The Nutshell Version of Car Detailing


What is car detailing?

Anyone with a water bucket, a wash mitt and a can of wax can call themselves a “Pro Detailer” but that doesn’t actually mean they know what they are doing.


A true professional has a good working knowledge of the tools, pads and products used to properly and correctly clean and polish the inside and outside of your vehicle. 


The fact that you’re holding this in your hand reading it right now is a sign that the detailer you’ve hired most certainly fits this description because the only way they can get this article and print it out and give it to you or send it to you via e-mail is by requesting it from Mike Phillips, that’s me, the guy that wrote this information.


Education, that is head knowledge PLUS hands-on experience is what separates a true professional from what is called a “Hack Detailer” in the car detailing industry.


Why it’s important to you to hire a detailer that actually knows what they are doing?

Great question and in a nutshell, I’ll answer this question below.


The paint on your car is thin!


Chances are you’re driving a new or newer car with a factory clearcoat finish for a paint job.  The factory clearcoat finish on modern cars is THIN.  How thin?  In most cases thinner than a Post-It Note.  The factory sprayed clear layer of paint on most new cars averages around 2 mils. That's thinner than the average post-it note.
















The next time you see a post-it note... feel it between your fingers... this is usually all it takes to drive home the point as to how thin the paint is on your beautiful, shiny car.


Why Is it Important?


Because if the detailer you hire uses inexpensive compounds and polishes or simply scratches your car in the way they wash it and dry off the water, this can ruin your car’s paint job or lead to what’s called, clearcoat failure.  That’s where a car looks like it has a bad rash because the clear layer of paint is flaking off.  Like this,



















Here’s the deal – clearcoat failure CANNOT be fixed.  The only honest fix is to repaint the affected panel or repaint the entire car.


Clearcoats are Scratch Sensitive

Clearcoat finishes are also easily scratched; this is called scratch-sensitive.  What this means is although clearcoats tend to be harder than the old school lacquers and enamels used before 1980 and all the way back to the time of the Model T, they still scratch easily and the scratches or swirls are unsightly and cause your car’s paint to deteriorate faster than it would without them.


See my article here,


Clearcoats are Scratch-Sensitive



There’s a lot more to know about car detailing than simply having a wash bucket, a wash mitt and some car wax.  Read through this packet of information and discuss with the detailer that gave you this information what package he recommend for your car and why.  I’m confident he will be able to show you what’s best for your needs as a car owner and the needs of your car.



                                                                               Glossary of Terms used in the Detailing Industry



Car Wash

Generic term for removing loose dirt before any other exterior process is performed.  This can include a normal car wash, rinseless wash, waterless wash or the use of a spray detailer.



Mechanical Decontamination

To remove above surface bonded contaminants like air-borne pollution, tree sap, overspray paint or industrial fallout through a mechanical means such as; Detailing Clay, Speedy Prep Surface Towel, Nanoskin Autoscrub Pads, Nanoskin Autoscrub Wash Mitts, Optima Elastrofoam Block, Optimum Opti-Eraser, etc.



Chemical Decontamination

Chemical decontamination is an advanced procedure where specific chemicals are used to remove either acidic or alkaline contaminants off the surface or metal particles off and out of paint.  Two common products used for chemically decontaminating paint include the Fallout Remover by SONAX or Iron X products by CarPro.



1-Step Cleaner/Wax

A cleaner/wax is a product that does three steps in one step, this includes, cleaning, polishing and leaving behind a layer of protection.  A quality brand cleaner/wax professionally applied will do a good job of restoring a clear, shiny finish but these types of products will NOT normally remove all the swirls and scratches. 


It will remove some of the shallow swirls and scratches and leave the remaining swirls and scratches shiny.  The best way to remove all of the swirls and scratches is to use a dedicated compound or polish using a 2-step or 3-step approach.  This requires more time and thus it will cost more for a detailing package that includes these extra steps.



2-Step Polish& Wax

A two step polish and wax is a more advanced procedure that will remove a majority of the shallow paint defects like swirls, scratches, water spots and light oxidation and restore a much nicer looking finish overall.  A two step approach requires a person to run a polisher two times over the paint which requires more time than using only a one-step cleaner/wax.  The first step is to machine polish each square inch of each panel and then carefully wipe the polish residue off the surface.  Next the wax or paint sealant is applied by hand or machine and then it too is carefully wiped off the surface.  All these procedures take time and add to the total cost of the detailing service.



A note about moving the polisher too quickly over the surface

The key to good results when machine polishing, (the first step), is to move the polisher slowly over the surface enabling the polish, pad and the action of the tool to do its magic to the paint. 


Moving the polisher quickly over the surface in an attempt to do the job quickly will not remove the swirls and scratches and will give you the same results as only using a one-step cleaner/wax.  This is where most shoddy detailing work takes place, that is moving a polisher too fast over the surface in an attempt to reduce buffing time.



3-Step: Compound, Polish & Wax

A three step compound, polish and wax approach is an advanced procedure that will remove a majority of all below surface paint defects except very deep defects.  With a three step approach, first each panel is carefully compounded to remove the majority of deeper defects and all the shallow defects.  After each panel or section the compound must be carefully wiped off so as not to re-instill scratches from the wiping-process. 


After the compounding step is finished, next the paint is polished to maximize gloss and clarity.  Typically a much less aggressive pad and product are used to re-polish each square inch of each panel to remove any hazing left by the more aggressive compounding step while perfecting the paint for application of a wax, synthetic paint sealant or paint coating.  Because the compound and polishing step can create a near perfect finish, the polish residue must be carefully wiped-off so as to no re-instill toweling marks that could show up after wax wipe-off.  (careful wiping requires more time and “care” from the person doing the wiping)


A comment about deeper defects

Deeper below surface paint defects, like key scratches and severe Type II Water Spots may be too deep to safely remove.  For most cars and most people, it is better to learn to trust your detailer to make the judgment call as to which defects to let remain versus trying to remove 100%.  Often times a thorough compounding and polishing using premium quality products will reduce the visibility of deeper defects to the point that they are a lot less visible and this is the preferred approach for any vehicle that is used as a daily driver, not a sunny-days-only garage queen.


Factory paint is thin

The factory clear coat on most new cars is around 2 mils thin, that’s thinner than the average 3M Post-it Note.  If too much clear paint is removed in an effort to remove a deeper defect 100% it’s possible the car could suffer from clear coat failure down the road due to too thin of a layer of clear paint left on the car.  Hire and trust a qualified, knowledgeable detailer and trust they will do what’s right for the paint and thus do what’s right for you.  Many pros also use a Paint Thickness Gage to really get a good estimate as to the overall thickness or thinness of the paint currently on your car’s body panels.



Buffing Pads

There is an incredibly wide range of buffing pads on the market today.  The quality and type of pad used has a dramatic effect on the effectiveness of any machine buffing procedure as well as the end-results.  Quality results depend upon quality pads.  You cannot get high quality results from worn out, dirty pads. 


Ask your detailer what type of pads they use and any true professional detailer will not only share with you the pads they use they will also show you their pads so you can see first hand the cleanliness and quality.  A quality exterior detail job relies on not only quality compounds, polishes and waxes but quality pads and a professional detailer will factor this into their pricing structure while non-professionals will tend to use worn out pads at a lower charge and this will affect how your car’s paint will look.




There are a limited number of “types” of tools in the industry used today by professional detailers, All tools can be used to create high quality results in the hands of a skilled, trained and experienced detailer as long as they are also using quality products and pads.  Here’s a list of the recognized tools of the detailing trade,


Dual Action Orbital Polishers – Free spinning or non-gear-driven drive mechanisms. DA Polishers are very safe tools that offer very good correction and polishing ability and can also be used to apply one-step cleaner/waxes or finishing waxes and paint sealants.  Low risk of swirls or holograms.


Brands: Porter Cable – Meguiar’s – Griot’s – RUPES


Cyclo Polisher – Combination free spinning and gear driven drive mechanism.  Low risk of swirls or holograms.


FLEX 3401 Dual Action, Forced Rotation Polisher

Unique tool that offers lots of correction and polishing power with low risk of swirls or holograms.  The FLEX 3401 is a GEAR-DRIVEN orbital polisher and unique in the industry.


Rotary Buffers – Rotary Polishers

Brands: Flex PE14 – DeWALT – Makita – 3M – Hitachi – Milwaukee


Rotary buffers offer the most and fastest correction ability but can at the same time impart their own swirl pattern called holograms.  If your detailer is using only a rotary buffer be sure to ask them what type of pad and polish they “finish out with” to help insure you get a true swirl-free, hologram free finish.



Car Waxes

Car waxes are normally considered products that contain some type of waxy substance either natural or man-made or a combination of both natural and man-made ingredients to aid in spreading, wipe-off, protection and longevity.  Not all products with the name “wax” on the label do in fact contain Carnauba wax, the most well-known ingredient used to make a car wax.  Check with your detailer to find out what they use.   Premium quality car waxes will tend to create a warm, deep shine and when taken care of via careful washing can last up to 3 months on the average car.  It’s a good idea to re-apply a coat of wax to maintain protection and appearance quality of the finish before all of the previously applied wax has completely worn off.



Synthetic Paint Sealants

Synthetic paint sealants are replacements for a car wax and as the name implies, the protection ingredients are synthetic or man-made.  Premium quality synthetic paint sealants will tend to last longer than traditional car waxes but should still be re-applied on a regular schedule to maintain protection and appearance quality of the finish.



Ceramic or Quartz Paint Coatings

Paint coatings, that is genuine ceramic or quartz based paint coatings being used by true professional detailers today will last longer and protect as good and in most cases better than both car waxes and synthetic paint sealants.  Paint coatings take more expertise to apply and the paint surface must be properly prepared for application of a paint coating before the coating can be applied.  Each brand of paint coating on the market today has its own manufacturer-specific paint prep recommendations.  Check with your detailer to see which paint coating they offer and why.


Note that while paint coatings are available in both semi-permanent and permanent versions and may resist marring, swirls, scratches and water spots better than car waxes and synthetic paint sealants, these coatings and the paint they are applied to can still be scratched with improper washing, drying or wiping tools and techniques. This means even coated cars MUST be carefully washed.



Maintenance Program

If you like your car to always look like it was just detailed, then I strongly recommend asking your detailer if they offer a maintenance program.  A maintenance program is the option to have your detailer wash and re-wax your vehicles on a regular basis to maintain both your investment and their appearance to show room new condition.


Most detailers offer weekly, bi-weekly or monthly maintenance programs where they will carefully wash your car to maintain the professional quality results they created for you the first time they detailed your car.   If you’re happy with the quality of work performed by your detailer then chances are very good you will not only love having your car regularly maintained by them but you’ll also find it to be the best value for both your money and your time.  Ask your detailer about their maintenance program.


Just had your car detailed by a Pro?


Now that your professional detailer has restored your car to like new condition, learn how to keep it that way.  Most swirls and scratches build-up over time from improper washing and drying techniques.  How to properly wash and dry your car’s exterior are covered in-depth in plus lots of other procedures for maintaining your car’s exterior Properly.



Thank you for your business!


I strive to do my very best work for all of my customers.  If you’re pleased with the quality of my work would you consider referring your friends, family, co-workers and car buddies by recommending my name and my phone number.


My primary business depends upon word-of-mouth advertising.  Your recommendation for my services will be more powerful than any advertising I could ever purchase.