Beginners Guide to Car Detailing: Process Explained

Car detailing is the process of taking a dirty car and making it as clean as possible, both inside and outside.

A car does not have to be incredibly dirty or messy in order to necessitate a good detailing job, but detailing a car and washing a car are two different matters. Washing your car is only a part of a full detail, and it usually takes place more frequently.

Car detailing is a more time-consuming task that usually includes washing, cleaning, and applying some form of protection to the interior and exterior of your vehicle. As such, detailing usually requires more equipment and materials to fully get the job done.

Exterior waxes, ceramic coating, and things like leather treatment for the interior are often not included in a simple wash and cleaning.

What Equipment/Products Do I Need to Detail My Vehicle?

Most professional car detailing experts use a much more exhaustive list of detailing equipment/products that is usually a bit more expensive than the beginning DIY detailer.

Though there are many more pieces of car detailing equipment available, you will need at least the following equipment:

Interior Detailing:

  1. Upholstery Wipes/Cleaner
  2. Vacuum
  3. Carpet Shampoo
  4. Leather/Cloth Cleaner and Sealant
  5. Air freshener
  6. Glass Cleaner
  7. Duster/Brush

*To reiterate the sentiment in our car interior cleaner article: "In most cases, a universal [cleaner] is going to be lacking in one way or another. Whether it be the way it cleans upholstery or removes stains from carpet."

Products that are dedicated to certain aspects of interior detailing will always do a better job than those that are "universal" in nature.

Engine Bay Detailing:

  1. Engine Degreaser
  2. Brush
  3. Microfiber Cloth(s)/Cleaning Mitt(s)
  4. Spray Bottle

Exterior Detailing:

  1. Microfiber cloths/Cleaning mitts
  2. At Least Two Buckets of Cool Water
  3. Hose
  4. Car Cleaning Shampoo or Car Washing Liquid
  5. Wheel Cleaning Solution
  6. Car Wax, Sealant, or Ceramic Coating
  7. Wheel Dressing

How is Automotive Detailing Done?

In order to complete a total car detailing job, there are several steps you should take. Generally speaking, the interior of the vehicle should be done first, followed by the engine bay, then it should be totally finished with the exterior from top to bottom.

This will allow the vehicle to be completely detailed from the inside out, giving the entire process an easy flow, and preventing as much residual dirt from the detailing to re-enter the clean environment.

The car detailing process from start to finish is as follows:

Gather the Necessary Materials 

From the list above, you will want to make sure you have everything handy so that you will not have to go back and forth from your work area and interrupt your process.

It will make things so much easier if everything you need is one step away. Remember to fill both of your buckets with cool water and to keep everything you will need into their own groups for each step of the process. This will help you find things easily and have everything in one place as you go through the detailing process.

Remove Unnecessary Items From the Vehicle

Obvious items that should be removed from the vehicle would be things like receipts, fast food containers, car seats, items you keep in the trunk in case of emergencies, and floor mats. However, anything that isn't regularly there, should be removed.

This is generally specific to the interior, but if you really want the best detail, things like license plate covers and vehicle magnets are also easily removed from the exterior.

Engine bay items like plastic covers that are normally found on modern vehicles are usually easily removed but not necessary to be removed. They will often protect engine components that should not get wet or sprayed, but to get the best results, they can and should also be removed.

Detailing the Interior

Detailing the interior of your car should be the first part of your overall detailing process. This will eliminate the need for you to rewind your progress and work backward from the outside.

Doing the interior detailing first will also prevent whatever outside dirt accumulates on your person as you detail your car to rework its way inside your vehicle after you've gotten rid of all the dirt on the outside.

1. Vacuum and Shampoo the Carpets

shampooing carpets

With the floor-mats/carpet out of the vehicle, vacuuming and shampooing them will be easy. This can be done away from the vehicle, and the carpets can be hung up to dry after shampooing them while the rest of the vehicle is detailed.

Vacuuming the carpets is an essential part of the detailing process and will capture most of the visible dirt that accumulates on them. To help even further, shaking the carpets or beating them to get any excess dust will make vacuuming much easier.

2. Vacuum and Dust the Interior

Vacuuming and dusting the interior pieces of the vehicle that are not removable will act similar to a preliminary exterior rinsing.

It will rid most interior surfaces of loose dust and dirt so that cleaning will be easier and exposure to problem areas will be highlighted.

3. Clean the Windows and Mirrors

Cleaning the windows and mirrors with glass cleaner should be the next step. These pieces of the vehicle do not get in the way of too many other things you will do to the interior, but cleaning the interior glass is just as important as cleaning the exterior of your windows.

This will prevent road glare that would otherwise be a safety concern, especially in poor weather conditions. Window cleaning sprays and window wipes are both available at most stores, but sprays usually work a bit better overall.

4. Clean the Nobs, Switches, Steering Wheel, Dashboard, and Console

Cleaning all the “touch-first” parts of the interior should come next. Things like the steering wheel, radio knobs, climate controls, touchscreen, and various other dashboard controls.

These are some of the worst, most germ-prone areas of the vehicle, considering you and your passengers control many aspects of your vehicle by using the controls.

As well as being some of the most touched parts of your vehicle, all the interior buttons, switches, and screens probably look the worst with smudges and fingerprint marks.

Several companies that make vehicle cleaning supplies offer cleaning wipes specifically manufactured to be used on the dashboard and various vehicle controls.

5. Clean the Air Vents

cleaning air vents

As small as they may be, air vents are yet another part of the interior that needs to be cleaned. A small brush or duster rag comes in handy to get between the vents and make them look clean.

6. Clean the Seats

Seats should be the last interior piece to be cleaned. They are often the first thing people see when looking into a vehicle.

Moving around the interior to clean it often requires leaning on the seats. This means that whatever you have on your shoes, hands, and knees gets smeared onto the seats as you clean everything else.

Cleaning the seats last – from back seats to front seats if you have a two-door vehicle – prevents you from having to climb over them to get to everything else.

Most companies that make car-detailing products make seat-specific cleaners. Leather seats often require more maintenance than cloth or vinyl seats, and they require cleaning more often.

Leather cleaning products are readily available at many retail locations, and all offer step-by-step application instructions depending on the product.

7. Apply Protectant and Use Air Freshener/Odor Eliminators

Protectant products are often available for certain interior parts, especially leather seats. Protectant, like carpet shampoo, is not absolutely necessary to the detailing process, but they do go a long way in keeping parts of your vehicle nicer for longer.

Whether you choose a spray freshener or one that you can hang from your vehicle mirror, an air freshener keeps the interior of your vehicle smelling fresh is definitely a must.

While air fresheners are quick, easy ways to make a vehicle smell better, they typically only mask underlying smells. Where-as a whole car "re-fresher" and/or odor eliminator can help too eliminate these smells.

I personally like Meguiar's products and their Whole Car Air Re-fresher is relatively inexpensive.

Detailing the Engine Bay

detailing engine bay

Detailing your engine bay is another part of a full vehicle detail that is often overlooked, not always necessary, but often appreciated, especially if you are selling your vehicle.

Not only that, but it can go a long way in helping a mechanic sniff out an issue before it becomes a major problem. For an enthusiast who takes their vehicle to a car show, engine detailing is a must.

For most – and understandable so – cleaning and detailing the engine bay is a daunting task.

Most new vehicles do a good job of covering vital areas such as air filters and electronics with different types of covers. As a result, not removing most engine covers and plastic boxes will allow you to clean most areas safely.

1. Cover Sensitive Areas of Your Engine

Opting to remove engine covers to get the best clean possible will necessitate covering sensitive areas like the air filter, ECU, and wires that may be found throughout the engine bay.

Once covered appropriately, there should be no need for panic. Plastic bags work great and are easily removed when the job is complete.

2. Use Degreaser to Get Rid of Dirt and Grime

Vehicle cleaning companies also manufacture specific engine degreasers. These are made specifically for this purpose and can be used on most parts of the engine that are able to remain uncovered, including the metal undersides of the hood.

Once the degreaser has sat for a small amount of time, you can proceed to the next step. As each product is different, it is important to read the instructions for each individual degreaser you consider.

3. Clean Off the Degreaser and Uncover the Delicate Engine Areas

Once the degreaser has had time to work, you should use a spray bottle or a hose at low water pressure to rinse the degreaser off the applicable surfaces.

For trouble spots with persistent dirt and grease, you will have to repeat steps two and three again.

Remember to remove the bags and covers from the items you did not want to get wet before closing the hood.

Detailing the Exterior

The exterior of your vehicle is the first thing everyone sees when they look at your car, many people think that exterior cleaning and detailing are the most important part of a total car detailing job.

For the most part, they are correct, and if you are in a hurry, or you are not planning on selling your vehicle, detailing your car’s exterior would probably be the “quick detailing” method you would want in a pinch.

Of course, truly detailing your car is includes more than just the exterior, and doing a good job on the exterior will take some time and effort.

1. Pre-Wash Your Car

pre wash vehicle

The pre-wash is crucial, often overlooked, and is less complicated than it sounds. A pre-wash is simply a quick hose down of your car under light pressure to remove any of the surface dirt.

Doing this will help prevent any thick dirt buildup from being rubbed into the paint when it is time to pick up a sponge and start scrubbing. You can actually often see this process being completed if you frequent automatic car washes as the machine will often “rinse” your car with a light mist before adding soap to the mix.

If you own a foam cannon as well as a car pressure washer, you could use use snow foam as a way of "pre-cleaning" before washing with a wash mitt. Snow foam can help to loosen dirt and grime and help to further remove particulates.

2. Wash the Wheels and Tires

Your wheels and tires are often the dirtiest part of your car with brake dust as a constant source of dirt and with the wheels being the closest thing to the ground of any other car part. Cleaning these first will prevent any dust and particularly hard road dirt to be kicked up onto the paint during other parts of the detailing process.

You can use your wheel cleaning solution specifically to clean and scrub the wheels. Many companies make spray-on cleaner, though some make specific wheel shampoo with sealant.

The choice is yours, and depending on which kind of cleaner you choose, you will either need to spray the solution, wait for a few minutes to let it soak in, then rinse it off, or you will need to use a sponge or microfiber cloth, apply the cleaner, and rinse it off. One of your smaller brushes may need to be used to get into tight corners of the wheels that aren’t present on other body panels.

Make sure not to re-use the sponges used on the wheels and tires for the rest of the vehicle. It is also a good rule of thumb to flush whatever buckets you have used before re-using them or to use a completely different set of buckets for the wheels and the rest of the vehicle.

3. Wash the Rest of the Exterior

After your wheels and tires have been washed, it is time to move on to the rest of the vehicle. You will need to follow the instructions on the car wash shampoo or cleaner that you have purchased as some will differ slightly in the amounts used.

Most of the time, as you add the shampoo to your chosen wash bucket, you will need to use a hose with some water pressure to fill the bucket completely to create the foam necessary to get a good clean.

The easiest way to ensure a good and total car wash is to go panel by panel or in sections starting from the top and working your way to the bottom of the vehicle. This will allow dirt to always drip down to the unwashed part of the vehicle. Soaking your cloth or mitt into the first bucket with car wash shampoo, use it to drip the washing solution over the area you are going to scrub.

After that, you can scrub the area up-and-down or side-to-side in an overlapping motion until the panel or section is complete. This removes the second layer of dirt not touched by the pre-wash while the overlapping washes any remaining dirt free of the area.

Make sure to rinse your cloth or mitt frequently to keep it as clean as possible and prevent the reapplication of dirt. Once you have reached every part of your car’s exterior, rinse the soap away.

Because the surface area of the car is so large and the cleaning process can take some time, it is important that you apply more water to the car as necessary with the hose or a clean bucket.

As the water from the pre-soak dries, it will leave water stains. Any marks, streaks, or problem areas that persist, even after you have cleaned them once can be revisited by using the same method as outlined above until fully clean.

4. Dry the Vehicle

After washing your car, it’s time to dry it. This part is not difficult, but it is important to not miss any areas where water has beaded or accumulated. If there is any water left after washing, and it is allowed to dry naturally, you will be left with water stains.

Using a clean, dry microfiber will do the best to get up all the residual water. Do not be afraid to change out your drying cloth frequently when the previous cloth becomes too saturated.

5. Detail, Wax, and Polish

hand polishing vehicle

After your entire vehicle is washed, you can move the more in-depth steps of car detailing. This is what most people think of when they think of car detailing, and it usually includes waxing or polishing.

Many vehicle cleaning supply companies offer combination wash and wax solutions which can be good if time and money are of the essence. Generally speaking, products that try to do too many things at once do not perform quite as well as two products engineered to do specific things.

With that in mind, we recommend that you get and use a specific detailer, car wax spray, or polish. You can usually apply these products to both the vehicle itself and your cleaning mitt or microfiber cloth.

After the solution has been applied, you should wipe the area down until the surface resistance eases and the cloth is easily able to glide across the paint. A more time-consuming alternative to a microfiber cloth or detailing mitt is a clay detailing bar. Mitts and cloths are more usable as they can be washed after use, but the usage process remains the same between the two methods.

If you plan to dress your tires, you can do this when you detail, wax, and polish your car as there is no chance of water dripping onto them from the body panels above. This is also a good time to wash your car’s exterior windows and mirrors.

Polishing your car can add an even greater shine to your paint. If you do this fairly regularly, purpose-built polishing tools are available, but they can be expensive.

Polishing cloths and pads are also available and are cheaper to purchase, but they are not as consistent or precise. Be careful, though! Polishing your paint can look fantastic, but performing a full polish too often can actually damage the paint.

6. Protectant or Ceramic Coating

There is a wide range of sealants, protectants, and ceramic coating products available to protect your car after it has been detailed.

Like with polishing or waxing, there are some products that claim to be an all in one wash, wax, and protectant. These may be more convenient, and many work just fine, but to get the most for your time, you should probably look at specific sealants and protectants. Especially if you choose to wax your vehicle, protectants are not always necessary, but they do add an excellent finishing touch to the job you’ve completed.

How Often Should I Detail My Vehicle?

In reality, a thorough detailing job only really needs to be performed one to three times a year depending on where you live and what you do with your vehicle.

Even washing a car should not be performed too much as overdoing it could also damage a vehicle’s delicate paintwork. There are several good times during which to fully detail a car.

If you live in a harsher climate or those that experience more distinct seasons, both the spring and the fall are good times to complete a full vehicle detailing.

Detailing your vehicle during the spring ensures that the buildup of road treatment chemicals from the winter are cleaned from both the inside and outside of your car while performing a complete detail in the fall ensures that your vehicle is clean before chemicals are used and build up on top of the already existing dirt and grime since the spring detail.

Living in a more consistent climate without so many temperature swings or inclement weather may allow you to detail your vehicle only once a year after a “rainy season” or during a time when storms may be less common.

Regardless of where you live, you should always look to detail your car before you plan to sell or trade it to make sure you get the most value out of it.

Why is Car Detailing Important?

Some might think that just washing your car is important, but not so important that it needs to be done only once a month or even a few times a year. With that in mind, many push car detailing to the backburner and only consider a necessity for car enthusiasts who take their car to shows or want to show off their special collector vehicle.

Though it is easier to wash your car, detailing your car can actually be even more beneficial than washing, especially since vehicles can cost quite a bit of money, and washing is included in the detailing process.

There are two main reasons for this:

Car Detailing Can Prolong the Life of Your Vehicle

One of the most important reasons for detailing your car is that it can prolong the life of different parts and actually save you maintenance costs over time.

Paint, engine components, and wheels are all things that can last a long time if taken care of properly. Detailing your car can protect its sensitive paint from fading, keep engine components from getting dust and dirt where it shouldn’t be, and keeping wheels – an expensive part of your car – from becoming damaged.

Detailing Can Increase the Resale Value of Your Vehicle

Most people eventually sell or trade their vehicles for a newer, more reliable, or nicer one. Experienced dealers, auto insurers, and those looking to buy a vehicle can often tell when your car has not been well cared for, even if you wash it before posting it for sale or having someone assess its value.

Many experts say that keeping a car in good condition and keeping it correctly detailed can fetch a seller up to $1000 extra when it comes time to find their vehicle.

What are the Dos and Don'ts of Detailing?

There are many things to remember throughout the entire car detailing process. There are also many things that should stand out to especially remember.

Here are a few things to make sure you do and some to make sure you avoid:

Do Not Use Household Cleaners

There is a good reason that specific car wash soaps and detailers are available. Dish soap and other household cleaners are much more microscopically abrasive and are not compatible with your car’s delicate paint.

You may end up costing yourself thousands of dollars in damage if you think you can save some money by purchasing cheaper cleaners.

Do Not Detail in Direct Sunlight.

Detailing your vehicle in direct sunlight will cause the surface of the vehicle to be too hot for the cleaning process and cause water to evaporate quickly, leaving streak marks and water stains.

Do Not Use Paper Towels

Like household cleaners, paper towels are microscopically abrasive, and you can easily scratch your car’s paint. Microfiber cloths are specifically designed to be gentle on delicate surfaces, like your car’s paint and clear coat.

Do Not Rush Through the Detailing Process

Because detailing can be time-consuming, it is easy to start rushing through the process. There are ways to make it go faster, but rushing can lead to mistakes that make the process even longer. Make sure you follow the preparation steps outlined above to make car detailing as easy as possible for yourself.

Do Use Multiple Buckets

two bucket car wash

To avoid re-dirtying your car, make sure to always have a specific washing bucket and a specific rinsing bucket. Change the water in both fairly regularly to avoid as much cross-contamination as possible.

Read More: What is a Two-Bucket Car Wash?

Do Use Multiple Cloths to Clean and Dry

Similar to the dual-bucket system, make sure you have multiple cloths and washing mitts handy. This will allow you to have a clean one at your disposal at all times, and will further prevent cross-contamination.

Do Tackle Small Bits of the Car at a Time

To avoid water stains, streaking, and missing sections, tackle the detailing of your car in small sections. Cars often have multiple panels that are easy to follow over the entire surface, but also remember to start at the top and work your way to the bottom.

Final Thoughts

For most people, car detailing is a daunting task. It is seen as expensive, time-consuming, and unnecessary. However, if you equip yourself correctly, prepare to detail your car appropriately, and give it a try, you will quickly find out that it is probably not as much of a hassle as it has been made out to be.

Following our beginner’s guide will help you get the job done right and will hopefully also help you sort out some of your other questions surrounding your own complete car detailing job.

Shawn Furman
I have been a vehicle hobbyist for as long as I can remember as well as a freelance writer for the past three and a half years. My clients have included Vehicle Scene, Autolist, CarGurus, and now The Vehicle Lab. In addition to my current clients, I also maintain my own blog where I am able to share my knowledge and experience through vehicle reviews, car-buying guides, how-to guides, and list articles.
The Vehicle Lab looks to cover all aspects of the automotive industry: News, Maintenance & Repair Guides, and Product Reviews
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