Let’s get this right out in the open – if you are reading this, you’re almost certainly in the “enthusiast” category, and you’re likely to be the kind of owner who takes very good care of your car, inside and out. You probably wash and detail your car yourself, or hire a pro to do it, and you’re sure you’ve got this stuff handled. But then, you glance at your car and notice the water spots, or when the sun hits it you see a spider web of swirl marks, and even though nobody else would ever see it without actively looking, you know it’s not quite right.

…you’re confronted by what Meguiar’s Michael Pennington calls the “wall of confusion.”

So, you head to the auto parts store to look for that missing weapon in your car detailing arsenal that will fix the problem, but instead of finding what you’re looking for, hitting the register and buying some impulse jerky on the way out, you’re confronted by what Meguiar’s Michael Pennington calls the “wall of confusion.” A six by ten foot display of waxes, soaps, sprays, polishes, and tools that makes your head spin, and not in a good, random-orbit way. Natural carnauba, synthetic polymer, clear-coat safe, fast cutting, waterless wash… You either grab something and hope for the best, or spend an hour reading the fine print on labels trying to decide if what you’re looking at is really going to fix your problem.

While there are a lot of car detailing products on the market, some essential and some created only to fill a marketing niche, getting a show-quality finish and keeping it doesn’t require a shopping cart full of products. We’ve enlisted the help of two very well-respected car care giants to sort things out, and with the help of our friends at Surf City Garage and Meguiar’s, we can make things simple.

A full arsenal of “tools” like this Surf City Garage deluxe cleaning kit means you can tackle just about any fault in your paint short of getting keyed, but for DIYer’s on a budget, identifying your specific problems can save money and time.

Our guides in this adventure in cleanliness are two very well-respected experts in the field: the aforementioned Meguiar’s Global Director of Training & Consumer Relations Mike Pennington, and Surf City Garage Chief Marketing Officer Steven Mason. In order to get some hands-on experience with what we were being taught, Surf City Garage provided us with a complete detailing kit to go along with Mason’s sage advice, while Meguiar’s hosted us at their SoCal headquarters where they regularly bring in car clubs and other groups for detailing clinics. The two C5 Corvettes you’ll see in this story were given complete makeovers with their help – We tackled the red ‘Vette DIY style with Surf City Garage, while the pewter car received a day of beauty with Meguiar’s.

Know Your Enemy

There are three equally important aspects to detailing any car: Evaluation, Tools, and Techniques. Of the three, evaluation usually gets the least attention, when it should be at the top of the list. “If your finish doesn’t have swirls, then a paint correction product isn’t necessary,” explains Pennington. “Likewise, if your paint hasn’t accumulated contaminants and feels smooth after a wash, then you can skip the clay bar.” While perfectionists or those with untreated OCD will go through every step, every time, getting a good shine is about identifying and correcting problems, not slavish adherence to ritual.

In order to determine what really needs to be done, the evaluation process is critical, and it can’t be performed without a good wash – that’s Step One, no matter how much or little time you have to devote to cleaning your car. Both Meguiar’s and Surf City Garage caution that you should never under any circumstances use a household detergent like dish soap to wash your car, because it will strip away any wax protection that still exists as well as possibly hasten the oxidation of your clear coat. We’ve all seen relatively new cars with the clear coat flaking off in big scabby patches on the roof and hood – chances are that they belong to some of the 60 million US car owners that Surf City Garage says admit to using household cleaners on their paint. A proper car wash soap will help prevent that kind of disaster.

A bucket with a ‘grit guard’ like this one from Surf City Garage can help reduce the potential of scratching your finish during the wash process by keeping dirt trapped at the bottom, away from your mitt.

Step One – Washing Tips

  • Wash your vehicle in the shade – this helps keep the paint cool, and will lessen water spotting
  • Start off by rinsing the entire vehicle with a strong stream of water to remove loose dirt and debris that might scratch
  • Wash from the top down, rinsing your wash mitt frequently to further prevent scratches
  • If at all possible, use the two-bucket system – one for clean soapy water, and the other for rinsing the wash mitt
  • If you’re using a single bucket, use one with a “grit guard” to help trap dirt at the bottom, and rinse the mitt with clean water from the hose when possible
  • Final-rinse your car with a smooth stream of water instead of a spray, and “sweep” the stream across the car to help drain away excess water and speed the drying process

Once the tree stumps and boulders have been washed away, it’s time to get in close and examine your paint. To evaluate it, you’re going to use both your sense of sight and touch – looking for swirls, water spots, and scratches while feeling for contaminants like overspray, sap, bug guts, and fallout that washing hasn’t removed.

Meguiar’s Internet King Michael Stoops demonstrates using the two-light-source technique to examine the car finish – here, he’s using a spotlight to bring out defects not visible under ambient light.

Decisions, Decisions…

Now that you have boots on the ground, so to speak, you’ll know what the enemy looks like. Finish flaws fall into one of two categories – things that are “on” the paint, like hard water spots and contaminants, and things that are “in” it, like swirls, scratches, and etched spots. The next step, surface prep, is about cleaning up these larger imperfections, and what tool you’ll use (in terms of product as well as hardware) depends on what category they fall into.

Clay it Away

Clay bar treatments, once the secret weapon of pro detailers, have become common on auto part store shelves recently. The concept is pretty straightforward – a small piece of clay is flattened into a patty and rubbed gently across the paint, lubricated by a ‘quick detailer’ type product. As it passes over fallout, embedded grit, and other contaminants, the clay picks them up and extracts them from the paint, leaving a glass-smooth surface.

Clay Bar Tips:

  • First and foremost – if you drop a piece of clay onto the ground, THROW IT AWAY and replace it with a new one
  • Keep the paint wetted out with detailing spray so that the clay glides smoothly without sticking
  • Work in side to side passes on a limited area of the car, then repeat up and down to remove all the contaminants before moving on
  • Periodically fold and flatten the clay to expose fresh, clean clay
  • Don’t use a lot of force; Stoops says that it should be the same motion and effort as “petting a friendly dog”

No matter how clean your car looks after it’s been washed, hitting it with a clay bar will amaze (and disgust) you…

Step Two – Surface Prep Tips

  • Use a clay bar to remove contaminants you can feel that remain after washing (see sidebar)
  • A paint cleaner/compound will be necessary to correct defects that aren’t above the surface
  • Use cleaners and compounds conservatively, because you are actually removing minute amounts of clear coat in order to correct the existing scratches
  • Two or three light passes may be necessary, and are better than one too-aggressive application
  • Deep scratches that reach below the clear coat into the color coat can only be fixed by touch-up paint or a respray
  • Both paint cleaners and clay remove everything from the surface, including wax, so you’ll need to re-apply when you are done

When it comes to using a paint cleaner, or “compounding” a car, some people tend to go a little off the rails. While doing an entire car by hand is possible, if time-consuming and tiring, most of us would prefer to use a power tool. Used correctly, the right kind of dual-action polisher can make the work go faster, but in careless hands, especially when used with very aggressive “pro” compounds, it’s possible to do a lot of damage very quickly. You can get the same quality results by hand, so that’s the best way to learn the process.

Another fact worth noting is that once you’ve done your initial “paint correction,” if you’re careful about washing and waxing in the future, the imperfections won’t need to be buffed out again, and cleaning can be limited to a spot-process to fix areas that need touching up. In any case, once the surface contaminants are removed and the sub-surface flaws corrected, it’s time for another decision…

Spit & Polish

With your paint once again glassy-smooth, it’s time for another inspection; the point this time is to look for those minute swirls that make the difference between “looks pretty good at 10 feet” and “might as well be a mirror.” You’ll see some products marketed as a combination wax and polish, and while they can save a step, for regular use you should consider using them separately. The polishing step, done correctly, doesn’t necessarily need to be repeated every time you wax the car, and like the more aggressive paint cleaners and compounds mentioned above, you’re going to be removing a minute amount of clear coat every time you use a polish.

Step Three – Polishing Tips

  • Like all detailing, polishing is best done in the shade, on a cool painted surface
  • An orbital or dual-action polisher can be used to speed the process when used with care
  • Dark-colored cars typically benefit more from a polishing step, because they more clearly show swirls and fine haze
  • Keep applicators for cleaning (paint correction, compound, polish) separate from those used for wax
  • Use a high-quality microfiber cloth to remove polish

Per Surf City Garage’s Steven Mason, “About 47% of the cars on the road today are black or dark-colored – there’s been a huge shift from white and light-colored paint. They tend to collect and show dust and dirt a lot more easily because of the contrast.”

 

An orbital or dual-action buffer can make the polishing process go quickly, but patience can achieve nearly the same results by hand.

Wax On, Wax Off

OK, you knew we weren’t going to get through this without a Karate Kid reference, so let’s get it out of the way. Applying and buffing wax by hand can definitely be a “character-building” experience, but only if you’re not using the right products and technique. By the same token, slathering on wax with a buffer can be a pain in a different way, if done incorrectly.

A properly-maintained factory finish can remain brilliant even after a decade of exposure to the elements.

But however you choose to take the final step in pampering your paint, the objective is the same – to leave a uniform layer of protection on top of the already-glossy finish. A wax, by itself, won’t work miracles, and as much as many people want to skip straight from hosing the bird poop off to laying on a thick layer of carnauba, getting the perfect results demands that you do the right prep work.

Of course, you’ve been following our tips so far, so that part is taken care of. How do you properly preserve it?

Step Four – Waxing Tips

  • Apply wax in a uniform, thin coat so that removal isn’t a chore
  • Meguiar’s recommends using the “swipe test” to determine when the wax has had enough time to dry – take a fingertip and swipe it across the hazed surface. If it leaves streaks, the wax needs more time to dry. If it comes away clean and glossy, it’s time to break out the microfiber towel
  • Two coats don’t necessarily provide more protection than a single complete layer – doubling up will ensure you’ve reached every area with a uniform coat, however.
  • Remember that the wax is a “sacrificial barrier” that will need to be renewed 3-4 times a year at a minimum – any product that claims to be a “forever” wax or protectant is more marketing than science.

Lots of people just happen to prefer the pure, straightforward gloss and shine that you get from carnauba. – Steve Mason

What kind of wax should you use? Again, this is a source of confusion, with some enthusiasts advocating “natural” over synthetic, or vice versa. “Natural is one of those terms that can be hard to accurately define,” explains Mason. “If you’re looking at a natural wax, the best is carnauba. And there are several grades, so you have to be talking about #1 Brazilian carnauba. That’s what we refer to when we talk about ‘natural’ wax, and nothing else. It comes from the copernicia prunifera palm tree leaves.”

“Synthetic waxes are really synthetic polymers,” Mason continues. “You have to be a chemist to really grasp everything that goes into a synthetic formula, but basically they’re being engineered for a specific purpose. Lots of people just happen to prefer the pure, straightforward gloss and shine that you get from carnauba. There are also products that combine both natural carnauba and synthetics, so you kind of get the best of both worlds. There are a lot of things you can do with a synthetic in terms of molecular structure that will determine what it will and will not bind to that you just can’t get with carnauba.”

Of course, keep in mind that even so-called “pure carnauba” wax must be blended with other chemicals – per Mason, “100% carnauba wax would be a brick. An absolute, solid brick. So when we say pure carnauba, we mean that it doesn’t contain some other kind of wax. To get it to be a paste or liquid, you have to have things that allow you to apply it. Paste wax got its bad reputation from the incredible amount of elbow grease required to use it if the formula was wrong. We’ve found ways to deliver that pure carnauba so it goes on and off like butter.”

Step Five – Maintenance

Once your car’s paint is at its best, you’ll save yourself time and effort in the future by maintaining the finish you’ve created properly, by removing contaminants before they get the chance to get intimate with your paint again. Spray detail products have revolutionized between-wash care, and there are even “waterless wash” products that are safe to use on heavily contaminated surfaces without removing that protective layer of wax.

The main point, though, is that regular washing with a product specifically formulated for car finishes will not only extend the time between major detailing and paint correction sessions, but will also keep you familiar with the condition of your car.

Surf City Garage recommends these intervals for car appearance care to keep it looking its best.

“The number one error people make is just not continuing to protect their car and detail it – in other words, letting things slide,” says Mason. “If you let your car go too long between waxing, or if you don’t keep it up between with detail spray, once the exterior has been exposed too long to those UV rays and you’re starting to lose clear coat, there’s nothing other than a full-fledged wet sanding that will fix it. Maintenance is always less than restoration.”

Clearcoated, polished, and chrome wheels have different tolerances for harsh chemicals. Using a wheel cleaner recommended for your particular finish ensures maximum cleaning action with the least potential for damage to the finish.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

With as much money as people spend on aftermarket wheels (or tack on to a car payment with “premium” factory hoops), it seems like little attention is paid to the right way to keep them clean and protected. Many owners hit the “wall of confusion” looking for spray-and-walk-away fix for brake dust and road grime, but the truth is that replacing a little elbow grease with chemical reactions can actually ruin a set of wheels.

“There’s no substitute for mechanical agitation when it comes to cleaning wheels,” Pennington explains. Even with a product correctly matched to the wheel finish, whether it’s a clearcoat, polished aluminum, or chrome, the cleaner isn’t going to do all the work itself. Once again, though, the intimate interaction with your car that’s required to safely get the wheels clean offers you a chance to look things over on a regular basis. Take the opportunity to have a look at your treadwear, check for sidewall damage, and even keep an eye out for things like missing wheel balance weights.

You wouldn’t think of cleaning your leather jacket with dish soap, but household cleaners are often mistakenly used to remove grime from car interiors. Using a dedicated product intended to clean leather, cloth, or vinyl will take care of the dirt without damaging the surface.

The Inside Story

Of course, if you are enjoying your car the way nature intended, you’ll see a lot more of the interior than the exterior – what about keeping it looking good? Gone (and best forgotten) are the days of hosing down every solid surface with fluid from a bottle with a little Viking on the label, but some people might lament the simplicity of that spray-and-pray approach to interior detailing. Once again, the “wall of confusion” can make things difficult, unless you return to Evaluation, Tools, and Techniques.

Just like the exterior, the evaluation step will tell you what’s necessary, and just like the exterior, cleaning with appropriate products comes first. Spot treatment of carpet stains before they have a chance to set is ideal, but usually impractical, so be prepared to pay special attention to any stains. Once everything is clean (including the steering wheel, which is usually a horror story even in the best-maintained car), using the proper tools and techniques to protect the dash, control surfaces, seats, and carpet can reduce the future maintenance workload.

An inexpensive selection of brushes (both stiff-bristled for cleaning carpets, and soft for getting into areas like vents and dashboard crevices), microfiber cloths, and other improvised tools are helpful for interior detailing. Makeup brushes are particularly handy, as are paint brushes - the one shown here has the top part of the bristles covered with painter's tape both to increase its stiffness and protect the interior from scratches caused by the metal ferrule. A bamboo skewer can be invaluable in removing wax from exterior panel gaps as well as getting into tight spots inside the cabin.

Modern interior detailing products like Surf City Garage’s Dash Away effectively clean and protect a variety of materials like vinyl and plastic, without leaving things all ‘lubed up’ like old school protectants.

 

Stay away from products that leave a greasy residue on the exterior trim as well – the proper stuff will rejuvenate black plastic and rubber without becoming a magnet for dirt and grit once you actually drive the car.

Less Time Cleaning, More Time Enjoying

When you come right down to it, a clean, well-detailed car is a matter of pride and a source of enjoyment for the owner. Using the right tools, techniques, and products will increase both the ease and dare we say fun of getting the car clean and keeping it that way. Even if you’re the type of person who loves to devote an entire Saturday to a spa treatment for your ride, the less time and effort necessary to get the results you want, the more you have available to devote to other things, like laundry, cutting the grass, or spending time with so-called “loved ones” who just don’t get it…