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Auto Detailers (From CHECKBOOK, Fall 2014/Winter 2015)
Go to Updated Ratings of 7 Boston Area Auto Detailers

Auto Detailers

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. 

Why Bother? 

The reason to have your car detailed—or even washed, for that matter—is 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 vehicle’s finish. But having your car detailed—or washed—is not like changing 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 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 car’s 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 best—possibly to sell it—will make it look surprisingly good. 

It used to be that the main reason cars got junked was rust—in the structural and undercarriage components and in the exterior panels. But car manufacturers have made great progress in building corrosion protection into vehicles—by 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 detailing—or even washing—does much to prevent corrosion or adds much to the life of the finish. When you sell your car, the slightly higher price you’ll 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 car’s 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. 

What Do Detailers Do? 

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. 

Exterior Wash 

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 you’d do it at home—with 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 shops—particularly those that are affiliated with large carwashing operations—send 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. 

Paint Repairs 

Any car detailer can repair minor scratches and nicks, but for more severe scratches you’ll 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 won’t 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 car’s UV protection, the paintwork of a wet-sanded area will eventually look lighter than surrounding areas. Therefore, it’s 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 don’t 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 car’s finish “finesses 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 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 aren’t easy to remove and create a glare when hit by sunlight. 

Ask any shop you’re 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 it’s 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 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 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 benefits from periodic thorough cleanings, detailing can improve your car’s 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 car’s 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 car’s 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.” It’s 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 car’s 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. 

Cleaning Engines 

Some shops include engine cleaning as part of their basic detailing package, while other shops offer it as an add-on option. Some don’t offer engine cleaning at all. As with detailing the rest of your car, cleaning doesn’t 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. 

Miscellaneous Work 

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. 

How to Find Quality Shops 

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 shop’s 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 won’t be able to correct. 
  • Take a look around the shop and assess its cleanliness and orderliness—a 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 car’s carpet. 
  • Ask how quickly the shop can detail your car. A shop that 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 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 detailer’s water tank. 

Getting Low Prices 

Because most shops will quote prices for basic detailing jobs over the phone, it’s easy to compare prices. For the shops listed on our Ratings Tables, we’ve 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 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

Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Shops for Basic Detailing
Description of job Low price Average price High price
2011 Volvo S60 sedan with leather seats Detailing without engine cleaning $130 $230 $474
2012 Nissan Quest S minivan with cloth seats Detailing without engine cleaning $190 $250 $310
2011 Acura RDX SUV with leather seats Detailing without engine cleaning $130 $247 $474
2012 Honda Accord EX sedan with cloth seats Detailing without engine cleaning $130 $214 $474

Doing It Yourself 

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. 

Extra Advice:
Tips for Washing a Car 

Washing your’s a straightforward process, right? You get a hose, spray the vehicle down, soap it up, rinse it, and 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—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 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 aren’t 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 product’s 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 car’s 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 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, 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 mitt. Rinse out the sponge/mitt frequently—in 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 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 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 don’t dry out on their own while you’re washing another area. 

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 hard. 

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, don’t 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 you’re 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 shouldn’t use that product. After applying the wax, buff the car’s surface using a very soft, all-cotton, nonabrasive 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 with a standard window cleaner and clean paper towels. 

11. Enjoy the almost-inevitable rain showers. 

Go to Updated Ratings of 7 Boston Area Auto Detailers Back to top