All image credits: Kristen Lee

Very few things in life give me the same tactile pleasure of running a microfiber towel over a freshly waxed car, especially in the summer. I try to really detail my car twice a year, once in the late fall or early winter before the first snowfall and road-salting happens, and another time in the summer. Here’s the right way to get it done.

A few key things to keep in mind before you start:

  • Try not to park in direct sunlight. This evaporates the water very quickly and leaves water spots.
  • Remove any jewelry on your fingers or wrists, and make sure you don’t have anything metal on your person that could scratch the car if you brush up against it. Things like necklaces, zippers or buttons.
  • If you drop any claybar, microfiber towel or sponge on the ground, do not reuse it. Once it’s hit the ground, it will pick up all kinds of grit that will scratch your car if you continue cleaning with it. You’ll need to wash the sponge or the microfiber towel thoroughly before using it again.
  • Top to bottom, always! Spray and soap from top to bottom because then you won’t spread dirt around as much.
  • Be conscious about not cross-contaminating towels and sponges. A towel used on your rims should not be used for anything else. Likewise, a buffer pad that has scratch remover on it shouldn’t be used to wax, either.

Here’s my process (for exterior detailing).

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Wash exterior: Spray your car down first, from top to bottom, before soaping it. You need to get all the dirt, dust and other accumulated gunk off the surface of your car before you start detailing it.

Don’t use household cleaning products like dish soap because those aren’t always safe for cars and could strip off paint or clear coat. Any car-specific soap will do, just read how much of it you need and mix in a bucket of water.

Make sure the bucket hasn’t been previously used for storing dirt that can be transferred to your car, or was the mop bucket that’s been in contact with floor cleaners. For soaping, I use a plush, microfiber chenille sponge to ensure a scratch free wash. Before you start washing, just make sure the surface of the sponge is clear of any particles, as this could lead to scratching.

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When washing, use a circular motion and work from top to bottom, because the bottom of the car is the dirtiest part. For the wheels, use a dedicated and rougher sponge in order to properly clean off brake dust.

Don’t use this sponge on your car! Rinse the soap off, starting with the rims and tires so when the dirty water splatters over the car, you can just rinse it off when you go from top to bottom.

Dry exterior: You’ll want to do this quickly so you avoid those hated water spots. Don’t use a terry cloth or anything else that sheds (like a regular towel). Go with the microfiber towel—it’s thick and absorbent and won’t leave anything behind. Dry inside the doors and around the trunk lid and the hood.

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If you have an air blower, that can be handy for removing excessive water so your towel doesn’t become saturated too quickly. You can, however, dry the rims with a normal towel.

Claybar and spray detailer: The claybar will effectively pick up the little particles of dirt and dust on the surface of the paint, even if you can’t see it. It doesn’t polish. Once you remove the claybar from its packaging, knead it in your hands for a bit until it’s round and about the size of your palm. Work in sections, spraying your car with liberal amounts of spray detailer and wiping it down with the claybar in a circular motion.

Be generous with the detailer! A claybar should not be rubbed across dry paint. If, after you are done, there are large pieces of contaminant in the bar, you can easily just pick them out. I personally use my claybars up to three times before throwing them out, but it’s up to you. If the claybar just gets too dirty, don’t reuse it. If you drop the claybar on the ground, throw it out, do not reuse it.

Scratch remover: Work in sections. I usually section the car off into five main sections: hood and front, left side, rear, right side and roof. Apply the scratch remover in moderate amounts to the buffer before applying it to the car. It gets rid of fine swirl marks. Wipe away with a fresh microfiber towel in between sections.

Compound exterior: During this particular detailing, I skipped the compounding because I already did it in the winter, and I am being cautious about the clear coat on the car, as it’s fourteen years old. Compound is basically like a fine sandpaper, but as a paste. If you use it too often, you could strip off the clear coat on your car, so exercise caution there.

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Here’s how I have done it in the past: spread a small amount of the compound on a foam applicator of an orbital buffer. Oftentimes you don’t need to compound the whole car, only parts of it that are severely scuffed. Do this in sections also, because you shouldn’t let compound dry on your car. Wipe away with a microfiber cloth after you finish a section and before you move onto another.

Waxing: Now it’s time to wax! For this part I find it okay to do the whole car at once, because you do need to let the wax sit and dry a bit before wiping it away. I use the plush cover on my buffer and apply a moderate amount of wax to the surface before using it on the car. You’ll notice that a haze of wax results from this. The important thing here is to spread a thin and even coat of wax over the surface of your car. If you use too much, you’re just wasting the wax and it’ll be harder to wipe away afterwards.

Letting the wax dry: Once you finish waxing the surface of your car, you can let the wax sit for a bit, maybe 10 to 15 minutes, and start on a smaller side project, like cleaning the engine bay. For this I use spray detailer, a fresh microfiber towel and Q-tips. I will say right now that Q-tips are one of humanity’s greatest inventions. Not only are they a great makeup tool, they are also great for reaching in and removing the little flecks of filth from places your fingers can’t get to.

Dirrrrrty.

Wipe off the wax: Use a fresh microfiber towel. Drink in one of the most joyous sensations your hands will ever feel.

Tire shine: If you want to apply tire shine, go ahead. Personally, I find it to be a pain in the ass as all kinds of crap sticks to it as soon as you drive anywhere. But it’s a nice finishing touch if you are displaying your car in a show or a photoshoot.

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Windows: Windows are easy. I never go fancier than Windex and a paper towel. Spray and wipe vigorously, and be careful not to let the Windex drip onto the paint. Do this for both the inside and the outside of the window.

Now you’re done! Sit back and enjoy your hard work, preferably with a glass of cold lemonade in your hand.

The products that I used are by no means reflective of any kind of bias, they have just worked out well for me. Do you have recommendations? Have a better method of doing something? Let me know!