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Detailing a Car

Source: Martha Stewart Living, June 2001


And then there's that other guy whose car stoically bears the words "wash me" on its windows. Truth is, both are doing themselves a disservice. If you don't bother to give your car a sparkling wax job, you jeopardize its finish and the metal beneath. But if you stop there, happy with this most visible result, you won't get rid of the hidden dirt and grime that hasten the decay of trim, rubber, and upholstery. Thorough cleaning -- known as "detailing" to automotive enthusiasts -- not only beautifies, but also extends the life of the vehicle.

Detailing is not difficult, but it does take time; try to start in the morning, and spread the job out over an entire day, once in the spring and once in the fall. Pick a shaded spot in which to work, break out the vacuum, and comb through the interior. Vacuum the broad surfaces and the nooks and crannies where dirt hides. Treat the upholstery with the product appropriate to that fabric, and clean the windows with a household glass cleaner.

Wash the exterior of the car using a soap formulated specifically for automotive finishes (nonwax car-wash cleaning solution is best; dish soap will strip wax) and a lamb's-wool wash mitt. Dry with a leather chamois, following up with a soft, damp terry-cloth towel in wells and cavities. Then use a damp, worn sponge or a very soft cotton rag to apply a paintwork cleanser, which is a very mild polish, to strip the old layer of wax. Next, use a carnauba paste wax, and buff with a soft terry-cloth towel or cotton rag. After waxing and buffing, clean areas that collect dirt, such as the joints between trim and painted surfaces or between adjoining trim surfaces.

If you've paced yourself, you'll be done just in time to slip behind the wheel and find a westward road to enjoy a clear, sparkling sunset.


  • Appropriate upholstery cleaner

  • Glass cleaner

  • Nonwax carwash cleaning solution

  • Paintwork cleanser

  • Carnauba paste wax

  • Liquid silicone

  • Talcum powder

  • Whitewall or mag-wheel cleaner

  • Chrome polish

  • Bumper black

  • Paintbrush

  • Vacuum cleaner

  • Lamb's-wool mitt

  • Leather chamois

  • Terry-cloth towels and soft cotton rags

  • Worn sponge

  • Worn toothbrushes

  • Manicure sticks

  • Soft Brush

  • Bronze or steel wool


  1. Dust, insects, and bits of paper pile up between the window and your dashboard, and in other crevices. The first step to cleaning the interior is to push all of this out to where you can see it -- use an air compressor if you have one, or a paintbrush -- and then vacuum.

  2. Vacuum your upholstery with the brush attachment and the rugs with the nozzle. To make sure you get all the grit that gathers in cracks and seams, first loosen it with a paintbrush. Many upholstery tears result from the abrasive action of dirt particles.

  3. Wash, dry, and strip old wax from the car. Apply carnauba paste wax with damp sponge to an area the size of a car door; let wax set -- it will haze over in a few minutes. Go over the surface with a soft terry-cloth towel or cotton rag, rubbing lightly back and forth to remove residue, leaving a smooth layer of protection.

  4. Dirt and excess wax collect where sponges and rags can't get to them, such as around door handles. A used, very soft toothbrush is perfect for reaching into tough spots and narrow grooves. Just make sure never to rub the paint with one, as it may scratch the surface.

  5. Grit also hides between trim and painted surfaces. If left there, it will quietly absorb moisture and hasten deterioration. To ease the dirt out, slide a manicure stick or a shaved-down Popsicle stick along the joint or seam. Wipe the area clean with a soft, dry terry-cloth towel as you go.

  6. Rubber weather stripping has a tough life, always getting slammed or squeezed. Ease its suffering and increase its longevity by conditioning it with liquid silicone or a light lubricant, applied using a soft sponge or a dry terrycloth towel. This can be followed with a light coating of talcum powder to prevent sticking.

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