How To Detail Your Own Car: Giving Your Car’s Exterior a Showroom Finish
Detailing your cars exterior requires time, effort, and attention to detail to get things looking right. Anyone can wash their car, however there’s a big difference between a quick wash and a detail. In this article I’ll cover the basic steps of bringing your paint back to life so you know how to detail your own car and get great results!
What you will need before getting started: Before we get to the fun stuff there’s a few things we need, here’s a short list of what you need to detail your ride like a pro.
Quick tip: All of these steps should be done out of the direct sun, washing and waxing a car in the hot sun will cause spotting and other paint issues.
Getting your car looking it’s best shouldn’t be complicated, with some time and these step by step instructions you will have the cleanest car on the block.
Let’s get started…
Ready for a showroom shine? Read on and learn how to detail your car like a pro.
Detailing your own car can save you money and be fun, take your time and follow these steps for a showroom finish.
Step 1. Wash the exterior
Start by washing the exterior of the car with a high-quality car wash soap and a microfiber mitt. Thoroughly hose the car down to loosen up any dirt or grime that can damage the paint before taking the sponge to the paint. The last thing you want is custom dirt scratch pinstripes.
Better yet, I recommend using a foam gun. Foam guns mix car wash with the water to create a rich lather. This allows you to cover the car in rich suds before even touching the paint with anything. (Not to mention they are fun as hell to use:) This loosens up the dirt and lubricates the mitt as it’s running across the finish to prevent scratches.
Start at the roof and work your way down, take your time, this is an important step. Rinse thoroughly and dry the entire vehicle with a clean microfiber towel, or leaf blower, yeah I said it. A leaf blower makes short work of drying the vehicle.
Clean the Wheels: Use a wheel cleaner to remove any brake dust or grime from the wheels. Use a soft-bristled brush to clean the rims and a tire cleaner to clean the tires. There is nothing worse than wheels covered in brake dust and dirt.
Some quick washing tips:
Step 2. Remove contaminates
A clay bar is exactly as it sounds, it’s literally a bar of clay. Clay is highly effective at removing contaminates from deep in the the paint. (Think face mask) It does it well and will leave your car’s finish looking refreshed.
This is a tedious step, it takes time and can weigh on your overall sanity. The good news is the results are VERY impressive if done correctly. A clay bar is what separates a good finish and a GREAT finish.
How to use a clay bar kit on your car
Spray the clay lubricant on a small section of your car. (This will provide a layer of lubrication that allows the clay bar to glide over the surface without scratching the paint.) After you have the section ready take the clay bar out of its packaging and knead it in your hands, this warms it up and makes it pliable enough to work with. You want the clay to be nice and warm, the warmer it is the better it will work to pick up deep contaminates.
Start on a specific panel and work your way around the vehicle. Be sure to stay within this certain area until you have covered the entire section. Do this slowly and focus on one section at a time.
Jumping around is a bad idea and will leave your car looking “Off.”
Gently…..and I mean gently, glide it over the lubricated surface using nice light pressure, this is a feel thing, don’t over do it. After a few passes check out the clay, you may be surprised at what’s in there. Keep going until the entire car is done, being sure to knead the clay as you go to freshen up the point contacting the car.
The clay bar will pick up any contaminants that are stuck to the surface of the paint. It’s important to work in small sections and not apply too much pressure, as this can cause damage to the paint. Take you time and remove the yuck, be sure to check the clay for nasty and keep kneading periodically.
Following these steps and taking your time can achieve a showroom finish for your car. However, keep in mind that the quality of the finish will also depend on the overall condition of your car’s paint.
Step 3. Polish and apply wax
Now that we have washed the car and removed deep down grime, it’s time to wax and seal the finish.
If there are scratches and marks in the paint you may need to have it “cut” and buffed out with a polishing compound and a professional buffer. This should be done by a pro if you have no experience. It’s very easy to create swirl marks and even cut through the clear coat if you don’t know what you’re doing.
For the purposes of this article let’s assume the paint is in good shape.
It’s time to wax and seal all of our hard work and bring out the shine! I recommend getting a decent orbital buffer and some good quality buffer head refills.
This process can be done completely by hand as well, it just takes longer. These days I’m using the buffer, to old for the alternate, I’ll feel it for days 🙂
What you will need to start applying wax.
You will need a applicator head for the buffer, plus a good quality car wax.
Let’s get started.
Give the car a once over looking at the paint from different angles to find any imperfections or spots that need a little extra work and take a mental note. Use the same principal as the clay bar, choose an area on the car and stick with it until it’s done before moving on.
Apply the liquid wax to the buffer applicator head, Not the car itself! Applying the wax to the pad and not directly on the paint keeps things uniform, squirting the wax directly onto the paint can cause off color marks that can be hard to remove.
Also avoid putting too much wax onto the pad unless you want wax everywhere. Start in your chosen area and work the wax into the paint with the buffer, it’s totally normal to see the color of your car on the buffer pad, this is OK however use judgement.
Keep the buffer moving at all times across the paint and work the wax deeply into the finish. Avoid staying in the same spot without moving, too long can burn through the paint, hard to actually do but I have seen it happen.
Keep enough wax on the applicator head and slowly work the buffer across the car using a steady back and forth motion until you have covered the entire vehicle.
Again take your time here, after the wax is applied and worked in follow the directions of the wax to know when to start wiping it off with a microfiber towel.
Wipe all of the wax off and enjoy the shine, man that baby should be clean by now!
What to do next, some quick tips
Detail the Interior: Use a vacuum cleaner to remove any dirt or debris from the carpets and seats. Use a carpet cleaner or upholstery cleaner to remove any stubborn stains. Clean the dashboard, door panels, and other surfaces with an all-purpose cleaner and apply a good quality dressing to the interior panels.
Clean the Windows: Use a glass cleaner and a microfiber towel to clean the windows inside and outside.
Apply Tire Shine: Apply a tire shine product to the tires to give them a glossy finish.
Hopefully this article gives you some insight on how to detail your own car, this article obviously covers the exterior (mainly the paint) and is designed for the beginner. There are more advanced detailing techniques that I will cover in future articles.
I’ll be posting more, showing you how to get deep into interior and exterior cleaning and even engine compartment detailing. For now take your time and follow these steps to get a great showroom finish on your paint job!
Scoot is a Dad, ASE certified mechanic, and blogger. He has been in the automotive business for over 25 Years.