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How To Detail Your Car: The Basic Dos and Don'ts

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

Car detailing extends the life of your vehicle. Nurture your car with these basic steps and valuable tips on how to detail your car on your own.

Every savvy car owner should develop a routine to keep their vehicle in good shape. In order to preserve (and likely increase) the value of your vehicle, it’s good practice to detail your car regularly with maintenance washes in between details.

Did you catch that? Washes in between details. Washing your car is but one step in the process of a quality car detail. Detailing is a bumper-to-bumper restoration—every surface of the vehicle is cleaned and conditioned with special care for maximum protection.

Detailing requires a lot of time, patience, and precision. Read the basic steps below, as well as some essential dos and don’ts, if you’re looking to try your hand at detailing and spend some quality time with your car.

The Supplies You Need To Detail Your Car

You’ll need to gather supplies to detail the interior and exterior of your car. Like we said, detailing is much more than a car wash! The interior is just as important.

Without getting too crazy, the following supplies will equip you with the essential tools needed for a basic detail.

Interior Detailing Supplies:

  • Microfiber towels

  • Bristle brush

  • Vacuum

  • Ammonia-free glass cleaner

  • Car interior cleaning solution

  • Leather or upholstery cleaner

  • Automotive carpet cleaner

  • Toothbrush, cotton swabs, or other small, brush-like tools

  • Compressed air duster, optional

  • (2) Bags, optional

  • Steam cleaner, optional

Exterior Detailing Supplies:

  • Water

  • Hose

  • Spray nozzle

  • (2) Buckets

  • Wheel brush

  • Wheel cleaner

  • Microfiber towels

  • Wash mitt

  • pH-balanced car shampoo

  • Exterior detailing spray

  • Ammonia-free glass cleaner

  • Foam applicator pad

  • Clay bar

  • Paint protection of choice, like car wax or sealant

If your water is not filtered or you do not have a water softener system installed in your home, we recommend going with a waterless or rinseless wash instead. Hard water can leave nasty water spots, especially if your car is in the sun. If you still prefer a traditional wash, make sure you are in the shade and your vehicle is cool to the touch before you begin. To avoid higher temperatures and harsh sunlight, it’s good practice to wash your car in the early morning or near the end of the day.

Lastly, if you prefer a traditional wash but don’t have access to a hose with free-flowing water, make sure you have ample water accessible during the entire detailing process. It’s better to have too much than too little.

How to Detail Your Car’s Interior

You should always clean your car’s interior first. Once you’re done, you have no need to enter your vehicle again during your detailing job. You can lock it up and safeguard your newly immaculate cabin.

  1. Clean it out. Grab two bags: one for trash and one for personal items like CDs, change, gloves—whatever you keep in the car. Check door storage, seat pockets, cup holders, glove compartments, floors, visors, and under the seats. Clear everything out so it’s just you and the dirt you’re about to eradicate.

  2. Wipe down all surfaces. Use a microfiber towel and cleaning spray on all surfaces, including the steering wheel, dashboard, console, door panels, door handles, armrests, door jambs, cup holders, compartments, buttons, dials, and knobs. Use a bristle brush on air vents and cotton swabs, a toothbrush, or other small brushes in small crevices.

  3. Vacuum. Remove the floor mats and brush the carpet to loosen the fibers. Vacuum the seats, floors, and trunk thoroughly. Use attachments and compressed air dusters to get in the nooks and crannies.

  4. Clean the seats. Depending on the material of your seats, use leather or upholstery cleaner and a fresh microfiber towel.

  5. Scrub your carpet. Remove stains and stubborn dirt with carpet cleaner and a good scrubber. Do the same for your floor mats if they’re made of the same material, but keep them outside the vehicle as you clean them. A vapor steamer is also a great tool to clean your carpets if you have one. Make sure the carpets and floor mats are completely dry before you put the mats back.

  6. Clean the inside glass. Use a clean microfiber towel and a quality glass cleaner to wipe down the inside windshield, rear glass, and all car windows.

  7. Deodorize. For the final touch, crack open a new pack of your favorite air freshener or spray an automotive deodorizer.

How To Detail Your Car’s Exterior

Before you begin, keep the goal of your detailing endeavors in mind. You are not just removing the visible dirt off of your vehicle, you are restoring the condition of your car and treating your vehicle’s components to protect them from further damage.

It’s a balance of cleaning and preventative maintenance.

  1. Start with a preliminary rinse. See all the loose contaminants and general crud on your car? They’re there, whether you can see them or not. Give your car a thorough rinse to remove any loose dirt on the surface so it won’t damage your paint as you wash it.

  2. Wash the wheels. Wash wheels one at a time using a designated wash mitt and a wheel brush to scrub your wheels inside and out.

  3. Lather, rinse, repeat. Working with one section at a time, wash the exterior with automotive shampoo and a wash mitt and immediately rinse so the soap doesn’t dry onto the surface. Keep your car wet at all times to prevent water spots and any missed soap residue from drying.

  4. Dry the car. Use several microfiber towels to dry the exterior of your vehicle.

  5. Clean the outside glass. With the same glass cleaner used earlier for the interior, clean the outside of the glass with a fresh microfiber cloth.

  6. Use a clay bar. Again, working with one section at a time, spray an exterior detailing solution on the car, gently rub the clay bar over the surface, and dry with a clean microfiber towel for a smooth finish. Make sure you’re in the shade as you do this.

  7. Apply wax. For paste wax, buff into your vehicle’s paint with a foam applicator pad in small, circular motions while parked in the shade. Use a microfiber towel to remove excess wax when you’re done. To save time, we recommend a spray wax or spray sealant for an easy application.

The Basic Do’s and Don’ts of Detailing

There are right and wrong ways to execute the steps outlined above. Develop the right techniques by following these important dos and don’ts before you even think about picking up a pack of microfiber towels.

DO: Work from the top down.

The bottom half of your car tends to cake up with dirt more than the top half. Start from the roof and work your way down, one section at a time, as you wash the exterior of your car. Wipe in a single direction only, no circulate motions.

DO: Use the two bucket method.

Have one bucket for soapy water and one bucket for rinse water. If you notice the rinse bucket becoming cloudy, dump it out and refill with clean water.

DO: Set aside time.

Detailing takes time. Make sure you’re prepared to be patient and take your time if you want the best results. Rushing through a detail could cause damage to your car in the process.

DO: Use microfiber materials.

Microfiber should be your go-to material for all car cleaning fabrics. Anything else is likely to leave scratch marks on your vehicle’s surface.

DO: Gather all your supplies before you start.

Have everything you need on hand. Having to stop in the middle of a detail to grab a towel or cleaning solution could lead to water spots and dried soap residue.


DON’T: Use ammonia on your windows.

Your standard Windex bottle may be good for your bathroom mirrors but keep it away from your car windows. The active ingredient, ammonia, is harsh on tinted windows. Find an ammonia-free glass cleaner to prevent your window tint from bubbling and peeling.

DON’T: Wash your car in direct sunlight.

Not only will heat dry out your soap and water faster, but it will also compromise the performance of your detailing products. Make sure your car is cool to the touch before you start your detail.

DON’T: Cross-contaminate.

Don’t use the same microfiber towel you used for your wheels on your car’s exterior, or dip a dirty wash mitt into your bucket of soapy water to start on a new section. Each section of your car should be cleaned with a fresh microfiber towel to avoid moving contaminants from one part of your car to the other.

DON’T: Use chrome wheel cleaner on aluminum wheels.

Make sure you use the right kind of cleaner for the material surface you’re applying it to. Chemicals can be harsh; using a chrome wheel cleaner on aluminum wheels will leave stains.

DON’T: Wear anything that could scratch your car.

Before you get started, remove jewelry, belts, watches, keys, and anything that could scratch your car as you get to work.

Understand What It Takes To Detail Your Car

Detailing your own car is a valuable experience to have, especially if you’re a car enthusiast. Thoroughly cleaning and conditioning every crevice of your car is quite a feat. While it is labor-intensive and time-consuming, it can be very rewarding. After all, that’s how Passion Driven Automotive detailing services were born!

If you want to take excellent care of your car but don’t want to take on a regular routine of detailing on your own, Passion Driven Automotive is here to help. Let’s work together to give your car the treatment it deserves. We offer discounted monthly maintenance packages to make it easy, affordable, and convenient to keep your car in pristine condition.


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