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Stages of a Basic Exterior Detail

When starting anything, it's often hard to know where to start, never mind detailing. Car detailing can be a maze, there are several different stages of detailing, with tons of different techniques and theories, but I’m here to start you off on some of the basics. Basics probably sound too detailed to be basic, but we can assure you this is as basic as a proper detail gets.

Stage 1: Wheels

Always, always, always start with the wheels. We can't say it enough. Your wheels are the grubbiest area of the car so will require a good pre-soak with a quality wheel cleaner. You'll need brushes to get to the hard-to-reach areas, along with a separate wash mitt and detailing bucket than you'd use on the paintwork.

Stage 2: Pre-Cleaner, Stage One

Always use a pre-cleaner. We'd recommend a Citrus Power Bug and Grime Remover, which is infused with citrus cleaning properties to lessen road grime safely but effectively with the benefit of being gentle to car wax or sealant layers, something that will come in to its own on washes later down the line. Spray this on the lower areas of the car, as well as any areas that have become bug splattered.

Stage 3: Snow Foam

Snow foam helps to break down any stubborn dirt, as well as remove any loose particles from the vehicle before the physical contact wash stage. Removing as much dirt as possible before contact washing will help to reduce the likelihood of inflicting swirl marks on the paint finish (most swirls are caused at the wash stage)

Stage 4: The All-Important Two-Bucket Method Contact Wash

Did you ever think it'd be step four before even putting the mitt to paint?! It's essential to use a good-quality car shampoo, further reducing the likelihood of any marring or light scratches or swirls, the deep pile allows any particles to be absorbed into the mitt as opposed to pressed and dragged across the surface. Fill one bucket with wash solution, and the other with plain water. Apply wash solution to the vehicle (washing from top-down small sections at a time) - Rinse the mitt first in the water bucket before taking fresh wash solution to the car. This method ensures you don't contaminate your wash solution and are always using clean wash water on your vehicle.

Stage 5: The Decontamination Stage

First off, before doing anything, you'll need to spray on an iron dissolver first - Iron Out our fallout remover product is perfect at this stage - this will dissolve any ferrous contamination such as industrial fallout and rail dust that has fused itself to the paintwork. Next, you'll need to use a solvent tar and glue remover to soften any tar that may be stuck to the paint. An important step here is to re-wash the vehicle, or at least the areas treated with the solvent, as solvents will melt Clay bars and really interfere with the next step. Detailing clay is brilliant, just rub the block over the paintwork using a slip or clay lubricant and it does the hard work for you, effectively shaving off any remaining contamination such as tree sap or even overspray in its path. Following the previous two stages, though, there shouldn't be too much for the clay bar to pick up. Remember to use a lubricant such as Glide clay lubricant with any clay bar! Then wash and rinse again.

Stage 6: Drying

Start at the top of the vehicle and work your way down. Tackling it panel by panel will be the easiest way to make sure you get every area streak free. It's important to work quickly (to avoid water spots) while being thorough so as not to leave any streaks from the drying process. If you are left with any water spots, a quick detailer is a great product to clean them up with after.

Stage 7: Polishing

You can either use a hand polish or you can use a machine polisher. Polishing by hand will give you a good finish, but it won't be anywhere near as good as using a machine polisher (if you know what you're doing - try our Basic Guide to Machine Polishing to get you started). We have products for both applications. We advise against putting any machine polisher to your car without experience. Our top tip would be to practice on a separate panel first. These are easy enough to pick up from scrap yards. Better that, than burning through the paint on your car, resulting in a full panel respray or even a whole car respray.

Stage 8: Wax / Seal/ Ceramic Coating

Each one of these stages is as important as the other but waxing or sealing is right up there on the must-do list. Applying a layer of car wax, sealants, and ceramic coatings will protect all your previous hard work from steps one through eight. If you're unsure of what car wax to use on your paint, take a look at our car wax explained piece

Stage 9: Tire Dressings & Trim

Following the cleaning of your tires and trims, now it's on to the preening. There are products to get plastics back to their true colors, as well as things that will spruce up your tires without making them greasy.

Step 10: Glass

Glass is something people often forget. Whether it's light scratches or just fingerprints (all Titanic style), a good-quality glass cleaner such as Crystal is a must in any car detailing kit.

Final stage:

Final touch-up and wipe-down with a quick detailer will finish off all the previous hard work. A good quick detailer will rid the surfaces of any potential residue left from waxing or sealing, as well as any fingerprints perhaps left from you going around your vehicle, and generally, tidy up any missed bits or trim dressing that has strayed. It's finishing touches like this that often get overlooked, but can be the most important, especially for that show finish we all so desperately want to achieve.

Of course, each stage is just a basic description, each car detail is different and we as detailers must figure this out when working on your auto detail. These steps are the beginner stages of what we can do. There is still wet sanding, scratch removal, interior cleaning, using the right products, and car protection like wax, sealants, and ceramic coatings too.

Marietta, Ga

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