Before you spend a dime on supplies, you need to know what you’re up against. Go look at your vehicle. Really look at it inside and out to get a lay of the land. Does dirt build up in the door handles and dashboard crevices? How’s your shifter looking these days?
Take note of any damage to the clear coat like flaking or chips on the front bumper. You can use the Surface Damage Field Guide for examples on what to look for and what’s fixable versus permanent on the exterior.
Check out the Beginner’s Buying Guide and the Recommended Kits articles. Most kits in the Basic and Intermediate section should cover your first detail.
- Plastic Bag (for collecting trash)
- All Purpose Cleaner
- Small Brush
- (optional) Vacuum
- Microfiber Towels
- Interior Cleaner
- Interior Dressing
We’re starting with the interior because you’ll be opening and closing doors a lot, and it’s easier to clean up marks on the door jambs when you stop getting in/out of the vehicle constantly to clean it.
- Clean out the trash from the door panels, back seat, etc. Don’t eat that french fry.
- Remove the floor mats. Shake them out away from the vehicle.
- If they’re rubber, spray them down with APC and agitate the suds with the brush (or a microfiber, if you lack a brush). Rinse/wipe clean. You may have to do this a few times if they’re caked with dirt or salt.
- If they’re carpeted, vacuum them.
- Set the floor mats aside to dry or air out.
- Vacuum the floor and seats. Get under those seats!
- Grab a microfiber and fold it into quarters. Spray the interior cleaner onto a quarter and clean all the plastics, adding more cleaner and swapping to a new towel when you run out of clean sections.
- The dashboard.
- The area in front of the passenger seat.
- The center console.
- The shifter area.
- The steering column. Wipe down any stalks for wipers and turn signals.
- Each door.
- Get a new microfiber, fold it into quarters, and wipe down every area with the interior dressing.
- Wheel brush (soft)
- Scrubby brush (stiff)
- Wheel cleaner
- Tire cleaner**
- Tire dressing and foam applicator
**Some wheel cleaners can also be used to clean tires. Be sure to read the labels of your products!
- Rinse the wheels to remove surface dirt and make sure they’re cool.
- Spray on your wheel cleaner. Follow the label instructions and let it dwell (some take a minute, others can sit for fifteen).
- Agitate it with the wheel brush.
- Rinse the wheel (and the brush!)
- Apply the tire cleaner. Agitate it with the scrubby brush. Rinse.
- Apply the tire dressing to the applicator, and use it to rub it onto the sidewall.
- Two 5-gal buckets with two grit guards
- Wash mitt (not the same one you used on your wheels)
- Car soap
- An overcast day or shady area to work
- Fill each bucket with water and push the grit guard to the bottom. One bucket will be for soap, the other will be for rinsing the mitt.
- Pour 1-2 oz of soap into the soap bucket. Read the directions on your soap for its specific measurement.
- Shoot the soap bucket with a jet of water to foam it up.
- Rinse the car off to remove dust and mud.
- Dunk the wash mitt into the soap bucket, wash a panel of the vehicle.
- Dunk the now dirty wash mitt into the rinse bucket and scrub it against the grit guard to shake the dirt off. Pull the mitt out and squeeze the dirty water out.
- Repeat steps 5 and 6 for each panel of the vehicle.
- Wash from the top down, so start with the roof or hood or trunk lid.
- If the rinse bucket gets really filthy, dump and refill it.
- If you’re working on a sunny day, frequently wet the vehicle so the soap doesn’t dry on it.
- Don’t forget the door jambs and painted edge of the hatch/trunk.
- Rinse off the soap and dump the rinse bucket water.
- Waffle weave towel
- Quick detailer
If you’re using soapy water to clay the car you can do this AFTER you clay since you’ll be soaking the car anyway.
There are several different methods for drying a vehicle and this is just the easiest to describe. Check out the How-To Guides link to see what everyone does!
- After rinsing the suds off from washing, fold your drying towel into a manageable size (they tend to be huge).
- Spray a little quick detailer on the panel you want to dry.
- Pat the surface dry with the towel.
- Move onto the next panel.
- Dry from top to bottom.
- You may have to do another lap around the vehicle as water drips out of crevices like mirrors and door jambs. Some detailers use compressed air to blow the water out.
- Clay or Nanoskin sponge/mitt
- Quick Detailer or soapy water from washing
- Microfiber towels
If you’re using soapy water, you can skip the drying step before this since you’ll soak the vehicle anyway.
- Spray the quick detailer on the panel. If you’re using soapy water, dunk a microfiber in it, wring it out over the bucket, and wet the panel.
- Massage the clay so it warms up in your palm to be more pliable. Flatten your hand and hold it where your fingers meet your palm.
- Glide the clay over the panel. Add more lubrication if it catches tor sticks.
- Don’t press hard on it or you could mar the paint. Just enough so you don’t fumble it.
- Look at the clay to see what it’s picking up. When it looks gross (you’ll know), squish it and flip it so you’re putting a clean side against the paint.
- Wipe off the quick detailer (or rinse the soapy water) and move onto the next panel.
- Make sure the car is dry when you’re finished with the vehicle.
- Put your hand into a plastic sandwich bag and rub the surface of the vehicle. If it feels gritty, you need to keep claying. It should feel glassy and smooth if you’ve removed all of the contaminants.
- Wax of your choice
- Microfiber or foam pad (can also use a folded microfiber towel)
Waxing by hand is the easiest way to start. Be sure to read the label of the wax you’re using. Most shouldn’t be used in direct sunlight and some can’t be used on warm panels, so take note.
If you’re using a PASTE or LIQUID wax:
- Make sure the vehicle is totally dry and isn’t dripping water from anywhere.
- Put a small amount of wax on your pad. The size of a pea.
- Gently buff the wax onto each panel, refreshing the amount on the pad every few panels (foam pads sometimes drink some liquid wax).
- An easy way to gauge coverage is to get level with the panel so as you move back and forth it looks like you’re “buffing away” your reflection. A surface covered in raw wax will be hazy.
- Wax goes on in very thin layers, so don’t glop it everywhere.
- Let it cure according to the label. You’ll see it start to haze and look foggy on the paint.
- Grab a clean microfiber and buff off the cured wax. Be sure to get the edges of doors and trim.
If you’re using a SPRAY wax:
- Make sure the vehicle is totally dry and not dripping water anywhere.
- Spray wax onto the panel.
- Wipe with a clean microfiber, make sure nothing drips.
- Repeat for all panels until finished.