How concerned are you about your car's looks? Is a trip to the drive-through car wash every couple of months good enough? Or do you obsess over things like tiny swirl marks in your paint, or getting just the right amount of gloss on your tires? If you fall into the latter group, then you've come to the right place. Over the next few pages we're going to show you some professional-level cleaning and detailing tips that will make your car gleam. Better still, all of these techniques can be done in your driveway with just a few simple tools and a handful of car-care products.
As you read over these tips, you'll find a common thread running through them. According to Mike Pennington, who heads training and consumer relations for the car-care specialists at Meguiar's, making your car shine involves three basic steps: Evaluate the surface you're working on to determine what it requires to bring it back to perfection, choose the appropriate car-care product based on the make-up and condition of the surface you're working on, and then use the proper technique to apply that product. Whether you're returning lustre to dingy paint, scrubbing brake dust off your wheels or ridding upholstery of built-up grime, the three-tiered approach is the same.
The first step in caring for your car's paint is to remove any loose dirt with a thorough wash. Meguiar's recommends the two-bucket washing system: Fill one bucket with soapy water and a second with plain water. Use the plain-water bucket to rinse the mitt, so dirt will be trapped there and won't get wiped back on the car. Always use soap that's been formulated for automotive finishes, like Meguiar's Deep Crystal [Gold Class, NXT] Car Wash. Don't be tempted to grab the dish soap from under the sink; household cleaners are too harsh for automotive paint.
Invest in a high-quality wash mitt, made from cotton, synthetic material or microfibre. Meguiar's Microfibre Wash Mitt is scratch free and has a thick nap that will pick up dirt and keep it away from the paint.
After rinsing the wash off of the car with high pressure, use a low-pressure stream like this as a final rinse. Water will sheet off the car's surface, making it much easier to dry.
Today's microfibre towels, like Meguiar's Water Magnet, are far more absorbent than old-fashioned cotton or terry cloth towels, which speeds up drying time considerably.
Don't forget areas like the door jambs, inside the trunk lid, and under the hood when drying off your car. Otherwise the water trapped in these areas will eventually dribble out and leave water spots.
Once the car is clean, it's time to move it into a well-lit area to evaluate its surface. Don't use just your eyes; run your hands over the sheet-metal to feel for imperfections. If the surface is not glass-smooth, there's environmental fallout on the paint that needs to be removed.
Tree sap, hard-water deposits and other above-the-surface contaminants can be removed using Meguiar's Smooth Surface Clay bar. Make sure to lubricate the surface before rubbing it with the bar. Though it's typically used as a between-washes cleaner, Meguiar's Quik Detailer offers enough lubricity to be used with the clay.
Below-the-surface imperfections, such as swirl marks, can be eliminated using a cleaner/swirl-remover like Meguiar's ScratchX 2.0. Unlike some conventional "rocks in a bottle" compounds, ScratchX 2.0 is safe to use on any automotive paint and clear coat, thanks to its diminishing abrasive technology. Developed by Meguiar's, these abrasive particles get smaller and smaller as you work them into the paint.
Meguiar's recently reformulated ScratchX 2.0 so it can be safely applied by hand or with a dual-action (DA) polisher. Use Meguiar's Supreme Shine microfibre towels to wipe off the ScratchX 2.0 after its application.
If your car is black or some other dark colour, Meguiar's Deep Crystal Polish will give the paint a wet, glossy look. The Polish also conditions and nourishes the paint.
A coat of wax will put a protective barrier between your car's paint and any contaminants Mother Nature wants to throw at it. Any of Meguiar's waxes, from the carnauba-based Deep Crystal system, to the carnauba/polymer blend found in Gold Class, or the technologically advanced NXT Tech Wax with its Engineered Synthetic Polymer technology, can be applied by hand (using a Meguiar's Even Coat Microfibre applicator pad, shown here) or a machine applicator. As with the swirl remover, a microfibre towel is best to use when it's time to wipe off the wax.
"Frequent car care is easy car care," goes the mantra at Meguiar's. Between washings, you can keep your car in its gleaming condition with a regular wipe-down using Meguiar's Quik Detailer and a microfibre towel.
Also in Meguiar's "Quik" line of products is Quik Wax, an easy-to-apply carnauba wax that goes on (and wipes off) in just a few minutes. Using it once a month, between your major clean-ups, will maintain your paint's high gloss and shine.
Microfibre, teamed here with Meguiar's NXT Generation Glass Cleaner, is also ideal for cleaning windows, as it's far more absorbent than paper towels and won't leave lint behind.
Any metal trim pieces - exhaust tips, grilles, door handles, and so on - should be polished using a product formulated for the type of metal being cleaned. For example, chromed grille shells can be treated with Meguiar's Hot Rims Mag & Aluminium polish, which was designed specifically for chrome-plated metal and un-coated aluminium.
Clear plastic parts, such as headlight covers, can get scratched, too. Meguiar's PlastX Clear Plastic Cleaner & Polish, when applied with a microfibre applicator pad, will remove stains and scratches from clear plastic.
Care and maintenance of your car's interior requires some very different techniques than those we demonstrated regarding paint care, because the make-up of the interior surfaces is so different. While the exterior is primarily painted and plated metal, a car's interior is made up largely of various fabrics vinyl, leather, plastic, carpet, and so on. So the products you choose to clean and maintain the interior need to be formulated to be safe for use on those fabrics.
The products may differ, but the overall approach remains the same: Evaluate the surface, choose the product appropriate for that surface, and apply the product correctly.
For instance, how you clean and maintain your upholstery will depend on the fabric it's made from. Leather seats and door panels require a set of products that will not just clean but also condition and moisturise the hides. Vinyl requires a different type of cleaner and dressing, and cloth seats require different products still.
Here's another example: Depending on the make and age of your car, your dashboard may be painted metal, upholstered, plastic, wood grain, carbon fibre, or some combination of all of the above. Each material could have its own maintenance needs and require a different car-care product.
Or not. Meguiar's has developed a product called Quik Interior Detailer that's safe for most of those fabrics and finishes - even audio and video display screens. Like the company's Quik Detailer, the Quik Interior Detailer contains a lubricant that allows you to wipe off dust and dirt without fear of scratching the surface. It also contains ultraviolet-light screeners to protect the fabric from sun damage (much like sunscreen you use on your skin).
Carpet is yet another fabric with its own needs and maintenance regimen. Just like household carpet, it should be thoroughly vacuumed to pick up loose dirt and debris. You can help the vacuum do its job by brushing the carpet with a nylon-bristle brush before vacuuming. This makes the carpet nap stand up so the vacuum can reach embedded dirt. (Follow these same steps with your floor mats, which should be removed prior to vacuuming the floor.)
When vacuuming, pay attention to all the nooks and crannies where dirt can accumulate. Make sure you move the seats all the way forward and all the way back, as dirt likes to collect around seat brackets. A good-quality automotive vacuum will have several different nozzle attachments of varying sizes and shapes that'll help you reach hard-to-get-to areas.
If a carpet or floor mat has a stain that won't come out with vacuuming, a carpet stain remover should do the trick. It's a good idea to look for one that's formulated for use with automotive-grade carpeting, like Meguiar's Quik Out (which was developed in conjunction with vacuum manufacturer Bissell).
Speaking of nooks and crannies, a car's instrument panel can be especially difficult to get and keep clean because of all of its small, hard-to-reach areas. There are a couple of ways to solve this problem. A set of soft, natural-bristle (like boar's hair) detailing brushes will clean dust off of instruments and in heater or air conditioning vents. Some companies also make detailing wands or sticks with ends of various sizes and shapes. When wrapped with a microfibre towel, these sticks can clean dirt out of even the smallest crevices.
As with the car's exterior, once the interior is clean and completely detailed, frequent touch-ups with a product like Quik Interior Detailer are easier to do than letting the cabin get really dirty and having to do the whole process all over again. Frequent maintenance is easy maintenance.
Detailing your car's interior starts with a thorough cleaning of all the trash you should have thrown away earlier. With the big stuff gone, it's time to clean the carpets and floor mats. Before vacuuming, brush the carpets and floor mats with a nylon-bristle brush. This will get the carpet nap to stand up, so the vacuum can easily get to the embedded dirt.
Automotive vacuum cleaners generally come with an assortment of nozzles. Their varying shapes and sizes will work anywhere from flat surfaces like this to small crevices in the dash or next to a centre console.
Meguiar's, in conjunction with vacuum manufacturer Bissell, has developed Quik Out carpet cleaner for any stains you find after vacuuming. Specially formulated for use on automotive carpet, it can be sprayed straight out of the bottle and then blotted with a terry cloth towel.
Because it's made from natural hides, leather upholstery has different maintenance needs than vinyl or cloth. Meguiar's recommends treating leather-covered surfaces with its Gold Class Rich Leather Aloe Cleaner, which cleans the leather without removing its natural oils.
Once the leather is clean, apply Meguiar's Gold Class Rich Leather Cleaner/Conditioner, which is available in a conventional bottle, trigger spray, and as easy-to-use wipes. The Cleaner/Conditioner adds oils to the leather fabric and also covers it with a layer of UV protection to prevent sun damage.
Meguiar's Quik Interior Detailer can be used on just about any interior surface from door panels to the dashboard, even nav and AV screens to remove dirt and dust. It's also a good way to touch up the interior between major detailing jobs. After spraying on the Detailer, it can be wiped clean with a microfibre towel.
Meguiar's Quik Interior Detailer is also available in wipe form, for ease of use on areas like dashboards and door panels.
A set of soft, natural-bristle brushes will clean dust out of small areas in the instrument panel, including heater and a/c vents.
While cleaning your windows, ever gotten frustrated trying to figure out if a streak was on the inside or outside? Pennington offered this window-washing tip: Wipe the outside of the windows in one direction, the inside in a direction that's at right-angles to the outside wipe. The direction of the streak will tell you if it's inside or out.
Brake dust, road grime, muddy puddles - it's no wonder your wheels and tires can look thrashed even after a short road trip. Yet there are very few components that have as strong an impact on a car's looks as its wheel-and-tire package, so it's vital to keep your rolling stock clean and well maintained.
It's also important to carefully evaluate the surfaces you'll be cleaning - particularly when it comes to the wheels. Not every wheel material can stand up to the harsh cleaning agents in some wheel cleaners. And given some of today's "open" wheel designs, you have to consider that the wheel cleaner will get on - and could potentially damage - brake components, too.
Meguiar's Chrome Wheel Cleaner, for example, is the strongest of the three cleaners Meguiar's makes, said Pennington, and should be used only on chrome-plated wheels. If your car's wheels are finished with a combination of plated and painted surfaces, Meguiar's All Wheel Cleaner is a good choice. For other wheel finishes - powder-coated, anodised, polished, and so on - Pennington recommended Meguiar's Multi-Piece Wheel Cleaner, the mildest of the three.
There are a couple of factors to consider when choosing a tire dressing. First and foremost is the amount of shine you want on the tire: just-washed glossy, a natural dark hue, something in between? Meguiar's offers several different tire dressing products to suit just about any taste, ranging from Natural Shine to Hot Shine and - believe it or not Insane Shine. Most of these products come in trigger bottles, though the Hot Shine is also available in a foam and a gel.
Much has been said about whether or not tire dressings actually damage the rubber in tires. We put the question to Pennington, and he explained it this way: Tires contain chemicals called anti-ozonants, which are embedded in the rubber to counteract the damage that results from exposure to ozone in the atmosphere. Some tire dressings are formulated with chemistry that depletes the tyre's anti-ozonants. Over time, the anti-ozonants disappear, leaving the tire unprotected. Exposure to ozone causes the rubber to deteriorate and crack, but it's that exposure, and not the dressing treatment itself, that causes the damage. Meguiar's tire-care products are made with chemicals that preserve and nourish a tyre's anti-ozonants, to prevent that kind of damage.
When it comes to cleaning your car's wheels, choose the cleaning product carefully. Some may be too harsh for your wheel's finish. A chrome wheel cleaner, for example, should not be used on a powder-coated or anodised wheel. When in doubt, use a milder product, like Meguiar's Multi-Piece Wheel Cleaner. For cleaning brake dust and road grime from between spokes and other wheel design elements, team your wheel cleaner with a wheel brush.
Finish the job with a high-pressure blast from the hose to get all the cleaner's foam off of the wheel, as well as off of the brake components behind it.
Tire dressings come in a variety of gloss levels, from "natural" to Meguiar's Insane Shine dressing. The different dressings also come in with a variety of applicators, too. Note that the Hot Shine dressing seen here is available in a trigger spray, aerosol foam and a gel.
The gel is designed to be applied using a foam applicator pad. The trigger spray and foam dressings, on the other hand, can be sprayed directly on the tire.
Some wheel materials may need more than just a cleaning to maintain their shine. For instance, chrome or polished aluminium may require a special product to remove oxidation or surface stains. Meguiar's Hot Rims Mag & Aluminium polish will bring out the luster in the alloy outer hoops of these multi-piece wheels. The powder-coated centres can be treated like the rest of the car's painted surfaces, with a polish and/or a wax.
Between washings, you can keep your wheels clean by spraying on some of Meguiar's Quik Wheel Detailer and then wiping it off with a microfibre towel. The Quik Wheel Detailer is designed to be strong enough to remove brake dust, yet its built-in lubricity means it won't scratch the wheels, brake callipers or other components.
Any mechanic will tell you that having the proper tools is imperative when you want to get a job done right. The same holds true with automotive detailing, though the good news here is that the investment required for detailing falls far short of what it takes to fill a roll-away with wrenches, screwdrivers and such. A short list of supplies will help you keep your car in show-quality condition.
To wash your car you'll want two buckets, a high-quality mitt, and drying towels. Microfibre towels work best, as they're more absorbent than cotton or terry cloth and are easier to wring out. If you prefer terry, make sure the towel is a high quality, extra-plush one with a thick nap.
Those of you with high-level show-car aspirations may want to look into a water de-ioniser, which filters out the mineral salts that leave spots behind as the water dries. De-ionisers aren't inexpensive, but concours-level car owners swear by them as a true, spot-free way to rinse a car.
Next on your list are the appropriate car-care products - the cleaners, polish, waxes and detailers - you'll need for your car's various surfaces. Along with those products you'll need a supply of applicators, pads and towels.
It used to be that a foam pad was recommended to hand-apply just about any car-care product, from wax to tire dressing. While foam pads still have their place in the detailing arsenal, Pennington now recommends their use be limited to leather, vinyl, rubber and plastic. He prefers to use a microfibre applicator pad to apply wax onto a painted surface, and a microfibre towel to remove it.
If you haven't been to the car-care aisle in your local parts store recently, you may not be aware of the variety of microfibre towels on the market. There are waffle-weave towels designed specifically for drying off a car after a wash, and towels with a tighter weave for removing wax or other products. "The difference between using microfibre to remove dried wax and a terry cloth towel is dramatic," Pennington said. "Where you'd need five wipes with a terry cloth towel to wipe wax off, you can get the same amount of product off with two wipes of a microfibre towel. You can get the job done so much faster that way."
Machine applicator technology has also advanced over the past few years. While the orbital polisher used to be the applicator of choice for the dedicated hobbyist, Pennington says a dual-action (DA) polisher is now a much better choice. "It's almost like comparing a 1974 Corvette to a Z06," he said, calling the DA's oscillating action "like using bionic hands." The DA is more effective at removing swirl marks than an orbital polisher, though it's not as aggressive as the rotary polishers favoured by professional detailers. "The rotary spins very fast in one direction, almost like a grinder," he said. "In inexperienced hands you can do more damage than good with a rotary."
If you use a machine to apply products, make sure you select the right pad for the job. Buffing pads are made with varying abrasive levels; a "polishing" pad is more aggressive than a "finishing" pad, so you'd want to use the polishing pad to go after swirl marks, and use the finishing pad to apply wax.
Moving from outside to inside the car, a fully stocked detailing kit should include a vacuum with a variety of nozzles and attachments to reach into small spaces; a carpet brush; detailing brushes to clean dust off of instruments and in-dash vents; and, if you have really tight spaces to clean, one of the several detailing wand kits on the market. These typically have removable heads of varying shapes and sizes to get into the smallest spaces.
If you intend to show your car, it's a good idea to build a mobile detailing kit a gear bag you can fill with towels, brushes, and some cleaning or detailing products. That way you can take care of any dirt or grime that landed on your car between your garage and the show grounds.
And there you have it: The tricks and tools of the trade that'll keep your car looking even better than showroom new.
Nobody should wash their car with a sponge anymore. Meguiar's Deep Pile Chenille Wash Mitt has a thick nap that will trap dirt and keep it from scratching your paint. A wash mitt is a good investment when you consider how much a paint job costs these days.
Meguiar's products for drying your car vary from (left to right) natural chamois, synthetic (microfibre) chamois, terry cloth towels and microfibre towels. A waffle-weave microfibre towel like Meguiar's Water Magnet can absorb up to twice the water of a terry cloth towel, yet is easier to wring out than terry.
Foam (left) and microfibre applicators are available for applying cleaners or wax by hand. Meguiar's Even Coat microfibre applicator is recommended for applying wax to paint, while the foam pad is a good choice for leather, plastic or vinyl surfaces.
Machine applicators make quick and easy work of applying cleaners and wax. Today's dual-action (DA) applicators are more aggressive than yesterday's orbital machines, while being safer to use than a professional-level rotary polisher.
A nice feature of the Meguiar's electric DA polisher is its speed control. You can dial up or down the speed of the pad's oscillations depending on the task at hand.
Make sure you choose the right abrasive level when buying pads for your DA. The yellow polishing pad (left) has a more abrasive "cut" for eliminating swirl marks, while the less-abrasive tan finishing pad (right) is ideal for applying wax.
Microfibre is also the fabric of choice when it comes time to wipe off dried wax. Meguiar's Supreme Shine microfibre towel, for example, will absorb up to two times more wax than a typical terry cloth towel, making this job go much quicker.
When it's time to show your car, assemble a mobile detailing kit that fits in a gear bag and is easy to toss behind the seat or in the trunk. Meguiar's Quik Wax, Quik Interior Detailer and Quik Detailer are handy for getting rid of any dirt, dust or grime your car collected on the way to the show, and then maintaining your paint's just-waxed gloss. Add some microfibre towels, applicators, detailing brushes and some specialty detailing sticks and wands for those hard-to-reach areas and you'll be ready to dazzle the show judges.