  Also, the easiest way to spray it on the carpet is to flip the brush down so that the foam doesnít just build up in it.

Leather: There are a lot of leather conditioners out there on the shelf.  Everything from EagleOne to Zymol.  The thing to remember about leather conditioners is that it is just like hand lotion. The purpose is to revive dried out leather and keep it soft so it doesnít crack. Now, if your hands were dry and cracking, would you want a lotion that sprays on your hands, or would you want an actual lotion that is thick and you can really rub in your skin?  That is how you should look at leather conditioners.  Try to avoid the spray kinds. Typically they are not going to be as good as an actual lotion.  You can check custom upholstery shops for good leather conditioners. I really donít have any good suggestions for stuff off the shelf. The fact is that most of it isnít that great.  Zymolís leather conditioner is pretty good. Its all substandard compared to what you can order online. If you can only order one thing off the internet, then make it a good leather conditioner. Everything else can be duplicated off the shelf, but leather care is something that PepBoyís doesnít seem to care much about. Neither does WalMart or Target.  Proper leather care products should either be purchased online or from a leather specialist locally. It also depends a lot on what kind of leather you have.  See the Leather Care article here on OCDetails for more information about good leather care.

Dash: 303 Aerospace Protectant is probably one of the better products that you can find off the shelf. Its expensive when you find it, but its worth it.  If you canít find any 303 products then donít be afraid to use Armor All.  Its not the evil dash drying out product that it was 15 years ago. They have actually made it pretty well for the last several years. Even the Meguiarís NXT Tech Protectant isnít so bad once you wipe the extra grease off.  Some people like a shiny dash I guess.  If that person is you then you are going to love the NXT dash product.  It is super shiny.  Just wipe down any surface you use it on with a dry shop towel and that should take a little of the gloss off so its not so extreme.

Engine: Ahhh... there are few things I like better than detailing an engine.  This is another interesting area because my favorite products under the hood to use are also found on the shelf. I love to start with a good engine degreaser.  Gunk Foaming Engine Degreaser is my product of choice right now.  I get all the painted surfaces as well as any part of the motor that looks particularly greasy with that and then I let it soak for a minute.  Then I rinse with very low stream water from a hose. Detailing an engine isnít like putting out a fire. You have to go slowly and carefully. Focus mainly on the painted sections and work carefully around electronics.  It may be necessary to break out the tooth brushes and towels to clean up really well.  Iíve got more detailed information on engine detailing in the full OCD Guide to Detailing.

Once you have everything cleaned up and dried all the dirty areas it is a good time to put some shine on.  CD2 Engine Detailer is absolutely amazing.  I find it at Auto Zone easily now.  For the longest time it was impossible to find. Now I buy 3 or 4 cans everytime I go just so I can stock up and prepare for the time when I canít find it anymore. It puts a shine on the plastics and rubber under the hood that nothing else can come close to. Again, refer to the full guide to detailing for more information, but trust me... this product is amazing. My next project will be to do a more detailed guide specifically for engine detailing that will cover what parts to be careful around and more in depth procedures for getting that show winning shine out of your engine. 

That pretty much covers it for the OCDetails Basic Guide to Detailing. I appreciate the feedback I got in preparation for this article and for the feedback that I will undoubtedly get in response to it. As always, if you have any product or process questions feel free to email me at  I look forward to your feeback and hope that this article has been helpful in finding your way in the murky waters of auto detailing. 

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