Maybe you were born to run. But born to detail? Forget it. Tramps like
us need a pro.
For less than $250, a detailing shop can transform your ride, inside and
out, leaving it looking used-car-lot new.
The reason to have your car detailedor even washed, for that matteris
the same reason you comb your hair or wear a clean shirt: to look good.
You might also consider spending your money on detailing to preserve your
vehicles finish. But having your car detailedor washedis not like changing
engine oil. Fail to change the oil and your cars days are numbered; fail
to detail the caror even to wash itand you might lose a little resale
value down the line (but probably not that much).
Removing salt, acid-rain residue, sap, bird droppings, tar, and other types
of dirt from the finish undoubtedly reduces the damaging effects of these
materials. Applying a protectant, as detailers do, adds a barrier against
the effects of future deposits and makes them easier to wash away. Cleaning
your cars upholstery and carpets, like cleaning the carpets in your home,
gets rid of dust, reduces wear, and makes it easier to keep them clean
in the future. But even if for years you do relatively little to keep your
vehicle clean, a thorough detailing when you want it to look its bestpossibly
to sell itwill make it look surprisingly good.
It used to be that the main reason cars got junked was rustin the structural
and undercarriage components and in the exterior panels. But car manufacturers
have made great progress in building corrosion protection into vehiclesby
galvanizing steel components, using better paints and sealants, employing
plastics and other non-corroding materials, and making design changes.
Today, you can expect body panels and other exterior components to outlast
the engine and other systems.
Neither the International Carwash Association, which represents professional
carwashers and detailers, nor the manufacturers of carwash and detailing
products can present hard evidence that detailingor even washingdoes
much to prevent corrosion or adds much to the life of the finish. When
you sell your car, the slightly higher price youll receive 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.
And there is one other benefit from detailing: Cleaning your cars carpet
and upholstery can reduce or eliminate odors and, by removing dust and
mites, have as favorable an effect for allergy sufferers as cleaning the
carpets in your home.
Most detailing shops are standalone businesses, sometimes connected to
large carwashing operations. But a growing number of detailers are mobile
operators who have trucks and trailers with mounted water tanks and do
the work at customers homes and in office parking lots. Some shops are
100 percent mobile; others perform 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 usually
takes four to five hours to complete. It usually includes 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 installing accessories.
Since car detailing is predominantly a thorough cleaning process, a good
exterior wash is crucial. Aside from basic expectations, a detailer should
get the exterior as clean as possible before proceeding with other tasks,
such as polishing or waxing, since dirt trapped between the surface and
the pad of a buffing machine or waxing cloth can scratch the paintwork.
Many detailing shops hand wash cars the same way youd do it at homewith
a hose, bucket of soapy water, and sponge. Some detailing shops employ
a process similar to coin-operated carwashes, using a high-pressure hose
that can dispense clear water and soapy water. Other shopsparticularly
those that are affiliated with large carwashing operationssend cars through
an automated, assembly-line carwash. In general, methods that include a
hand-wash component achieve better results, since the detailer can spend
extra time making sure particularly dirty areas get clean.
After the car is dried, most detailing shops clay the surfaces to remove
as many remaining contaminants as possible. Like washing, claying is a
low-tech but highly effective approach in which a lump of detailing clay
is pressed and rubbed over the paintwork to lift away dirt.
Any car detailer can repair minor scratches and nicks, but for more severe
scratches youll need to have a body shop repaint areas using airbrushes
and then blend in the newly painted area with the surrounding older paintwork.
(See our ratings of area body shops here.)
For very small nicks and scratches, detailing shops apply drops of touchup
paint with a toothpick or small brush. For larger nicks and scratches,
shops apply touchup 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. Touchup paint repairs wont perfectly match
the surrounding paint, but if the area is small and the worker is diligent
no one will notice the repaired area.
Instead of repairing damaged areas with touchup paint, some shops will
wet sand scratches, which smoothes out the unevenness of the finish created
by the scratch. Wet sanding initially produces results similar to the touch-up
method, but it removes clearcoat layers from the area. Because the clearcoat
is what provides a cars UV protection, the paintwork of a wet-sanded area
will eventually look lighter than surrounding areas. Therefore, its usually
safer to have damaged areas just touched up.
Polishing and Buffing
While the simple acts of washing, claying, and touching up nicks improve
the appearance of most cars finishes, a car needs to be periodically polished
to make the finish really shine.
How shiny a car appears is primarily a function of how much light its surface
reflects. Dirt and nicks reduce shine by absorbing light; scratches in
the clearcoat layers dont absorb light, but they reflect light in different
directions, which makes the finish appear dulled. Since automakers have
yet to invent a scratchproof paint, cars over time accumulate minute scratches
in their clearcoats from small rocks, sand, and bits of eroded roadway
kicked up by other cars; from acorns and other falling debris; and from
a host of other sources.
Polishing a cars finish finesses out these small scratches. Shops use
a rotary buffing machine fitted with a soft pad that rubs a polishing compound
over the cars paintwork. Since the polishing compound is slightly abrasive,
the compound and the action of the buffing machine smooth out the uneven
areas caused by scratches. After polishing, shops use a clean pad to buff
away remaining polishing compound. While most shops include a light polishing
in their basic detailing services, shops can improve the finish on noticeably
marred vehicles with extra polishing.
The polishing and buffing steps are where the most things can go wrong.
If, while polishing, a buffing machine stays too long in one spot, it will
leave swirl marks; if detailers use a compound that is too aggressive,
they can buff through the clearcoat and even into the basecoat and primer.
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. After a final once-over, detailed cleaning of seams
is performed with small brushes that dispose of wax residue. Shops should
be extra careful not to get polish or wax treatments onto windows; once
these substances dry, they arent easy to remove and create a glare when
hit by sunlight.
Ask any shop youre considering whether it uses a three-step polishing
process (polishing, buffing, and waxing) or a one-step process. The all-in-one
process used is inferior to the three-step process because its impossible
to all at the same time remove scratches with a compound, buff away the
compound, and apply wax.
Windows and Trim
After detailing the paintwork, shops clean the cars 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 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
Just as carpet and upholstery in your home benefits from periodic thorough
cleanings, detailing can improve your cars air quality and prolong the
life of its carpet and upholstery.
Shops start by vacuuming all interior surfaces. Some shops loosen dirt
and dust trapped in nooks and crannies using compressed air.
Scuff marks 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 scuff marks can be treated
with vinyl cleaners, but make sure that the detailing shop uses only water-based
vinyl cleaners. Because automakers have in recent years drastically cut
back the amount of plastics in cars interiors to reduce emissions (that
new-car smell can actually be harmful), vinyl surfaces are usually much
thinner and solvents that are too strong can dissolve them.
While most shops also apply a vinyl protectant to remove dust and create
sheen, they should make sure they wipe away any excess protectant. If too
much protectant is used and not wiped away, dust and dirt will be attracted
to these surfaces; the protectant can also discolor your clothing.
To clean a cars carpeting and cloth upholstery, most shops use specialized
hot-water-extraction carpet-cleaning equipment. 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 hot-water-extraction
equipment. Afterward, they leave the cars doors and windows open to allow
the interior to air dry.
If you have leather upholstery, have it periodically cleaned and conditioned.
Without care, leather may dry up, crack, harden, and even start to crumble
off. Some manufacturers treat leather upholstery with a protective thin
plastic skin. Its usually easy to clean treated leather by rubbing it
with a mild leather conditioner; untreated leather can be more difficult
to treat and may require several coats of conditioner. As 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
remains wet to the touch or too shiny or wet-looking after a few days,
ask the shop to wipe everything down again.
Be aware that if your cars leather upholstery is very dry, shops might
not be able to rejuvenate it, and that, once treated, dried-out leather
can take on a different shade of color.
Some shops include engine cleaning as part of their basic detailing package,
while other shops offer it as an add-on option. Some dont offer engine
cleaning at all. As with detailing the rest of your car, cleaning doesnt
make engines run better, but it can make maintenance easier, as leaks become
easier to spot. Also, a dirty engine coated with grease may run hotter
than a clean engine, and moving parts such as linkages work more smoothly
in cleaner engines. But before having your engine cleaned for maintenance
reasons, ask your mechanic if such a step is desirable.
Before cleaning an engine, the shop should cover or remove the 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 rinse with tepid water and let the degreasing agent do most of the
work. After washing, most shops spray down the engine compartment with
a dressing, usually a thin water-based substance that makes everything
shine. Some shops follow basic cleaning with a more detailed cleaning of
nooks and crannies.
Shops usually clean air vents inside the car, doorjambs, steering wheel,
speaker grilles, window handles, knobs, seatbelts, etc. Some shops also
offer a wide variety of other services, such as installing accessories
and custom work.
Our Ratings Tables show how area detailing shops were rated by area
consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) who responded
to our surveys. (Click here for further
discussion of our customer survey and other research methods.)
For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our
Ratings Tables also show counts of complaints we gathered from the
Better Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent three-year period. For more information
on reported complaint counts, click here.
You can also perform some quality checks on your own
Since most detailing tasks are the same for every car, you can get a line
on the quality of a shops work by asking to see other customers completed
cars. If the other cars appear unsatisfactory, ask the shop what it can
do to satisfy your expectations for your car. If your car is in particularly
bad shape, ask the shop what problems it will and wont be able to correct.
Take a look around the shop and assess its cleanliness and orderlinessa
messy, unorganized facility may indicate that the shop does sloppy work.
Ask whether the shop uses a three-step polishing process (polishing, buffing,
and waxing) or the less effective one-step polishing process.
Ask how the shop cleans carpets. Most shops have hot-water-extraction equipment,
which is usually the most effective method; if not, ask it to describe,
or show, how it will clean your cars carpet.
Ask how quickly the shop can detail your car. A shop that takes only an
hour or so to do the work likely isnt providing the same service as shops
that take half a day.
Ask the shop to show you proof that it carries current liability insurance
to cover the cost of repairs if your car were damaged while in the shop.
Make sure the operator of a mobile detailing service is following Environmental
Protection Agency rules, which require operators to use a runoff reclamation
system. These systems employ a mat under the car to capture all water runoff
during washing. After washing, the runoff is sucked up from the mat back
into the detailers water tank.
Because most shops will quote prices for basic detailing jobs over the
phone, its easy to compare prices. For the shops listed on our Ratings Tables, weve done some shopping for you. Our mystery shoppers asked
each shop for its prices for a basic detailing of two sedans, a minivan,
and an SUV; Table 1 illustrates the range of prices we found. The price
comparison scores on our Ratings Tables indicate how each shop compared
to the average prices quoted for the same jobs. For instance, if one shop
has a price comparison score of $120 while a second shop has a score of
$100, it means the first shops quotes were 20 percent higher than the
Table 1Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Shops for Basic Detailing
2011 Volvo S60 sedan with leather seats
Detailing without engine cleaning
2012 Nissan Quest S minivan with cloth seats
Detailing without engine cleaning
2011 Acura RDX SUV with leather seats
Detailing without engine cleaning
2012 Honda Accord EX sedan with cloth seats
Detailing without engine cleaning
Of course, the easiest way to save on detailing costs is to do the work
yourself. Below, we offer tips for washing your car, the most common do-it-yourself
detailing work. Although most of us want to leave advanced detailing work
such as polishing and buffing paintwork and cleaning engines to the professionals,
keep in mind that completing even these specialized tasks primarily requires
elbow grease and time rather than expertise. You can find step-by-step,
do-it-yourself guides in books and on instructional videos.
Washing your car...its a straightforward process, right? You get a hose,
spray the vehicle down, soap it up, rinse it, and youre done. Not so fast:
As with most tasks, theres 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 soapand the dirton 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 a sponge.
Road tar deposits can be removed with specialized cleaners or with household
kerosene lamp fluid.
3. Fill a bucket with water and soap formulated for washing cars. Most
household detergents and soaps arent appropriate for carwashing. 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 products directions to determine how much soap to use. Too much
soap can leave a sticky residue, which just attracts more dirt. Create
plenty of foamy suds, which will suspend dirt off the cars surface and
help reduce abrasion during washing.
4. Give your car a good rinse with a hose, paying extra attention to especially
dirty areas. If youve been off-roading, if your car is covered in salt
and sand from snow treatments, or if your car is otherwise particularly
dirty, take your car to a coin-operated or automated carwash to remove
as much dirt and mud as possible before hand washing it. If theres too
much dirt on the car, youll just drag the dirt around with your dirty
sponge instead of removing it.
5. To wash, use a large, soft, car-washing sponge or mitt. Rinse out the
sponge/mitt frequentlyin a separate bucket with plain, clean water. When
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 drag
dirt around, and if the dirt is gritty, it may scratch your paintwork.
6. Wash the car in sections, from the top 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 youre 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 place the hose nozzle close to the
car, so that the water will run off in sheets.
7. After washing the car, dry it off using clean, soft terrycloth or microfiber
towels (such as towels for drying hair). Leaving water to dry on the car
on its own may leave behind calcium residue. As with washing, dry your
car in sections so that areas dont dry out on their own while youre washing
8 Clean tires last, one at a time, and rinse them thoroughly. To get hard-to-remove
deposits, pretreat 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 clearcoats that can be easily scratched if scrubbed too
9. If needed, apply a coat of wax. Waxing covers the paintwork with a thin
film of protection against dirt and scratches, making the car easier to
wash in the future. You can tell when your car needs wax by noting if water
runs off its surface in sheets, as it should, rather than beading up into
drops. When waxing, dont overdo it; apply the wax with a small, soft sponge
or applicator pad, and follow the directions. If the pad becomes dirty,
discard it and use a new one. If youre unfamiliar with the product, first
test it on a small unnoticeable area before proceeding with the rest of
the job; if any paint comes off onto the cloth, you probably shouldnt
use that product. After applying the wax, buff the cars surface using
a very soft, all-cotton, nonabrasive cloth such as a cloth baby diaper.
Turn the cloth over frequently so that youre 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 cars windows with a standard window cleaner and
clean paper towels.
11. Enjoy the almost-inevitable rain showers.