At home car detailing

Do you need to pay for a professional car detail?

You really don’t. With a relatively small investment, and a little time, you can do your own professional car detailing in the comfort of your own driveway. For this article, we’ll focus on the exterior of your car.

While we’re all spending more time at home, a lot of us are finding that we have more time (and more desire) to learn new things and develop new skills. Some of those pursuits—like  sourdough starter husbandry—may or may not endure beyond the pandemic.

But some, like home and car projects, can actually save us a lot of money, and often turn out to be a new hobby. Detailing your car at home can be one of those things!

We ‘car guys’ have attachment to our cars that goes way beyond just having a way to get from point A to point B. We love our car. It’s part of our family, and part of our identity. We take pride in the way it looks, and in the way we take care of it. For us, washing and detailing a car can be therapeutic, even Zen.

Detailing your own car can help you notice and appreciate its details on a whole new level.(image credit: justagirlandhercar.blogspot.com)

There’s a way in which you take in the details—the lines and the curves—when you wash a car, that makes you appreciate it on a whole other level. It’s relaxing and satisfying at the same time. And you can do it at a professional level, more easily than you think, in your own driveway. Here’s how to detail your own car.

What do you need?

You actually don’t need as much equipment as you think; the best car detailing tools are generally pretty simple. If you get really into it, you’ll probably want to invest in better tools—but if you just buy a few good-quality products, and are willing to invest some of your time, you can get excellent results.

Here’s the basic list of what you’ll need to put together your car detailing starter kit:

  • A hose, with a spray nozzle. (If you decide to get serious about this, you can add a pressure washer and a foam cannon. A water softening system can also be very useful. But for now, let’s keep it a little simpler.)
  • Two buckets with grit guards
  • A microfiber wash mitt
  • 2-3 large waffle-weave microfiber towels.
  • 2-3 small microfiber cloths
  • A car detailing clay bar
  • Car polish and applicator pad
  • Scratch and swirl reducer and applicator pad
  • Car wax and applicator pad

The two bucket wash

Two buckets? Why, yes.

Here’s why: when you wash a car with just one bucket, you dip your mitt into the sudsy water, and scrub the car… but then, when you need more suds, you reach back into the bucket, with your dirty mitt. Pretty soon, you’re scrubbing the car with all the abrasive dirt and grime that you just scrubbed off of it. And that’s a problem.

But if you have two buckets, you can use one for your soapy water, and the other with just plain water, for rinsing your mitt. So each time you come back to get more suds, you dunk your mitt into the water bucket first—so you get the grime off of it. You can also get a grit guard for the bottom of the water bucket, to rub the mitt on it and get everything off even more effectively; it keeps the grit in the bottom of the bucket, separated from the water.

Two buckets and a grit guard (image credit: detailedimage.com)

After you’re done with the body of the car, you’ll want to focus on the wheels. Often the car washing and rinsing processes will work, and you’ll just need to wipe them down. But if you have extra brake dust or other deposits on them, you may want to use a wheel cleaner spray.

Scratch/swirl reducer

The next step, which you may or may not need, is a great way to remove the very minor swirl marks and light scratches in your clearcoat… they’re just on the surface, and can only be seen from certain angles, but if you’re like me, they could drive you crazy.

A good scratch and swirl reducer will enable you to safely rub those out!

You can apply it in small, tight circles and then buff it to a shine with a microfiber towel. You’ll want to apply and buff one panel at a time.

Auto detailing clay

A clay bar, in car detailing, is used to remove contaminants from your paint’s surface. It’s a paint cleaner. This is not something you do regularly. But it can be good when you have things embedded in your paint; debris that might be tiny fragments of glass, asphalt, metal, or anything else that disrupts the smoothness of your paint. It’s sort of like an exfoliant for your car.

When you use a clay bar, plenty of lubrication on your car’s paint is key.
(Image credit: ipely.com)

The texture is something similar to Silly Putty, but as you run it over your paint, it pulls out the contaminants. The key here is to keep it very lubricated (the best thing to use for that is detail spray.) After you clay your paint, you’ll have a wonderfully smooth surface that will be ideal for waxing.

Polish

If you want unforgettable shine, polish is definitely your next step. If you want to get really serious, you can buy an electric orbital polisher. But really, you can get excellent results by hand. 

You’ll want to be sure you have the right polish—some good ones are Meguiar’s, Adam’s, and Mothers—and the right type of applicator. Any soft foam applicator made for polishing will be good for this.

Wax

Once you have your car looking amazing—it’s shiny and the paint looks lustrous and deep—it’s time to put a good coat of wax on it, to help lock in that shine and provide long-term protection for your paint.

As with polish, you can use an orbital polisher to apply and then buff it if you’d like, but you can also get excellent results without one. You’ll want to apply it in a thin coat, using small circular motions. Buff it off quickly (buffing each panel after you’re done applying the wax is usually good), because otherwise it will get harder to remove. And there’s no benefit to that, it’s just more work, so best to get it off promptly.

It’s hard to beat a good polish and wax job. (image credit: bimmerpost.com)

Another neat thing about wax is that your windows—which are really pretty similar to your paint—can also be nicely cleaned and protected with it. Apply it the same way that you do on the body panels, being careful not to get it on the rubber trim around the window (it won’t hurt it, but it can be hard to get out of spots like that, and you don’t want to see white wax residue at the edges of your window seals.

After all of that, it’s down to the trim!

Plastic and rubber

Once your paint is gleaming like a thousand suns, the rubber and plastic on your car can bring the whole program right down if it looks dull or faded. So you’ll want to use some protectant on your plastic and rubber trim, and especially your tires.

There are a lot of products you can use for this—the important thing to pay attention to is the level of gloss. Some are very shiny, and others will just make your rubber trim look dark, crisp, and clean, without the shine. That’s a matter of personal preference.

For part II, we’ll go inside the car, for interior detailing!

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