Detailing Your Car: Beyond the Car Wash

detailing your car

We’re pretty sure design guru Mies van der Rohe wasn’t talking about your car when he said “God is in the details,” but if you want the finish on your car to keep that showroom shine and scent forever, washing and vacuuming just isn’t enough. You need to detail your car from time to time. So isn’t detailing just an extra-thorough cleaning? Nope. Not even close. Modern automotive finishes — inside and out — are incredibly tough. But the environment (which includes you, your pets, your kids and your kids’ friends) is incredibly hard on those finishes. Pollutants — from tree sap and pollen to bird droppings, bugs and acid rain — can destroy your car’s finish. Left on your leather seats, dirt, skin oil and milkshakes will discolor them. Regular washing is the first, but only the first, step.

The Car Wash Can Be Hazardous to Your Car

You’re a responsible car owner. You run the car through the wash at the gas station once a week. You’re good, right? Not necessarily. Automated car washes, when they’re run correctly, can safely clean the outside of your car. However, the folks who run gas stations aren’t necessarily car finish experts. If the chemicals for the wash aren’t mixed properly, they can strip protective wax and sealants and cause the clear-coat that protects the paint to fail prematurely. If the car wash uses brushes (rather than soft cloth), it can scratch your clear coat; you’ll need to have the car polished with an abrasive compound to remove any marks. The best way to wash a car is the old-fashioned way — with water, a cloth and a mild detergent.

Detail Vocabulary

Like most fields of human endeavor, the pursuit of the perfect automotive finish has its own specialized vocabulary. Before you head out to the auto parts store to stock up on supplies, here’s a quick overview of the kinds of products you’ll find and what they do.

Polishing Compound. When someone hits you with the old cliche that a scratch will “buff right out,” what they’re really talking about is using a polishing compound to remove the imperfection. As you may have guessed, removing imperfections also implies removing other things, like some of your clear coat or paint. Polishing compounds are abrasives, designed to “cut” or remove finishes. Very fine compounds can be used to remove swirls or marks in your clear coat, but be extremely careful in applying them; if you’re using a high-speed buffer they can “cut” right through your finish. If you do compound, be careful not to overdo it. You’re removing clear coat each time you compound and, over time, you can expose the paint itself.

Detailing Clay. The finish on your car comprises multiple layers: on top of the actual body parts are several coatings including a primer, the colored paint and then, at the surface, clear coat. The clear coat makes the paint underneath sparkle while protecting it from wear and tear. Contaminants (road debris, brake dust, pollution) can penetrate the clear coat, and no amount of washing will get them out. Detailing clay is a resin compound with the consistency of Silly Putty. Rubbing it over the surface of your car, the bar grabs particles that are stuck in your clear coat and pulls them out. Used with a clay lubricant, it will remove the bad stuff and, unlike polishing compound, should not remove any of the clear coat if used correctly. It will remove any wax, however, so you’ll need to wax your car after using a clay detailing bar.

Washing Products. Do not dump dish detergent in a bucket and have at it. And certainly don’t use glass cleaner, all-surface cleaner, or anything else not specifically made for cars. Auto wash products are much milder than household cleaners, which can strip off wax and even attack the clear coat. Even “Eco friendly” household cleaners may not be friendly to your car’s finish.

Glaze. A true glaze (again, read the label) is a heavy, oily product used to fill swirls resulting from using a buffer and polishing compound. There are many products that are called glazes but are actually sealers or polishes. The two can have a similar result, which is filling in micro-scratches in your finish that make it look dull and hazy. However, they do this in different ways so make sure you know which you’re buying.

Car Wax. Good old carnauba wax, applied by hand or — with some newer formulations — with a sprayer is a great way to protect your car’s finish. It creates a deep, lustrous shine and protects the finish from damaging UV light and chemicals. Carnauba comes from a South American palm where it protects the palm’s leaves from intense heat and humidity. Applied to your car’s finish, it will do the same thing. Carnauba waxes vary widely in price, and the price typically will be an indicator of how heavily refined the carnauba is (more is better, and usually pricier) and how much carnauba is in the product (again, more is better and usually pricier). Products that say they’re “100% carnauba wax” are not solely tubs of carnauba — raw carnauba is routinely combined with petroleum distillates and/or other things to make it usable. The label is likely saying that, of the wax that’s in the product, it’s all carnauba. Unfortunately, even a good carnauba wax will only last six to eight weeks, so while it’s a terrific product, it’s also something you have to do frequently.

Paint Sealants. These are engineered chemicals that go on as liquids and can produce an almost glass-like shine. They’re good at keeping dirt and pollutants out of your clear coat, and, better news, they can last six months or more. They’re also relatively easy to apply, wiping on with a cloth or mechanical polisher. Are they better than wax? Both wax and sealants will protect your finish, but they look different. Some enthusiasts put on a sealant to get the long-lasting protection, then add wax over the top, giving that classic, deep auto show finish. If the wax wears off before you reapply, your paint’s still protected by the sealant.

Note that different manufacturers may use the same name for very different products, so before you buy, read the label to see how the manufacturer intended the product to be used. For example, a true polish is an abrasive designed to remove imperfections such as scratches. It has no protectants built in, and you’ll need to use a wax or sealant after you’ve polished. However, there are manufacturers who sell wax and/or sealants using the word “polish” in the name. If you “polish” your car with a real polish and don’t follow up with a protective coat of wax or sealant, you’re exposing the finish to potential damage. The label should make it clear what the product is — if it doesn’t, don’t buy it. Be sure to read the label carefully and follow the manufacturer’s directions.

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