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How To Detail Your Car Or Truck For That Like-New Shine

Your Step-by-Step Guide To Detailing With Tips From a Former Pro

how to detail your car

It’s summer, which means it’s time to make your car, SUV, or truck look its best. We’re here to help you out with that with a detailed step-by-step guide on how to detail your car or truck. Whether you’ve got half an hour or a whole afternoon, now is the time to bring out that shine, get rid of the winter salt, and get ready to go for a cruise.

How to Detail Your Car or Truck

Detailing is a word that gets thrown around a lot when talking about car cleaning, and it means different things to nearly everyone. A detail could be a simple wash, a days-long paint correction and interior shampooing, or anything in between.

We’ll stick to the middle ground here with a wash, wax, and interior cleaning. I spent years detailing cars and trucks for both dealerships and private owners. I’ve even hand-waxed a combine harvester. Though professional detailing no longer my full-time gig, I still detail at least one vehicle a week. These are my steps and pro tips for how to detail your car like a pro.

Interior: Getting Started on Your Detail

First up, the basics. If you’re going to wash or wax your vehicle, especially if you have a dark color vehicle, you will want some shade. Detailing in the open is fine when it is cloudy. But direct sunlight can cause water spots, cook the wax, and generally makes the task harder and hotter — you don’t want sunburn while you’re cleaning your wheels.

There are loads of debates about whether you should wash the outside or clean the inside first. I lean toward cleaning the inside of your vehicle first for one reason: You’re probably using a wet/dry vacuum for the interior. As soon as you turn the switch, this vacuum starts to blow dust out the side. All over your freshly washed car? No thanks.

Start by tossing out all of the garbage. Food wrappers, empty drink cups, receipts, old masks, change, dog treats … all of it. Don’t feel bad; my cars are a mess too. That’s life. Take the floor mats out and clean them on the pavement. You can shake off most of the dirt that way, and with the mats out of the car, you won’t have to deal with the contours and curves of your floor. You can also hose and wash the mats down to get the worst of the dirt or stains out.

The Part That Sucks

Vacuum all of the carpet, even up under the dashboard and especially under the rear seats. You’ll probably find some more garbage you missed. Vacuum the crevices and surfaces of the seats (even the leather ones) to remove all of the dust and dirt because there’s no point in trying to wipe down a seat covered in debris.

A basic wand attachment for your vacuum is all you need, but a mini powerhead will make getting small bits of dirt and gravel as well as removing pet hair a lot easier. If you’re using a bare plastic attachment, be careful when vacuuming any modern car plastics and interior trim. They look pretty, but one swipe of the wand can leave them with scratches you can never remove. Don’t ask me how I know.

Brush Out the Fur and the Tiny Gravel

Short dog hair can be even harder to get out of carpet and seat fabric than the long stuff. If you’re pulling your own hair out, try a drill brush. This soft or medium-firm bristle (or similar) brush works with your cordless drill. As it spins, it lifts the fur out of the carpet like a supercharged powerhead. Hold the vacuum nozzle close so the fur doesn’t resettle before you can suck it away.

The brush trick works with loads of other kinds of dirt, even stains. Spray any stains with an automotive stain remover or upholstery cleaner (follow the directions on the can) and then hit it with a clean brush. That should take out all but the toughest stains. If you’ve got salt stains, this is a great time to treat those too. The vacuum will get more than you think, but a salt removal spray along with the drill brush will make quick work of the rest.

To Shampoo or Not to Shampoo?

If your whole carpet or all of your seats are soiled, it might be time to shampoo. You can buy or rent a carpet machine, as well as upholstery shampoo. Ensure you have enough time if you’re shampooing since it can easily take a day or longer to dry, depending on humidity.

Application is easy. Wet the seats and the carpet, let the detergent work for a few minutes, then suck up the excess water. Don’t soak your seats (or your carpet) because you won’t get all the water out, which can lead to mold and smells. And wet shorts.

Dust Removal is a Must

Wipe down the dashboard with a clean microfiber cloth to get the dust and dirt. Start from the top of the car and work down, wiping the inside door panels, center console, the rear parcel shelf, and every other surface. Don’t wipe a dusty touchscreen with a dry cloth, though, as it can scratch the screen.

To get into cracks and crevices, try a long and soft-bristle artist’s paintbrush or some compressed air.  An old toothbrush might also do the trick. This isn’t the time to skip those hard-to-reach spots, so get in there and get the dust.

If your interior plastic is still dusty or dirty, use a cleaner designed for in-car plastic and wipe the surface down with a microfiber cloth. If you’re about to tackle a particularly dirty spot like the bottom of a cup holder, don’t re-use that cloth somewhere else until it’s been cleaned. If you don’t want to risk ruining a microfiber cloth, a paper towel is fine.

Leather Cleaning: Should You Dress the Dash?

Leather seats can be freshened up with a leather cleaner and conditioner. So can the plastic dash (with a plastic shine product), but we don’t recommend putting anything glossy on the dash because of glare at night and the haze it will leave on the glass days later.

Don’t use a slick leather conditioner on your steering wheel, and don’t put any shine products on the wheel, shifter, or pedals. Some parts of the car aren’t meant to be slippery. If you’re treating your leather, do it last, so you aren’t sitting in it while you finish cleaning the rest of your interior.

I Can See Clearly Now, The Haze is Gone

Now for the glass, which is late on the list mostly because you don’t want anything you spray inside the car to end up on your clean and clear windows. Use one cloth to apply the glass cleaner and a second to polish the glass. Be sure to get into all of the corners, or you’ll notice the spots you missed the first time things fog up.

I’ve heard of every trick, from using newspaper as a cloth to using pure ammonia. I don’t use either: newsprint isn’t what it used to be, and ammonia can ruin screens. If you have a newer vehicle or you haven’t cleaned your glass in a while, expect to have to clean the inside glass a couple of times to get it really clean.

The final inside step is your screens. And if you have piano black trim, I’d treat that the same way. Spray with a screen-safe cleaner to thoroughly wet the dust, then wipe lightly using a clean microfiber cloth. Fold to a clean side of the cloth and wipe slightly harder with additional cleaner if you need to remove fingerprints. Do the same for your dashboard bezel, digital or analog, because that plastic is some of the easiest to damage and the most in your vision.

Interior Pro Tips:

  • Don’t get your headliner wet, even if there’s a stain. You hardly ever look up, but you will notice if the headliner glue fails.
  • Can’t get between the seats? Take them out. Most modern seats are held in by four bolts and some wires. (But don’t forget they’re heavy. And have airbags.)
  • Cleaning the glass? Wipe the inside left-right and the outside up-down. That way, you can tell which side has streaks.
  • After you finish the glass, roll the windows down slightly to get the top edges.

Exterior: Time to Wash and Wax

Ok, you’re halfway finished. Now it’s time for the outside. Or, if you decided to clean the outside of your vehicle first, welcome to getting started on your detail!

Get Ready to Kick the Buckets

There are two different professional methods to wash your car or truck. The first is a two-bucket system, the method day-long details and YouTube pros use. Start with one bucket with clean water and a grit catcher on the bottom and a second bucket with soapy water. Dip the mitt in the soapy water, wash part of the car, rinse the mitt in the clean water, and repeat.

The average “normal” pro detailer at a hand wash or dealership uses a different strategy. This method utilizes one bucket full of soapy water with the hope that the dirt settles to the bottom between rinses.

Both work, but the one-bucket way leaves you with more potential for scratches. Whatever bucket method you pick for your car wash kit, if you drop your wash mitt on the ground, make sure you clean it exceedingly well. Then clean it again. If you’re working on an expensive or precious paint job, maybe just throw it out and get another one because the last thing you want to do is drag rocks across the paintwork.

Start with a rinse. You can use a hose or a pressure washer. Rinse the vehicle from top to bottom to get off most of the dust and dirt. If there is mud, pay extra attention to it on this rinse because you don’t want to scrub the mud off. It’s much easier to hose it away.

Wheels First, Paint Second

The first thing you want to wash is your wheels and tires. You won’t get brake dust or the worst road grime on the clean paint that way. Use a dedicated wheel cleaner and a brush to get rid of the worst of the brake dust. Don’t use the same mitt you’re about to use on your paint. Just don’t do it.

Get Soapy, Rinse, and Repeat

Once the wheels are clean, it’s paint time. Use a microfiber wash mitt. Rinse the car once again, then start your washing with the roof. If you can’t reach your vehicle’s roof then get a ladder. Don’t lean against your wet and soapy paint; it’s not great for you or the paint.

Next, wash and rinse one panel at a time. So do the roof, then rinse. The driver’s side glass, rinse. The driver’s side doors, rinse. Hood, rinse. You get the point.

Working from top to bottom ensures that you don’t pick up a rock or some tar from the rocker panels, bumpers, or wheel arches and then drag it over the rest of your paint. Whether you work side to side, left to right, or in a giant spiral, the method doesn’t matter as long as you get every spot and follow the steps.

For the hood and grille, a bug sponge can get rid of the worst insect smears if you need more scrubbing power. Don’t use a degreaser or more powerful cleaner because you’ll strip your wax and could damage your paint. For tougher grime like tar or tree sap, that’s best removed before you wash the rest of the car.

Once you’ve washed the entire exterior, it’s time to dry the vehicle. But don’t empty your wash buckets just yet.

Dry your vehicle using a chamois or microfiber drying cloth to stop water spots from forming. If you’re planning to wax after, a leaf blower or compressed air can help get the last water drops out of places like your trim, the door jams, and the mirrors.

Time to Jam

Now, it’s time to clean the door jams. Use an old microfiber (or chamois, as an old chamois is a great scrubbing tool) and use your now dirty, soapy wash water to clean out the door openings. Don’t forget the now-open door, and get every surface. Do remember to stay away from hinges and latches because they’re loaded with grease.

Make it Shine

The last detailing step of how to detail your car is the wax. You don’t need to wax every time, though you probably can if you want to. A good rule to follow is if the water didn’t bead up and roll off your paint, then your vehicle is due for a wax.

Whatever wax you choose, whether a classic carnauba or a modern synthetic, they generally accomplish the same thing. Most waxes also have a polish in the mix to remove light oxidation and light scratches from your paint and leaves a layer that protects the paint from UV and dirt damage.

You might get away with washing your truck in the sun, but you definitely don’t want to wax it in direct sunlight. It will make your job infinitely harder than it has to be. The same goes for using a lot of wax. It won’t give you more protection or a better shine; it will just take you longer to buff.

Apply the wax using a wax applicator. The applicator is normally a small foam pad. If you got a can of wax, it probably came in the tin. Apply a small amount of wax to the pad and rub it in. Use a small amount for a light layer on your paint. If you can barely see it, good, as long as you’re covering the whole surface.

If you drop the pad on the ground, toss it. It’s just not worth the risk to your paint. Don’t get wax on bare plastic trim, either, because it will leave it looking cloudy and is nearly impossible to remove down the road.

Polishing Off the Job

Once the wax is applied, you’ll need to check the instructions for your particular wax. Some need to dry to a haze; some don’t. If yours doesn’t, you can apply to one panel and then remove it from that panel and work your way around the vehicle.

If it does need to dry, you can apply wax to the whole vehicle (though if you’ve got a long bed crew cab pickup, you might want to do half at a time). “Dry to a haze” is the vague direction on the label but usually means the wax has gone from mostly clear to mostly opaque. If you drag your finger through a ridge of wax, and it is a powder or breaks, you’re good to go. If it smears, wait a few minutes longer.

After you wax on, you must wax off. This is the worst part of the job but also the most rewarding. Let’s hope you’ve got a good back and strong shoulders because they’re going to be sore tomorrow.

Buff off the wax by rubbing with a clean microfiber cloth. You’re not trying to make every square inch crystal clear in this step. You are trying to remove almost all of the wax, though. Fold your cloth to get a clean surface every time you move to another panel. Go around your whole vehicle. An electric buffer makes the job easier. If you choose one, use a clean bonnet with each half of the vehicle. Don’t let the buffer sit in one place longer than a few seconds, or you can burn your paint.

You’re almost done now. Get another clean cloth and do one last buff around the vehicle. This time you want to be sure you have removed any streaks or spots from the wax. At this step, you should have a mirror shine. Look at your paint from different angles and move around, so you are sure you haven’t missed any spots.

A trip around the vehicle like that, and you’re finally finished — waxing.

There’s one last thing to do, and that’s to wash your exterior glass. Wash the outside glass just like the inside, but spray the glass cleaner onto your cloth. Spraying it directly onto the cloth prevents getting any overspray on your just-waxed paint and trim.

Pro Tips

  • Don’t wax hot paint; it makes the whole job harder.
  • More wax doesn’t mean more shine.
  • Belt buckles and jean rivets are a great way to a scratched finish.

Enjoy Your Finished Product

You’re finally done. It’s time to stand back and admire your work. Your car is fully detailed and looking great. Now it’s time to hit the car show or your favorite cruising road. Or hide the car in the garage because you don’t want to get it dirty ever again.

If you’ve read through all these steps on how to detail your car and just aren’t feeling it, that’s fine too. The solution is easy: find a top-rated local shop to do it for you. Perhaps it makes a bit more sense why they charge what they do, and you won’t mind the bill!









About Evan Williams

Evan is an East Coast based automotive journalist and a mechanical engineering technologist. He is an avid autocrosser, hack mechanic, and a member of AJAC. If you don't find him driving or writing about cars, you'll probably find him in the garage breaking one.