Learn how to detail a car so you don’t end up with a dumpster on wheels

When you were a kid, washing the family car required soap, a sponge, and some water. It was approximate at best, a way to kill time on a warm summer evening while earning allowance money. As an adult, you undoubtedly realized keeping a car squeaky-clean demands considerably more effort than your eight-year-old self put in.

It’s well worth it, though. A clean car is like a clean house: You feel better when you’re in it. Clearing out months (or years) of garbage and dust also makes it easier to sell your ride to a private buyer, or helps you get more for your trade-in at the local dealership. And the warmer months, particular during the summer, is the deal time to do any detailing. If you’re not sure where to start, read on to learn how to detail a car.

Use the right products

Using the right products will save you time, prevent costly damage to your car, and ultimately yield a much better result. Car cleaning products are available from a wide variety of places. You can buy them at auto parts stores like Auto Zone, at nearly every major grocery store, or online from an endless list of vendors. We recommend picking up a dedicated car-wash product (sorry, but Head and Shoulders won’t cut it), wheel cleaner, rubber cleaner, and wax. Bug and tar remover from Turtle Wax will come in handy if your car is particularly dirty.

That is just for the exterior. To detail the interior, plan on buying carpet cleaner, glass cleaner, wipes, plus leather or vinyl care products, if applicable. Broadly speaking, there is no need to spend a fortune on high-end products to get a good result. Meguiar’s is a trusted name in the car cleaning business, and it sells a complete car care kit for a little under $60.

You also need basic equipment including a soft sponge (or a lamb’s wool mitt), a chamois, at least one microfiber towel, a sponge to clean the wheels, a bucket, a vacuum cleaner, cotton swabs, and a plastic bag. Finally, set aside a cooler with cold beverages, a playlist with your favorite tunes, and a free afternoon.

Start with the interior

It’s good practice to start with the interior, especially if your car hasn’t been cleaned in a while. The foot wells are likely full of dirt, dust, and other debris that will inevitably settle on the car’s body if they become airborne. Remove the floor mats, and fill your trash bag with the miscellaneous wrappers, empty coffee cups, and receipts that call your center console home.

Vacuum the seats, the floors, and every nook and cranny donut flakes can fit snugly into. If the carpets are clean, great; if they’re not, it’s time to bust out the carpet cleaner. Cleaner wipes work wonders on the dashboard, while cotton swabs coax dust out of small crevasses like the air vents and the space between the buttons on the center console. Slide the front seats all the way back to reveal bonus trash treasures hidden by your car’s first owner. Who knows, you might even find the MP3 player you lost last winter.

It’s a good idea to wash the floor mats, but don’t drop them in the washing machine. The best way to clean floor mats is to pressure wash them, though scrubbing them sometimes does the trick, too. Ensure they’re 100 percent dry before you even think of putting them back in the car. Wet or damp mats could cause mold to grow on the carpet, reducing your car’s resale value to below zero.

The perfect finish

With the interior taken care of, and all of the windows closed, you are ready to turn your attention to the body. Start by washing the dirtiest parts of the car first: The door jambs, the rocker panels, and the wheels. Always use a separate sponge for the wheels. They are covered in brake dust and other residues which you want to keep off the rest of the car. Don’t forget to clean your tires, too.

Hose the car down and wash it from top to bottom, going around it and rinsing the sponge often. Repeat if necessary, especially if you’re dealing with a car covered in mud, dust, or road salt, and rinse it thoroughly. Letting the body air dry will leave nasty watermarks, even if it’s parked in the shade, so use a chamois instead. It’s certainly more time-consuming, but it’s a crucial part of getting the jewel-like finish you’re after. Apply a thin, even coat of wax when the body is completely dry, and use a microfiber towel to remove the wax residue. Now you can put your equipment down, stand back, and admire your new-again car.

Other quick DIY projects

While you’re giving your car a little TLC, consider fixing some of the most common (and easy-to-remedy) maintenance issues. If you haven’t encountered the aggravation of squeaky brakes, you will one day — that’s a promise. Fortunately, there are a few solutions, most of which can be applied in an hour or two. Ever tried changing your oil? If not, you’ll be amazed by how easy the process is; you may even wonder why you’d ever pay someone else to do the job. Speaking of maintenance you probably pay for by default, rotating car tires is an easy, important task that requires minimal tools and time. In the same vein of easy, low-cost fixes, changing spark plugs is a no-hassle solution to rough idling and even cylinder misfiring.

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