Hopefully I can provide some useful information on car cleaning in general and some of the finer points which turn a clean into a detail.
I’ll run through a full detail routine, expanding on product names etc as I go through, but if anything is unclear, let me know and I will try to make it clearer.
Where I have linked to products, I do not endorse the seller or product. Other products are available and these are provided for illustration only.
The basic tools
All Purpose Cleaner (APC) - This can be diluted in spray bottles, 4:1 for tough stains, 10:1 for general cleaning
a selection of paint brushes
a non-acidic wheel cleaner ie Valet-Pro Bilberry Wheel Cleaner
a selection of brushes (washing up brushes are good!)
The foam (optional, depending on budget and interest)
A pressure washer and foam lance
Micro-fibre or Lambs wool wash-mitt/sponge (NOT a normal sponge)
Car shampoo (Tesco red cherry smelling stuff is actually ideal here)
Good quality drying towels (NOT a chamois or water blade thing)
Wheels and Pre-wash
Give each wheel a good soaking in wheel cleaner (diluted as necessary) and brush vigorously to remove any baked on brake dust and tar etc. Also spray and scrub the tyre wall to remove any previous dressings etc. Repeat as necessary until nice and clean.
Using a trigger spray bottle and APC diluted 10:1, work your way round the car with a selection of brushes cleaning all the fiddly bits, door seals, bonnet, hatch and door shuts, bumper joints. A liberal spray of APC, agitation with a brush and another spray is usually enough to loosen any dirt ready for the wash. Try to spend as long as you need on this stage as this really makes all the difference. I usually spend longer on this stage, than actually ‘washing’ the car.
Once you have done the nooks crannies and difficult to get to bits, you can use a foam wash to take the majority of loose dust, dirt and grit off the car’s surface. Using a pressure washer and foam lance, cover the car in a nice thick layer of foam and allow to dwell for 5-10 minutes.
Rinse with the pressure washer (carefully – the paint on front bumpers is very very thin!) and repeat if necessary. By this stage, 90% of the dirt is on the floor without you having to touch the car yet!
Fill one bucket with shampoo mix i.a.w instructions, the other bucket with clean water. Wash each panel making sure that the mitt goes from the soapy bucket to the panel, then into the rinse bucket before then going back to the soapy bucket. You may need to swirl the mitt in the rinse bucket to remove grit/dirt that is in the mitt. This method ensures that only clean water goes on the car, and that all grit you may have removed, ends up in the rinse bucket. Again, take your time and make sure you clean each panel properly. Start at the top and work down to avoid redoing panels due to run-off from the roof.
Rinse the whole car with an open hose to remove all soap deposits and any remaining grit.
The first time you detail your car, you may find things bonded to the paint ie tree sap, tar, brake dust etc. Claying will remove this. Massage a small section of clay until soft and then form a flat ball. Holding the clay lightly, spray some clay lube onto the panel and slowly work round each panel lightly rubbing the clay across each section. Keep looking at the surface of the clay and when dirty, re-massage to ‘create’ a new surface to continue. Once complete, the paintwork will feel significantly smoother. Clay is one use only, so discard any used clay once completed. There are 3 golden rules when claying – don’t drop the clay, don’t drop the clay and… don’t drop the clay. If you do – throw it away – DO NOT USE it on your paint as it will be embedded with sharp stones etc that will scratch you paint! Once complete, wash and rinse the car again to remove lubricant and clay residue.
For you perfectionists out there, machine polishing is the only way to go. This will remove all imperfections, can reduce orange peel, will remove swirls and will give a mirror finish. However, a machine polisher in the wrong hands will also strip paint faster than you can say ‘oh bugger’ and burn plastic panels. The safer alternative is a Porter Cable (US made, so 110v – you will need a transformer) or Meguiars G220 (UK compliant) Dual Action polisher. These are a bit pricey at about £180-£200, but the results are almost as good as you will get without years of training on rotary polishes. The basic principle is the same for hand or machine polishing though. Use good quality polishes and slowly and methodically work each panel at a time, using small circular motions to remove any oxidation, swirls or scratches.
I won’t go into machine polishing any further as that is a whole other world of discussion, but as a start for hand polishing I would recommend Autoglym Super Resin Polish. This does have a very small cutting action, so will remove some oxidation, and contains fillers, so will hide some swirls and minor scratching. Sonüs also do a hand polish which has a slightly more abrasive nature and will help in oxidation and fading removal. T-cut and related products really are too harsh and will leave a very swirly finish.
Once polished, you will need to seal the polish to prevent it washing away in the rain etc. Autoglym Extra Gloss Protection is used here. This will chemically bond to the surface of the polish, protecting the polish layer and also providing a stable surface on which to apply a wax.
A good quality wax will give the final layer of protection against further damage and will also add a real gloss to your finish. For most finishes, I would recommend Collinite 476s. This is a good old fashioned wax in a tin which needs applying sparingly and buffing off when dried to a haze. A second coat 14 hrs later will add extra protection.
Polishing all windows, using trim gel on all black plastics, tyre dressing and polishing exhaust trims all add to the final look and are well worth doing (even on a quick wash).
By this stage you should have taken about 2 days to clean your car, and be completely knackered. BUT, don’t worry! You won’t have to do this every time!! The beauty of waxing is that the car will stay cleaner for longer and be much, much easier to wash when required. A simple two bucket wash and dry will leave it looking as good as when you first detailed it.
I hope this has given you a good introduction to cleaning and detailing. Hopefully you won’t see it as being too anal and obsessive. It can be (see this guy) or it can be just good routine that maintains your MX at it’s best.
And if you can’t wait to buy some stuff, you could do a lot worse than go here.