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A Detailing "How To' Walk Through w/Pics


Hey everyone,

I just wanted to share with you all some of what i've learned about detailing over the years since, well, that's what I do! There is SO much more you can do for your car other than wash it, slap a coat of wax on it and call it a day. I hope you will take a few minutes to give this a good read and maybe learn a trick or two :)

I tried to cover quite a few bases in this write up so it is a little lengthy, but i wanted to be 'detailed' in what i was explaining and hopefully shine a little light onto some techniques ive learned over the years...some are even very simple...that can really make a BIG difference. So... :popcorn: ...lets begin

I figured I'd start from the very basics of washing and doing tires etc....and then go into surface prep (clay bar), then paint polishing (swirl removal) and applying your final product (wax or sealant) and then smart things to do to help MAINTAIN that beautiful finish that you just put hours and hours of time into. And of course, there will be pictures oh yes, many pictures  :pbjtime: :cool:  

So first lets start with the basics - washing - simple right? Well, maybe not SO simple as there are many variables to consider to make sure you're doing the job right.

First off, what products are you using...are you using some dish soap from the kitchen, some old terry towels laying around in the garage to wash with and a big cruddy beach towel to dry off with? Lets look at common sense, you dropped what...25,30,50 THOUSAND dollars or more on your car...I'd say its worth a few extra bucks to get some decent car washing supplies to help preserve your investment.



The reason I do this is because they are usually pretty nasty and I don't want to wash my car and then go and do the tires and end up slinging the dirt from them RIGHT back onto the paint that I just spent time so carefully cleaning.

There are several good products to use, but for me i like Meguiars All Purpose Cleaner - spray it onto your tires when they are dry and  you can literally see the grime/dirt roll off. Be careful not to hit your rims...some chemicals can stain certain types of rims. APC USUALLY is ok on rims, but still be careful. I usually like to use good ole soap and water as even designated rim cleaners often times contain some sort of acids.

 Depending on how bad they are  you may want either scrub them with a tire brush (the tires not the rims being careful not to hit your rims with the brush), or wipe them down with an old terry towel and then rinse the tire clean. If I do scrub them or wipe them...i prefer to have a bucket of soapy water with me....dunk the brush/towel in the soapy water and then work on the tires. If they aren't horrible, and you keep on top of them - then letting the tire cleaner sit for a minute (not allowing it to dry) and then rinsing clean should be all you need - especially if you're using a pressure washer :)
Please note when you're finished washing your tires....DUMP THAT DIRTY WATER. You don't want that nasty grungy water anywhere NEAR your paint when you start washing. You'd be surprised how many people will use that same water  to wash their paint....this makes me go :jd


Probably the most important aspect that is the most ignored. A nice warm sunny day out in direct sun washing your car is about one of the worst things you can do - especially in Arizona. We have SUPER hard water in AZ, and once the water evaporates it leaves mineral deposits on your paint they will actually ETCH into your paint if not attended to. That is how you develop 'water spots'...Look to the left of the center of the hood...see the spots that look like rain drops...those are called water spots

Wash in the shade...when your panels are cool and you don't have to rush around like a bat out of hell trying to rinse/wash/rinse again/dry in 8.2 seconds. The cooler...the better.

RINSE the whole car down first. It's best to rinse off all the loose dirt and then wash off the rest that is left over.

Wash top to bottom - Most times where is the dirtiest area of your car? Well usually...unless a few birds had a party on top of your car - it's the bottom where all the dirt and mud and tar fling up to. Start at the top and wash the dirt DOWN the car...and finish by washing the dirtiest area last.

USE TWO BUCKETS - I love this method.

Most people who wash their car do it like this: You have one bucket....wash some dirt off of your car with your mitt - rinse that dirt out into the SAME WATER you're washing with...and then have a nice fresh swirl job on your car because  your wash water was filthy.

Try this - have one bucket of your nice sudsy soap water...and a second bucket of plain water that you will rinse your mitt in. That way the dirt stays with the dirt and the suds stay with the suds. If your car is extremely may even want to change out the rinse water half way through your wash :thumbs

 You don't want to use dish soap...why? Dish soaps are degreasers - thus it cuts and removes oils. If you have a coat of wax or sealant on your car, what do you think a degreaser will do to it...strip it away! Now, in cases where you are TRYING to strip away old wax and prep the surface, some Dawn soap can be your best friend. But when you are just doing a maintenance wash...use a designated car soap. There are plenty available somewhere as local as a Wally world. Meguiars makes a great over the counter soap called Gold Class. Or you can opt to buy from many of the online detailing stores for more 'professional' products. The main thing you want is for the soap to be  mild and slippery...if it's not slippery enough you could just end up dragging dirt across your paint and instilling swirls/scratches all over it.


There are many different options here, Microfiber mitts, sheep skin mitts and sponges just to name a few. Which to choose? Well really, all can be good choices just as long as  they are soft, taken care of and kept CLEAN. If you scrub some tar and bugs and a pound of lovely AZ dirt off your car and then just leave your mitt to dry and go out to use it the next time without having ever cleaned it...all that grime is just going to be rubbed all over your finish...not a good thing!

For drying, personally I don't think you can beat a good soft Microfiber towel. They have a lesser chance of scratching your finish than a terry cloth and hold an abundance of water making your job of drying much easier. Again, quality MF towels are available in places like wally world or target, go on ahead and splurge and get yourself a couple nice ones for your bulk drying - and having a few beat up ones around for doing your rims is always a good idea too, but still keep them as clean as possible, as you don't want to mar your rims either (obviously!). I also like to keep some designated windows MF I'm sure you all have experienced the frustration of window streaks...if you use a couple clean MF towels to do your windows - and only your windows - I'm sure you'll see an improvement :)


So you have a nice clean ride now but you're feeling ambitious and want to give ole baby a fresh coat of wax. Well you just washed it so it should be ready to lay on a coat of wax, right? Well maybe not. You see some things don't just wash right off. Things like bird dropping, tree sap, industrial fall out or paint over spray will actually BOND to your paint over time. Now you could go over every square inch, scrubbing your brains out and hope this will remove the bonded contaminants - but that isn't exactly 'paint friendly' and plus..your arms would fall off  :banghead

This is when we break out the clay bar. This is one of your best friends for surface prep. Using it, along with a detail spray will help you to GENTLY remove those contaminants and greatly minimize your risk or adding more swirls to your paint. There are now also alternatives to actual being the Hi-Tech Magna Sponge... sells's a local detaling supply distributor and that is where i get my Magna Sponge from. Clay bars are available again at places like Wally world. The clay is usually smaller but will still work. I think Mothers clay bar kit is pretty decent. Here is an example of what I got off of the surface AFTER washing:

Not pretty right? Imagine if you had been putting a coat of wax on and some of that came off onto your wax pad...and then you ended up dragging it across the entire surface of your car while waxing :facepalm:

I LOVE how the surface of a car feels after is smooth as glass and a 'must do' before i ever do any polishing or even waxing. The horizontal panels (hood,trunk,roof) are often the worst because the contaminants have a better chance of landing on those surfaces than they do of landing on a vertical surface like a door. Nevertheless, I still recommend doing the ENTIRE me, it's worth it.


So after claying your car and seeing the horrible swirl marks all over you decide  rather than going straight to wax and just having shiny swirls you'd like to get rid of that unsightly horror. Lets first look at what the problem is...what type of defects are we dealing with?

Paint defects come in a few different shapes and sizes and the first step is 'detection'. What I mean by that is, you need to be able to SEE what you're working with, and looking at your car in the shade...or in poor lighting is only going to deceive you in what condition your paint is REALLY in. In order to really see the condition of your paint, DIRECT sun light is best:

As you can see...that paint is horribly swirled. This in the shade would be all but undetectable, but under direct light..well, thats what you get! Now of course the problem is when polishing you should always work in the shade, so the question is how do you get direct light in the shade, can't have sun in there now can you? Well Halogen lights as well as lights such as a Brinkmann Xenon light provide a very bright light that really helps detect swirls:

...swirl marks (as shown above), water spots (as shown above in the hood picture), bird dropping etchings (yes, their 'waste' will actually eat into your paint) and 'buffer trails' or 'holograms', which are rotary marks cause simply by someone using a rotary who doesn't really know what they're doing, are the several types of paint defects that you may come cross. These however, are usually correctable. One of the best visual diagrams I've ever come across to depict these defects can be found here:

On the other hand there are SOME scratches that may be so deep into the clear that it would not be safe to correct them. Why? Because correcting paint is actually LEVELING the paint. You are actually going to be removing a very small amount of the clear coat to leave it all at the same level. Think of it as a piece of wood that has a scratched up finish. You can either put something in it to fill it, sand it all the way down and refinish it or lightly sand/polish the surrounding finish down to the same level as the scratch. Polishing paint is the same as the last option listed. If the scratch is too deep however, it would be unsafe and foolish to attempt to polish all of the surrounding clear down to the level of the deep scratch, because that would leave ALL of your clear on the thin side.

In cases like this you have a couple with it, try using a product with 'fillers' which will help to hide the defect (not permanently), use some touch up paint (it won't make the scratch look like new but it will look MUCH better) or have the entire panel re-cleared. In some cases the scratches (or rock chips) are so deep they have broken through the clear, to the base coat or even which case touch up paint or having the panel repainted are really your only options.

The general rule of thumb is, if you can catch your finger nail in the scratch, it's probably too deep to try to safely correct. You can however make it look BETTER. that we know what we're working with...we have to do something about it. There are several things you will be working with now.

1. Type of polisher/buffer

There are Rotaries such as a Makita 9227, Dewalt 849 or Flex 3404 to name a few, which spin in one direction. They are excellent for defect removal but have a serious learning curve. If you don't know what you're doing with one, you can mar the paint, leave buffer trails or in a really bad case you can actually burn THROUGH the clear and end up with only one  option...a repaint.

There are also several 'dual action' polishers. Popular ones are the Porter Cable 7424XP, Meguiars G110, and the Griots Garage DA (dual action) polisher. These are much more user friendly. They rotate, but also oscillate when pressure is applied to it. This makes it much more safe because the oscillating motion will move the pad so that it will not stay in one place long enough to generate enough heat to burn the paint. These are slower than rotaries being that you have to move them slower, but you can surely use them to get excellent correction.

2. Type of pads

There are TONS of pads to choose from. Foam, wool and now even microfiber pads are available, ranging in sizes from 3" all the way up to 8+" wool pads. Personally, 5.5"-6" pads work best for me. You have better control over what you're doing and can concentrate on the area at hand much easier. Foam are the most popular and range from cutting pads (used for compounds), polishing pads (used for finishing polishes, big surprise right?) and finishing pads (used for final waxes or sealants). Wool pads are only used for heavy oxidation and swirl removal. They work quickly to cut the paint but will leave many lighter swirls and will need to be followed up with a foam cutting pad and compound. Microfiber pads are much newer to the market. Meguiars actually has come out with a Dual Action Microfiber SYSTEM featuring MF pads. Surbuff also offers MF pads that work quite well but do leave a slight haze and are best followed up with a designated polish to clear up the haze.

3. Types of product[/b]

There are many different compounds (used for heavy swirl/defect removal), polishes (used for light swirl/haze removal) and waxes/sealants (used to protect your paint from UV rays and other harmful contaminants) on the market. Meguiars, Pinnacle, Optimum and Wolfgang to name a few. There are obviously many different types of pad/product combos and it can be confusing on where to start, but it's best to follow the 'least aggressive method' theory.

The lease aggressive method means that...rather than start with the HEAVIEST cutting compound on the HEAVIEST cutting pad and just going at the paint with the biggest guns you've got, it is usually best to start with either a lesser aggressive pad or compound or both. Then, do a TEST SPOT. Do a small 20"x20" that spot and then wipe away the compound/polish and then evaluate your results. If you got good results, then you can pretty much assume that whatever combo you used on that spot, will work on the rest of the car. On the other hand, if it DOES NOT work, it's better to find out NOW, after doing only a small spot, rather than doing the whole car and THEN finding out "oh crap my car still doesn't look as good as i wanted it" :banghead

It is usually smart to TAPE OFF all emblems, plastic or rubber trim due to the fact that polish will stain your rubber trim and is a PAIN to remove and it is an equal PAIN to remove from the small cracks of emblems. (note in the future pictures i removed the tape between photos but when i was actually polishing they were taped up).

In the case of the SUV I've been showing, i went with a Meguiars Polishing pad, using a PC (porter cable) 7424 Dual Action polisher and some Pinnalce XMT Swirl Remover #2. Being that Pinnacles product line ranges from 1-4 in their XMT product line (4 being most aggressive) this is a fairly mild polish being used with a polishing, not a cutting pad. I did a test spot and it came out very well. Typically you would compound (first step), polish (second step) and then wax or seal (Last Step). This customer however only wanted a single polishing  pass, as he was  trying to sell the SUV and wanted to save I wanted a combo of GOOD correction but with a GOOD, BRIGHT and CLEAR finish as well. A cutting pad and heavy compound will give you good correction, but can leave a slight haze and slightly duller finish compared to what it would look like if you went with a polishing pad, or did an entire second step with a polishing pad and designated polish.

So here is what where were looking at (just as a reminder):

and then, after a single pass, doing about a 20"x20" section at a time and doing 5 to 6 SLOW 'section passes' while applying light to moderate pressure. You want to move at about an inch per second as a baseline for how slow you should move (a section pass is going in a vertical patter across the entire 20", using overlapping passes followed by going in a horizontal pattern using over lapping passes, doing both would count as TWO section passes, hope this isn't confusing) and then wiping the polish away with a clean, soft microfiber cloth (again, using a good towel means the world, if you use something that is cheap or in bad shape, you could THAT QUICKLY put back in swirls you just removed!)
Here were my results:

As you can see, even with only a single pass, this came VERY close to 100% correction.

Priming your pad is very important.  Before you start polishing...apply a good amount of polish evenly ALL over your pad and then use your fingers to gently massage it evenly into the surface of the pad. You don't want to SOAK it but this will help the pad and polish work more evenly. After this, you will only need a small amount of polish (3 or 4 dime size drops) per section pass.

Here is another before and after

Before of the back hatch:

After of the same spot:

Again, very close to 100% correction, using a DA...and only with a single pass. It takes time and patience (this SUV took close to 9 hours with 2 people working on it, but to be fair we did a basic interior detail and engine detail say out of the 18 man hours 15 were designated to JUST the paint) and concentration but it is worth it in the end.

Cleaning your pad is extremely important. Remember, when you are polishing you are actually removing a very thin layer of paint...this paint is being transferred to your pad. You need to either take a nylon stiff bristle brush, a clean terry towel or a clean MF towel and 'clean on the fly' after every 1 or 2 section passes. This cleans away any oxidation, dried product or removed clear from your that way you're not dragging it across the paint on the next section you polish.

Step Four: Protection (Wax/Sealant)

This is the fun part. You've just dropped several hours washing, claying and polishing your vehicle. It looks GREAT...and you want it to STAY that way, but it's missing the icing on the cake so to speak.

Again, there are SEVERAL types of waxes and sealant available. Carnauba waxes such as Pinnacle Souvourn Wax or Wolfgang Fuzion provide more of a POP to your finish. These are very expensive waxes but you DONT have to drop $100+ to have a good wax. Meguiars #26 is a very good wax and there are other equivalent waxes available for $20 or less that will last you a very long time.  Carnauba waxes are great for show cars or for someone who really wants their ride to blind some people lol  :partydance: These Carnauba waxes however usually only provide 2-3 months of protection from UV rays, water spots and other harmful contaminants. (Note that this is not a magic bullet...if you go out and have rain or sprinklers or bird droppings hit your car..and you just LEAVE it, it will eventually eat through your wax and could also etch into your paint, this DOES however give you more time to deal with these contaminants).

Paint sealants such as Meguiars #20 Polymer Paint Sealant or Wolfgang Deep Gloss Paint Sealant are actually SYNTHETIC waxes that typically provide a longer time frame of protection. It WILL also add more pop and gloss to your paint, but not as much as a designated Carnauba wax. Synthetic waxes, aka sealants on as a trade off, provide 5-6 months of protection...sometimes longer.

The other option is to first put on a sealant for long term protection, but then add a layer of Carnauba wax to give it more pop.

Applying a wax or sealant is MUCH MUCH easier than polishing paint. You only want to apply a thin layer of wax or sealant. You can do this either by hand with a foam  or microfiber pad or by DA polisher with a finishing pad. You will want to make much quicker section passes and apply no pressure. You are just SPREADING the's the are not longer trying to remove any defects. Some waxes/sealants you should apply one section at a time and then remove, others you should do the entire car and then allow it to sit 45 minutes or so....and then remove it.

You can use wax on paint, chrome, headlights or even emblems...but again STAY AWAY from rubber and plastic it too will stain it and will cost you more time to remove it.

I use two microfiber towels to remove the wax. I remove it by making a circular motion (wax off Daniel son) over a panel....and then go over it in a back and fourth motion with a second MF towel to remove and left over residue or streaks left. FLIP your towel every panel or two. I fold my Mf towels two times, thus giving me 8 'sides' to work with (hope that isnt' too confusing). That way you have several clean surfaces on one towel to flip to and work with and don't have to worry about smearing removed wax onto a panel you're trying to wipe clean.

MAKE SURE to check all cracks and body lines....waxes LOVE to hide in those areas. If you miss it and have to remove it later it isn't the end of the world, it's just a lot harder to deal with.


Proper maintenance is very important. Wash your car yourself using the guide lines listed earlier or take it to someone who will (preferably) do a hand wash or a touchless wash. Note these can STILL be problems...even if it's a hand wash the could use bad or dirty washing supplies and a touchless wash often time will use heavy degreasers and can strip away the protection you applied. Tunnel washes are NOT your friend, harsh dirty brushes are sure to mar up your paint in no time. Take the time to tend to it yourself or pay a little extra to someone who will do it RIGHT. This is why many of my customers hire me for at least a monthly maintenance wash as they know I will be extra careful in caring for their car.

Also, products like a spray wax applied after a wash will add a little extra protection and help keep that 'pop' in the paint fresh and glossy. I'd advise AGAINST dusters since they just drag the dust across the surface, however there are products like Optimum No Rinse that is a nice substitute to cars that are dirty but not FILTHY. No hose is just mix it with water...wash 1 panel at a time...and then wipe it dry and move to the next.

Don't forget, when you've finished with all this work pull it out and enjoy your've earned it. With anything else, practice and experience count for a lot. I've done this many many MANY times and I'm STILL learning, and hopefully always will be :)...and thats the fun part. There of course are many other variables to detailing and this is just general over view but still giving some insight of things ive learned over the years.

Here are a few more pictures of the Suburban when i was done (by the way i topped it with Meguiars NXT 2.0 AND for a happy ending to this story, the SUV sold 2 weeks later hahaha  :thumbs )

I loved this shot, this roof was a pain to do but came out awesome:

So thanks everyone for reading. Questions and comments are SURELY welcome. I love what i do and i love sharing it with others. I hope you enjoyed the write up, and if you did maybe (if prompted to) i could do a few others on things like interiors or engines or headlight restorations etc. I hope that I wasn't too long winded and that it was worth the time you took to read it.

Take care all!


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