How To Detail a Car


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So you’ve already washed, waxed, and polished your car and want to take the next step to get it looking Concours-ready? Well, fine sir or madam, you’ve come to the right place! Although a handful of The Drive’s editors like their cars dirty, the informational team does not.

Detailing a car is a great weekend project and offers a zen-like experience as you pour over every detail, crack, crevice, nook, and cranny. This, dear friends, gives you a peaceful respite from our world’s ills and ensures that each is sparkling better than any dealership porter could hope to accomplish.

Though it can seem somewhat taxing at first, The Drive’s crack informational team is here to help break it all down into manageable bites and get you schooled in just how to detail a car. 

Got a spare toothbrush?

Car Detailing Basics

Estimated Time Needed: Two to five hours

Skill Level: Beginner

Vehicle System: Exterior and interior

Car Detailing Safety

Working on your car can be dangerous and messy, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to ensure you don’t die, get maimed, or lose a finger and that you keep your jeans, shirt, and skin spotless—hopefully.

Everything You’ll Need To Detail a Car

We’re not psychic, nor are we snooping through your toolbox or garage, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to get the job done. 

Tool List

Parts List

Related Post: Best Car Detailing Products

Organizing your tools and gear, so everything is easily reachable while you detail your car, will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You still don’t need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)

You’ll also need a flat workspace to detail your car properly, such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking that’s also well-ventilated. Check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes when using the street because we aren’t getting your ride out of the clink.

Here’s How To Detail a Car

Detailing your car is all about how granular you want to go. And by all means, go as deep into every crevice and cranny as you’d like because there’s always more hidden dirt. But to get you started, here’s The Drive’s guide for how to detail a car.

Detailing the Exterior

  1. With dirt traps at the bottom, fill two buckets with water and add the soap.
  2. Rinse the car, top, body, and underneath, with the hose and let the water soften some of the dirt. 
  3. With a lathered up mitt, start washing the car from the top and proceed down the car. 
  4. Wash and rinse the car in quarters to help prevent dried streaks and/or water spots. 
  5. Wash the wheels with a brush and rinse. Always do this last as you don’t want the brake dust or dirt and grime getting transferred to your paint and scratching its enamel. You can also use a different brush or towel if you want to do them first. 
  6. Once all parts of the car have been washed, rinse the entire vehicle again.
  7. Use one towel to quickly soak up the large majority of the water around the whole car.
  8. Use a second dry towel to detail dry.
  9. Lastly, with a small disposable towel, wipe and dry the wheels.

For more information read The Drive’s guides for How to Hand Wash a Car and The Best Way to Dry a Car.

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How To Clay Bar a Car

Using a clay barto detail your car helps remove the embedded contaminants that become ingrained in your car’s paint. The process is a little finicky but will allow your detail to last longer. Here’s how to clay bar a car.

  1. Squeeze a portion of the clay until it’s pliable and able to be formed into a small disc with a little less than an inch depth.
  2. Spray the lubricant over your first section until saturated.
  3. Slide the clay disc up and down over the lubricated section. Never clay bar in a circular motion.
  4. Continue until the area has been completed. 
  5. Wipe down the exterior with a microfiber towel.
  6. Before moving onto the next section, check the clay for contaminants. If there are too many, fold the clay disc in half and reform into a new disc.
  7. Repeat the process for the rest of the car. 

Detailing the Engine Bay

  1. Pop the hood.
  2. Rinse the engine bay using a hose or, if available, a powerwasher.
  3. Using a towel, wipe down the large components, making sure you remove any oil or built-up grease. 
  4. With another towel, work your way through the smaller components until the engine looks like it did the day you bought it.

Detailing the Interior 

  1. Vacuum out your car, removing any leftover meals, pacifiers, cigarette butts, and change that’s fallen in between the seats.
  2. Remove the floor mats.
  3. Wet scrub brush with soap and water.
  4. Scrub removed floor mats until clean.
  5. Set cleaned floor mats aside to dry.
  6. Use leather/cloth cleaners to clean the seats, headliner, and remaining carpet. Wipe away the excess with the paper towels as you go.
  7. Using the microfiber towel, dry the seats, headliner, and remaining carpet. 
  8. Spray console-safe cleaner along your car’s dash.
  9. With an additional microfiber towel or toothbrush, wipe and detail the car’s dash until every nook and cranny is showroom-clean. 
  10. Repeat process for any other interior surface that uses similar materials; i.e. door handles, armrests, center consoles, and the tops of the doors just before the windows.

Replacing In-Cabin Air Filter

  1. Remove contents of the glove box.
  2. Remove the glove box from its hinges, no tools required.
  3. Remove the old, fart-saturated air filter.
  4. Replace the old filter with a new cabin air filter.
  5. Reattach the glove box and replace the glove box’s contents.

Using the Deodorizer

  1. Locate HVAC intake, likely positioned somewhere near the base of the windshield.
  2. Turn the ignition on.
  3. Turn HVAC system off recirculate.
  4. Turn HVAC system’s fans to high and lowest temperature setting.
  5. Roll down windows, if you haven’t already.
  6. Spray deodorizer through the HVAC intake at the base of the windshield.
  7. Turn ignition off.
  8. Let the car sit with the windows down for deodorizer to settle.

You’re done!

How to Maintain Your Car’s Cleanliness

Once a car is washed and detailed the interior, there are several ways to elevate its cleanliness, smoothness, and shininess. To give you that extra shine, follow The Drive’s other detailing and cleaning guides to add protection and gloss to your ride:

Pro Tips to Detail a Car

The Drive’s editors have washed countless rides over the years. We’ve picked up a handful of pro tips along the way we’re sharing with you. Check these out. 

  • Wear clothes with soft surfaces. Jeans, for example, have metal that could scratch the car.
  • Always park in the shade, and if there isn’t any, wait for it. In the sun, the heat could dry washing chemicals or water streaks onto your vehicle.
  • Don’t ignore the wheel wells and underneath the car. Just because these sections aren’t visible does not excuse half-effort cleaning. These spots are hit with more dirt and grime than any other part of the vehicle and require extra attention to get it all off.
  • Car windows require a car window cleaner, not Windex. 

How Often Do You Need To Detail a Car

Detailing your car can be a once-a-year deal or a monthly endeavor. There’s no real harm in detailing your car more often, and the special attention could actually maintain your car’s value for a longer period of time.

How Much Does It Cost To Detail a Car

A lot of the detailing cost comes down to cleaning supplies, but, thankfully, those can be one-time purchases and good for a long time. You’ll likely spend about $100 out of pocket initially, but professional jobs can cost thousands. 

Life Hacks To Detail a Car

Since you may not have access to the right tools, or have a friend you can bum a wrench off of, we also compiled a list of our best hacks to make your life easier and drain your pocket less.

  • Q-tips work great for those super tiny spots where dust and dirt collect.
  • If you have perforated leather, you may need a toothpick to get out the gunk that embeds itself in the holes.
  • Windy days are your enemy. Dust and debris could be blown into your interior or screw up that beautiful exterior. Wait for a calm day for detailing.

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