Detailing is one of the least understood, but most valuable services your vehicle requires. Since your car or truck is a significant investment, it deserves to be taken seriously. Washing the exterior, wiping down the interior and vacuuming the carpets is basic care. Those are the easy things. Detailing involves the real work of addressing wear and tear over time – the things that lead to nasty stuff like rust, oxidation, mold, chips, cracks and plain old neglect.
The importance and value of professional detailing is frequently discounted because it seems so “trivial.” We believe it’s detailing when all we are doing is washing, cleaning and perhaps waxing. Even then, most of us are doing those basic things incorrectly!
Take washing, for instance. Chances are you are not doing it effectively. Typically, carmakers advise the following: “Wash your vehicle frequently. Rinse the vehicle with clear cold water and do not wash your vehicle with hot water. Do not use steel wool, abrasive cleaners, fuel or strong detergent as these can damage your vehicle’s protective coating and paint.” A professional detailer hand washes your car with de-ionized, chlorine and mineral-free water using specialized tools to remove salt, dirt, grime, bug remains, sap and all other damaging surface deposits properly including on the underbody and wheels. A thorough washing is the first step in detailing.
In addition to a sponge and cloth, a professional detailer will use a special clay bar to remove surface deposits and contamination. If not done correctly, this process (known as claying) can result in dulling or marring of the clearcoat. Though claying shouldn’t replace polishing and should be performed sparingly, it only takes a few simple passes of the clay bar to make a noticeable difference.
While washing your vehicle, the detailer will make note of surface damage – chips, cracks and scratches – that will be repaired and renewed later. The same goes for the glass surfaces of the vehicle. Basic detailing consists of nine basic steps: washing, drying, clay bar rubbing, touchup paint application, another wash, polishing, glazing, sealing and finally waxing. Application of a glaze is optional as is application of both a sealant and wax.
Polishing is another task that we “amateurs” rarely do properly. Meant to remove surface imperfections (in contrast to claying, which targets surface contamination), polishing is the time consuming yet essential means of removing everything from scratches to oxidation.
Generally, there are two basic classifications of polish: chemical and abrasive. Chemical polishes (or pre-wax cleaners) are used to clean the vehicle’s surface, and remove any oxidation. Abrasive polishes, however, actually remove a portion of the clearcoat, and vary in abrasiveness. The most abrasive polish typically is called a rubbing compound. This polish, which is more similar to sandpaper, is generally reserved for oxidation, heavy scratches and more obvious imperfections, and typically applied using a rotary or random orbital buffer. In contrast, finishing polish (a far less abrasive rubbing compound), is generally applied on lighter scratches and imperfections, or simply to remove the haze effect left by heavier compounds. Depending on how abrasive the polish is, a buffer should be equipped with different kinds of pads. Try doing this yourself and odds are you’ll end up with prominent swirl marks.
A polished surface still lacks the protection needed to resist the ravages of weather and the road. Most of us would assume the protection comes in the form of wax. Wrong! Seal first, wax later!
Synthetic sealants provide even greater durability than wax. They go on much like liquid wax and generally cure between 12 and 24 hours before additional coats are layered on. The wax that is applied afterwards consists of either carnauba wax or synthetic material, and comes in liquid, cream or paste form. By forming a solid layer between your paint and the atmosphere, wax ensures a high gloss, and provides even greater protection from the elements.
Today’s high-solid clearcoat finishes are the result of laws created by the EPA in 1983 regulating paint solvents and emissions. The new paint systems are actually softer and less durable than the low-solid single-stage finishes applied years ago. A wax or sealant acts as a sacrificial layer of protection for the vulnerable finish of your vehicle. You do not want to neglect your vehicle's finish. Not having it treated regularly will result in the paint fading, blemishes and other problems that will end up costing you more money to have repaired than the cost of having your vehicle detailed regularly.
For a “daily driver,” professional detailers recommend applying wax every three to six months. More frequent waxing is needed if your car is red, black or white as these colors are more susceptible to acid rain and ultraviolet (UV) rays.
When it comes to selling your vehicle, you never get a second chance to make a great first impression. The most important thing is to clean the vehicle inside and out. A clean, shiny vehicle gives the impression that you cared about the vehicle and maintained its condition. This may also increase your vehicle's sale price significantly.