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Auto Detailers (From CHECKBOOK, Spring/Summer 2011)
Go to Updated Ratings of 21 Boston Area Auto Detailers


Auto Detailers

Sometimes it feels like we live in our cars. Unfortunately, that means our cars can look and smell like they're lived in. But a detailing shop can transform your car, inside and out, leaving it looking—and smelling—used-car-lot new. We'll tell you what detailers do and how to pick one. 

Does It Make a Difference? 

The reason to have your car detailed—or even washed, for that matter—is the same as the reason you comb your hair or wear a clean shirt: you want to look good. 

You might also spend your money on detailing as a way to preserve your vehicle's finish. But having your car detailed—or washed—is not like changing your engine oil. Fail to change the oil and your car's days are numbered; fail to detail the car—or even to wash it—and you might lose a little resale value down the line, but probably not much. 

Removing salt, acid-rain residue, sap, bird droppings, tar, and other types of dirt from the finish undoubtedly reduces the damaging effects these materials can have. Applying a protectant, as detailers do, adds a barrier against the effects of future deposits and will make it easier to wash them away. Cleaning your car's upholstery and carpets, like cleaning the carpets in your home, will get rid of dust, reduce wear, and make it easier to keep them clean in the future. But even if you do relatively little to keep your vehicle clean for years, a thorough detailing when you decide you want it to look good—possibly when you want to sell it—is likely to give you a surprisingly good look. 

It used to be that the main reasons cars were junked was rust—in the structural and undercarriage components and in the exterior panels. But auto manufacturers have made great progress in building corrosion protection into vehicles—by galvanizing steel components, by using better paints and sealants, by using non-corroding materials, and by making design changes. Today, body panels and other exterior components can be expected regularly to outlast the engine and other systems. 

Neither the International Car Wash Association (which represents professional car washers and detailers) nor the manufacturers of car wash and detailing products have hard evidence that detailing—or washing—actually does much to prevent corrosion or adds much to the life of the finish. The slightly higher price you'll receive for your car as a result of regular washing and periodic detailing is not likely to offset the cost of even two or three detailing jobs. 

On the other hand, a good detailing job can do even more for the appearance of your vehicle than a new wardrobe and new haircut can do for your looks. Also, there is one other benefit from detailing: cleaning your car's carpet and upholstery might reduce or eliminate odors and, by removing dust and mites, might have as favorable an effect for allergy sufferers as cleaning the carpets in your home. 

What Detailers Do 

Most detailing shops are stand-alone businesses, sometimes connected to large car-washing operations, but a growing number of detailers are mobile operators, which usually consist of a truck and a trailer with a mounted water tank that go to customers' homes or office parking lots to do the work. Some shops are 100-percent mobile; others do basic detailing jobs out-of-shop and more specialized work in-shop. Mobile operators can perform the same tasks as the non-mobile shops. 

If only one technician is doing the work, a basic detailing job will usually take him or her four to five hours to complete, and will usually include an exterior wash, claying, polishing, and waxing; an interior cleaning; and tire cleaning and treatments. Many shops also provide other services upon request, such as, steam-cleaning engines, paint touch-up, and installation of accessories. 

Exterior Wash 

Since auto detailing is more than anything a thorough cleaning process, a good wash is a crucial step. Aside from basic expectations, it is important that a detailer gets the exterior of a car as clean as possible before proceeding with other tasks, such as, polishing or waxing, since dirt trapped between the car's surface and the pad of a buffing machine or a cloth used for waxing can scratch the car's paintwork. 

Many detailing shops hand wash cars using the same process you would at home, using a hose, a bucket of soapy water, and a sponge. Some detailing shops use a process similar to coin-operated car washes, where a high-pressure hose that can dispense clear water and soapy water is used. Other shops—particularly those that are part of large car-washing operations—simply send cars through an automated, assembly-line car wash. In general, methods that include a hand-wash component will achieve better results, since the detailer can spend extra time on particularly dirty areas of a car to make sure it is clean. 

After the car is dried, most detailing shops will "clay" the surfaces of cars to remove as many remaining contaminants as possible. Like washing, claying is a low-tech, but highly effective, approach, where a lump of detailing clay is pressed and rubbed over the paintwork to lift away dirt. 

Paint Repairs 

An auto detailer can make repairs to minor scratches and nicks, but for more severe scratches, you'll need the services of an auto body shop to repaint areas using airbrushes and then to blend in the newly painted area with the surrounding, older paintwork. (See our auto body repair article for ratings of area auto body shops.) 

For very small nicks and scratches, detailing shops will apply drops of touch-up paint with a toothpick or small brush. For larger nicks and scratches, shops will apply touch-up paint, then apply a layer of clearcoat to the area, then use ultrafine sandpaper to level out the built-up new layers, and then polish and wax the area. Touch-up paint repairs won't perfectly match the surrounding paint, but if the area is small and the worker is diligent, the repaired area should be unnoticeable. 

Instead of repairing damaged areas with touch-up paint, some shops will "wet sand" scratches, which smoothes out the unevenness of the finish created by the scratch. Wet sanding will initially produce similar results as the touch-up method; the problem with wet sanding is that it removes clearcoat layers from the area, and since the clearcoat is what provides a car's UV protection, the paintwork of a wet-sanded area will eventually look lighter than surrounding areas. Therefore, it's usually safer just to have damaged areas touched up. 

Polishing and Buffing 

The simple acts of washing, claying, and touching up nicks will improve the appearance of most cars' finishes, but to get a car's finish to really shine it will need periodically to be polished. 

How shiny a car appears is primarily a function of how much light is being reflected off of its surface. Dirt and nicks reduce shine by simply absorbing light; scratches in your car's clearcoat layers won't absorb light, but they will reflect light in different directions, which creates a dulled appearance. Since automakers have yet to invent a scratchproof paint, cars will over time accumulate minute scratches in their clearcoat from small rocks, sand, and bits of eroded roadway kicked up by other cars; from acorns and other debris falling on them; and from a host of other sources. 

By polishing a car's finish, shops can "finesse out" these small scratches. Shops use a rotary buffing machine fitted with a soft pad that rubs a polishing compound over the car's paintwork. Since the polishing compound used is slightly abrasive, the compound and the action of the buffing machine will smooth out the uneven areas in the paintwork caused by scratches. After polishing, shops will use a clean pad to buff away remaining polishing compound. Most shops include a light polishing in their basic detailing services, but if your car's finish is noticeably marred, shops can improve it by extra polishing. 

The polishing and buffing steps are where the most can go wrong in a detailing job: if, while polishing, a buffing machine is used for too long in one spot, it will leave swirl marks; if the detailer uses a compound that is too aggressive, he or she can buff right through the clearcoat, and even into the basecoat and primer and down to the bare metal. Also, a shoddy job likely will result in a noticeably uneven finish. 

After polishing and buffing, wax is applied and then buffed by hand or with a buffing machine. The car is then given a final once-over and detailed cleaning of seams is done with small brushes to get rid of wax residue. Shops should be extra careful not to get polish or wax treatments onto windows, since once these products dry, they can't be easily removed, and will create a glare when hit by sunlight. 

Make sure to ask any shop you're considering whether they use a three-step polishing process (polishing, buffing, and waxing) or a one-step process. The all-in-one process used by some shops is inferior to the three-step process, because it's impossible to remove scratches with a compound, buff away the compound, and apply wax all at the same time. 

Windows and Trim 

After detailing the paintwork, shops will clean the car's windows inside and out with glass cleaner and paper towels. Shops also usually apply special treatments or polishes to convertible tops, exterior chrome, chromed plastic, and vinyl trim. 

Wheels and Tires 

Shops will wash wheels and tires, apply dressing to the tires, and either polish or dress rims and hubcaps. If your wheels already have a clearcoat layer, they generally should not be polished, since this may remove their protective layers. 

Interior Cleaning 

Just as carpet and upholstery in your home will benefit from a thorough cleaning from time to time, detailing can improve the air quality in your car and prolong the life of your car's carpet and upholstery. 

Shops start by vacuuming all interior surfaces. Some shops will loosen dirt and dust trapped in nooks and crannies using compressed air. 

Scuffmarks on doors and other vinyl surfaces are usually treated with a brush and a specialized cleaner to soften the marks so that they can be wiped away. More difficult-to-remove spots and scuffmarks can be treated with vinyl cleaners, but make sure that any detailing shop you're considering uses only water-based vinyl cleaners. In recent years, automakers have drastically cut back the amount of plastics used in cars' interiors to reduce emissions from them (that new-car smell can actually be harmful to you). The result of using these new methods is that vinyl surfaces are usually much thinner than before, and if a shop uses too strong a solvent, the vinyl can be dissolved away. 

Most shops will also apply a vinyl protectant to get rid of dust and create sheen, but shops should be careful to wipe away any excess protectant. If too much protectant is used and not wiped away, dust and dirt will be attracted to these surfaces and the product can discolor your clothing. 

To clean a car's carpeting and cloth upholstery, most shops use hot-water-extraction carpet-cleaning equipment that is designed for cleaning cars. For heavily soiled carpet and cloth upholstery, shops may work in warm water and shampoo using a wash mitt, and then remove the shampoo and dirt using the hot-water-extraction equipment. Afterward, the car's doors and windows are left open to allow the interior to air dry. 

If you have leather upholstery, you'll want to have it periodically cleaned and conditioned. Without care, leather may dry up, crack, harden, and even start to come off in crumbles. Some manufacturers treat leather upholstery with a protective, thin plastic "skin." Treated leather is usually easy to clean by simply rubbing it with a mild leather conditioner; untreated leather can be more difficult to treat, and may require several "coats" of conditioner. As when dealing with vinyl treatments, shops need to be careful not to apply too much leather conditioner and to wipe away excess product. Keep in mind that after treatment, leather upholstery may appear unnaturally shiny for a few days, since the leather needs to soak up the conditioner. But if the surface of the upholstery is wet to the touch or if it is too shiny or wet looking after a few days, ask the shop to wipe everything down again. 

Cleaning Engines 

Some shops include engine cleaning as part of their basic detailing package while some other shops offer engine cleaning as an add-on option. Some detailing shops don't offer engine cleaning at all. As with detailing the rest of your car, cleaning a car's engine will likely not make it run better, but a clean engine might make maintenance easier, as leaks will be more easily noticed. Also, a dirty engine coated with grease may tend to run hotter than a clean engine, and moving parts like linkages tend to work more smoothly in a cleaner engine. But if you're considering having your engine cleaned for maintenance reasons, you may want to ask for advice from your mechanic first to see if such a step is desirable. 

Before cleaning an engine, the shop should cover or remove distributor, carburetor, battery, and ignition mechanisms to protect them from cleaning solvents and water. A degreasing agent is then sprayed onto the dirtiest parts of the engine and allowed to soak in for a short time. The engine is then rinsed with a low-pressure hose that sprays water throughout the engine compartment. Some shops use steaming-hot water to rinse the engine; others opt to let the degreasing agent do most of the work and simply rinse using tepid water. After washing, most shops will spray down the engine compartment with a "dressing," which is usually a thin, water-based product that makes everything shine. Some shops will follow basic cleaning with a more detailed cleaning of nooks and crannies. 

Miscellaneous Work 

Shops usually will clean air vents inside the car, doorjambs, the steering wheel, speaker grilles, window handles, knobs, seat belts, etc. Some shops also offer a wide variety of other services, such as installing accessories and custom work. 

Getting Quality Work 

Our Ratings Tables show how area detailing shops were rated by area CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers who responded to our surveys. (For more information on our customer survey and other research methods, click here.) You can see that some shops received "superior" ratings for "doing service properly" from more than 90 percent of their surveyed customers, but a few shops received "superior" ratings on this question from fewer than 60 percent. 

You can also do some quality checks on your own— 

  • Since most detailing tasks are the same from car to car, you should be able to get a line on the quality of work offered by a shop by asking it to show you other customers' completed cars. If the completed work on other cars is for some reason unsatisfactory to you, ask the shop what it can do to satisfy your expectations when it details your car. If your car is in particularly bad shape, ask the shop what problems it will and won't be able to correct. 
  • Take a look around the shop and assess its cleanliness and orderliness—a messy, unorganized facility may be a sign that the shop will be sloppy in its work. 
  • Ask the shop whether it uses a three-step polishing process (polishing, buffing, and waxing) rather than the less effective one-step polishing process some shops use. 
  • Ask the shop how carpets will be cleaned. Most shops have hot-water-extraction equipment, which is usually the most effective method; if the shop doesn't have this equipment, ask it to describe to you, or show you, how it will clean your car's carpet. 
  • Ask the shop how quickly it can detail your car. A shop that reports it takes only an hour or so to do the work likely isn't providing the same service as shops that take half a day. 
  • Ask the shop to show you proof that it carries a current liability insurance policy, which would cover repair costs if your car were damaged. 
  • If you'll be using a mobile detailing service, make sure that the operator is following the Environmental Protection Agency's rules, which require that operators use a runoff reclamation system. These systems employ a mat onto which the car is moved to capture all water runoff during washing; after washing, the runoff is then sucked up from the mat back into the detailer's water tank. 

Shopping for Price 

Of course, you'll want to check cost. Fortunately, for a basic detailing job, most shops will quote their prices over the phone. For the shops listed on our Ratings Tables, we've done some shopping for you. For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our researchers (without revealing their affiliation with CHECKBOOK) called shops for their prices for a basic detailing of two sedans, a minivan, and an SUV. Table 1 illustrates the range of prices we found. The price index scores on our Ratings Tables show how each shop compared to the average shop that quoted on the same jobs. For instance, if two shops quoted on the same jobs and one shop has a price index score of $120 while a second shop has a score of $100, this indicates that the first shop's quotes were 20 percent higher than the second shop's. 

Table 1
Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Shops for Basic Detailing
Description of job Low price Average price High price
2005 Chevrolet Malibu with cloth seats
Detailing without engine cleaning
$125 $192 $255
2005 BMW 328i with leather seats
Detailing without engine cleaning
$139 $191 $255
2006 Toyota Sienna minivan with cloth seats
Detailing without engine cleaning
$149 $216 $275
2006 Honda Pilot with leather seats
Detailing with engine cleaning
$225 $258 $287

Car Washing 101 

Washing your car... it's a straightforward process, right? You get a hose, spray the vehicle down, soap it up, rinse it, and then you're done. Not so fast. As with most tasks, there's a right way and a wrong way to wash a car. 

  1. If possible, wash your car in the shade or on a cloudy day. If you wash your car under direct sunlight, soapy water may dry before you get a chance to rinse it away, leaving the dried soap—and the dirt you meant to wash away—on the car. 
  2. Before washing, pre-clean difficult-to-remove dirt, such as bird droppings or road tar deposits. Spritz bird droppings with warm water, allow the water to soak in for a bit, and then wipe the area clean with paper towels. Road tar deposits can be removed with specialized cleaners that you can buy or with household kerosene lamp fluid. 
  3. Fill a bucket with water and soap that is formulated for washing cars. Most household detergents and soaps aren't appropriate for washing a car. Dish soap usually contains degreasing agents that can strip wax from your paintwork; laundry detergent or hand soap may be too strong, and may also leave streaks. Read the product's directions to determine how much soap to use. Using too much soap may leave a sticky residue, which will just attract more dirt. Make sure to create plenty of foamy suds, which will suspend dirt off the car's surface and help reduce abrasion during washing. 
  4. Give your car a good rinse with a hose, giving extra attention to especially dirty areas. If you've been off-roading; if your car is covered in salt and sand from snow treatments; or if your car is otherwise particularly dirty, you may want first to take your car to a coin-operated or automated carwash to remove as much dirt and mud as possible before hand washing it. If there's too much dirt on the car, you'll just drag the dirt around with your dirty sponge instead of removing it. 
  5. To wash, use a large, soft, car-washing sponge or a car-washing mitt. Rinse the sponge/mitt out frequently. To rinse the sponge/mitt, you may want to use a separate bucket with just plain, clean water. If the water in your rinsing bucket becomes dirty, change it. As you wash, apply only light pressure to the sponge/mitt; too much pressure will just drag dirt around, and if the dirt is gritty, it may scratch your paintwork. 
  6. Wash the car in sections, from the top of the car down. Rinse the roof, soap it, and then rinse off the soap. Then move on to the hood and trunk lids, then the sides, followed by the front and rear ends. If soapy water begins to dry in an area where you're working, rinse off the area before moving on to the next. When rinsing off soap, the goal is to get dirty, soapy water off the car as quickly as possible. The best way to do this is to detach any spray attachments to your hose and to place the hose nozzle close to the car, so that the water will run off the car in sheets. 
  7. After washing the car, dry it off using clean, soft, terrycloth towels or with micro-fiber towels (such as those that are sold for drying hair). Leaving the water to dry on the car on its own may leave behind calcium residue. As with washing, you may want to dry your car in sections so that areas don't dry out on their own while you're washing another area. 
  8. Clean the tires last, one at a time, and rinse them thoroughly. To get hard-to-remove deposits, you can pre-treat them with a specialized cleaner and use a stiff brush to scrub them clean. Use extra care if you have chrome wheels, which usually have protective clear-coats that can be scratched easily if scrubbed too hard. 
  9. If needed, apply a coat of wax. Waxing covers the paintwork with a thin film of protection against dirt and scratches, and should make your car easier to wash in the future. You can tell when your car needs wax by noting if water runs off the car's surface in sheets as it should, rather than beading up into drops. When waxing, don't overdo it; apply the wax with a small, soft sponge or applicator pad, and follow the product directions. If the pad becomes dirty, discard it and use a new one. If you're unfamiliar with the product, first test it on a small, unnoticeable area of your car before proceeding with the rest of the job; if any paint comes off onto the cloth you're using, then you probably shouldn't use the product. After applying the wax, buff the car's surface using a very soft, all-cotton, non-abrasive cloth, such as a cloth baby diaper. Turn the cloth over frequently so that you're always working with a clean area of the cloth. When buffing, use a back-and-forth motion, not a circular motion. Avoid getting wax products on windows. 
  10. You can clean your car's windows using a standard window cleaner and clean paper towels. 
  11. Enjoy the almost-guaranteed-to-come rain showers. 

Go to Updated Ratings of 21 Boston Area Auto Detailers Back to top