Cleaning the Door PanelClick to enlarge picture

Technicians shampoo the entire vehicle from top to bottom with a mild cleaning solution, a soft wash mitt and towels.

In the detail shop, your car will be deep-cleaned inside and out, top to bottom—you may not even recognize it when you pick it up.

So what really happens to your car during a professional detailing?

It Starts Outside

Logically, a professional detail begins at the vehicle's exterior. "A complete detail is really an all-day job," said Bradley Zefkeles, who has owned and operated Bradley's Autowax Detail in Bellevue, Washington, for over 20 years.

"The detail begins in the wash bay, where we take care of the wheels, tires, doorjambs, bumpers, grilles, and all of the nitty-gritty tight spots on the car," explained Zefkeles.

The next step is to remove any road tar and bugs that are stuck to the finish, and to evaluate the paint. "We examine the paint to establish a game plan for how we will polish and buff the paint to really make the finish look as new as possible," Zefkeles said.

A detail shop uses different types of foam pads and polishes with a power buffer to remove scratches, scuffs and other small imperfections from the paint. The detailer decides what products and tools to use, based on the condition of the paint.

A series of products or steps may be used, but the final result should be a smooth, glossy paint finish. "The key with the paint is to only be as aggressive as you need to be to get the result, because we don't want to create a lot of swirl marks in the paint" explained Zefkeles. "We want to produce the job, but not leave any footprints in it."

Once the car is polished and all the swirl marks are removed, a coat of quality wax is applied by hand to protect the paint. "The final step is to address all of the exterior trim and rubber pieces on the car, including door handles, mouldings, tires, rubber trim around the windows, and polishing the glass," concluded Zefkeles.

Jimmy Broadus, manager of Bellevue Auto Detail, told MSN Autos that a full detail includes a three-step exterior process. "We spray a watered wax on the hood, roof and trunk of the vehicle, and then rub the surface with a clay bar. This process removes the contaminants and pollutants that polishing cannot."

"Then we polish the exterior, which makes it extremely shiny and clean, and finally we apply a paint sealant that lasts for eight months to a year," explained Broadus.

The Inside Job

A vehicle's interior cleaning begins with a thorough vacuuming to remove all loose dirt and prepare the car for the interior detail. A brush and air nozzle are used to clean the air vents, and to get between the seats and other tight areas.

After a complete vacuuming, the car's interior is shampooed from top to bottom, literally. Detailers use a mild cleaning solution, a soft wash mitt and towels.

"The headliner is first, followed by the dash, center console, air vents, seats and doors, leaving the dirtiest area for last, which is the carpets and floor mats," said Zefkeles. "The idea is to work your way from the top to the bottom, cleaning and drying as you go," he explained. You want to pre-soak any stains and get in there with a shampoo brush.

Once the interior has been shampooed, detailers go back through the interior with an air nozzle and a boar's hair brush to knock loose any dirt particles loosened by shampooing. Then the interior is re-vacuumed, again using the boar's hair brush. The brush and vacuum clean as much as possible without a lot of moisture.

Broadus explained that his shop always has two people work on the interior, because that work is a lot harder and more meticulous than the exterior. With two people it goes faster and better results are achieved.

"We use an organic citrus cleaner on fabric seats and carpets, followed by a hot-water extractor," explained Broadus. The citrus is good for eliminating odors and the hot-water extractor cuts down on moisture in the passenger compartment.

If a vehicle has leather interior, detailers apply a liberal amount of a leather care product and allow it to soak into the seats for a few minutes. The seats are wiped down with clean towels after the product has had time to soak into the leather.

Detailers Focus on Problem Areas

Probably the most common problem with cars that enter detail shops is contaminants on the paint, such as dried tree sap, bird droppings or paint overspray.

"Detailers use a soft clay cleaning bar prior to buffing, gently rubbing over the finish to remove contaminants such as overspray paint and diesel," explained Zefkeles. "The clay bar is designed to work with cars that have clear-coat paints. It smoothes the paint out prior to buffing."

Other contaminants can be removed safely with a mild solvent and, according to Zefkeles, a little dab of rubbing alcohol will often remove some contaminants, but it should not be used in direct sunlight.

Another common problem is coffee stains, which Zefkeles advises cleaning up quickly. Coffee stains are presoaked with a mild cleaner and then roughed-up with a nylon brush. The important step is to rub the stain with a terry towel to bring the stain up before vacuuming. But Zefkeles warned that coffee left too long on upholstery or carpets can leave a permanent stain.

Smoke and pet odors are another common problem that detail shops deal with every day. The odor in the car of a person who smokes can usually be handled with multiple shampoos. Some detail shops use spray-on products that contain active enzymes to treat the interior. Some detailers even have access to an ozone machine that generates an "ozone fog" inside the car, which can be very effective to counteract pet odors.

Final Steps

Once the interior is finished, detailers often wipe the exterior again with clean cloth diapers or microfiber towels. The exterior is wiped from end to end, beginning with the paint, since the goal is a glossy finish without any swirl marks.

The doorjambs and the fuel-filler door are often opened and wiped clean again. The areas around the lights and under the grilles should be wiped and checked for any small spots or hidden areas that were missed in the cleaning or buffing process.

The last step of a quality auto detailing is a final inspection checklist, which ensures the job was completed from top to bottom. "The difference between an okay detail and a great detail is sometimes only fifteen minutes, and that's why professionals spend the fifteen minutes to get a great job," concluded Zefkeles.

Choosing a Detail Shop

Detail shops that MSN Autos surveyed recommended locating a shop that has been in business for a few years and has an established reputation.

One detail shop owner told MSN Autos, "You can probably get a low price from someone who just opened a shop and is really hungry. But you don't know anything about the shop and you don't know who's in your car. The sweetness of low price never equals the bitterness of low quality."

One method of finding a shop with a good reputation is by calling the service department at a dealership that sells your make of vehicle. Ask the service department who they use for outside detail work, and if they are pleased with the quality.

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