Detailing: Part One

Story and Photography by Ryan Lee Price


Once the water evaporates, what is left are rings of crystals bonded to the paint and crusted with dirt.

The Shiny Side

On the first day, God created sunlight and dirt; four days later, He added bugs and birds. Sometime after that, the car came along, and the four have been locked in mortal combat ever since. Like a game of Paper, Scissors, Rock: car kills bug; bug kill paint; bird kills bug; bird poops on car, kills paint (occasionally, car kills bird). It is a vicious cycle, and if you've been on a long drive anywhere out of town, you're familiar with the Technicolor insect necropolis on your windshield as a testimony to the damage it can do to your car's shiny side.

The main enemies of a pristine paint job are acid rain, bird droppings, alkaline-laden water drops (hard water) and plain old-fashioned dirt. Thanks to the industrial revolution, nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants, car exhaust and air pollution from industry are now trapped in rain water and dumped on your car during a storm. Called acid rain, it's basically a very dilute form of nitric and sulfuric acids. The sun dries the water droplets containing these acids and they are left behind to concentrate on your car's surface. Soon the concentrated acid penetrates the clear coat, dissolving the resin and forming a microscopic pit. Left untreated, the pit collects moisture and the concentrated acid can continue into the basecoat, destroying the pigment and eventually, the whole car.

Bird droppings contain a byproduct called uric acid. This alkaline, if left non-neutralized, can penetrate the clear-coat and cause damage similar to acid rain. Alkaline watermarks are all too familiar: What amounts to hard water spots are calcium and magnesium salt deposits on the paint after the water has evaporated. These white rings of minute crystals bond to the paint and cannot be re-dissolved by water; only a good degreaser can break up that relationship.

Every car enthusiast should have a cabinet in their garage just like this, with something to handle every car care situation that may arise.

Wash your car regularly. When the car is clean, unwanted moisture will dry up quickly, but when it's dirty, moisture accumulates with the dirt and causes corrosion. Use soap intended for a car's paint, not for washing dishes. You don't eat off of your car and you don't drive your plates, so leave the dishwashing soap in the kitchen. Wash your car in the shade and never in direct sunlight.

Wash the rims first (tires and windows last), and make sure they're cold before applying any rim cleaner. Hot wheels will burn the cleaner onto the rim and cause discoloration and/or permanent damage. Use a good quality cleaner designed for your car's rims. Don't rinse the rims and tires first, so you can apply the cleaner full-strength. Check the service information for special recommendations for your specific vehicle.

Use different a sponge for your tires (and any exterior rubber) and always start at the top of the car and wash down, so you're not dragging dirt over clean panels-plus the closer you get to the street, the dirtier the car is. Use a degreaser on tough areas, like oil spots, salt damage, and bug splatter.

Avoid any product that contains formaldehyde or any harsh preservatives, as they will harm tires.

When the car is mostly dry, apply a good tire dressing to the tires and bumpers. If you do this before you wax the car, and spray the dressing onto a rag, airborne droplets won't mar your freshly washed car. Avoid any product that contains formaldehyde or any harsh preservatives, as they will harm tires.

Instant detailer acts as a wax and gives you a great start toward a glossy shine.

While the car is still wet, mist it with instant detailer and chamois it dry. Instant detailer acts as a wax and gives you a great start toward that glossy shine. Never use a terrycloth towel, unless you love thousands of little scratches caused by dirt trapped in the loop pile. Many stores offer microfiber towels that work perfectly. At this point, the car doesn't have to be 100 percent dry, but just make sure you remove most of the water so it doesn't get a chance to bead up. Take a quick spin down the street and wipe off any water that has been blown from the mirrors, tires, or molding.

The Inside Story

Start by vacuuming the floor, the pockets, cup holders, anywhere that something can fall into (e.g., the glove box). For best results, remove everything from the car, from the floor mats to the coffee coupons in the console. Start with a small brush and get the dust and dirt out of the speaker grills and around the dash joints. To achieve professional results when cleaning carpets, always brush the carpet in one direction. Check the service information for specific recommendations as in this Technical Service Bulletin example from General Motors and Saab. Vehicle manufacturers may also have tips for leather care, check updated service information to learn what's recommended for your year, make and model.

Keep vinyl seats clean with a non-oil-based cleaner and a coarse towel to reach into crevices.

Clean Streaks

Never use a window cleaner that has ammonia, especially if you have a leather dash or trim. Ammonia overspray blocks the pores of the leather so it can't breathe properly, which will fog up your windows and leave streaks. Clean windows horizontally on the outside and vertically on the inside, so if it does streak, you'll know which side.

Now what you're left with is a clean car, complete with protection from the elements. However, like life, the concept of clean is fleeting, so keep this article handy for reference.

Cars that have been recently waxed or those that are somewhat new only need a good one-step cleaner/sealant/wax. If you wax the car often (every two to three months) use a quality carnauba wax or a quality cleaner wax. (Look for the second article of this series on Detailing for tips to achieve an amazing finish for older vehicles.)


Get comprehensive information about most any car on the road  with a subscription to Whatever your skill level, keeping your car clean is almost as important as keeping it running strong. To help reach that goal, keep your Chilton handy; it's especially tailored for you and your vehicle.

Not only is Ryan Lee Price a freelance writer specializing in automotive journalism and a former long-time magazine editor, he is part of the technical editorial team that provides content for most all of the ChiltonPRO and ChiltonDIY products. He currently resides in Corona, California, with his wife Kara and their two children.