In our very first blog post, we introduced you to the very basics of car care. By reading through that article you probably realised that there is more to car care than you originally thought. And even if you didn’t read that text, you may already have an interest in detailing your own car, started to google what you actually need to go ahead – or worse: asked in a forum or Facebook group – and immediately regretted it as you realised that there are so many different products that you are told to use that the whole thing suddenly and rather quickly becomes rather overwhelming.
In this blog post, we’ll try to break down the WHOLE detailing routing from A to Z. This means that we tell you which steps it takes to completely detail your whole car to perfection. Keep in mind that this boils down to a best-case scenario in which you want to achieve the same results as a professional detailer would. Of course, you can always decide to skip some of the below presented steps – and we will, in fact, tell you which you can actually skip and which you shouldn’t – and just detail your car to the extent you want to. But keep in mind what we told you in our article on the basics of car care: everything, literally everything we do in detailing has one goal – to reduce, prevent, or remove paint defects. And every “short cut” you take in the ideal detailing routine increases the risk of scratches, swirls, holograms and other paint defects to happen.
In the following, we will focus on the detailing routine of the exterior of your car. Interior cleaning and detailing is somewhat of a simpler process as you, in general, just clean a specific surface with a dedicated cleaner and then may also protect it. For this, you can stick to very versatile interior cleaning products such as interior cleaners and/or interior detailers, or you can stick to specialised products for specific surfaces. However, be advised that this is likely to result in the fall into a rabbit hole as there really and in fact are specialised products for every type of interior surface – displays, hard plastics, soft plastics, synthetic leather, regular leather, truly natural leather, alcantara, suede, fabric, carpets, aluminium trim, fake aluminium trim, piano lacquer, wood with clear coat, natural untreated wood, fake wood, …. Are they better than universally usable products? Probably. Will all of your car’s interior suddenly implode because you use a versatile interior cleaner? No, definitely not.
So, the complete detailing routing for your car’s exterior looks like this:
Step 1: Wheels
Wheels first – this is a simple rule in detailing regarding a wash routine. The reason for this is that the wheels are most likely amongst the dirtiest parts of your whole car and you therefore should get that task done first, as it could be that if you washed your car first, that you then would get it dirty again by washing the wheels afterwards. For cleaning wheels, you have two options:
Wheel cleaners, much like insect removers, are dedicated products which mainly make your life easier: you just spray them on, let them do their work (read the manufacturer’s instructions regarding how long they should sit on your wheels), and then rinse them off. It’s really that simple. However, most wheel cleaners – more precisely every wheel cleaner that turns red or purple after you sprayed it on – stink like rotten eggs which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and some of them are so aggressive that they can actually stain sensible wheel finishes (like chrome or polished surfaces). So always make sure that your preferred wheel cleaner is safe to use on your wheels by asking the manufacturer about it – and we really mean the manufacturer because no one on a forum or in a Facebook group will pay for damaged wheels just because he or she told you that your wheel cleaner is or should be safe. If you don’t want to clean your wheels with a wheel cleaner, then you can use a wash bucket with water and shampoo in it, dip in a wash mitt or wheel brush and then gently scrub away the dirt from your wheels. You can – and we would recommend that – first spray the wheels with e.g. a snow foam, traffic film remover, citrus precleaner or a mild wheel cleaner, let that sit for a minute or two and then go ahead and wash your wheels with water, shampoo and a mitt / brush because the more dirt you get off before touching your wheels, the less risk you run of scratching them. You can use any shampoo you like for this job, but there are also dedicated wheel shampoos. Pro tip: you can also get yourself CarPro IronX Snow Soap and squeeze a little bit of it into your wash bucket together with your chosen shampoo. IronX Snow Soap does contain the same ingredients as wheel cleaners so it will help to clean your wheels better, but it is not so highly concentrated in a wash bucket as it would be in a dedicated wheel cleaner.
Step 2: Prewash
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not actually washing your car with shampoo and a wash mitt that is the most important step in a car care routine, but the prewash stage. To understand this, go back to our article on the basics of car care and remember that all we do in detailing aims at reducing or preventing paint defects – e.g. scratches and swirls. And one the simplest, easiest and quickest ways to introduce such things to your paint is by skipping or misunderstanding the prewash stage and going straight ahead and washing your car. The prewash stage in a detailing routine has one simple goal: to remove as much dirt as possible without touching the car – meaning prior to washing it with a wash mitt. This is also called a “touchless” or “contactless” wash. In the best-case scenario (e.g. if you just have light dirt on your car or it is protected by e.g. a wax, paint sealant or ceramic coating), this touchless or contactless wash stage is all you need to clean your car. Because let’s be as clear as possible about this one: the less you touch your car, the fewer paint damages you will induce. There are several different products and product categories you can use during the prewash stage:
- The mildest and safest form is a pH neutral snow foam. Yes, snow foam is the stuff that looks so good on detailing pictures and videos in which you see cars which are completely covered in what seems live shaving cream. In order to understand snow foam, what it can and – more importantly – what it can’t do it is necessary to look at the origins of snow foam: it was invented or created to clean protected cars as safe as possible, meaning that it should not only clean the car but leave the protective product that’s on it as intact as possible. Because every single protective product out there will degrade over time and mechanical (e.g. by the wash mitt or by just driving the car), thermal (extreme cold or heat), as well as chemical (cleaning products) influences, will accelerate that. So, by using harsh and strong chemicals to clean your car as fast and easy as possible, you will always run the risk of damaging your protection – and that’s the single most important aspect to understand in a washing routine. So, snow foam is mainly aimed at precleaning car with light dirt on them – or if you have heavily soiled cars with huge mud chunks on them and you want to loosen them up as safely as possible. It does so by loosening and/or softening the non-bonded contaminants (dirt) on your car’s paint so that they afterwards can be washed away with a high-pressure washer. But keep in mind that if you face really dirty cars, then you most likely will not be done after a snow foam Tip: in order to create really, really thick foam like you saw in all those nice videos, you’ll need a good pressure washer that creates a good amount of pressure as well as a quality snow foam lance.
- An alternative to snow foam is so-called traffic film removers (TFR). They don’t foam up as much as snow foam and are usually more liquid, but they can be useful if you don’t have much actual dirt on your car but a very very thin and grey-ish mist of dust which seems to stick to your car’s paint – which is called traffic film, road film or road grime. Traffic film removers are products dedicated at removing this kind of dirt and generally work better in doing so than a snow foam So it could e.g. make sense to first use a snow foam to wash away the first layer of dirt and then use a TFR afterwards.
- Citrus precleaners or prewashes are similar to traffic film removers and are probably the most versatile products for the prewash stage. They can be good at lifting off dirt, removing traffic film, attacking insects and still be safe to your choice protective product. However, as with most chemicals, the stronger such a product actually cleans, the less safe it will be to a wax, sealant or ceramic coating.
- If you have a lot of leftovers bugs and other insects on your car’s front, then it may makes sense to use a dedicated bug remover. However, be aware that most of those are made to attack, loosen and lift off organic material (insects) and most waxes are, in fact, also organic material. So, insect and bug removers, especially strong (alkaline) ones will always induce the risk of damaging a wax coat that’s on your car, but also less resistant sealants and/or ceramic coatings.
As with all other product categories in detailing, these are not “fixed” terms and there are products in today’s market which are e.g. both, a snow foam and a very strong prewash. Which of those products you should use depends on a) how dirty the car you want to wash really is, b) how well or badly it is maintained, and c) if there is some sort of protection on the car which should be retained. For example, TFRs and citrus prewashes usually reach rather high pH values, meaning they are strongly alkaline. Using those kind of chemicals often can cause issues like stains on chrome or high gloss black trim parts and dried out plastic and rubber parts. A good rule of thumb is that you should be as aggressive as necessary but as gentle as possible during the prewash stage, always keeping in mind that the more stuff you get off the car during this stage, the better the results will be afterwards. In this respect, you sometimes see people (and even manufacturers) who apply snow foam to a car and then go over that car with a wash mitt. This is nothing that we would recommend but it can make sense if you have a snow foam that also acts as a car shampoo (meaning it adds lubrication, as not all foams do that) or if you have done the prewash before and now want to add additional lubrication (and/or prevent water or shampoo from drying on your car during the wash) for the wash stage. But never just foam up your car and then directly wash it with your wash mitt, as this would defeat the whole purpose of snow foam and a prewash.
Step 3: Wash
The washing stage in a detailing routine is actually the one in which you can make the most mistakes and introduce the most paint defects. Once again, it’s important to understand that every mechanical interaction with your paint can cause paint defects. Yes, washing your car by hand greatly reduces the risk of scratches and swirls (which is the main reason we do wash our cars by hand) compared to an automated car wash, but you can never reduce this risk to zero.
What you can and should do to reduce this risk, are the following steps during the wash stage:
- The “two bucket wash method” is probably something that you heard a lot when you started researching about car care as it’s one of the most widespread tips you will hear. The theory behind it is simple: when you wash your car with a wash mitt, you remove dirt. This dirt will stick to your (microfiber) wash mitt as this is exactly what microfibers do. If you would now continue to wash your car, your wash mitt would get dirtier and dirtier – and therefore the risk of scratching your paint with that dirt increases with every pass with your wash mitt. That’s where the two buckets come into play: you have one bucket with water and shampoo (the wash or shampoo bucket) and you have one bucket with just water (the rinse bucket). You start the procedure by dipping your wash mitt into the wash bucket, then wash one panel of your car, and then rinse the mitt in the rinse bucket to get as much dirt out of it as possible, then squeeze out the mitt outside the bucket, and then go back into the wash bucket, grab some new shampoo water and continue to wash. This way, you leave all the dirt you pick up with your wash mitt in one bucket and have – in theory – one bucket with clean shampoo water.
- To further decrease the risk of scratches or swirls induced by dirt that you scrub along with your paint while washing your car, specialised wash buckets for car care normally come with some sort of a “sieve” on the bottom. The most popular one is the “Grit Guard”, but there are also different and more effective ones (like e.g. the Chemical Guys Cyclone Dirt Trap / Carbon Collective Vortex or the Detail Guardz Dirt Lock). These inserts for your wash bucket serve two purposes: first, you can scrub your wash mitt on them in order to release the dirt your picked up and secondly (more importantly) they are meant to keep the dirt on the bottom of your bucket. In this respect, some of those “sieves” work better than others (i.e. the ones from Detail Guardz and Chemical Guys), but any of those is better than having none at all.
- An even safer alternative to the two bucket wash method is to have just one bucket with water and shampoo as well as several wash mitts or microfiber towels. In this method, you use a mitt or towel for one panel and then put it to the side, never going back into the bucket. Naturally, this method is pretty much the safest of them all because you never end up with dirt on your wash bucket and always use fresh mitts / towels. However, this method requires that you buy several mitts and/or towels which can be expensive.
- No matter which method and how many buckets you use, make sure to work with high quality, dedicated wash mitts, wash pads, or sponges. Microfiber wash mitts or pads have one particular advantage over traditional sponges: they do not just lift dirt off your paint, they also encapsulate it within their fibres, whereas a sponge scrubs the dirt along with your paint. There may be good (big red) sponges out there, but microfiber wash mitts will be a safer method for the majority of people. wash mitts of synthetic or natural wool tend to be the safest, softest, least scratch-prone wash media, but only if you don’t have much dirt on your car. Also, wool mitts require a special wash and care process, as you can’t throw it in your washing machine with the rest of your microfiber products – as this will destroy it. Lastly, there is a large variety of different microfiber wash mitts. Don’t put too much effort into researching which of those is the best, as they all work similarly well.
- One of the simplest things you can do to decrease the risks of scratches and swirls if to often rinse your wash mitt, our recommendation is to rinse after washing one panel of your car – for larger panels like the roof of your car, rinse twice. If you have a wash mitt with two identical sides, you can wash one panel with one side and another panel with the other side.
- Never ever apply pressure while washing your car. Just let the wash mitt glide over the panels of your car with their own weight. If you see dirt stat sticks to your paint and isn’t removed with one or two passes of the wash mitt, then leave them and use dedicated chemicals/cleaners to attack them (like e.g. insect removers, tar and glue removers, etc.). The more you “scrub” your paint, the more scratches you induce. And don’t let anyone fool you: microfiber wash mitts and/or towels can also induce scratches (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhjhVYPM-aU)!
- Use at least two wash mitts. The upper parts of your car normally have less dirt on it than the lower panels. And no matter how well you rinse your wash mitts in the rinse bucket, there will always be some dirt left in the mitt. It, therefore, makes sense to use at least two mitts: one for the upper parts of your car and one for the lower panels.
- For the same reason as mentioned above, always wash your car from top to bottom. Start at the roof, then the A / B / C pillars, then windows, then the bonnet/boot lid, then the doors and fenders, and then the bumpers and side skirts.
However, the single most important aspect is to not get lazy and do not start taking short cuts. Remember: every short cut you take from the ideal routine increases the risk of scratches and swirls to happen! You will not completely ruin your car’s paint if you e.g. do two or three panels before you rinse your wash mitt, but will definitely increase the risk for minor scratches and swirls. WE think you get the picture.
Regarding the shampoo, there are two main aspects to consider. First, it’s important that you use a dedicated car wash shampoo and no dish wash soap. For an in-depth explanation, see this video. Dish soap is of much, much lower quality than car shampoo, as dish soap is always used with a lot (!) of mostly warm and hot water and in conjunction with scrubbing sponges which are very aggressive on their own. Car shampoo, on the other hand, needs to let your wash mitt glide as good and gently as possible over your car’s paint, needs to clean strongly in a short amount of time, and also needs to be able to be rinsed off with as little water as possible without leaving any residue behind.
The last tip we want to give you is to not wash your car in direct sunlight and high temperatures. The hotter your car’s panels are, the greater the risk is that water and/or shampoo will leave marks on your paint as they dry up too quickly. Always wash in the shade and if temperatures are not too high.
Step 4: Dry
After you washed your car, you rinse it so that all residue from shampoo or other cleaners are removed. Be thorough with this, as shampoo and/or cleaners can leave nasty stains on your paint if you let the sun bake them in. Tip: make sure to rinse in all the body gaps of your car as shampoo water can accumulate where you can’t see it and then later drip onto the body panels of your car.
The next step after rinsing is drying your car. Once again, there are several methods to do this, ranging from extremely gentle to your car’s paint to rather aggressive methods. In this respect, the softest way of drying your car is using some sort of a blower. Leaf blowers can work for this, however, be aware that they usually don’t have any filters and therefore could throw particles at your car’s paint which may damage it. Dedicated car drying blowers are better in this regard, but usually rather expensive. If you also consider that drying a car with a blower makes most sense if you have some sort of protection on it because there are just some single waterdrops left to blow away, you’ll start to see why drying towels are the more popular choice.
There are two basic variants of microfiber drying towels:
- Thick, plush, soft and heavy microfiber towels. Their main advantage is that they can suck up a lot of water which is why they are best suited to dry cars without any protection on it because there’s normally a lot of water left on the panels after rinsing. In this respect, the so-called “gsm” value of a microfiber towel tells you how much water (in grams) it can soak up. Good and capable drying towels normally start at ~1’000 gsm.
- drying towels with a special fibre structure called “twisted pile”, “twisted loop” or “Korea fibre”. These towels work really well on protected cars on which there are only single drops of water left, but they usually can’t soak up as much water like the above-mentioned towels. They also tend to be a bit harsher to your paint if you use them wrong, i.e. with too much pressure.
So, choose the right towel for the job. However, more important than the choice of a towel is that you use it correctly. Again, and as a reminder: all we do in car care is about preventing scratches and swirls. In this respect, the safest and gentlest way of using a drying towel is putting it to a wet panel of your car, just dab it down with your hand, and then lift it off – without moving it along your paint. The less you scrub your paint with a towel (or anything, really), the less risk for scratches you end up with. If this is too slow and extreme for you, then put the towel to your cars paint and then drag it along without any pressure, just with its own weight. On the vertical parts (e.g. doors), apply as little pressure as possible.
Some like to use a “drying aid” during this process. The term “drying aid” is not universally defined and uniformly used. On the one hand, there really are dedicated products which work as a drying aid: you spray them on wet panels and they start replacing the water and then evaporate almost on their own. On the other hand, some people refer to quick detail sprays or spray waxes as “drying aids”. This can make sense if you want to apply some basic form of protection during the drying process of your car and if your detailing routine is afterwards done. However, if you plan on going ahead and decontaminate, polish and or apply another protective product afterwards, then it doesn’t make much sense to use a drying aid as leftovers of these products will hinder decontamination products to work properly, possibly affect the polishing process and/or hinder another protective product from properly bonding to your car’s paint.
There are people who will tell you that they have to use a drying aid or quick detailer because if they don’t, they end up with water spots on their cars. Our tip if you face such issues is to change something in your washing routine, e.g. wash and dry at another time of the day (with less humidity) or change the location your washing and drying your car.
Step 5: Decontaminate
Decontamination sounds scientific and difficult, but it’s actually rather easy to understand. Everything we did so far within the presented detailing routine removed non-bonded contaminants from your paint – so stuff that just lies on top of your paint. However, there are further contaminants which cannot be removed by just washing your car, so-called bonded contaminants. And these need some sort of a decontamination process to be removed.
In simple terms, bonded contaminants more or less “stick” to your paint or are actually embedded in your paint’s clear coat. This can be tree sap, tar, glue, iron fallout, brake dust particles, etc.
There are several different products and methods to get rid of this stuff, but the most important rule of thumb in this step goes like this: chemical decontamination before mechanical decontamination. The reason for this once again goes back to the main reason why we do car care. Chemical decontamination works without you mechanically touching your paint and therefore, once again, introducing the risk for scratches and swirls. The more bonded contaminants you, therefore, remove chemically, the gentler and safer you work.
Chemical decontamination usually consists of two different product categories:
- Tar and glue removers: as the name suggests, these products are designed to help you remove tar, glue, tree sap and similar contaminations from your paint. Some of them work by just spraying them onto the paint, let them sit there for a few minutes, and then rinsing them off. And some only really work in conjunction with mechanical abrasion of a microfiber towel. Which one you use depends on how well these contaminations stick to your paint. Tar and tree sap especially can be rather stubborn contaminations which may need some mechanical support to be removed, but once again, be as gentle as possible.
- Iron fallout removers: These are similar products as wheel cleaners, as you also spray them on your car’s paint and they then react with the embedded iron particles and turn red / purple. You can actually also use wheel cleaners to do this, but dedicated iron fallout removers are usually a bit more powerful at removing iron fallout as wheel cleaners must remove a bit more than just iron fallout.
There are even some products in today’s market which promise to do it both, attack tar and glue as well as iron fallout. No matter what you use, what’s extremely important with all those products is that you strictly follow the manufacturers’ instructions. You should especially never use those products on hot panels, in direct sunlight and never let them sit for too long and dry out on your paint, as they can leave nasty stains. And you should always use those products after you washed your car and on dry paint, because water would just dilute them and decrease their potential performance and if there was too much dirt on your car, then those products would not get through to the contaminants they were actually designed to attack.
There’s a limit to what chemical decontamination can do – which is where mechanical decontamination comes into play, and this means claying. Claying is an abrasive method and no matter how careful you are, you will always run the risk of scratching and marring your paint, as a clay bar is made of pretty much the same material as bricks: alumina. In fact, a clay bar needs to be aggressively abrasive to some extent because it needs to get stuff out of your paint that – under a microscope – has hooked into your paint and sticks there.
Clay bars feel like dough and their main advantage over alternative products for mechanical contaminations is that they not only loosen those contaminants from your car’s paint, they also pick those particles up and embed them in themselves. Alternatives like clay blocks, clay mitts, clay towels or clay pads are as effective at removing those contaminants from your car’s paint, but they only loosen them and don’t pick them up, so there’s a greater risk of scrubbing those contaminants along the paint. In this respect, it’s important to understand that scratches and marring from claying do stem from two sources: the clay medium itself as well as the dirt your lift off your paint and then scrub along with your paint whilst claying.
However, you can greatly reduce this risk of scratches and marring during claying by
- using a soft or light clay bar, as heavy or coarse clay bars only do the job quicker. Soft or light clay bars remove bonded contaminants just as fine as heavy or coarse ones, they just need a pass or two (three, four, five) more, but are much, much gentler in doing so. Heavy or coarse clay bars really do leave nasty scratches and marring behind which definitely will need polishing to be removed afterwards.
- using a dedicated clay lube or a clay lube concentrate and use lots of it, and not using shampoo, quick detailers, glass cleaners or anything else than clay lube. You will need 500ml to 1l for a whole car. With some clay bars and especially with clay blocks/cloths/mitts/pads you can get away with using a mix of car shampoo and water, but some clay bars start to disintegrate if you do – which again is an unnecessary risk to introduce scratches and marring.
- claying slowly and in straight motions, never in circular ones so you can see and feel when the clay starts to scratch. As soon as you clearly see dirt on your clay bar and/or it starts to feel grabby or scratchy, you should start folding it. If you use a clay block/mitt/towel/pad, make sure to wash it out often, ideally after every pass.
- never using extensive pressure or quick motions because you spotted something on your paint that you want to „scrub“ away with your clay bar
- folding a dirty and contaminated clay bar once instead of continuously folding and kneading it. By folding it once, you‘re sure that the lifted contaminants are as far inside the clay bar as possible.
- never using a clay bar again that has dropped to the ground, as clay in its nature sticks to everything it touches. As soon as it hits the ground, it’s full of contaminants – even if you don’t see them. Don’t be greedy and risk scratches and throw such a clay away!
- never reusing a clay bar and always using a fresh piece. This also means it makes more sense to use smaller pieces instead of the whole block of clay. This may sound like a waste of money and resources, however, keep in mind that you don’t clay your car every week or two but only if necessary and usually only before you polish it. So what’s 5 pounds worth of clay compared to a completely scratched up car just because you were greedy?
- eliminating as much contaminants as possible before claying, as discussed above, by chemical decontamination. The fewer contaminants you have to remove with clay, the less stuff you scrub along with your paint and the less risk of scratching and marring your run.
However, the best and most reliable tip to prevent scratches and marring from claying your car: don’t clay! We know it’s tempting to clay as everybody tells you how incredibly smooth a paint feels after claying it (it really does!) but claying honestly is something that you should only do if it is really necessary. How you can find out if it is necessary? Strap a small plastic bag over your hand and then wipe over your car’s paint after washing and drying it. If the bag glides over the paint almost frictionless, then it’s not necessary to clay your paint. You can also use your bare hand: if your car’s paint feels rough despite you just cleaned it, then it’s probably a good idea to clay it.
But keep in mind what we told you above: it’s literally impossible to clay your car without any scratches. Does this mean that you absolutely have to polish your car’s paint after claying it? That’s a question that has created heated discussions in forums and groups. And most times such a controversy starts, the simple fact of the matter is that there is no right or wrong answer. If you detail a car that has been neglected for years and sees its first proper wash in your hands, then the scratches you introduce by claying it are probably the least of your problems.
We look at this question from another perspective and want to give you the following tip: if you plan on polishing your car, then you should clay it before. Because even if you would remove embedded (bonded) contaminants whilst polishing your paint (which is what some people claim), then you would scrub those contaminants along your paint during the polishing process, meaning you create and remove scratches at the same time – doesn’t really make much sense, does it?
Step 6: Correct and polish
The funny thing about the presented detailing routine is that depending on who you ask, you either perfectly and thoroughly cleaned your car (hobbyists, weekend warriors) or you just did the necessary prep work for the following steps which are the “real” detailing tasks (professionals).
Correcting and polishing are all about reducing or removing paint defects and enhance the visual appearance of your car’s paint. And the most important lesson here is that you’re not really removing the defects, you‘re levelling the paint around them. Polishing means removing clear coat, so there‘s a limit to what you can and should do and there‘s a limit of how often you can do that.
We probably will go into all the details of polishing in a future article as this really is something you can get lost in, so in the following, you will just find a very broad and general introduction into what you do:
- You can either polish by hand or with the help of a machine (or better: several machines).
- No matter what you polish with, you will definitely need polishing pads and polishing liquids.
- The basics of polishing are simple: you choose a certain combination of pad, polish and machine and start polishing.
- In general, the term correcting refers to the stage in which you actually level the paint to the level of the deepest scratches in order to remove them, whereas “polishing” refers to refining the paint to a clear, high gloss finish.
- The deeper and more severe paint defects are, the more aggressive your polishing material has to be.
- Polishing is not always about removing 100% of all paint defects. As polishing always means removing clear coat, it’s not always advisable and it doesn’t always make sense to go for a 100% correction as there may only be very little clear coat left on your car.
- There are paint defects which are there before correcting / polishing (e.g. scratches, swirls) and there are types of paint defects which can be introduced during polishing (e.g. haze, holograms).
- Polishing is not something that can be done quickly and polishing is not something that can be done cheaply. Polishing by hand is utterly, stupendously, hideously and extremely hard, punishing, time-consuming and frustrating. And you will never be able to achieve the same results as you would by using a machine. However, if you decide to go the route of machine polishing, be aware that it is not sufficient to just buy one machine, one pad and one polish – you will need more than that! And you will still need a lot of time, especially if you do it for the first time. There’s a reason why a machine polishing job by a professional costs quite a bit of money.
As said above: the basics of polishing are rather simple. What can and will make it hard and complicated in the end is the realisation that every, and we really mean every polishing job is different and that you simply can‘t say in advance which machine, pad, and polishing combination will work best on a specific car and paint. Because even if you have two identical cars (same brand, model, and colour), there still can be differences in how easy or hard the paint is to polish. Plus, there are more variables than just machine, pad, and polish: you as the user, how much pressure you apply, how much speed you set the polisher, how fast or slow you go over the paint, how much or little polish you use, etc.
As a general rule, we recommend the following setup if you decide to start with machine polishing:
- One type of pad for „cutting“, one type of pad for „polishing“, one type of pad for „finishing“, two types of pads for „emergencies“. Cutting, polishing, and finishing are straightforward, all the manufacturers tell you which pad is for what. By „emergencies“ we mean one very, very, very soft and almost non-abrasive type of pad for very soft and finicky paint which is hard to finish free of swirls, holograms, and haze. And one very aggressive and abrasive type of pad for very hard paint types. We recommend microfiber and/or (hybrid) wool pads there.
- Regarding the number of pads, we recommend one pad per car part, two for large parts like the roof or hood. The important aspect here is that pads work best when they are „fresh“. As soon as they start filling up with used polish and „dead“ paint you removed, their performance starts to fade. It‘s therefore important to often swap for new pads. So yes, this means that you will end up with 6-10 pads per stage (correcting, polishing, finishing). As said above: polishing is not cheap!
- Same for polishes: one for cutting, one for polishing, one for finishing, two for „emergencies“.
- Regarding all of that, we recommend sticking to one manufacturer‘s system.
- Use enough pads and towels and don’t be greedy. This step is the penultimate activity in detailing which really aims for perfection. Being greedy here will only diminish the results you achieve.
Step 7: Prepare
After polishing your paint, you will need to de-grease it with a panel wipe / IPA wipedown to remove polishing residue - otherwise, the protective product in the next step can‘t properly bond to the paint. Be aware that not all panel wipes / IPA wipedowns reliably remove all residue from all polishes – as not all polishes consist of the same materials. The safest way is to use the panel wipe from the same manufacturer as the polish you use.
Also keep in mind that if you face very, very soft and finicky paint types, especially darker ones, then a panel wipe / IPA wipedown can temporarily soften it up even more which then leads to scratches you introduce by just wiping over the paint with a towel while degreasing the paint. On extremely difficult paints, panel wipes / IPA wipedowns can even lead to a nastily hazy finish which ruins all the work you put into it before. If you face such a paint, then there really is no best way of going about it. You can try different types of panel wipes / IPA wipedowns and hope that you find the one that doesn’t make things worse. You can also just wipe off polish residue with just a towel and don’t use panel wipes / IPA wipedowns, but then you run the risk that there will stay some polish residue behind which will then hinder the protective product you apply afterwards to properly bond to your car’s paint. If you opt for a simple spray wax, spray sealant or paste wax, this effect will be there, but not that huge. If we talk about ceramic coatings, this effect will be rather significant. Yes, there is stuff out there like CarPro Essence, but that does only really reliably work with CarPro coatings and products – everything else will only ever be an experiment. The most important lesson here is to stay calm and just accept that you will have to live with some sort of compromise, as even professionals face the same issues and a whole industry has not been able to solve this problem in the last decades.
One last thing: no, you don‘t absolutely need to put a protective product on your paint after polishing it, but it is highly recommended in order to prolong the time your newly polished paints stays as defect-free as possible and to protect it from fading (due to UV light) and new contaminants.
Step 8: Protect
After the extensive, time-consuming step of polishing your car, this second-to-last step is once again rather simple: you choose a certain protective product, then apply it to the paint of your car. That’s it.
But that’s not really it, as there is always some sort of decision making process involved in car care. The issue here is that protection means a lot of things. For some, protection refers to UV rays. For others, they just mean that the car stays cleaner for longer. And for some, it means preventing new paint defects after polishing the car. And then there are enthusiasts who believe that you can further enhance a (polished) car’s finish by applying a protective product.
As discussed in our blog post on the basics of car care, "gloss" comes from perfectly preparing (polishing) your paint. Gloss is the way light rays bounce off your paint. On perfect, defect-free, and 100% levelled paint light rays bounce off in the same angle as they hit the paint, therefore creating perfect gloss. Every scratch, swirl, haze, hologram, orange peel, contaminant etc. that is on or in your paint will decrease the gloss level. On perfectly prepared, defect-free, and 100% levelled paint no protective product will increase gloss, in fact it will decrease it as long as it's not 100% transparent, meaning if you would measure gloss with a gloss meter, you would actually only decrease gloss. The only thing that protective products and especially waxes can do is fill up light, very light scratches and swirls and/or change the way the light rays bounce off the paint.
If your car’s paint is in a less than ideal state and you can’t or don’t want to polish it by hand or machine, but want to achieve some kind of “gloss”, then glazes are a viable option as they contain fillers which are able to mask, to some extent, light – and only light – paint defects and therefore create the optical illusion of gloss by temporarily (!) levelling your car’s paint. Temporarily is the main word to keep in mind here as glazes are usually not very durable, even if you apply something on top of them to “lock” their effect in – which we will discuss in a second. Some other products can act as “glazes” because they can also fill in some minor paint defects, such as and mainly liquid and paste waxes, as well as some detail sprays / spray waxes. But always keep in mind that there is a limit to what those kind of products can do as all of them form such a thin layer of “protection” on your paint that deeper scratches simply can’t be completely filled up.
The following list contains a very broad and generic categorization attempt for products with increasing „protection“ in ascending order:
- Shampoo with wax
- Shampoo / foam with sealing properties
- Wet coat products
- Detail spray / spray wax / spray sealant
- Liquid wax / glaze
- Paste wax
- Nano/polymer sealant
- Ceramic coating light
- Ceramic coating
- Ceramic coating for professionals
- Paint protection film (PPF)
Now this list isn‘t perfect as there are exceptions to this list, but it‘s a good approximation. It‘s also important to know that the above-mentioned products get stronger in their protection, but they also get more complicated in application. There is no product that offers strong protective properties and is easy and effortless to use.
Waxes, in general, are pretty much the easiest protective products you can use – as long as you stay away from heavily specialised products that e.g. promise extreme durability. So, in general, waxes are a good choice for beginners. However, several thousand (!) different waxes exist in the world and there actually are quite significant differences between all those waxes, so make sure to do some basic research on which waxes could suit your expectations.
Regarding those expectations, it’s important to understand that there are five main product performance categories of all protective products a manufacturer can tackle in his development process:
- Ease of use
Some of those aspects pretty much exclude each other, like e.g. gloss and durability, as ingredients which make a product glossy tend to be less durable. To be absolutely clear about it: there is no product that excels in all of those categories which is why there is no “best” product!
Ceramic coatings, for example, tend to be the most durable and amongst the most hydrophobic products our there. However, they are not easy to apply and they require you strictly follow the manufacturers’ instructions or you otherwise could face serious issues - at least when we talk about „real“ ceramic coatings as the term „ceramic“ is used for a lot of stuff today that really has nothing to do with a true coating. There is and there will always be a tradeoff between ease of use and strong durability in car care products. That‘s just how the chemistry works: in order for a product to be extremely durable, it needs to form a very strong bond with your car‘s paint. And the stronger this bond is, the harder the involved chemistry is to work with.
Regarding the expected and promised durability of such products, it is also important to note that it is always relative and depends on a lot of other things than just a product itself. See this video for an in-depth explanation.
One very important and also rather confusing aspect of protection is “topping” or “layering”. Now, in theory, the topping is used to staple different kinds of products on top of each other. The reason behind this concept is that you e.g. want to “lock-in” the effect of the above-discussed glazes with another product that you apply on top of it or that you want to combine the positive aspects of different products to create the “perfect” finish, e.g. by applying a ceramic coating for strong and durable baseline protection and then top that with a detail spray or wax to add some “gloss” to it.
We are not the ones to tell you what to do and what not to do, so if you personally believe in topping then go ahead with it – because, at the end of the day, it’s also fun to try and experiment with different things and come up with your personal “best” solution. But we want to make you aware that from a purely objective, technical point of view, there are several aspects which make it highly unlikely that topping actually works:
- Some waxes, for example, contain mild cleaning abilities and/or even polishing agents, i.e. so-called “cleaner waxes”. By applying them on top of each other or on top of something else, you will in fact harm, destroy or even completely remove the first “layer” of product you applied.
- As discussed above, "gloss" comes from perfectly preparing (polishing) your paint. Again: on perfect, defect-free, and 100% levelled paint no protective product will be able to increase or create gloss, in fact, it will decrease it as long as it's not 100% transparent. So, the more product you apply, meaning the thicker the layers are, the less gloss you will end up with.
- In order for topping to work, it would be necessary that the protective products you want to top onto each other actually form uniform, enclosed layers - which pretty much most of them simply don't. By topping different kinds of products onto each other, it's much more like you are creating a mish-mash of products. This is the main issue with the plan of e.g. applying something highly hydrophobic on something highly “glossy” (or the other way round), as you most likely and in most cases end up with something that is worse than the individual products would be.
- It's perfectly possible that the second product you apply on top of the first one does loosen up the first one, especially if the second one contains strong solvents. If a product contains aggressive solvents (detectable by a strong chemical smell), the probability is very high that you actually harm or damage your first coat of wax by applying a second one.
- Some products, i.e. ceramic coating, can actually be damaged and made much, much worse by topping something else on top of them. Some "detail sprays" e.g. contain ingredients which can act as a solvent for ingredients in a ceramic coating, so those detail sprays will actually harm the coating (see e.g. this video). Other coatings react rather poorly to detail sprays which contain certain types of silicones, which leads to streaking issues and/or making the inherent water spotting issue of coatings actually worse. And by trying to create more “gloss” on a coated paint surface by applying a supposedly “glossy” quick detailer or spray sealant, you most likely worsen the coating’s strong hydrophobic properties.
- It is perfectly possible that the second product you apply on top of the first one doesn't actually stick or bond. This means that the second layer you applied could be pretty much immediately removed during the first rain, extremely hot or cold weather, or during your first wash. And if the first and second layer products are both equally hydrophobic, you won't even notice this.
- If your first layer product is very hydrophobic and you then apply e.g. a product for the second layer which is tailored towards "gloss" or slickness, this product will actually decrease the hydrophobic effect of the first product.
- Even if topping technically would work and your second layer product would bond to the first layer product, as long as these products are both equally hydrophobic you will never actually be able to tell if it is the first or second layer product that creates a strong beading and sheeting effect when it rains or during a wash. Which is why you could also just ditch the first layer and only use the second layer, as the first layer won't do anything better or more.
What actually does make sense is applying two coats of the same wax, as this will help to make sure you achieve a even coverage. However, if this wax contains strong solvents, then again, it doesn't make sense as the strong solvents will loosen up the first layer.
So, be smart and chose your protective product wisely and chose something that suits all your needs.
Step 9: Finish
When you’re done with everything else, it’s time to take care of the finishing touches, like e.g.
- apply so-called dressings to rubber and plastics parts on your car, including tires. However, make sure that you first properly cleaned them as those dressings will only be able to properly stick or adhere to the respective surfaces if they are clean. Again, there is a wide range of different products with different ingredients for those parts of your car, including dedicated ceramic coatings which tend to last the longest. But in general, don’t expect dressings to last as long as paint protection products, so a few weeks is normally the most you can get out of them.
- clean the windows of your car with a glass cleaner. There are some products, i.e. some quick detailers, which you can also apply to windows, as well as dedicated glass sealants or coatings. However, those normally come with rather significant disadvantages, especially on your front windscreen, and compared to the advantage that water rolls of your windscreen at a certain speed: “ghosting” means that there is a misty streaking shortly after you use your windscreen wipers, “juddering” means that your windscreen wipers jump on the glass instead of just gliding over them, “misting” means that water aggregates in very small dots on your windscreen before it runs off and you therefore actually see less than on an untreated window, especially at low speeds, in town, or if you follow someone in the rain. So be sure to take those aspects into account when you decide whether you want to apply a glass sealant or not.
- clean the interior of your car and then, if you want to, apply interior detailers or dressings to the plastic parts or a dedicated leather care to leather parts. There are products, i.e. so-called “interior detailers” or APCs (“all-purpose cleaners”) which you can use for all parts of your car’s interior, but in general, it makes sense to use dedicated products for specific materials such as glass, leather, plastic and vinyl, rubbers, aluminium, screens, or fabric.
Do I need to follow all these steps?
No, definitely not! This article describes the whole detailing routine from A to Z in a perfect world, in the best-case scenario and if you want to achieve a perfect detailing result.
To guide you in the decision of which steps are more necessary than others, let us give you some tips and thoughts:
- You can skip step 2 (prewash), but you will run a higher risk of scratches and swirls. The less dirt there is on your car’s paint before you actually “touch” it, the better the results will be.
- For the quickest type of “wash and protect” kind of detailing job, you can skip steps 4, 5, 6 and 7 and use a “wet coat” type of product which you apply to the still-wet paint surface of your car which you then just rinse and then dry your car.
- Some protective products are more forgiving than others when it comes to the questions if you absolutely have to go through steps 5, 6 and 7 before you apply them. If you “just” want to use a quick detailer, spray wax or spray sealant, you don’t really need to polish your car to perfection. But keep in mind, that if your car’s paint is in a very very poor condition, that those products will basically “sink” inside all the deeper paint defects and will not be able to actually to uniformly stick to the paint – which can mean that they are e.g. not as hydrophobic and don’t create such nice beads you saw in a YouTube video about the product. Glazes are pretty much made to be applied on not-so-perfect paint, meaning you really don’t need to go through steps 5, 6 and 7 to apply them. Liquid and paste waxes are also rather forgiving in that respect. However, if you want to apply a ceramic coating, then it is -in our opinion – absolutely necessary to follow all the steps in order to get the best results out of them.
- There are so-called “one-step-polishes” or AIOs (“all-in-one” polishes) which actually combine steps 6 and 8 to just one. They are a combination of a (light) polish, a glaze, and or a sealant or wax. Those kind of polishes are able to reduce light to medium-sized paint defects, but they mostly also mask them and can leave some sort of basic protection behind. They are not as effective at removing paint defects as dedicated polishes and they are not as effective as dedicated protective products, meaning they won’t last as long and won’t bead as nicely. For a “quick and dirty” job, however, they deserve to be mentioned.
- The question of how many steps to actually follow will strongly depend on whether you are planning a full preparation for polishing and protecting your car or if we talk about a “maintenance” wash of an already polished and protected car.
At the end of the day, it is your decision how many of the presented steps you actually want to follow and how strict you want to follow all the “rules” and tips we provided you with. Because the most important aspect is that you have fun while detailing – because that‘s what it‘s all about!
Article by Andreas Schwarzinger