How To Spend A Glorious Summer Afternoon Detailing Your Car The Right Way
Very few things in life give me the same tactile pleasure of running a microfiber towel over a freshly waxed car, especially in the summer. I try to really detail my car twice a year, once in the late fall or early winter before the first snowfall and road-salting happens, and another time in the summer. Here’s the right way to get it done.
A few key things to keep in mind before you start:
Try not to park in direct sunlight. This evaporates the water very quickly and leaves water spots.
Remove any jewelry on your fingers or wrists, and make sure you don’t have anything metal on your person that could scratch the car if you brush up against it. Things like necklaces, zippers or buttons.
If you drop any claybar, microfiber towel or sponge on the ground, do not reuse it. Once it’s hit the ground, it will pick up all kinds of grit that will scratch your car if you continue cleaning with it. You’ll need to wash the sponge or the microfiber towel thoroughly before using it again.
Top to bottom, always! Spray and soap from top to bottom because then you won’t spread dirt around as much.
Be conscious about not cross-contaminating towels and sponges. A towel used on your rims should not be used for anything else. Likewise, a buffer pad that has scratch remover on it shouldn’t be used to wax, either.
Here’s my process (for exterior detailing).
Wash exterior: Spray your car down first, from top to bottom, before soaping it. You need to get all the dirt, dust and other accumulated gunk off the surface of your car before you start detailing it.
Don’t use household cleaning products like dish soap because those aren’t always safe for cars and could strip off paint or clear coat. Any car-specific soap will do, just read how much of it you need and mix in a bucket of water.
Make sure the bucket hasn’t been previously used for storing dirt that can be transferred to your car, or was the mop bucket that’s been in contact with floor cleaners. For soaping, I use a plush, microfiber chenille sponge to ensure a scratch free wash. Before you start washing, just make sure the surface of the sponge is clear of any particles, as this could lead to scratching.
When washing, use a circular motion and work from top to bottom, because the bottom of the car is the dirtiest part. For the wheels, use a dedicated and rougher sponge in order to properly clean off brake dust.
Don’t use this sponge on your car! Rinse the soap off, starting with the rims and tires so when the dirty water splatters over the car, you can just rinse it off when you go from top to bottom.
Dry exterior: You’ll want to do this quickly so you avoid those hated water spots. Don’t use a terry cloth or anything else that sheds (like a regular towel). Go with the microfiber towel—it’s thick and absorbent and won’t leave anything behind. Dry inside the doors and around the trunk lid and the hood.
If you have an air blower, that can be handy for removing excessive water so your towel doesn’t become saturated too quickly. You can, however, dry the rims with a normal towel. Claybar and spray detailer: The claybar will effectively pick up the little particles of dirt and dust on the surface of the paint, even if you can’t see it. It doesn’t polish. Once you remove the claybar from its packaging, knead it in your hands for a bit until it’s round and about the size of your palm. Work in sections, spraying your car with liberal amounts of spray detailer and wiping it down with the claybar in a circular motion.
Be generous with the detailer! A claybar should not be rubbed across dry paint. If, after you are done, there are large pieces of contaminant in the bar, you can easily just pick them out. I personally use my claybars up to three times before throwing them out, but it’s up to you. If the claybar just gets too dirty, don’t reuse it. If you drop the claybar on the ground, throw it out, do not reuse it.
Scratch remover: Work in sections. I usually section the car off into five main sections: hood and front, left side, rear, right side and roof. Apply the scratch remover in moderate amounts to the buffer before applying it to the car. It gets rid of fine swirl marks. Wipe away with a fresh microfiber towel in between sections.
Compound exterior: During this particular detailing, I skipped the compounding because I already did it in the winter, and I am being cautious about the clear coat on the car, as it’s fourteen years old. Compound is basically like a fine sandpaper, but as a paste. If you use it too often, you could strip off the clear coat on your car, so exercise caution there.
Here’s how I have done it in the past: spread a small amount of the compound on a foam applicator of an orbital buffer. Oftentimes you don’t need to compound the whole car, only parts of it that are severely scuffed. Do this in sections also, because you shouldn’t let compound dry on your car. Wipe away with a microfiber cloth after you finish a section and before you move onto another. Waxing: Now it’s time to wax! For this part I find it okay to do the whole car at once, because you do need to let the wax sit and dry a bit before wiping it away. I use the plush cover on my buffer and apply a moderate amount of wax to the surface before using it on the car. You’ll notice that a haze of wax results from this. The important thing here is to spread a thin and even coat of wax over the surface of your car. If you use too much, you’re just wasting the wax and it’ll be harder to wipe away afterwards.
Letting the wax dry: Once you finish waxing the surface of your car, you can let the wax sit for a bit, maybe 10 to 15 minutes, and start on a smaller side project, like cleaning the engine bay. For this I use spray detailer, a fresh microfiber towel and Q-tips. I will say right now that Q-tips are one of humanity’s greatest inventions. Not only are they a great makeup tool, they are also great for reaching in and removing the little flecks of filth from places your fingers can’t get to.
Wipe off the wax: Use a fresh microfiber towel. Drink in one of the most joyous sensations your hands will ever feel.
Tire shine: If you want to apply tire shine, go ahead. Personally, I find it to be a pain in the ass as all kinds of crap sticks to it as soon as you drive anywhere. But it’s a nice finishing touch if you are displaying your car in a show or a photoshoot. Windows: Windows are easy. I never go fancier than Windex and a paper towel. Spray and wipe vigorously, and be careful not to let the Windex drip onto the paint. Do this for both the inside and the outside of the window.
Now you’re done! Sit back and enjoy your hard work, preferably with a glass of cold lemonade in your hand.
The products that I used are by no means reflective of any kind of bias, they have just worked out well for me. Do you have recommendations? Have a better method of doing something? Let me know!
For many years anyone cleaning a car has used soft cotton cloth for polishing, be it ‘cotton stockinette (mutton cloth) or maybe even old cotton towelling. Whilst a deep shine is easily achievable the main downside to these types of products is they tend to shed bits of fluff called lint over the polished surface. This can be eliminated using a lint free cotton cloth. Problem solved…not quite.
Don’t get me wrong, soft cotton cloths are available in many great products and are generally good value for money but microfibre* is in a different performance league while remaining great value for money.
How Microfibre cloth is made
Microfibre cloth is made from microfibre yarn. Microfibre yarn is made from two types of oil based hydrocarbon derivatives, that’s plastic to you and me, polyester and polyamide (nylon). Most automotive microfibre cloths will be an 80:20, 70:30 mix of these two materials. To produce yarn, granules of the two materials are mixed together with a colour pigment added and then heated until they melt and are then pressure sprayed through tiny nozzles. This produces a yarn made up of numerous strands of micro fibres – you wondered where the name came from. This process is similar to a spider using its spinaret to produce spider’s web and is of a similar thickness, between 3 and 5 microns, about half the thickness of a human hair. This yarn is then woven or knitted into cloth.
We use different cloths for different jobs – big soft moppy microfibres for final buffing, flat twill type microfibres for glass and noodle looped microfibre mitts for washing to name but a few applications. They all start as the same yarn but are woven or knitted on different machines to produce very different final cloths with special characteristics for particular applications.
So, why is Microfibre so special?
Well, it’s all down to the science.
There are two ways of cleaning a surface, chemical action and mechanical action.
Firstly, chemical cleaning requires some kind of solvent to loosen dirt’s grip on a surface so it can be removed by wiping with a cloth or jet washed away. We usually use the most common and cheapest solvent around, water. Water on its own is not great at releasing grease and dirt from a surface so we generally add some kind of detergent like car shampoo or TFR (traffic film remover) to the water. Detergents are what are known as adjuvants, they make the water wetter! This simply means they weaken the surface tension of water molecules allowing the water to more easily encapsulate the dirt particles so they can be removed without scratching the surface being cleaned. So once the chemical action has happened it’s time for the mechanical phase.
Going over your car with a soapy sponge or cotton cloth will remove most of the dirt. For the most part you are simply mechanically pushing the dirt off the surface.
There is a second mechanical process at work too. This is down to the physical attraction of molecules to each other explained by Van der Waals force where tiny charged particles in molecules stick together like tiny magnets. Remember the microfibre strands are 3 to 5 microns thick. The very finest of cotton yarns are at least 10 microns across. This means that microfibre cloth can collect many more particles of dirt and of a much smaller size, even as small as bacteria. So, this explains in part why the ‘ dirt grabbing’ surface of a sponge or cloth is not as effective as the ‘dirt grabbing’ ability of a microbre mitt.
The second, and possibly more important, reason why microfibre is more effective for removing dirt, water or polish residue than other cloths, sponges or wash leathers is due to the material it is made from – plastic- plastic’s physical and chemical properties means it attracts more particles by van der Waals force than natural products like cotton cloth, sponge or chamois leather, so more dirt is removed with each pass. Not only this, a microfibre cloth will hold the gritty particles inside the cloth until you wash it in hot water when the fibres uncurl slightly releasing the dirt.
Once you have washed your car you put your microfibre mitt to one side and rinse with clean water in order to remove the remainder of soapy water molecules holding dirt particles. If you have ever used a chamois leather to dry your car you will have found that several passes are needed to collect all the water into the wash leather. Again, the ‘water grabbing’ ability of the fibres in the leather are not as effective as the ‘water grabbing’ ability of microfibre drying towels.
To protect the paint surface of a car we tend to use a wax based polish. Once a layer of polish has been applied it needs to be buffed to a deep shine, again the special characteristics of microfibre cloth allow a quicker removal of polish residue from the surface than other cloths.
*Microfibre is spelt microfiber by some people, especially Americans and ‘USA-o-philes’.
Chamois leather (a.k.a. Shammy, Shammie, Chammy and wash leather) has been used for years by car fanatics, window cleaners and anyone wanting to dry off delicate surfaces after they have been cleaned.
Is your chamois real?
It has been years, possibly 100 years, since the chamois goat / antelope has been ‘committed’* to the production of the chamois leather in commercial quantities due to a severe decline in species numbers. The vast majority of commercial shammy’s are now made from sheepskin. The skins being widely available as a by product of meat production.
In the UK, there is a British Standard relating to the specification of Genuine Chamois Leather (BS 6715:1991) it covers the type and grade of leather and its preparation and treatment and the absorbancy of the finished product. This allows for wash leathers derived from sheep skin to be generically described as ‘chamois leather’. This is to distinguish a product made from a natural leather from a material made from man-made fibre and is not intended to mislead the public into thinking their genuine chamois leather is made from a small wild goat from the high Pyrenees. For most people the basic test is whether or not the packaging claims to be Genuine Chamois Leather. In a world where counterfeit products do exist the easiest way to ensure that the product is what it claims to be is to buy from a reputable source. Few of us will be referring a product we buy to the trading standards office for checking.
*Referring to the old joke about the chicken being involved in the production of breakfast while the pig is committed!
How it’s made
Chamois is one split of the leather with the grain removed. The leather is snag trimmed and then tanned (oil pounded into the leather and then oxidised). The oil specified for ‘Genuine Chamois’ is fish oil, often Cod. Once the rough skin is tanned it is then ‘polished’ on what is best described as a large circular belt sander. This is called ‘wheeling’, this process gently scrubs/sands away imperfections and rough spots in the skin. The heaviest skins tend to be wheeled on one side and the finer skins wheeled on both sides. The finished product is then trimmed to the required size.
Why it works
Shammies work because the fibres of the leather are open i.e. not close together this allows water, and dirt, to be absorbed into the material taking it away from the surface being dried.
How to use a Shammie
When completely dry a shammie isn’t able to absorb water efficiently. Therefore, before starting to dry your vehicle, wet the leather and wring it out (to wring out your leather, make it into a ball and squeeze it between your hands, try never to twist and wring as this tends to tear the fibres of the leather causing it to shed bits and quickly go into holes. The perfect way to dry a chammy is to put it through a mangle so the water is crushed out not twisted out). The presence of a little water enables the fibres to absorb much more water as it is being used.
During use once the leather is soaked simply wring it out and carry on.
Chamois Care Instructions
Before using the leather for the first time wash it in lukewarm, slightly soapy water (ideally use some of your car shampoo, never use dishwashing liquid or washing powder as they contain, amongst other nasty chemicals, a lot of salt) rinse it in clean water (note it may lose a little colour as excess fish oil is washed out) and you are ready to go.
After use the same washing regime is needed to clean out any dirt picked up from the surface of the vehicle. Once clean don’t be too enthusiastic on the final rinse. Leaving a little soap in the leather helps it to stay soft. (The rinse before you next use it will remove the soap left behind and leave the leather ready to go.)
After you have washed and wrung the leather spread it out to its original shape and hang to dry. Avoid drying conditions which will dry it too quickly as it will harden. Definitely do not leave your leather wet in a bucket or polythene bag as it will mildew and rot.
Having been in the valeting / detailing / vehicle cleaning trade for years many hours have been wasted with enthusiastic supporters of chamois leathers vs staunch advocates for microfibre cloths vs the newly fervent adherents of the drying towels.
Get real folks. There isn’t one solution which suits everyone. There isn’t a best product which works well in all circumstances. Everyone is entitled to lobby for their favourite but the reality is that there are many ways to skin this particular cat. Drying your vehicle without scratching it and without leaving nasty looking smudges, stains, smears etc with minimum effort and maximum style is down to how you want to do it. In recent years we have even started to hear from people who blow dry their vehicle – presumably on the basis that if they don’t touch the paintwork to dry it they can’t possibly scratch it!
The claims are out there that one product or another makes waxing / polishing the paintwork more or less effective. Until someone comes up with a scientific test which proves it one way or another we recommend that you pick the leather, microfibre cloth which best suits how you want to work and let others do it their own way. It is even worth trying different fabrics sometimes – you might surprise yourself and like working with something new.
Stockinette is widely used in car detailing but it is rarely discussed. So, we thought we would try to pull together everything we know and could find out about stockinette and why it is so useful to car detailers.
Since detailing is all about getting the body work to look its best then all of the materials commonly used are specialised in some way. Stockinette is useful because it is relatively inexpensive and, when used properly, won’t damage the paintwork at all. The often used description of ‘Super Soft Cotton Stockinette’ captures the basics pretty well.
Stockinette is also known as
Mutton Cloth – primarily because its original use was for the wrapping of meat
Cheese Cloth – used to make and / or wrap cheeses
Muslin Cloth – often used for personal hygiene
Grades & Uses
There are different grades / thicknesses of Stockinette available. The grades are largely used for different purposes:
coarser grades used in building and decorating
finer grades generally used in kitchens and medical environments for purposes other than cleaning and polishing
the grades used for car detailing are largely equivalent to the medical type/grade
Stockinette for Detailing / Valeting
The best stockinettes for detailing / valeting are made from unbleached (cream to beige coloured) fine grade 100% cotton. The cloths manufactured from synthetic or mixed fibres are used as rags and wipers only – never on paintwork or other similarly soft / delicate surfaces.
Cotton Stockinette is available in a variety of colours including unbleached but the most common and generally most cheaply available cloth is bleached white. However, the coloured or bleached white material is rarely 100% cotton, with bleached cotton usually made from what is known as Condenser Yarn – which is a yarn made from cycled cotton spun on a synthetic base yarn for strength. This is because recycled cotton fibres are too short to hold together on their own and need a core filament.
The properties which make stockinette so useful are its: Softness, Absorbancy and Strength when wet.
Because of the method of manufacture (circular knitted) if you cut your cloth from a roll it will shed some little bits of fluff. Therefore, the pedantic say, it isn’t possible to get Lint-free stockinette on a roll. However, if you use edged and finished stockinette polishing cloths then they are, for all practical purposes, lint-free. Another effective option is to cut a length of stockinette, shake off the bits and turn the ends in to significantly reduce fluff.
The cloth can be machine washed. However, many, if not most, detailers prefer to use until dirty and then discard. The cost effectiveness of the material makes that a viable proposition.
The main uses for stockinette in detailing are: drying, wiping, application of waxes and polishes and general cleaning up.
The cloth is made around the world with the main areas producing Stockinette being China, India, South Africa and a few places across Europe.
Note: MH Textiles produces all grades of stockinette from certified yarn in the UK and supply to the building trade, kitchen and medical as well as the motor detailing / valeting industry.
Was good to meet Mr. Ingram of Kilsby MG owners club at Silverstone over the weekend. A very entertaining man from a vibrant local club. As we always do, we have given the club a 10% discount code to use on the website. If your club members would benefit from a 10% discount please get in touch.