RFMan's 12-step guide to a dazzling car

Aug 23, 2001

The Bottom Line Cleaning and detailing a car is not an easy task. I've written the following 12-step guide to help fellow Epinions members.

How to make your car look its best

There's no denying it, when it comes to my car's shine, I'm a real perfectionist. My car has to look good all the time. I've used many different products along the years, and I've found a few that are certainly above the rest, and some that are just plain bad.

Doing a complete detailing job on a vehicle is indeed time-consuming, but the results are well worth it. I recommend going through this procedure at least twice a year, and more often if you want your car to maintain its show car shine for all occasions. There is a myth circulating that waxing or polishing your car too often is bad. That has been proved to be completely false. Any car car product manufacturer will tell you that there can only be benefits to waxing your car on a regular basis. If you've just had your car repainted though, you should wait a few months before going through this procedure, since an aftermarket paint job takes some time to cure. New cars are heat-cured, and thus can (and should) be wax right of the dealer's lot.

Please note that all prices are in Canadian dollars.

RFMan's 12 steps to a gleaming car:

Step 1: Washing

The first thing you want to do before anything else is washing your car. Most manufacturers recommend doing this weekly if at all possible.

-Start by hosing your car down to remove any excess dirt and debris. You might want to hose down the wheel wells too.

-If you're simply going to was your car without polishing and waxing, use some car wash liquid mixed in with water in a large bucket. There are many different brands of car wash liquid on the market, and they all do a good job. Mix with the water according to the instructions on the bottle. DO NOT use dishwashing soap. Dish soap is alkaline in nature and will remove the wax coating protecting your car (assuming it's been previously waxed).

-If you plan to prepare your paint surface, polish it and them re-wax it, DO USE dishwashing liquid. You want to remove the old wax layers on the car so you can prepare and polish the actual paint/clearcoat, rather than apply a coat of wax over another coat of wax. Whatever detergent you have will do the trick.

-Whenever you're washing your car, use a soft wash mitt. WalMart sells a genuine sheepskin wash mitt for 7.49$ I highly recommend getting it, it's the best tool for the job. Be aware that the WalMart mitt is the exact same product as the one Canadian Tire sells under the Simoniz brand name, but at half the price.

-Start from the top of the car and work your way down. It's best to rinse each section after washing it, because you really don't want any soap drying on the surface. Once the roof/trunk/hood surfaces are washed, proceed the same way for moth sides of the car, and the rear and front ends. Rinse off any section before it can dry on the car.

-Cleaning your wheels in another task in itself. Whatever you do, put your genuine sheepskin wash mitt away now. Don't touch your wheels with it, or you'll soil it to the point of no return. I have a second, low price wash mitt that I keep to clean. You can get those at Canadian Tire or WalMart for under 3$ typically. Wash your wheels with the same cleaning solution you used for the rest of the car. Make sure you clean thoroughly between the spokes of your wheels. If your tires are particularly soiled, use a hard bristled brush to clean them. Be careful no to scratch your rims with the brush though. I've found that Simple Green all-purpose Cleaner works quite well to restore whitewalls and white lettering to a bright white.

Step 2: Drying

Now that you've washed everything, you need to dry it. Unless you like to see water spots on your paint and acid water eating away at it, you should always dry your car thoroughly. This is especially true is you used dish soap to remove old wax when washing.

-I use a chamois for drying, simply because I always have. You can get a nice real Chamois for 10.49$ at Canadian Tire. It's 2 square feet, and it's sold under the Simoniz name brand. Avoid the imitation ones. They don't work nearly as well. Many people now use terrycloth towels to dry the cars. This has the advantage of trapping any dirt particles left on the surface of the car in the terrycloth while drying. Personally, a chamois has worked fine for me. If you do go for towels, make sure you get 100% cotton white towels made in North America. Many towels sold in auto stores for buffing and drying purposes are not 100% cotton, even though the package may say so. Be weary of towels manufactured in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or other surrounding countries. They often contain polyester and/or nylon, which can only do harm to your paint's finish. You should be able to find good quality towels at places such as Sears.

-Don't bother drying your wheels. You'll most likely just soil your towels for nothing. Let them air dry. Any spots will be removed later when polishing the wheels and applying tire shine.

Step 3: Surface preparation

If you're not doing a complete detailing job, you can skip this step as well as the two next ones. This is an essential step in achieving a perfect shine as an end result. Once you car is completely dry, run your hand on the top of the paint surface. If it feels totally smooth like the windows, your surface probably doesn't need to be prepped. Chances are you'll feel some irregularities, and a surface preparation will be required.

There are many different products available to prepare the surface of your car to be polished. Both Meguiar's and Mothers make some good surface preparation products. Some are available as a liquid and are quite easy to use, such as Meguiar's Clear Coat Body Scrub Paint Cleaner. However, I recommend using a clay bar system to remove all contaminants from your car. The Mothers Clay bar system is available at Canadian Tire for 25$, and includes some detailing spray, some premium wax, and the clay bar in question. I would advise caution in using Meguiar's Professional Clay Based liquids. They are abrasive, and made to be used with a mechanical rotary buffer. It's easy to cause more damage that good with these abrasive compounds if you're not very experienced with them. The clay bar system, on the other hand, is easy to use and quite fool-proof.

-Make sure your car is clean and dry, and spray some instant detailing liquid on a small surface. This will lubricate the surface to allow smooth motion of the clay bar.

-Simply run the clay bar along the surface that has been sprayed. You should immediately notice that the finish is much smoother in areas where you've passed the clay bar. Repeat the process to do the entire vehicle. Avoid touching the surface excessively, as you want to avoid finger prints before polishing

If you're using some other liquid surface preparation product, follow the instructions for that particular product.

Step 4: Polishing

Polishing is the most important step in obtaining a deep glossy shine. Most people assume that polishing and waxing is the same thing. They are totally different steps. Polishing will give your car a deep glossy shine, while waxing's main purpose if to protect your car's surface. Polishing is actually not a difficult step, especially if you've done a good job in step #3.

My product of choice for polishing is Meguiar's Show Car Glaze from its professional line of products. It's somewhat expensive, and it's not very easy to find, but it's worth it. My local auto and performance parts shop (Pièces d'auto Côté in Hull) stocks it for 14$ a bottle. If you cannot find Meguiar's Professional products, I'd recommend using Meguiar's Deep Crystal System Polish, which can be found at Canadian Tire and some WalMart stores, most likely for around 10$.

You'll need two clean 100% cotton terrycloth polishing rags to complete this step.

-Polish is simply a wipe on, buff off process. You don't need to let the polish dry on the car like wax. Use one cloth to apply the polish and spread it around evenly, and then use the other cloth to buff it off vigorously. The better the buffing, the better the shine. I like to use my random orbit electric buffer for this. It's the quickest way to get a very nice shine with little effort. There are many buffers available with widely varying prices. My 10" Simoniz buffer was on sale for 60$ when I bought it. I'm pretty sure that WalMart also sells a slightly smaller buffer (8", I believe) for 35$. Whatever buffer you get, make sure you buy a sufficient number of polishing bonnets, because you'll need a different one for every product you use. I tend to apply polish by hand and use the buffer to buff it off.

-For a really impressive shine, if time permits, repeat this step twice over the surface of the car.

Step 5: Waxing

Now that you've polished you car to give a really nice luster, you'll want to wax it so that it keeps it good looks for as long as possible. Without an appropriate layer of way, your nice polished shine will fade away in days.

You'll need two clean 100% cotton terrycloth polishing rags to complete this step.

-I personally rather use liquid wax that paste wax. Both are equally effective, but the liquid wax is easier to work with. I only use Amway Silicone Glaze liquid wax. It's quite simply the best wax that I've ever used, and it's quite easy to work with. You can't get Amway products in stores though. You'll have to go through a local distributor for that. If you or a family member does not know one, I believe you can get a list of distributors from www.amway.com. There are many other quality waxes on the market today. Mothers, Meguiar's and Zymol are all renown to make excellent wax products. Spray-on types waxes are not waxes in the real definition of the word, and should not be used in place of a good liquid wax.

-Waxing a car is much simpler than many make it out to be. This is even more the case if you proceeded to steps 2 and 3 above before waxing. The first step is to apply a coat of liquid wax evenly on a surface of the car. Don't put it on too thinly, but don't pour it on either. The important step is to let it dry on the surface of the car. I typically apply wax to the hood, roof and trunk, and by the time I'm done applying, it's ready to be buffed off on the hood. If you run your finger on the surface, and all the dried wax comes off and leaves a nice shiny surface underneath, it's ready to be buffed off. The same goes for the sides of the car. Apply wax to one side, and once you've applied to one whole side, it will most likely be ready to be buffed off.

-The goal of buffing the wax is to remove all the dry wax on the surface. It is not required to buff extremely hard, nor for an extended amount of time. Just get that residue off, and you'll be left facing a gleaming automobile that will be protected from the elements. An orbital buffer can be used for this, as well as a 100% cotton cloth.

Step 6: Tire dressing

At this point, you'll want nice shine tires to match the strikingly beautiful paint of your vehicle. By now, your wheels and tires should have dried off, and you're ready apply some shine to your tires. There are three commonly-found types of tire dressing available at the consumer level. Foam type cleaners/enhancers tend to be the least effective, though they have the advantage of being easy to apply. Equally easy to apply are spray-on liquid products. I prefer to use those. Many different brand products are available, but I use Turtle Wax Wet'n'Black, because it is as effective as the competition, and it costs less. The third type is applied with a sponge-type applicator to the tire. These include Black Magic Tire Tint and Meguiar's Endurance products. The types of products are very effective, although they tend to be more costly and the applicatino od these is more involving.

A brief note about tire tint: This product is really a standard tire dressing in which some metallized pigments are suspended. It makes your tires glitter of a certain color in the light. It will not make your tire look noticeably colored from up close. And be aware that if your tires have very small grooves or ridges, the pigments will stay lodged there for many weeks after you apply tire tint. For some, this mat be desired, for others, it may not be.

-At this point, just spray or wipe down your tires with the tire dressing of your choice, and let it do it's magic. No rinsing, no wiping. As easy as it gets.

-Make sure you do this before polishing your wheels, as overspray will most certainly land on your wheels.

Step 7: Wheel polish

If you have steel wheels with plastic wheel covers, just wipe off the excess tire dressing on them with a damp cloth and you're done. If you have metal wheel covers or alloy wheels, polishing your wheels is an important step. This is especially true with alloy wheels, as they are sensitive to contaminants such as brake dust, and caring for your wheels will greatly increase their lifespan.

A word of warning: Tuttle wax sells a 2 step wheel care package that's available at Canadian Tire. The first product is a foaming cleaner that is made to remove brake dust and contaminants from the surface of your wheels. The second product is allegedly a sealant that will prevent the accumulation of further dust and dirt on your wheels. The first product works well (but it's nothing that you can't do with some soap and a cheap wash mitt), but the wheel sealant should be banned from the market. It basically forms a thin transparent coating on your wheels, which almost inevitably leaves hideous runs and bubbles. Removing this coating is quite difficult, and it required me to use some household kitchen degreaser on my wheels, which is not ideal to say the least. Avoid this product at all costs. If you bought some, return it for a refund. Don't risk ruining your wheels with it.

You'll need two clean 100% cotton terrycloth polishing rags to complete this step.

-As for car wax, wheel polish is available is paste and liquid forms. Spray on wheel polishing agents are not very effective compared to polished that is applied and buffed off. I personally use Black Magic Wheel Polish Is available at Canadian Tire for under 10$, and a bottle will last you a at least a year of cleaning your wheels once or twice a month.

-Use it in the exact same way as you use car wax. Apply it with one cloth, wait for it to dry, and then buff it off with another cloth. I usually apply it to all four wheels and them buff them off in the same order. If you're using the Black Magic product, shake it often, it tends to separate if left standing.

Step 8: Window cleaning

This step is quite obvious, but I wanted to mention a few things.

-Always clean your windows as the last thing on the outside of your car. With all the polishing and waxing, there are great chances that some unwanted product fell on the windows. If you do the windows last, you clean all of that up at the same time. And don't worry about window cleaner overspray, it won't affect your paint is you just waxed it.

-Buy some automotive glass cleaner. It works so much better that regular household glass cleaner. Actually, I highly recommend that you buy the Armor All Auto Glass Cleaner. It simply works better than any other product that I've used, and is usually not more expensive. The Eagle One 20/20 cleaner is no better than regular Windex, and the Rain-X Foaming window cleaner in an aerosol can is incredibly crapulent. It'll leave so many streaks on your windows that you'll have difficulty driving in direct sunlight.

-And if you have tinted windows, make sure that you use ammonia-free cleaner that specifies that is safe for tinted windows (such as the Armor All Auto Glass Cleaner). Any other type will make your tint film peel in the long run.

At this point, you're pretty much done with the outside of the vehicle, and you've already taken a step towards cleaning the interior.

Step 9: The Vacuum cleaner

Again, nothing very difficult here. Just make sure not to forget the trunk. It's often more in need of a good vacuuming that the rest of the car. To do a good job, take out the household vacuum cleaner or the ShopVac. A Dustbuster is most often not up to the job.

Step 10: Carpet and upholstery cleaning

This step should be taken if your carpets are particularly soiled, such as in the springtime, where salt has accumulated during the winter.

The quickest and easiest way is to use an aerosol foaming cleaner that incorporated a stiff brush. I like to use Turtle Wax carpet and upholstery cleaner, available at Canadian Tire for under 7$ I believe.

-Make sure that you have thoroughly vacuumed the area to be cleaned. Start by applying a thick layer of foam over the areas that are particularly soiled, and let it penetrate a bit.

-Spray a layer of foam over the whole carpet area, and brush it in with the brush

-Just let it dry, and the re-vacuum the area to pick up dirt that was lifted from inside the carpet.

-The same can be done with the seats, but use the foam sparingly, as seats take a long time to dry.

-Once all carpet and upholstery are clean, I recommend applying a coat of Scotch Guard. Automotive-specific ScothGuard is available at Canadian Tire for under 10$ a can, which should last as long as your vehicle.

For specific odor-related problems in the upholstery, Febreze make an automotive-specific version of their product that works quite well. Just spray it on and that's it. A bottle costs less than 5$ at Canadian Tire.

Step 11: Dash and trim care

Caring for your dashboard and interior trim will not only make it look much better, but it will help prolong its lifespan. A good dash treatment will protect from cracking and deterioration as time passes.

A word of warning: do not use glossy or semi-gloss dashboard protectants on the top of your dashboard. This will almost certainly cause reflections in your windshield that may hinder your driving in sunlight. Window cleaner does a good job of cleaning dust off the top of the dashboard without creating a glossy surface, and you don't have to worry about overspray in the windshield.

-I usually use the Armor All original Dash protectant to treat all the parts of my dashboard, door panels and centre console. There are many other products that are equally good, but the Armor All is the original and least expensive. Simoniz had a blue gel product that was also quite good, but I cannot seem to find it anymore this year. It also works quite well on all interior plastic panels and door jambs. DO NOT apply Armor All to your steering wheel rim, pedals or shifter, or you'll be in for nasty surprises.

-For the top of the dash, use some other mild cleaner, such as ammonia-free automotive window cleaner, to avoid creating reflections in the windshield.

-I find it's usually easier to spray a paper towel and then use it on the surfaces that spraying the surfaces directly.

Step 12: Maintenance

For the perfectionists among you, there are products that will renew your car's shine in-between washings, and remove unsightly water spots left by the rain.

Mothers California Gold Showtime and Meguiar's Instant Detailer are two quality products that I have tested. The Meguiar's seems to be a bit better, but if you can only find the Mothers product, it's still quite good.

It very simple to use: just spray it on and wipe it off with a clean terrycloth towel. I usually keep a bottle of Instant Detailer and a cloth in my car at all times, so I can dust it off when needed. I can do my entire Chevrolet Cavalier in less than 15 minutes, and it looks great afterwards.

The End

Well, that's it. If you do all of the above steps a few times a year, your car's finish should keep on looking good for a long time. If you do all of this twice a month, you might actually be able to compete with me for the shiniest 5-year-old paint job out there!

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