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What is Auto Detailing?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
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Auto detailing is separate from washing and waxing, though some auto centers offer these services together. In general, a wash and wax job is just that – the exterior of the vehicle is cleaned and waxed. Detailing goes further, and though concentrated on the interior of the car, it also involves some exterior work.

Interior auto detailing: The magic of detailing is in taking the time to clean and restore the vehicle to as close to new condition as possible. This involves a thorough vacuuming, sometimes aided by removing the front seats. The upholstery is also vacuumed.

After vacuuming, carpets, mats and upholstery are thoroughly cleaned. Depending on the condition of the vehicle, this could involve any number of products, from upholstery foam cleaner to rug shampoo and spot cleaners. A wet/dry vac might be used on cloth seats. Auto detailing removes most stains and makes the carpet and seats look new, barring any existing physical damage.

Vinyl areas inside the car, such as the dashboard, door panel trim and console, are first cleaned then treated with a conditioner to keep the vinyl pliable. Steering wheel covers and foot pedals are not conditioned to prevent slipping. The acrylic speedometer face is polished to a shine, and any small scratches are rubbed out.

Q-tips are often used in auto detailing to clean the slats of air conditioning and heater vents. Seams in the console that collect dust and dirt are also cleaned in this fashion. Finally, the glass is thoroughly washed and cleaned. It should be free of any streaking or films that can reflect low angles of sunlight or nighttime headlights and impair vision.

Exterior auto detailing: On the exterior of the vehicle, detailing involves cleaning the wheels and rims of brake dust and dirt. This is followed by polishing the rims and treating the tire sidewalls. Any wax residue is carefully cleaned from around the vehicle’s decals or chrome plates, and the windows might be treated with a rain repellent. The engine is also cleaned, either by steam or degreasers. The underside of the hood and rails are also cleaned and polished.

Finally, nicks or scratches in the paint can be taken care of by auto detailing as well. Each blemish is cleaned of wax and carefully sanded with wet/dry grit or a fine sanding block. The correct automotive touch-up paint is applied in layers, allowing each coat to dry before applying the next. The area is again sanded, then polished and waxed. When done properly, auto detailing leaves one hard pressed to find the original blemish.

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Discussion Comments
By RocketLanch8 — On Nov 12, 2014

When I worked for an auto detailing service, our manager made sure we understood how thorough we needed to be. We didn't just spray a commercial cleaner on the dashboard and wipe it off. We had special auto detailing products and equipment that reached deep into whatever area we were cleaning. We really did use cotton swabs and Q-tips in crevices. I used to take the seats out and steam clean them.

A lot of times customers would want complete auto cleaning and detailing when they were about to put the car up for sale. I can't tell you how much dirt and grime can accumulate in a car over the years, but when we got done, it practically had that new car smell.

By Inaventu — On Nov 12, 2014

I sometimes drive an older car if my wife happens to have our new one. It's about twelve years old now, and it's picked up a lot of dirt along the way. I'm seriously considering taking it into a local auto detailing shop soon. Right now, I'm doing some comparison shopping and reading some reviews so I'll know I'm getting a good deal when I do. Friends have told me that some auto detailing prices can be through the roof, but these shops will also restore most cars to nearly showroom condition.

I'm also looking at a mobile auto detailing service, because I really can't spend that much time away from a working vehicle. If someone can do the work at my house, that would be ideal. I'm willing to pay a little extra for that kind of service.

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