An Illustrated Guide to Detailing Your Car

by Brett & Kate McKay on July 18, 2012 · 38 Comments

in Cars, Manly Skills, Visual Guides

Thoroughly vacuum interior of car. Loosen caked in dirt with brush if needed. Treat stains with carpet and upholstery cleaner.  Clean and treat interior plastic and vinyl with protectant.  Clean glass inside and out with glass cleaner and newspapers.  Clean inside doorjambs. Open doors and spray doorjambs with multi-purpose cleaner and wipe down with rag.  Treat black trim with protectant. If car has chrome or aluminum on exterior trim or wheels, polish it.  Clay your car with detailing clay to remove bonded surface contamination, like brake dust and road grime. Moisten the clay with a cleaner and apply it to car’s surface.  Apply wax on one small area of the car at a time until you cover the entire car. Let dry for 20-30 minutes. Buff the wax off gently with a microfiber or cotton towel or a power polisher.

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Last month we covered how to wash your car. Today we go over detailing it.

Illustration by Ted Slampyak

Have any more tips on detailing your car? Share them in the comments.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Aaron Weiss July 18, 2012 at 10:59 am

I just detailed my car the other weekend and I loved every minute of it. Took about 2 and half hours from top to bottom, outside and in. You feel like a king on that first drive afterwards. Untouchable.

2 Danny Zawacki July 18, 2012 at 11:00 am

What’s the purpose of the newspapers for cleaning the glass? I’ve never heard that tip before.

3 Wil July 18, 2012 at 11:12 am

@Aaron: Really? Only 2.5 hours to do everything in the picture? Wow. Waxing alone takes me nearly the whole day.

4 JE July 18, 2012 at 11:19 am

@Danny (& staff) -

Using newspapers to clean your windows is useless. Many years ago, newspaper ink contained acetone, which worked as a solvent on windows.

But newsprint no longer contains this chemical, so this advice is no longer relevant.

5 Brett McKay July 18, 2012 at 11:26 am

I use newspaper to clean windows because I find they leave less streaks than paper towels, not because of acetone or the lack thereof.

6 Ted Slampyak July 18, 2012 at 12:38 pm

I have to say, I never believed in the whole newspaper-to-clean-windows thing, until my wife told me to use them on the windows of our house. I expected ink to run off and the paper to fall apart.
I was amazed how well it worked. The windows were very clean with very little streaking. It still feels weird to use newspaper, but it works.

7 Andrew July 18, 2012 at 12:49 pm

the DRIVE channel on youtube (easily the best compilation of automotive experts, writers, drivers, professionals, etc, on Youtube)
Offers a series called DriveClean. So far just 5 videos, but very informative for people who think dish soap, water, and an old rag will suffice.

this link should automatically load a playlist of all 5 vids:

8 Page McGinnis July 18, 2012 at 12:54 pm

Where’s the step regarding cold beer?

9 Sean July 18, 2012 at 1:03 pm

These guides are always great art! You should sell these with the next book you two write.

10 Andrew July 18, 2012 at 1:14 pm

I agree,a thorough two bucket wash (soapy water one bucket, plain rinse water in other bucket), with tire, rim, and underside clean. Plus engine bay, door jam and sills and trim/seals. Make sure none of the water sun dries leaving water marks. Shammy (chamois) dry. Followed by clay bar, then a quick rinse wash. Shammy dry again, then wipe with micro fibre. Hand wax (synthetic wax) being careful to not touch any plastic (dont need to wax every time you wash). Windows clean (I use InvisibleGlass aerosol) and apply RainX (that stuff is liquid gold!).
That right there is 3-4 hours.

Inside the car, vacuum headliner, use the brush attachment to vacuum around the various switches and knobs as well as the perforated leather seats. Vacuum floor mats, carpeting, under seats, trunk, deck behind rear seats/ below rear window. Wipe dash, trim, all plastic with a dull finish cleaner. I use AutoGlym leather cleaner and leather care balm on my seats and all other leather trim on doors/dash. I give the steering wheel a wipe with the balm, let it sit for a few minutes, then thoroughly wipe with a clean microfibre so the wheel wont be slippery at all.
I never have wrappers, garbage, or receipts in my cars but in the off chance I do they are all taken out. Inside of windows get cleaner, as well as mirrors and screens.

If I’m doing ‘my’ full detail, like you said, basically a full day per vehicle. I do the regime once a month for each car, and the daily driver usually gets washed 2+ times per month and I spot vacuum after passengers with dirty shoes have been in, or after trips to the cottage (or wherever). Takes 2 seconds to spot vacuum when you get home and it makes the car look 99% clean all the time.

While washing the car, it’s good to check the oil level, coolant level (how’s the colour look too?), tread wear and inflation (PSI inflation is usually on a sticker on the driver door jam), washer fluid, if your transmission has a dip stick check that too, power steering fluid will have a dipstick to check as well, and break fluid will have an indicator on the side of the reservoir. Check all lights, turns signals, etc.
That’s all stuff literally anyone can, and should be doing.

11 Dustin July 18, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Newsprint was used because of the rag content in the paper.

Detailing an air-cooled VW Beetle (pre-1973) in the illustrations FTW, too!

12 Bob Barker July 18, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Always follow the product’s instructions where they disagree with these. For instance the wax I have – Eagle One Gel – says to apply and then immediately remove. If you left it on for 20+ minutes it would be a real hassle getting it off and wouldn’t improve your results. Also, nothing beats modern microfiber towels for glass and interiors. Just make sure to use the right texture for the surface: terry for the interior, smooth for glass. Usually with microfiber you don’t even need a cleaner, just water. I have yet to find a cleaner that can cut the grime that develops on the inside of a windshield like just a wet microfiber towel.

13 JE July 18, 2012 at 2:44 pm

I usually do a *full* detail once a year that takes an entire weekend. My schedule ends up being:

Friday after work: Thorough wash with dish detergent to remove grease and left over wax, then clay bar the paint. Quick rewash. Tape off a few plastic problem spots with painter’s tape. Clean and polish engine compartment.

Saturday: Apply compound polish, polish, then glaze. Detail interior and plastic parts.

Sunday: Wax paint and rims. Dress tires and hit anything I notice that I missed.

14 Steven July 18, 2012 at 2:45 pm

I’ve found that newspapers don’t leave little fuzz like paper towels or rags tend to do.

15 Danny Zawacki July 18, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Thanks for the replies. I’ll have to give it a shot for my own expert analysis.

+1 to Page for catching the missing step.

16 Matt July 18, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Newspaper is awesome along with some Windex. The newspaper leaves hardly any lint, etc and does an excellent job cleaning. Plus, most people have a ton of it laying around.

17 Mark S. July 18, 2012 at 3:57 pm

I would swap the door jam cleaning and vacuuming in the order given above. I would much rather vacuum after I am finished entering and exiting the car; that way I’m not bringing dirt back into the freshly vacuumed interior.

18 Sean July 18, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Make a poster out of this. I’d buy it and put it in my garage.

19 Danilo July 18, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Hello Brett and Kate!

My name is Daniel, I am Brazilian and a regular bed AoM.Desde the last year (2011) I know the blog.
I have come to the blog through my search for things that involve issues of masculinity and virility.
I am very grateful for the texts, that despite living in Brazil and have a different culture in some ways, lead me to reflect on how I can redeem shares that ended up leaving to forget with time I grew up.

Since my teens I was confused by my actions, because although at times I indulge in undisciplined attitudes at the same time I felt that I was kinda lost on a path that would lead me to give meaning to my life.

Soon after going through a depressive period and total confusion of thought I could slowly rebuild.
First I learned something from the book “The Way of peacefull warior” Dan Millman. After I met Ross Enamait site later met a little about parkour and the ideas of George Herbert with the natural method of training. And soon after met and the site of the AoM Chad Howser.

All these ways and others came into my life like a chain of events that make me a better man today to a year ago. But I’m sure that there is long way to go, so thank you for the texts I read in AoM.
Thank you for being part of ongoing changes,
Stay with God!

20 Rick S. July 18, 2012 at 7:51 pm


Good catch… I had a ’72 Super Beetle.

21 Loki July 18, 2012 at 9:29 pm

Just an FYI. If you have a paint protection coating on your car check with whoever put it there as with my car if I use wax (or even wax based cleaners/car wash liquids) that will strip my protective coating right off. Plus with the coating I dont’ need to wax the car as it’s shiny enough once It’s been washed.

22 Mark Rudddick July 19, 2012 at 10:39 am

I like to detail the truck with my kids. (now 14 and 12) They are great for getting the low hanging areas and really enjoy cleaning the truck. Their favourite part, applying and removing the wax. It’s really funny seeing my daughter on a ladder to wax the roof. They take a lot of pride in making sure they get every last spot. It makes for great family time.

23 Adam July 19, 2012 at 11:07 am

The general rule detailing clay is to swipe it in the direction of airflow on the car. If you do it in circles you might cause swirl marks or other types of destruction in your clearcoat.

24 Tyler July 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm

I do this for a living. I’ll do that exact step by step 3 or 4 times a day while I’m at work.

25 Jerrad July 20, 2012 at 12:40 am

I’ve heard using newspapers is useless too. Try using coffee filters, leaves no streaks and they’re cheap!

26 Ben July 22, 2012 at 3:34 am

I was lucky enough to apprentice in a body and paint shop for 4 years throughout highschool.

All of the tips so far are great…besides the waxing; this is simply overdone all the time and beginners with automated tools typically ruin finishes or burn through clear coat.

3M makes Handpolish/Handglaze (very plain looking clear bottle with tan/brown liquid) that can be purchased at any major automotive paint supply store. Simply apply this with very clean soft cloth until it coulds up and then cut the residue off with a new clean cloth. This will result in a finish that feels like glass.

Hope this helps.

27 Auto Detailing July 23, 2012 at 1:26 am

That’s awesome! Very oldschool way to teach car detailing.

28 John M. July 23, 2012 at 4:39 pm

Doing all these things will make any car look much better, but unfortunately, if you still have all those little nicks and dents from people smacking your parked car with their doors and grocery carts and such, you will still look kind of like a jalopy. Anybody got any good hints for that?

29 Tanner M. July 23, 2012 at 7:31 pm

I also like to take a can of compressed air and shoot it down into the air vents. Especially the foot vents. It can get quite musky in there, especially where I live.

After a few years of some terrible car care, I’m going to have to get my carpet reupholstered, but for the better! Now that I know how to take care of my car that is.

30 Rick July 25, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Yikes! If you clean the windows inside and out with glass cleaner you will destroy your window tint! You need a special automotive cleaner, as Windex eats the tinting on the inside of your glass.

31 C.J. July 26, 2012 at 11:45 am

My Grandpa is a mechanic, and uses newspapers to wash windows on customers cars. Leaves less streaks, and helps him save a buck or two.

32 Jack July 26, 2012 at 12:24 pm

I cleaned my truck up all day once, drove across town and it was already splashed with mud. It’s what happens when you live in a small dusty town. So I just focus the effort in making the inside look and smell awesome.

33 Kyle August 5, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Even though this post is brought to us by Armor All, I would like to post about my favorite brand, Adams Polishes. I’ve been using their products for a few years now and cannot say how great their products are (you pay extra for it though). More importantly are the videos on their website. In my opinion, if you want to wash/detail you vehicle the right way, please watch their detailing videos. I use different brands of products (mostly due to their costs), but I have adopted just about every technique they have shown me. I highly suggest checking the videos out.

34 Jason August 6, 2012 at 6:19 pm

For cleaning glass, I started using a small bucket of warm water with a just a drop or two of dishsoap, and a quarter cup of vinegar. Don’t go crazy with the dishsoap. Maybe in a gallon of water? I don’t ever measure it exactly. Anyway, this cuts right through grease and the film on the inside of the windshield. I’ll use a small cloth to wash the windows, then a separate dry towel to dry them. Never have streaks unless the windows are warm from the sun. I do this on our house windows too. I’ll never by windex or other glass products again.

35 blacky December 1, 2012 at 9:23 pm

The old simonize -type carnuba wax products are very old school now and are very labor intensive…and while they produce a good gloss, the finish and water beading up does not last that long. The new generation of synthetic polymer sealants is vastly superior… easier to apply and longer lasting. High quality brands include DuraGloss, Klasse, Zaino, Pinnacle and Wolfgang. They are not at most auto stores but are all available online. Check out a site called Autogeek for a wide range of products, tips and a very active forum for user discussions.

There’s really nothing like developing detailing skills and doing a darned good job to make you feel good and productive.

36 Rudy Larson February 12, 2013 at 5:04 am

Newspaper is a very effective material to clean the car and it also does not leave fur like cotton.
Thanks for Sharing.

37 Chris Wells July 18, 2013 at 10:55 am

I also like to spray all the door hinges with lubricant. White lithium grease seems to work pretty well.

38 Dave Wilson July 24, 2013 at 8:12 pm

Just wanted to add my two cents on clay barring to the conversation…
1. Make sure you thoroughly wash the vehicle before you go to clay bar it.
2. Use lubricant with the clay bar.
3. Make sure you keep the clay bar clean (if it gets filled with tiny rocks it will scratch your paint!).
4. The easiest way to make sure your clay barring properly is to go watch some YT videos.

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