Detailing your car is an easy and even relaxing way to maintain your investment. When you have proper shade (or for those in cold winter climates, appropriate shelter) and can begin with cool work surfaces, you’ll find a little effort gives great-looking returns. Of course, each of the following steps could justify an article of its own, so consider them good overall starting points.
Gather supplies. Proper detailing isn’t an instant process, and it will only add time if you don’t have everything you need close at hand. You could even wind up with sub-par results if you have to interrupt detailing to hunt down supplies you forgot to gather or purchase.
Include clean sponges, a clean bucket, car wash soap and lint-free towels or a chamois. A clay bar and lubricant should be handy, plus wheel and tire treatments and brushes, along with wax if you intend to take those steps. For the interior, a vacuum, detailing brushes, cotton swabs or canned air, more lint-free towels, glass cleaner and leather/vinyl protectant should all be at the ready.
Pre-clean. Get debris like leaves out of channels by opening doors, the hood and hatch or trunk. The water will need a clear path to drain and not accumulate. Shake out floor mats to remove dirt and debris on the surface, leaving the vacuum to get more of the set-in stuff.
Interior. Some prefer to detail the interior first as a matter of preference. It does give surface protectant time to set, plus any excess that comes into contact with the exterior paint can simply be washed off. Just remember to keep it off pedals or anywhere that can compromise control while driving. Clean the interior sides of windows; you’ll be surprised what a difference it makes. Clean vents and trim crevices with detailing brushes, cotton swabs or canned air. Take care cleaning the gauge cluster area, as this plastic scores and scratches easily. Adjust seats all the way forward and back while vacuuming to catch as much as you can.
Trunk/Hatch. This is too often an afterthought; out of sight, out of mind. A few minutes back here is time well spent, clearing out clutter you don’t need to haul around and vacuuming the dirt.
Wheels/Tires. Some of the dirtiest areas of your car really have added visual pop when detailed. It’s very important that you haven’t driven far before cleaning wheels and tires. When brakes are still hot, harmful fumes can manifest from contact with wheel cleaner. Likewise, the cleaner can tarnish delicate wheel surfaces if the temp is too high.
Otherwise, work on one at a time with a fairly soft brush. Too stiff a brush will damage the rim’s protective coating. If you’re using a spray bottle and there’s a breeze or you cannot completely prevent getting wheel cleaner on the body, consider doing the wheels and tires before washing the car, so you can easily rinse off any overspray.
Engine. An optional area, much of which depends on your vehicle. Newer vehicles' engine bays can be highly sensitive areas with all their electronics. They do resist a certain level of exposure, but generally aren’t designed for full-on contact with chemical cleaners and water spray. If you’re in doubt, there’s no need to leave the gunk lie, but have a professional address it.
Wash. Rinse the car first, top to bottom. Using a clean sponge, utilize mild car washing soap—do not use dish soap or laundry detergent. Harsher soaps like those can damage the finish while tackling the dirt. Work from top to bottom, one section at a time to prevent soap from drying on the surface. Remember to rinse the sponge before putting it back in the soapy water, or you’ll just be transferring dirt and re-depositing it onto the finish.
Dry. Working top to bottom, a section at a time, dry the car with a towel or chamois. Wring it out often and be sure to always have a clean section in contact with the surface.
Clay bar. At this point, your car is clean, but probably not as clean as it could be. Surface contaminants and minor visual imperfections can be left behind. That’s when your clay bar goes to work. Spraying small sections of the body at a time with clay lubricant (usually included with the bar), lightly rub the clay bar back and forth over the wet surface until it moves freely.
Wax. An optional step you can take as needed. A wax designed for your car’s finish (typically clearcoat if your car was made in the last several years) applied periodically will maintain shine while adding a layer of protection against environmental nastiness.
Glass. Although the exterior glass was cleaned when you washed the car, water spots or surface film may be left behind. Give the windows extra attention with the glass cleaner. This is also a great time to apply hydrophobic, or water-repelling treatment products for a functional finishing touch.