Interior Detailing
by Paul Gasparola and Angela Brown
Professional Detailers Association

Interior detailing is far from being merely a routine job but in fact should be more inclusive and exceeding a norm. The major difference between a car’s interior and one’s home is the tiny confines of the beast. Unlike your homes carpets and upholstery or even windows, the cars interior is subjected to extreme heat ( up to 150 degrees in summer ), cold (drop below 0 degrees in the winter) and damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation threatens everything the sun can reach. Constant care is imperative to a car’s interior to it’s showroom condition and appearance. Anything less may produce a reasonable clean interior, but not one that is detailed.

Begin a complete cleaning with vacuuming is a good idea. If you vacuum after a major cleaning, you will find yourself blowing dirt all over the freshly cleaned interior. Also it is much easier to vacuum loose dirt in doorjambs when it is dry as opposed to when it has become muddy from getting wet from washing. One more consideration – if you start with vacuuming, you won’t be pulling an electric cord through water that has puddled in your driveway.

The first rule for clean interior’s fabrics, upholstery and carpets is to invest in a “real” vacuum, not a toy. These vacuum machines are invaluable. A household vacuum is not adequate. Use a crevice tool on the end of the vacuum cleaner hose. A plastic crevice tool is preferable rather than metal which, if bent, or sharp risks tearing the fabric or cutting stitching. This tool will reach into tight seams, around seat belts beads and under seats. An old hairbrush works well to break loose pine needles stuck in the nap. You can use a soft brush attachment when cleaning the headliner. Vacuum the headliner – but gently. Headlining is fragile: exert minimum pressure. Do not forget the sun visors and the brackets holding them in place. The floor mats will be removed and vacuum the carpets. Move the front seats to get at the carpet underneath. A toothbrush can be used along with the vacuum to dislodge lint and dirt along the dreams of the seats and carpet pads.

After vacuuming but before cleaning and washing carpets and fabric upholstery, remove any spots and stains. The fabric used for cloth seats and carpets is similar to some fabrics used for household furnishings. The exception may be those seats especially treated to reduce flammability. If possible, try to identify what the spot or stain is. This will help as to what spot remover to use. This is because some chemicals will “set” a stain. Be sure to follow the instructions on the label before application.

With the spots and stains removed, we’re ready to shampoo the carpets and fabric seats. Most common carpet cleaners tend to be “wet” formulas. Even when a wet-dry vacuum or extractor is used to pull out most of the water. Carpets and fabrics are still pretty wet and may need several days to completely dry. The spray-on foaming aerosol shampoo formulas do a credible cleaning job without the wetness. There is also a lower chance of mildew. Again be sure to follow the label instructions prior to use. After shampooing, a wet-dry vacuum again will help to dry the areas cleaned. If moisture in not completely dried, it will become a source for future mildew, odor and deterioration.

Start with the rear seats and carpets then move to the front seats and carpets. If your car has fabric on the doors, treat them as you do the seats. Seatbelts should not be overlooked. Check the owners manual if you question proper soap usage. Allow the belt to dry before returning to its case. To keep seatbelts stretched while cleaning and drying, tie one end of a string to the end of the belt and the other end to the steering wheel, door handle or what ever is convenient.

Once the carpet and fabric upholstery is dry, treat it with a fabric protectant. It is designed to help cloth resist stains and liquid absorption. To apply, you simply use it directly on the now clean, dry carpet or fabric. Spray in a uniform pattern, following the instructions on the label. If a powdery white residue appears after drying, simply brush or vacuum away. This is caused by over application. These types of products are recommended for all types of fabric except leather, vinyl and imitation suede.

Now most of you might say – “Hey – I’ve got leather or vinyl or suede – What about me!” Well the next part of this tip sheet is for you.

Whether upholstery is leather or vinyl, the first step is vacuuming. A soft-bristled brush and the crevice tool of the vacuum works well together to rid seams of dirt. Note the paint brush bristles can be cut to shorten the length. Reducing bristle length makes the paintbrush a more effective detailing tool. For safety sake, tape the metal part of the brush to prevent a cut on the leather or vinyl. Be sure to fold the front seats forward and vacuum the exposed areas.

Vinyl is the most common interior covering, but is prone to mildew and UV damage, despite claims to the contrary, fades noticeably. The best example here is the seat backs. Vinyl collects grime faster than other upholsteries (you can actually feel the grime). The key to cleaning vinyl is to use vinyl upholstery shampoo and a small scrub brush. Be careful, as spray-on and wipe-off cleaners, all purpose degreasers, and some other household cleaners can dull or streak vinyl. Chemical ingredients can vary from cleaner to cleaner. Use one formulated for vinyl, and always follow the suggested dilution. Special vinyl cleaners do more than merely clean: Most give a sheen to vinyl.

Look closely for dirt around metal trim and a real problem area is under the folding seats. A stiff detailing brush with the shampoo is needed for deep cleaning here. All areas throughout the interior needs attention. These include door panels, under the dash, the dash itself and sun visors. For vinyl or plastic headliners, use a terry covered sponge or dampened (not wet) towel with shampoo. Work front to back wiping until clean. But for very dirty, light covered headliners can be cleaned using a Teflon covered sponge dampened with a vinyl cleaner.

After cleaning, apply a protectant that provides a barrier against moisture and environmental exposure. Select a product that leaves a smooth sheen so that it does not attract dust or dry out the surface which causes cracking.

Now you ask ------ what about Leather

Leather is unquestionably the most delicate surface in an automobile. It is perishable. Neglected it will harden, crack, fade and deteriorate into sand like granules. Body oils, clothing dyes and cigarette smoke can cause discoloration. Proper cleaning should remove surface contaminants, not grind them into the surface. This can be safely be accomplished with the use of a cleaner formulated specifically for this purpose.

During the final step of tanning the hide goes through a process called “fat liuorong” where it is lubricated with special oils to restore moisture and flexibility. If this moisture balance is not maintained, leather will become dry and brittle in a short time. Remember that leather should not be treated as if it were vinyl. Use a low pH (non alkaline cleaning agent) cleaner with no degreasers. The pH level for leather is neutral, between 4.5 and 7.5. If the pH level for leather is elevated, such as by the use of a household cleaner with a high amount of alkalinity, the life of the leather will be critically shortened and strip the dye color. An effective leather cleaner will break up and remove oils that trap dirt in leather. Do not scrub to hard to avoid removing dyes. Immediately condition the leather after cleaning to replace oils lost in the cleaning process. The conditioner lubricates and restores leathers suppleness and it’s rich natural luster.

In closing, the processes described in this article are not intended to be the last word in car interior cleaning. Clearly I did not go into detail on the non fabric parts on the interior. However, these are proven methods that work for some concourse winners and professional detailers.