Show Detailing and the Basics of Show Car
Care by Paul Gasparola and Angela Brown
Professional Detailers Association
This article is designed to educate the novice on auto
detailing and provide concourse quality detailing tips.
Auto detailing is the process of making an automobile look
its best without major dismantling or repainting. But, detailing is much
more than a quick wash and vacuuming. Detailing requires careful planning
and methods. Today's car detailing is an art.
The following is an overview of proven professional tips
and some little secrets learned over the years.
Always remove rings, watches and other jewelry. Be alert to belt
buckles and rivets on jeans as all will scratch the paint surfaces.
Never use soaps containing sodium or those high in alkaline content.
Use only mild car wash soaps that are nuetral based (ph7).
Never use household detergents as they can strip wax and burn the
paint. Wax type soaps or hot waxes are not the cure for a dull unpolished
suface. In fact, when combined with an oxidized surface loaded with
contaminants, they may even make the car look worse after it has dried.
Never use powdered car wash soaps. A single grain of powder, not
completely dissolved can scratch the paint surface.
Make sure the car is cool and in the shade.
Do not use a high pressure stream of water because it can force dirt
against the paint suface causing scratches, removing stickers, and peeling
Never vigorously scrub your car's finish to remove stains. If
necessary, advance to a stronger cleaner for spot cleaning of stubborn
Start with wheels and tires they take the most time and effort. Use a
tire brush to remove road grime.
Keep the car cool and wet during washing. This simply allows you to
wash it more efficiently and eliminate the possibility of the car wash
soap drying on the paint and streaking. A cool surface allows you more
time to dry it properly.
Water spots are salt and mineral deposits left when water evaporates.
These salts "bite" into paint. If they remain for any length of time, it
is difficult to remove. Quality car wash products will provide a strong
plating action to keep water spots from "bite" in paint. If the car
already has numerous difficult water spots, they can often be readily
removed with a soft terry cloth towel, with the spot dampened with a
little white vinegar.
Three table spoons baking soda to water will neutralize any acids in
the wash water. Make sure all the baking soda is completely dissolved.
Remove the license plate frames and the plates themselves. Also remove
any easily removable emblems to wash behind them.
Use a 5 gallon bucket for the wash process. This lets the dirt being
rinsed out of the sponge or mitt to settle to the bottom of the bucket,
instead of being re-applied to the surfaces.
100% cotton wash mitts and towels or high quality natural sea sponges
are best for use.
Do not use synthetic wash mitts as their fibers are to stiff and will
cause unwanted hairline scratches on the finish.
Always use a extra mitt for tires vs. a mitt for the underbody. Use
fresh car wash mix and mitts for the body.
Wash in a back in the forth method. Moving from front to back on the
car. Message the body in this manner will aid in the prevention of swirl
marks. A circular pattern may cause spider webbing.
A three (3) inch soft natural, bristled paint brush works well in
washing around headlights, mirrors, window trim and emblems that a wash
mitt can not reach.
When using brushes, some can be cut to length. Always apply duck tape
around the metal part of the brush to prevent accidental scratches.
· An old soft toothbrush is a must on dirt from the lettering located
on the tail and side light lens. That is the only place a toothbrush
should be used as they will scratch other parts of the car.
For drying - use thick terry cloth towels to reduce microscopic
scratching. What about a chamois you ask? They are not recommended. A
chamois is typically hard to keep clean. They can drag the dirt back
across the paint. Chamois will also streak and hold grit and dirt
Cloth toweling can be put in the washing machine and dryer to be ready
for next time. Normal laundering is adequate. Make sure the soap is
Machine drying for toweling is fine. However, Fabric softeners are not
recommended as they introduce unwanted chemicals into the cotton fibers.
Dry the car in the same fashion as you washed. Use the back and forth
Wheels and Tires
Each time the brake is applied, your expensive wheels are bombarded
with heated fine metallic particles. Each being baked onto the surface. As
the dust remains, pitting sets in, thus destroying the appearance of the
wheels. Do not let brake dust and grime build upon the wheels for more
than 3 weeks. Regular maintenance with a non-abrasive cleaner will prevent
etching and damage. Never use abrasive material or chemicals that can
destroy the clear coat finish.
Do not use cleaning solutions that have a high acid or alkaline
content. Safe and effective wheel cleaners should have a PH factor of 8.5
Always wash wheels when cooled to prevent possible damage to brake
rotors and the wheels themselves.
When detailing custom wheels, get creative. Use everything from Q-Tips
to popsicle sticks and towels to get into those difficult to reach areas.
Some professionals have used a show polish applicator.
Some detailers also use corn starch and a clean rag to take off any
excess grit left behind by the polish. You will be amazed what will come
off on the rag.
With wheels with a protective clearcoat - use a wheel brush, an old
soft toothbrush or a baby bottle brush. Never use a gritty polish on a
coated wheel. You will rub the clear coat off and that will then allow
contaminates to ruin the wheels.
Whitewall cleaners do a good job, but there is chances of overspray on
the body. Instead, many detailers prefer the low cost and maneuverability
of SOS pads for whitewalls and raised white letters on the tires. Use a
small cropped brush, soap and pads make short work of cleaning.
After the tires are completely dry, a good protectant can be used.
Professionals and show judges caution against the use of petroleum based
tire dressings, as they attract dirt. Also the high gloss synthetic look
is not natural to rubber or vinyl. One other item on dressings - there are
dressings containing a solvent that opens the pores in the rubber allowing
silicones better penetration. The solvent was blamed for drying out the
rubber, thus causing cracks and splits.
Apply a good dressing to a rag first, then to the tire. This
eliminates the risk of applying the protectant unevenly as well as hitting
the wheels and body.
Water and polyurethane based protectants dry to a satin finish, rather
than a high gloss and will tend to wear better and longer to have a
Polish merely cleans the surface in preparation for wax. After a
polish, always follow with a "quality" wax. At shows, a polish, just
before judging can be applied.
Glazes and polishes are in essence the same products. Professional's
do not recommend those products on a weekly basis. These products feature
a very high rate of distillates in their formulas to cut dirt and
oxidation. They offer no added protection, depth or shine to the paint
When polishing, let it do the work by applying it in a straight line
rather than a circular motion or you run the risk of putting swirl marks
in the paint.
Use of Buffers - Unless you are a professional, buffers is a sure way
to destroy paint. With today's exotic clear coat metallic paint jobs, a
buffer can be absolutely deadly. Clear coat paint jobs are very
There are two types of compounds:
Rubbing - very strong and gritty. The purpose is to remove dead
paint and wipes out stubborn stains and tough paint blemishes. Use this
product as a last resort.
Polishing - Mild abrasive. Removes more paint than a sealer and will
renew the paint while doing the least damage. Polish also works on
scratch removal. · Polishing will not fill small cracks in newly exposed
paint. Glazes and sealers fill cracks and scratches, which help to make
the surface feel smooth.
Plastic polish is best for removal of fine scratches and swirl marks
and is safe for clear coat finishes.
Polish, glazes and sealers will not protect the paint against sun and
weather. A protecting wax must be applied which also will enhance the
shine and depth.
Two coats of wax is better than a single heavy one.
Lasting quality of wax varies with climate, sun exposure and
temperature. A carnauba base wax lasts longer. For application, one must
determine the most suitable car regiment for your needs. This is based on
auto age, color, and operating environment as well as frequency of use.
These are the deciding factors. It is important to remember that one
cannot see wax degradation. Paint that looks like it needs a wax is
actually showing paint damage.
Avoid waxing in the sun. It would be like frying an egg on a hot
surface. Keep the surface of the car cool.
Spray waxes do not last because the contents must be thinned to allow
the formula to flow through the nozzle. Do not spray directly on the body.
Instead spray on an applicator or you are going to have a lot of overspray
to clean up.
Paste wax can harden if improperly stored for lengthy periods and
could cause scratches if applied in that condition.
Liquid waxes - Never squirt directly onto the paint. Apply to an
applicator first for the best results.
Good paint needs wax to help keep it oily, due to the fact that paint
needs to breathe and wax keeps the paint pores open. This is also true for
cars with a clear coat.
Clear coats are commonly used today over metallic or water based
paints to produce gloss and extend durability. Regular waxing is very
important. If left unprotected and not waxed, the clear coat will thin and
the paint color will appear dull and continue the deterioration.
Sealers can dry paint out because it actually seals too well and the
paint can not breathe.
Some polymer silicone products are touted as containing Teflon. The
draw back here is that these types of sealers is that when the product
begins to break down, the particles of silicone actually drift into the
paint and can contaminate it.
Some older types of wax will tear up the finish and clear coats on
While waxing, use the body lines and seams as guides to divide the
body into sections. Use the back and forth method.
Wax build up in crevices can be removed with a fine camel hair brush.
Do not use a toothbrush, as it will scratch the surface. Also note that
wax left on the car is a major deduction in concourse level shows.
Remember to tape the metal part of the brush.
When waxing - take your time!
Do not forget to use a correct wax applicator pad.
To remove the wax, use a cloth towel.
Glass, Trim and Moldings
Remove all unnecessary stickers as they distract from the overall
appearance of the car in a show. Judges dislike them. Razors on glass is
fine, but on paint use your fingernail, warm water. The warm water will
moisten the sticker and make it easier to remove.
Glass cleaners - Windex is fine but some people mix ammonia with water
( a capful per ½ bucket of water).
Regardless of the glass cleaner used, never let the glass cleaner on
the painted surfaces Protect the cars finish by laying towels on the
surfaces prior to cleaning the glass.
Do not overlook the trim - dressing. Apply this by hand.
Anodized aluminum is fragile. Never use polish, as the slightest grit
will surely remove anodization. Apply a very light coat of a protective
Rubber moldings should be cleaned with soap and a toothbrush. Paint
overspray and other stains can be removed with paint thinner. In some
cases you may have to carefully use lacquer thinner to remove deep paint
stains. Use extreme caution with lacquer thinner as it can quickly mar any
paint or plastic surface. Then after the cleaning process dress the
molding with your favorite brand of dressing.
CLEAN is the word - either custom or original.
If the engine is cosmoline covered, first use a citrus cleaner to
remove the majority of the chemical. WD-40 will also work. Use a soft
detailing brush and apply the cleaner, brush and wipe. Repeat as required.
Never do large sections of the motor at a time.
Make sure all rubber is dressed.
Judges have been known to check even wires (spark or otherwise) for
correct curvature coming out of the control boxes or distributors. Make
sure every wire is properly tie wrapped. Stay away from cheap hose covers
that simulate braided lines.
Dirt under the radiator overflow hoses is a common point loser. Almost
all show detailers forget this one. During a full show detail, all engine
hoses should be removed from the brackets, cleaned and dressed.
Align all hose clamps, screw slots should also be vertical and any
cotter pins straight and bent in the same manner.
Remove all engine debris with high pressure air. Make sure all
radiator and/or cooler fins are straightened.
As far as originality in the engine: Do not overlook the paint marks
placed on items in and on the engine at the factory. They mean more points
if they were not removed or painted over.
Other Show Details and Tips
Caring for lug nuts - chrome and painted lug nuts may be scratched
while being removed and re-tightened. To prevent this, place a piece of
plastic (a heavy duty plastic freezer bag) over the lug nuts before using
your wrench of choice. A rag on a lug nut will just tear.
All tires, dash boards, vinyl and seats must be cleaned before you
apply a coat of protection. Sealed in contaminates always attack the
surface, cloud the appearance and shorten durability.
Cotton swabs are useful on the exterior as well as the interior.
Inside they are used to remove dust from vents, slots and grooves.
Outside, you can use them to remove wax from emblems, and to apply wax and
dressings in tight spaces.
It is recommended that you remove the windshield wipers and detail
them as well. Moreover, you do not run the risk of snagging the buffer or
polishing rag on them.
Do not overlook the rubber trim. Use a rubber cleaner that really
makes these semi-gloss black parts shine as well as clean.
Use semi-gloss on door handles, side mirrors and cowl vents on new
cars, as chrome on classic cars require special care.
Door jams and the hood and trunk lids are part of the detailing.
Judges look at these just as hard as the main body.
Fender / Wheel wells cost points at a show. These need to be cleaned
and look new.
Pledge furniture polish works well to shine fender wells and the
Use plastic polish on headlights, side markers, tail light lens and
inside gauges. Never use anything that has an abrasive in it on plastic
while cleaning and detailing.
A treated duster will leave streaks when used in the hot sun on a hot
Fanatical enthusiasts like everything to be in perfect order. This
means lining up screw heads so they all point in the same direction. We do
this with wheel center caps as well.
If and when a touch up spray paining is needed to the underbody or
other areas (yes I detail the under carriage as well) - use your thumb to
operate the paint can. A lot of show detailers claim this gives them
better control of the spray and makes it easier to reach tight spaces.
Heat paint cans in a sink of warm water to improve paint flow and
Exhaust tips and mufflers are best cleaned with SOS pads and the
inside of the exhaust pipes can be cleaned with shop rags and SOS pads.
Yes - the judges look under the car and inside the exhaust pipes.
After dusting interior vents, adjust the vents so they all point in
the same direction - horizontally and vertically.
If your car is not garaged, protect it with a good car cover. But
always use a cotton cover because nylon covers can catch grime and grit in
the nylon and thus scratch the finish.
Check your water, since well water may spot and stain. Some owners
have made the mistake of washing their cars with well water. The problem
here is iron in the water which will cause a red stain.
If the water is high in sodium or chlorides, it can leave a white
residue on the finish.
If the PH number is on the acid side, that could damage the finish.
When a car gets dirt on it, nothing beats clean water to get it off.
Do not rub a dry car with a rag. You will scratch it. Use a bucket of
tested water or buy a few gallons of spring water that has been tested.
Wax puts a barrier there to preserve the paint. Dirt spots will rinse
off easily. If you keep a car waxed, the paint's in better shape, and in
the long run, you will enjoy your daily driver, classic or show car a lot
more. This is besides the fact that its value will be maintained.