In November 2008 Lump and I decided to write a comprehensive overview of the processes involved in cleaning and maintaining the paintwork on our cars. This was born because of the many questions that appeared regularly on the site in this area.
Lump quickly hit upon the idea of a competition to provide a donor car for a day which was won by Graham. This guide is the result of that day.
This guide is not the minimum you need to do to keep the car clean. You could go to a car wash for that. Rather it’s a tried and tested routine which will, even without the benefit of Machine Polishing, produce a finish that you can be proud of.
In this guide we have tried to give an overview of the steps involved and we have tried to use core products that can be purchased at the local car accessory shops, in order that you can be up and running fairly quickly. Where this is not possible there are substitutes available that can do almost as good a job. We’ll be looking to take the car to a standard that would see it looking right at home on the club show stands, for example, whilst also answering; how do I clean my car? Which products should I use? Which wheel cleaner is the best for alloys? And, how can I keep it looking good between washes? Which appear at regular intervals on the boards.
Later in the year we hope to provide a guide which will include Machine Polishing as more and more people seem to be going down this route. Apart from the polishing stage most of the process itself is identical which is one of the reasons why we used more than one car.
The Show Car.
When it comes to the shows such as PVS and Trax it soon becomes apparent that the cars on the stands have been prepared to a standard that is normally way beyond our own efforts at home. The paint is like glass, providing crisp reflections and on the darker colours in particular a rich glossy finish that you could almost dive in to.
Another thing you notice at the shows is that the owners, after washing the car, appear to spend at most thirty minutes or so with a couple of bottles and a cloth to achieve the perfect finish. This is because the cars are in fact protected with sealants, waxes or both and the truth is that this final preparation is the result of the work completed prior to the day, which makes getting the finish an easy task with the minimum of effort.
The good news is that if you can wash a car, you can prepare yours in the same way. Not only will it look good but it will be protected from the elements too which means maintenance of the paintwork is easier and the time taken to complete the weekly wash is reduced too.
We’ll also show you how to maintain the interior, with a dedicated section written by Lump who is a professional valeter on here. So welcome to the world of claying, sealing and detailing sprays. It can be a confusing place but this guide will walk you through it.
Take two cars both defect free. One is washed every week for a month with a traditional bucket and sponge. One is left dirty and not touched. Which one would have the most paint defects? Well the answer is the one that has been washed weekly! Every time a car is cleaned there is a risk that the paint will be damaged. Grit on a sponge can inflict swirl marks which then either have to be removed or hidden in order to achieve the finish we are after.
Look at the marks on this panel.
They have been inflicted by grit picked up on the sponge being used to wash the car. They are not always apparent but under strong light particularly when the panel is seen under the full glare of the sun they can be seen very clearly.
The really bad news is that taking the car through a car wash can produce exactly the same problem. The grit being flung round by those revolving brushes can damage the paint too.
So here is one of the first lessons of keeping the paint looking good. The least contact we have when washing the car the better.
Secondly when we return directly to the bucket full of soap we are depositing grit into the bucket which can be picked up only to be spread all over the car again. An ordinary sponge can inflict swirl marks after just one wash and using just one bucket means the grit can get back onto the car at any time.
However all is not lost. There is a way through good technique that we can avoid swirl marks and the first steps are easy. Throw away your old sponge and buy a second bucket! Instead of the swirl inflicting sponge, we’ll be using a wash mitt which holds the grit deep in the pile away from the paint and to ensure that we don’t store grit in the soap bucket we’ll be rinsing the mitt out first in the second bucket, every time we need more water and soap. This technique is called the two bucket method and you’ll see this method in almost every guide out there.
Take a look at this Vectra.
The car is a 2004 pre facelift model in Moonland. Essentially the car is grey but look at the reflections from the bodywork! The car is coated with a good quality wax which with regular top ups means it’s protected throughout the year.
Red is one of the hardest colours to keep looking good but this Flame Red Signum proves that it can be done.
Finally Black, a nightmare to keep clean, but this Sapphire Black Vectra-C needs just a wash and some TLC to return it to this condition easily.
All three of these cars have something in common. Good preparation, followed by good protection.
So it turns out that with a poor washing technique we can damage the paintwork every time we reach for a sponge, undoing all the rest of the stages in an instant. Now we have put this right let’s look at the rest of the process that gets those cars on the stand looking as good as they do.
There are no hard and fast rules for this. Ask ten people how they prepare a car and you will get ten different answers. Some of the products used do need to go in the correct order but in general it’s whatever works for you.
The same applies to the hundreds of products out there. What works for one person may not work for another. As an example one of the most popular detailing sites asked its members which product they rated the best and which products they were the most disappointed with. Not surprisingly most of the products cited appeared in both lists!
So this section we’ll show a typical process using products that work for us to achieve the desired effect.
It’s important to note we used more than one car to illustrate the various stages. All followed the same process other than the Polishing stage where different products were used.
We’ll be washing the car using our new two bucket method and wash mitt before going on to enhance the finish before finally protecting all the hard work. We’ve not chosen the products with a flip of the coin either. They have proven track records and happily for us are not the most expensive.
First, some before pictures of the cars used.
In the early part of this guide we’ll focus on the Star Silver Vectra. Both cars received the same treatment until the polishing stage. That will come later. So, let’s begin.
Wheels and Arches.
The wheels are done first, mainly because they tend to be the most dirty and can result in muck being blown onto the freshly cleaned car body if done later.
Apply a non acidic wheel cleaner to the wheels (we used Autobrite Very Cherry) before leaving to dwell for a minute or so and then agitating with various brushes. These wheels were plastic trims but with alloys remember to use the brushes to clean the inside as well.
Spray the Arches with an All Purpose Cleaner diluted 4:1 with water before agitating with another brush. Meguires APC was used here but Tescos for example sell an APC too.
Spray the Wheels and Arches with a Pressure Washer being careful to reduce the pressure to prevent any damage.
First Wash- Snowfoam
With the wheels and arches done we can now clean the car itself. Earlier we talked about the need to reduce contact with the car as much as possible.
The process of Snow Foaming has become more popular over recent years. It’s not strictly necessary indeed may people do not include it in their routine but we’ve found it to be an effective pre wash and at some point you will come across the term so you may as well see it now.
Snowfoam is a concentrated cleaning solution which is used as a pre wash to loosen the dirt on the car as much as possible before the mitt is applied. Another benefit is that the foam can be blown with the pressure washer into all the nooks and crannies to get the car really clean.
In order to use snow foam you will need snowfoam and a snowfoam lance. The lances, which retail at around £50.00, can be purchased from online traders.
Dilutions vary but in this case approximately one inch of the snowfoam is needed before being topped up with warm water.
In order to help clean the sills spray some APC at 4:1 onto the sills and under the doors. Then cover the whole car in the snowfoam before leaving it to dwell.
In early December this was for about 10 minutes but in the summer the dwell time will be a lot less.
Then using the pressure washer blow the water from the bottom of the car up. This ensures that the foam is spread evenly and goes into every nook and cranny. Keep the Pressure washer at an angle at all times or you can blow grit onto the car. Reduce the pressure for wheels, bumpers and stickers if you have them by either turning the flow down or standing further away from the car.
Now Snowfoam the car again, leaving to dwell, and then blow the water off from the top down. If the car is not too dirty it can be snowfoamed just once.
This is how the car looks after snowfoaming. A dramatic improvement with the remaining dirt nice and loose.
Using our two buckets, one filled with soap the other with clean water, wash the car as normal. The technique is to wash a section of the car, in the plain water, flick the excess water again onto the floor before returning to the soap bucket. Repeat this process for the whole car.
We used two mitts. One for above the lower door line and another for below which tends to be dirtier.
Use an old Mitt to clean the arches.
When complete, pressure wash the car again to rinse.
Now we need to dry the car. Traditionally a chamois leather was used but just as a sponge can harbour grit on the surface a chamois can do exactly the same so save the chamois for the wheels and use a dedicated drying towel instead. This ‘Chemical guys’ one is big enough to dry the whole car. Meguires also produce a drying cloth for the retail market.
Pat the surface dry rather than wipe it down. Check that the car is free of any debris and muck before proceeding to the next stage.
Under the bonnet is actually a very easy area to get looking right although it makes sense to to protect all electrical components with cling film if using a Pressure Washer.
Spray a degreaser around the engine bay and under the bonnet itself. We used Chemical guys degreaser mixed 10:1 with water before agitating with a wash mitt used only for this purpose. Again degreases are available from local car shops.
After leaving the degreaser to dwell, reduce the pressure on the pressure washer and rinse the engine bay, being careful to avoid electrical components. We’ll be dressing the engine bay later so let’s return to the car itself.
If you run your finger over a panel the surface will feel rough. This is the result of contamination on the paint surface such as tree sap and tar. To achieve the perfect finish we need to remove them and to do that we use clay.
It’s been around for years and you can even buy a kit from Halfords. It’s a very simple process in which the surface is lubricated and then the clay bar is moved over wet paint.
Start by kneading the clay to make it supple. Then tear in half keeping the other half for the next time you do the car. Wet the paint with the lubricant, we used Meguires Last Touch, and then gently slide the clay over the area. Wipe away the excess lubricant with a micro fibre cloth.
After completing a panel fold the clay over to a clean piece and move on to the next panel. The amount of contamination that can be removed is quite surprising if this is something you have not done before.
Once the whole car has been clayed, feel the paintwork again. It should now be as smooth as glass as all that contamination has been removed.
Now wash the car again using the mitts and two buckets, before drying again.
As we are concentrating on hand polishing in this guide, using retail products we’ll be focusing on the Lightening Silver Edition 100 for this section only.
There are many brands and types of polish on the market today. An abrasive polish such as Autoglym Super Resin Polish (SRP) has small abrasives, fillers and cleaning properties which polish the surface of the paint, removing and filling small scratches and imperfections as they go.
Other polishes (referred to as pure polishes) contain no abrasives and work by filling in small imperfections so that they appear to have been removed.
The Meguires three step system uses this type of polish. Both systems have their merits but they work in different ways.
We’ve chosen to use SRP.
So apply sparingly to a foam applicator and covering about a square foot at a time, apply to the paintwork. Sparingly is the key word here. If you find a white residue building up, you’ve applied too much. Less is nearly always more for most products.
When the polish has dried, buff to a shine with a Microfibre cloth, turning it frequently. Go around the whole car avoiding getting any polish onto trim or windows.
After the Polishing stage the car should be gleaming. Hopefully some of the paint defects will be gone but there are fillers in there masking them and left untreated they will just wash away.
So now we must protect all the hard work. For this guide we are not going to apply a Glaze because we wanted to use a Sealent instead. The two are not compatible in most cases and we also get to stick to the retail products which you can but locally. We did use a glaze on the Silver Vectra and the results are further down the page.
Paint Sealer is a man made product which will seal in all the fillers and protect the shine underneath. This makes the car much easier to clean next time as the crud is sitting on the sealant, not on the paint itself.
We’re going to stick with Autoglym here too by using AG Extra Gloss Protection. It’s designed to work with SRP although other Sealents can be used. It's Applied with an applicator before being leaving to cure. Then buff to a shine with a Microfibre cloth.
At this point in terms of the paintwork the job is done. However you can go that extra bit in terms of protection and apply a wax on top. Most enthusiasts will add this extra layer of protection so we'll now bring back the Star Silver Vectra which had by this point been polished, Chemically cleaned and a glaze added instead of a Sealent. We'll cover that in the Machine guide.
Unlike a Sealant which is made up of man made polymers wax contains natural products.
Carnauba is used in most quality waxes. We used fCollinate 915 for the Edition 100 which is one of the best around for winter protection.
It’s not normally available from High Street shops but it’s worth placing an order on line. It really is that good in our experience.
For the Silver car we used Valentines, a More expensive wax, which produces a real wet look to the paint.
For both waxes apply sparingly with an applicator before being left to cure. To test if it has cured, swipe your finger across a small section. If any smearing is left the wax is not yet cured. When it leaves clear paint it’s ready to be buffed to a shine with a micro fibre cloth.
The paintwork should now be gleaming yet there is one final thing we can do to add that final touch. We’ll do that last after we’ve dressed the rest of the car.
Again there are many products available on the market today. We used Autobrite glass cleaner. The method is to apply with a clean cloth before allowing to dry. Then buff to a clear finish.
With the paintwork looking so good, faded plastics stand out even more than usual. From the Autoglym range the bumper care can be used to good effect althuogh we used used Gliptone. Apply both with a cloth or small sponge before wiping the excess with a cloth.
Wheels tyres and arches.
So now we can return to the wheels we cleaned some time ago! We used Meguires Hot Tyre Shine on a sponge. Remember to dress only the outside of the tyres.
The wheels themselves were protected with Chemical Guys wheel wax and we used Meguires All Season Dressing Sprayed onto the arches to get them back to black. You can use Autoglym bumper care on the arches too.
We dressed the plastics with Gliptone again. Before applying a thin layer of wax underneath the bonnet and buffing off.
So now it’s time to add the final finish to the paint. Quick detailers such as Meguires Ultimate Quick Detailer or Zaino 8 will remove any excess wax and add a final layer to the car which will really help it shine. The difference is small but enough for many people to include this step.
Remember at the beginning we discussed people at the car shows spraying something onto the car before buffing it off? Well that’s Quick detailer. It helps them get the car back to the condition it was having completed all of the above steps. Apply with a cloth sparingly and then buff off.
The Edition 100 after applying Megs. Quick detailer on top of the SRP, EGP and Colly 915.
Final job is to polish the exhaust. We used Megs. NXT metal polish.
The completed Star Silver Vectra will be in the Machine guide but this shows the final result with this car.
The outside of the car is now complete. It’s probably taken most of the day so a quick clean of the inside is all most people have any energy left for.
Unfortunately this will sell the car short so you may decide to do this another day. Either way it’s relatively easy to gets the inside looking right but it can be time consuming so we’ll follow a simple process to get to the finish line as soon as possible.
When starting out on cleaning the interior of any car, always look to deal with the worst part first. This will take the longest to correct and like the wheels on the exterior it can mess up areas you’ve just done. This includes for example having to use a glass polish at the end which then goes all over the interior when buffed.
Seats and door cards.
If you have stains or well soiled seats the best thing you can do is to set yourself up for a full day in good dry weather. There is no point to cleaning your seats or trim in damp conditions as they won’t dry and the stains will reappear later.
Get a good selection of brushes and if the soiling is really bad a good Wet and Dry vac. These can now be hired or borrowed. A normal vac will be OK otherwise. Spray on the cleaning solution, we used APC cut 10:1 in this example and work into the area affected. The Brushing and vacuuming may have to be repeated many times depending on the staining. Remember at this stage we are just dealing with problem areas.
Follow the same process for the mats but do them outside the car. For leather, a damp microfibre will do most of the work along with a dedicated Leather cleaner if required.
So now the seats and door cards are clean the glass can be cleaned with same glass cleaner used on the outside.
There is a quick vac and a full vac. A full vac means the removal of every spec of dirt and dust and can be very time consuming as well as hard work. You will need to get into every part of the car, moving the seats fully back and forward to access all areas including the centre console.
It is not uncommon for the vacuum to be on for 30 minutes or more and it’s worth keeping a solution of APC to hand if any further stains are noticed.
Dressing the interior
If you choose to dress the inside plastics and trim this can be done now, we used Poorboys Natural Dressing in this Sri.
Use a microfibre to apply, and be warned that and there are always more plastics than you first think!
Don’t use anything with too much oil or silicon as this will create a shiny and slippery surface. Never dress your steering wheel or rubber mats. One slip when driving and your car could end up in a
For Leather interiors finish with a good quality Leather conditioner to protect the leather and keep it supple.
Now it’s time to stand back and admire your work. Most people would do the full process between two and four times a year. Claying should be twice a year at most.
For all the other washes start at the wheel stage before applying just one layer of Snowfoam. After washing with the mitt dry and then apply a Quick Wax to top up the existing one or a quik detailer for that extra bling. The interior can be dealt with as required, although for leather apply a conditioner at regular intervals to keep it protected.
Summary of the process
1. Wash the wheels and arches using a non acidic wheel cleaner. Then apply an All Purpose Cleaner is applied to the Arches
2. PreWash the car with Snowfoam. (Rinse up) (Optional)
3. PressureWash to remove the foam if applicable
4. Snowfoam again (Rinse down) (Optional)
5. Wash with two mitts (not A sponge!) and two buckets.
6. Dry using a Microfibre Towel.
10. Clean engine bay using a degreaser.
11. Polish with Autoglym SRP or similar
12. Seal with Autoglym EGP or similar
13. Wax with Collinate 915 or similar
14. Dress trim
15. Dress wheels using a wheel sponge and tyre dressing.
16. Dress arches again to return them to the original colour.
17. Wax wheels
18. Dress engine bay
19. Polish glass.
20. Deal with the worst areas first
21. Clean interior both fabric/leather and plastic cleaner.
22. Protect Interior to avoid future fading.
23. Vaccum to remove every rave of dirt
24. Apply conditioner the the leather if applicable.
25. Polish glass.
Thanks to Andy and Mark at Autobrite-Direct for the loan of their premises http://www.autobritedirect.co.uk , members who allowed us to use Pics. of their cars and to our proof readers, Ed Taylor for the process and Mrs Lump for desiphering the draft versions and making the final version readable.