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Make Her Shine Like New - Beginner's Guide to Detailing a Car's Exterior

Updated on September 1, 2011

Follow these steps in order


Pour car wash liquid into a bucket and fill with water. Dish soap may be used if you will be waxing your car after (it strips off wax). Fill up a second bucket with plain water and no soap.

Spray entire car down with water to rinse of loose dirt and debris.

Spray wheel cleaner onto each wheel and let soak in while you clean the rest of the car. This will soften the brake dust and make the wheels easier to clean.

Dip clean cotton cloth or sponge into soap water bucket and clean one panel of the car at a time, starting with the roof and windows, since the dirt will wash down with gravity over the other panels. Rinse off with hose.

After cleaning each panel, rinse the cloth in the bucket of plain water to rid cloth of dirt. This keeps the soap water bucket nice and clean and reduces the appearance of microabrasions on the car from dirt embedded in the cloth.

Clean the wheels last. They are the dirtiest part of the car due to dust from the brake pads. They will saturate the washcloth and water buckets with dirt. Brake dust can also stick to the wheels, so use a brush if necessary.

After cleaning the car, you technically should dump the dirty water down a drain that will go to your septic.

There is no need to dry off the car before you claybar.

* DO NOT use automatic car washes for cleaning your car. They are dirty and create swirl marks all over your paint coat.


Purchase a clay bar from any auto pats store. Fine or medium grade is good. The clay bar removes more dirt, grease, bugs, and contaminants than is possible by soap and water.

Fill a spray bottle (such as empty Windex bottle) with a mixture of a little soap (a tsp or tbsp is fine) and water. One at a time, spray each panel liberally with soap water and then rub clay bar over the paint to remove contaminants. You will see the clay bar turn black as it picks up the grime. This will get rid of pesky specks of bugs, dirt, grease, tar, and much more. It leaves the paint extremely smooth. It also removes all wax, so it is important to wax your car after using a clay bar.

If you drop the clay bar on the ground, discarding it is advised. Small pieces of asphalt or concrete can become embedded in the clay and scratch your paint.

Rinse off each panel as you go with hose. Dry entire car with rubber blade or large, clean towel.


You may polish your car by hand with a cloth or with an electric buffer. For novices, a random orbital buffer is preferred because it will prevent you from burning through your paint coat. Apply a few squirts of polish onto the paint or buffer pad, rub in/spread out without turning on buffer, and then turn on and buff the paint thoroughly. It can take some patience to remove scuffs and scratches.

Use rubbing compound, which is an aggressive polish, to remove any scratches. Scratches that you can feel by rubbing your fingernail over them cannot be entirely removed, but rubbing compound will reduce their appearance.

Use rubbing compound on entire panels for any heavily scratched, sun-damaged, or neglected paint coats. It won't burn right through your paint if you apply it carefully.

Let polish dry before removing with clean, dry cloth.


Always use swirl remover after rubbing compound. If you are only going to use one polish, use swirl remover over rubbing compound. Use swirl remover polish over the entire paint coat to remove fine scratches and swirl marks (light abrasions that come from from cleaning the car over time).

Apply with random orbital buffer or by hand. Either way, the detailing process is very taxing on your arms and hands and can create cramping.

Most wheels are painted and may be treated with the same polishes if you wish to put in the extra effort on your wheels.

Let polish dry before removing with clean, dry cloth.


Use rubbing compound and then swirl mark remover for the headlights and taillights as well. Or use plastic polish or a kit specifically designed for the lights. If the headlights are becoming opaque and faded, you may first use a fine sandpapers such as #1500 - 2000 with soap water to wetsand the lenses before applying the polishes. Do not use a low # sandpaper, as this will scratch the plastic possibly beyond repair. I do have another page that details headlight and taillight restoration.

Wash off exhaust tip and use aluminum/metal polish on a rag to create a bright, shiny appearance.

6) WAX

Apply liquid wax using a clean cotton cloth. Wax containing a high percentage of carnauba, which is sourced from Brazil, is especially effective. A little wax goes a long way. Less will be required as the wax soaks into the cloth that you are using. If you have the energy, wax wheels that are painted.

Allow wax to dry, and remove with a clean towel. Your paint should be smooth and shiny enough to reflect your face like a mirror.


Treat tires very liberally with tire shine gel on a brush. This will make dull rubber look new again. Wipe off excess that seeps onto wheels with a rag.

Treat black plastic trim with a trim shine gel or aerosol spray. This will bring back a dark black luster. Wipe off excess from paint and windows.

Clean windows inside and out. Use Windex or a window cleaning spray to clean the glass on both sides. This will remove water marks from hosing the car off earlier.


There are an array of brands and products to choose from. Personally, I do not have a preference and pick up whatever seems decent at the auto parts store. Others treat this as a religion, and swear that one product is superior to another. The average driver does not even wax their car at all, so don't stress too much.

BE PREPARED- this process may take several hours, depending on how meticulous you are. But the results are worthwhile and it will save you $150+ from a professional Auto Detailer.

Thoroughly detailing your car's exterior will allow rainwater to bead off and will make the car much easier to wash next time. I try to perform a detail with at least wash/claybar/wax two times a year- once before winter and once after.

Please see my other tutorial for detailing the interior of a car.


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