Car Owners’ Manual — Auto Detailing and Paintwork Maintenance

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentioned car maintenance? Is it a lube job? A tire rotation? Just how far down that list is your paintwork? If it’s too far down, it’s time to correct that. Through an auto detailing job, you can restore your car’s appearance, but you can also maintain it indefinitely. In this chapter of Car Owners’ Manual, we’ll explore the steps necessary to prepare the car for paint correction. In later installments of this guide, we’ll talk about paint correction, interior auto detailing, and more. Let’s get to it!
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What is Auto Detailing?

Auto detailing is the process of cleaning, correcting, and protecting your car inside and out. To do so, you’ll need to apply known methods and use more or less standardized techniques. Some tools are involved as well, but it’s a common misconception that you need top-tier equipment to get started.

We can break auto detailing down into 3 major sections — exterior, interior, wheels, and engine bay.

Paintwork and Exterior Detailing

A car’s paintwork can greatly impact the appearance of your car. There’s nothing worse than seeing an interesting car model, or a classic, whose paint job is completely oxidized. The reason why this happens to cars is simple — exposure paired with a lack of maintenance.

The Structure of Paintwork

The paint on your car is formed of several very different layers (in most cases). Starting with the bare metal, the first layer we run into is the primer. Its job is to protect the metal and keep any potential oxidants away from your car’s panels. Then comes the actual paint, which gives your car its color. Lastly, there’s a layer of clear coat. Clear coat’s job is to protect all other layers and serve as a buffer against physical damage, chemical

As you drive around town, park the car in direct sunlight, expose it to road film and other nasty stuff, the clear coat starts wearing out. Every scratch makes a burr in your clear coat, sometimes these scratches are visible, other times they are microscopic.

Either way, a scratched or oxidized clear coat reflects light differently. A brand-new car, or one that has just been polished, features a clear coat that is flat and even all around. When light hits the surface of a flat, polished clear coat, it reflects at 90 degrees. This effect of light reflection is what gives cars that car show appearance.

A damaged clear coat reflects light at different angles, which dulls the gloss and makes the car look matted out.

The whole idea behind car detailing is to either flatten out any burrs in the clear coat to achieve that perfectly flat surface once again, or to fill up the scratches using various products. In most cases, a car will need both.

With that said, this segment of the guide will focus mainly on exterior detailing. We’ll cover interior detailing in another guide that’s already in the oven. Exterior auto detailing, or paint correction, is all about the prep stage.

Prep Stage

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Before you get to paint correction, you first have to thoroughly clean the car. The idea here is to dislodge any debris and contaminants that you can, without applying any force at all. A pressure washer is an awesome tool to use during this stage, but you can get away with using a regular old garden hose.


Wheels should always be the first thing to clean on a car. Use a soft wheel brush or a wheel woolie to reach into the drum of the wheel and mechanically dislodge the caked-up brake dust or anything else that’s there. Next, apply a wheel cleaner to the wheel.

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A wheel cleaner is a chemical that eats away at brake dust and other contaminants through a chemical reaction. SONAX offers an efficient wheel cleaner that turns purple when it reacts to contaminants. Give it a few minutes and make sure to rinse the wheel before the cleaner dries up.

Next, use a brush to clean the tire wall. We suggest using an APC (All Purpose Cleaner) of your choice, and scrubbing the tire until the foam produced by the APC turns white.

The Rinse

Using the hose, or the pressure washer, rinse the car starting with the roof and making your way down in sections. If you’re using the pressure washer, keep the nozzle of the gun at least a foot away from the paintwork in order to avoid damaging it. Also, avoid any areas where the clear coat has begun to peel.

The Two-Bucket Method

Once the car is rinsed, it’s time to handwash it with shampoo. There are two somewhat unique tools you’ll need for this part of the job — a microfiber wash mitt, and a pair of buckets with grit guards installed.

The microfiber wash mitt is the optimal tool for the job due to one simple reason — it causes the least amount of damage to the clear coat. Using sponges and similar abrasive tools will swirl your paint before you’re even done washing the car. Invest in a large wash mitt, it’s worth it.

As for the buckets, the idea is to have a shampoo bucket and a rinse bucket. Grit guards are there to keep any debris at the bottom of each bucket as you rinse the mitt and dunk it into the shampoo.
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The two bucket method is the golden standard of auto detailing, and a very important step if you want to do the least amount of damage to the clear coat during the washing stage.

To wash the car, dunk the mitt in the shampoo bucket and then apply it to the roof of the vehicle without draining it first. Plop the mitt on the car and move it along the roof in straight lines while making sure that you’re not applying any pressure to it. The weight of the mitt itself is enough to clean the surface of your vehicle. Do small sections from top to bottom and rinse the mitt after every section.
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Next, take a detailing brush, or a makeup application brush, and start working all areas where the mitt couldn’t reach. We’re talking badges, grilles, fog light housings — any place that has been collecting debris, that you can’t dislodge with a mitt.

Once the entire car has been washed with the mitt, rinse it with your hose or pressure washer.

Dry The Car

With the vehicle properly rinsed, dry the car using a drying towel or a leaf blower. Both of these methods will work just fine. If you don’t have either of these tools, you can always use a microfiber cloth. Just don’t use a regular towel, a squeegee, or anything else that turns your clear coat into the battle of the Somme.


At this point, the vehicle is ready for decontamination. There are two types of decontamination:

Chemical decontamination — Chemical decontamination is a process where different products are applied to the paintwork of the car, which reacts to contaminants that are embedded in the paint. These products are called iron removers or fallout removers.

Mechanical decontamination — Mechanical decontamination is done using a piece of automotive clay. This type of clay is made specifically to extract stubborn contaminants from the paint and is perfectly safe to use on all vehicles.

The Decontamination Process

The best way to decontaminate a car is to use a combination of chemical and mechanical decontamination. Start by spraying the iron remover on the hood of the car, front bumper, side panels, the area behind wheel arches, and the roof. These are the most critical areas that usually show the highest levels of contamination. Let the iron remover do its thing per the manufacturer’s instructions. Once cured, rinse the entire vehicle.

Next, take a piece of clay bar, a third will do, and flatten it with your fingers until you get something that resembles a small pancake. You’ll need some sort of lubricant as well. There are dedicated claying lubricants out there, but a dilution of your car shampoo in a spray bottle will do just fine.

Take the clay pancake, select a 3ft by 3ft section of a panel, lubricate it, and start working it in straight lines. You’ll feel friction under the clay on the first pass, but the second and third should be smooth. Clay the entire car while making sure to use plenty of lubrication.

Once the entire car has been clayed, rinse it, or shampoo it again and then rinse it. Then, proceed with drying the vehicle. Your car is now officially prepared for the paint correction stage.

Next Time on Car Owners’ Manual Auto Detailing Series

When we come back next week, we’ll dig into the process of paint correction, the tools you’ll need, how to approach this part of the process, and more. The next installment of the guide, combined with this piece, will give you a good idea of how to prepare your car for applying the finishing touch — a wax or ceramic/graphene coating!



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