What you should know about car detailing

How do I choose a detailer?

It starts out with using the internet to research different options.  There is a wealth of information at your fingertips through Google searches or youtube.com videos. While you will need to separate truth from fiction with any internet resource, this is still a great way to identify a reputable and professional detailer in your area. Once you identify a potential detailer, visit the website and try to assess if it looks professional and is up to date.  Is the information on the website easy to understand and does the site identify the services that are offered?  After researching through the internet, contact a few detailers and interview them to find out how they can help you.  It is always wise to get a least three quotes, and savvy consumers don’t just choose the detailer who quotes the lowest price because that often results in substandard service.  When you interview the detailer, try to assess if this person has a business or is that person just a hobbyist.  Business owners should be insured and have experience providing the service they are selling.  And in case it doesn’t go without saying, when you are spending your money, you don’t want the hobbyist, you want the professional.

A professional detailer should be on time, have a neat appearance and should be courteous and friendly.  Customer service is critically important and good business owners know the value of keeping their customers happy.  The detailer should clearly communicate what they can do for you and what they can’t do for you.  Even the best detailer will not be able to, for example, remove certain stains or fix broken or torn fabric. Also, paint that is deeply scratched (i.e. you can feel the scratch with your fingernail) cannot be fixed by a typical detail.  Finally, understand what the detailer is charging for the service and what you will receive for that service.  For example, paint correction may not be part of the detailer’s “complete” package so make sure you ask what is and is not included in the price.

What services are typically provided by detailers and how do I decide what I need?

The level of service offered varies by detailer but, in general, most detailers offer a wide range of services including interior only, exterior only, a “maintenance” detail for a lightly soiled vehicle, a “full” or “complete” detail for a heavily soiled vehicle, single stage and multi-stage paint correction, headlight restoration, engine bay cleaning and other services.  In order to decide what you need, you can start by assessing the current condition of your vehicle.  If your vehicle is heavily soiled, it makes no sense to purchase a maintenance detail because a maintenance detail will not provide the level of clean you need for your vehicle. Likewise, you might not want a full or complete detail when your vehicle is already well maintained. In that scenario, you may just want a wash and wax because that level of service will give you exactly what you need at that time.

What’s the difference between waxes, sealants and coatings?

Waxes, sealants and coatings just describe the different products that can be used to protect the paint on your vehicle. In terms of the length of time these products will protect your paint from contaminants and the sun’s harmful UV rays, waxes may provide a month or so of protection, sealants may provide about 6 months or more of protection, and coatings may provide one year or more of protection.  I say “may” because the product and how you maintain and use your vehicle is very important and greatly impacts how long the protection will last.  For example, if you park your car outside on a hot sunny day, Carnauba wax protection will begin to break down once the panel reaches a certain temperature.  A sealant has more heat durability than a wax and a coating generally has more durability than a wax or a sealant.  However, the prices for these products vary as does the appearance of the protection on your paint.  While a high quality sealant or coating does a great job protecting your vehicle and creating a hydrophobic effect to shed dirt, a high quality wax is easy to apply and provides a beautiful deep gloss to your paint.  Again, just think about what you want and how you plan to use and maintain your car.

What’s the difference between a maintenance service like a wash and wax versus a full or complete detail?

A maintenance service like a wash and wax tends to be for a vehicle that has, within the past 6 months or so, already been fully detailed and is thus well-maintained.  Keep in mind that it’s very important to maintain your car on a regular basis (especially in the winter months) to immediately remove contaminants like road salt and traffic film (i.e. oil and other road grime) before it has a chance to bond to the paint or brake dust before it bonds to your wheels.  If you don’t maintain your car, it will be more difficult and more expense to later remove these contaminants and your car will certainly begin to lose its luster.  The “wash” part of the process is designed to remove the contaminants, and the “wax” part of the process is designed to add some much needed protection to your vehicle.  Make sure you ask if the wash and wax includes any interior work.  Most wash and wax details should include basic interior service like a vacuum, dash wipe down and glass cleaning.

A full or complete detail is for a heavily soiled car and also should be done on a bi-annual or annual basis. Typical service includes a thorough wash, chemical and clay bar paint decontamination, the application of high quality paint protection like a wax or sealant, a thorough interior clean to include vacuuming, steam cleaning or hot water extraction of dirty carpet or upholstery, and cleaning and protection of all interior surfaces.  It is important to remember that a full or complete detail may not include paint correction. “Paint correction” is a term used to describe the process of compounding and polishing the clear coat on your vehicle to level it by removing scratches so the paint properly reflects light and thus has that beautiful shine we all love.  Most paint correction will be done at an additional cost as it is a labor intensive process but, if done right, can really make your car finish look spectacular so it is often worth the money.

Should I take my vehicle to a car wash or should I bring it to a detailer?

The answer to this question is not intended to disparage the car wash as a cleaning option. But you need to understand the process that a professional detailer will use to clean your vehicle.  In general, a professional detailer will take care to hand wash your vehicle using soft microfiber mitts and proper wash techniques to avoid inflicting any additional scratches and swirls in your paint.  The professional detailer will also choose professional-grade detailing products to safely remove traffic film and prevent damage to some automotive surfaces which can be sensitive.  Many car washes, on the other hand, may run your car through an automated brushing system and those brushes can (and most often will) inflict micro scratches in the clear coat and those scrathes will cause a spider-webbing effect in the paint. These scratches will detract from the overall gloss and reflection of the paint and may be noticed by a potential buyer who may be interested in your vehicle when you decide it’s time to sell it.  That said, some car washes do use safe wash methods so you should simply understand how your car will be detailed before you hire a detailer to complete the work.

How much time should it take for these various processes?

The most basic detail, like a wash and wax, should take about an hour or so to complete depending on whether the interior is also cleaned. A full or complete detail is probably going to run 4 to 5 hours but the time may vary depending on the condition of the vehicle and whether paint correction service is added to the work that will be completed.  Multi-step paint correction will take many hours to properly complete.

What kind of exterior issues can be fixed with a detail? 

Minor scratches, yellowed headlights, and any oxidation can typically be removed with a good quality complete detail including a one-step paint correction.  Using an example of a red car, paint that appears more salmon pink than red can often be fixed and restored to a bright, deep red.  A black car can often be made to look like new with the purchase of a quality complete detail and single step paint correction.

As I mentioned when talking about damage that can be inflicted at the automated carwash, spider-webbing scratches can generally be fixed with paint correction.  Also, water spots can be removed with a good complete detail.

What kind of exterior issues cannot be fixed with a detail?

Deep scratches, like someone keying your car, cannot typically be fixed in a detail.  Also, body damage from an accident or a parking lot “bump” generally can’t be fixed with a detail.  That type of damage needs to be handled by a body shop.

What kind of interior issues can be fixed with a detail?

A good interior detail will remove dirt and grime from the interior panels and seats so long as the stains have not been allowed to set over a long period of time. Even then, it is possible to remove this grime but actual results will vary. A professional detailer should use steam or hot water extraction to remove dirt from the carpet and upholstery and should remove all dust and dirt from the nooks and crannies in the interior.  Basically, anything except rips, tears and very heavy stains can be fixed by a detailer.

What about my rims and tires?

A good detailer should be able to clean the rims and remove the brake dust to restore them to “like new” condition so long as the rims have been periodically maintained.  Again, regular maintenance is very important and less expensive in the long run.  The better your car is maintained, the longer it will last and remain looking new like the day you bought it.

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