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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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Car Care Techniques

(Image: Side view of my BMW)
With the right detailing skills and techniques
you can keep your BMW looking brand new for years to come.

If you're looking for a quickie solution to detailing, you'll likely get a quickie result -- in other words, slow deterioration of your vehicle's finish until the point that it looks every bit its age.

This article explains the detailing processes I follow to keep my vehicles looking showroom new. I screwed up the paint on my first two new cars to bring you this information. I hope you find it useful.

Detailing Equipment and Supplies

Dual Action, Variable Speed Polisher and Pads

I use a Porter Cable 7424 variable speed dual-action (orbiting) polisher. Variable speed is essential, since polishing requires a higher speed than glazing, sealing, or waxing, and dual action is required as circular polishers can cause severe damage to the paint if used incorrectly. Leave circular polishers to the body shop professionals.

I also have a 6" velcro backing plate to use with a six pack each of polishing pads and buffing pads. These pads look pretty much the same except that the foam on the polishing pad is cut with a bit more "tooth", while the buffing pad is perfectly smooth. Each manufacturer uses different manufacturing techniques and different colored foam, so you'll need to look at the description of the pad to figure out if it applies to the your task at hand.

I have found I don't need any more than one pad for each polishing and sealant session, but the key here is to have pads dedicated for each task. Don't use the same pad for polishing and sealing. It's fairly obvious why but it deserves a mention.

Sheepskin Wash Mits

Sponges of all types, either natural or manufactured, are very coarse and rough on paint. For this reason I use a sheepskin mit to clean the exterior.

Genuine sheepskin mits used to be available in K-Mart, Walmart and the like, but now all they carry is the cheaper synthetic sheepskin. I don't think the synthetic holds up as well or does as good a job holding water in reserve, but they do have their purpose, like handling those hard-to-clean rims. I find the relatively thin mits will fit into the nooks and crannies in my tight-spoked E46 ZHP rims.

Wheel Cleaner

This stuff is mostly unnecessary *provided* you wash the car and the wheels once a week. Most of these cleaners have mild acids in them and if you can get away with not using them, it's a good thing because they will etch the clear over time. I also avoid using wheel cleaner or other harsh chemicals because I'm a bit more sensitive to runoff -- I have a well and drink the very water I put in the ground.

100% Cotton Terricloth / Microfiber Towels

I like to use 100% cotton terricloth towels to dry the car because they hold a lot of water and are easy to clean. Just make sure they're 100% cotton. If the binding material or base of the fabric is polyester, it can and will scratch your paint eventually. You see, every time you clean these things, a bit of the towel finds its way into the dryer lint screen. Eventually, most of the fluff will be gone and you'll be left with a towel that still does a good job drying the car, but may expose the polyester base, which can put fine scratches in the clear.

The best towels to remove detailing materials (polish, glaze, sealant) are microfiber towels. They have a "sticky" quality to them that just seems to clean the car beautifully with a minimum of streaks. I used to think microfiber towels were a waste of money -- and then I tried one. I would not recommend them anytime water is involved (like drying the car) because that's when they tend to smear badly as the polyester fibers don't absorb the water as effectively as cotton does.

So, bottom line: terricloth for drying, microfiber for product removal and final cleanup.

Detailing the Exterior

Detailing a car's exterior typically involves the following processes:

Washing (30 minutes)

This is the first and perhaps most important step, since it will remove a bulk of the surface grime and make the remaining steps a bit easier and safer for your paint. First of all, I always pick a shady spot under a tree. I never wash in direct sunlight if I can avoid it. Why? Read the "drying" section, below.

I typically use a generic soap designed for cars. Some people use Dawn and other harsh soaps to remove wax prior detailing, but that doesn't make sense to me since claying or polishing the surface will strip the wax more effectively.

I place a small amount of detergent in the water -- enough to create suds and break down enough of the grease and grime that gets into the soap water, but not so much as to pollute the water table when I dump the bucket over on the ground.

Before I take the wash mit to the car, I rinse the car thoroughly with plain water. This step is particularly important if there is visible dirt on the car. If you don't rinse that off, it will act like sandpaper and scour the clearcoat.

Here's where you'll definitely recognize your past work. If you've kept the car waxed, merely rinsing the car with water should remove most of the dirt. If you haven't waxed the car in the last two months or so, you may find the need to do a bit more scrubbing. If you must "scrub", be sure to rinse both your wash mit as well as the surface you're cleaning on a regular basis, or you'll definitely scuff the clear.

And speaking of rinsing, it's best to rinse the mit with fresh water from the hose rather than dipping it back in the wash bucket, or you'll bring a lot of dirt into the wash bucket that you'll subsequently apply to the next surface to be cleaned.

It's generally a good idea to clean the car starting from the roof and working downward. The top of the car will generally be cleaner than the bottom and it makes little sense to expose the entire car to a dirty wash mit when you can limit that exposure.

Drying (5 minutes)

You might be saying, what's the big deal about drying a car? Well, there isn't really a big deal, provided you know WHERE and HOW to dry the car. First, you should never wash your car in direct sunlight if you can avoid it. If you don't have any shade, you should dry the car as quickly as you can. If you don't, perhaps the most destructive of all contaminants -- water spots -- will form. Water spots form as a consequence of drying hard water, but even softened well water will produce water spots under the right conditions.

When you are ready to dry the car, take the nozzle off the hose and place it over the horizontal surfaces of the car, allowing the water to run down the sides, taking any remaining suds, dirt, and yes, WATER with it. If you spray the car with the nozzle, this will leave lots of water drops all over the car...particularly if the car is well waxed...and all this will do is make it more difficult to dry the car. If there isn't a lot of standing water left on the paint, you will only need one towel. If you're in a rush and can't wait for the car to drip dry for a few minutes, you'll need two towels.

Whatever you do, don't take the car out on the road to dry it if you intend to follow through with the remaining detailing steps because you'll just make the car dirty again and that will require another wash!

Drying properly is all about drying the car while minimizing physical contact with the paint. Unfold the towel and drape it over one side of a particular section of the surface. With one hand at the far end of the towel and the other closer to you, gently "walk" the towel across the surface.

Do NOT ball up the towel or apply pressure through the towel, particularly on the horizontal surfaces (with vertical surfaces, it's unavoidable). The more pressure you exert, the greater you risk scouring the clear in a very noticeable way.

Claying [1 hour, Only 1 or 2 times a year]

When I originally wrote this article, I thought claying was a waste of time. Having since done it, I can say it's easily as effective (or more) than polishing when it comes to cleaning and smoothing the finish to a mirror shine.

Detailing clay looks like modeling clay but is actually a form of mild abrasive suspended in a sticky clay-like medium. The idea behind claying a car is to rub the clay over the surface lubricated with quick-detailing spray or car wash soap diluted 15:1. The "sticky" qualities of the clay grab hold of impurities that have become embedded in the surface of the paint and lift them out in a way that polishing cannot accomplish.

The best analogy I've heard is this: Imagine your paint is a grass field with a bunch of unsightly dandalions randomly spread about. Polishing the car is akin to mowing the field. You may cut off the visible portion of the weeds, but the roots will remain. Claying is akin to pulling the weed out by its roots. The end result of claying is a smooth surface ready to be polished.

Claying should be done once, or -- in harsh conditions -- maybe twice a year. It should also be done anytime the car comes out of the body shop, since most shops can't seem to mask properly.

And speaking of body shops, if you're planning to have body work done on your car, insist that they use a "liquid mask", which is a material they spray over the areas of the car that will NOT be worked on in order to protect it from overspray. Any overspray that does settle on the protected areas washes away with the mask when the material is removed with water. The reason you have to ask for it is because most body shops don't use it due to its high cost. Even if you have to pay extra for it, I highly recommend it because it will save you from a very long and intensive detailing job.

Polishing (1 hour, 30 minutes)

The goal in polishing is to use fine abrasives to wear down the surface of the paint as required to remove fine scratches (so-called "swirl marks"). If the car has never been polished before, it may be necessary to do one pass with a polish containing more aggressive abrasives, then follow up with one or more passes using progressively finer abrasives.

For what it's worth, the first time I polished my 1998 BMW was in 2006 (eight years!). I decided to use the mildest and best abrasive I could find - Menzerna's Final Polish II -- and was stunned with the results. If you've never polished a car before, I would suggest you take it easy. It's better to do more passes with a finer abrasive than it is to do a single pass with an aggresive abrasive because more aggressive abrasives can themselves induce swirl smarks, which (you guessed it) require a finer abrasive to remove. I suppose the best advice I can give regarding polishing is to not be in a rush. Done correctly, it doesn't take as much time as you might think.

I only apply polish by machine because doing it by hand is back-breaking work, and will never produce the required heat and consistent pressure required for the job.

Glazing [30 minutes, optional]

While polishes physically remove defects, glazes merely hide defects using fillers. Menzerna makes a glaze product called "Finishing Touch Glaze" and I have tried it. It does help mask some of the finer scratches that escape the polishing process, but at least on my car the benefits did not really justify the extra time.

Sealing (30 minutes per coat)

Modern synthetic waxes are also called "sealants", and with good reason. They actually bond to the paint in a way that a natural wax such as carnauba cannot. The great thing about a good sealant is that it will outlast carnauba wax by a factor of 5 or more as well as add some UV protection, so if you're looking to reduce the number of times you need to detail your car, sealing your paint is essential.

Unfortunately, good sealants cost money. The upside? A little goes a relatively long way, particularly if it's applied by machine. I've settled on Menzerna's Full Molecular Jacket (FMJ for short) because it goes on and comes off easily. I could not be happier with the results.

FMJ can be applied by hand, but I use a buffer for consistent coverage. I remove FMJ with a towel because it's easy to remove when dried and because I don't want to switch buffing wheels every two seconds. It's desireable to apply more than one coat of sealant, but it's best to wait about 12 hours between coats so the prior coat fully "cures".

The perk of using a pure sealant, as opposed to some of the all-in-one polish/sealant combinations is that pure sealants can be layered for greater protection and a richer shine. My take is that more than two coats is a waste of time, particularly with FMJ because it looks great with only a single coat.

Waxing [ Optional ]

Want to hear a revelation? If you use one or more coats of a good sealant like FMJ, there is no reason to "wax" your car ever again. While some pros (and a lot of show-car enthusiasts) insist on applying a top-coat of carnauba over a sealant to add shine or "depth" to the paint, I don't think it's necessary for a daily driver. In fact, I found it far more difficult to apply and remove the carnauba wax consistently to produce the shine I already had with basically zero effort courtesy of FMJ. Of course, if you choose another brand of sealant or carnauba, your mileage may vary.

If you want a good natural wax, you could try P21S. If you want to buy P21S for a reasonable price, try purchasing it under the S100 name. Same stuff, half the price, but typically targeted to motorcycle owners.

Incidentally, in addition to longevity issues, carnauba wax also has the disadvantage of softening/melting at high temperatures (like when your car sits in the summer sun). When it does this, any dirt that settles on the paint will embed itself in the wax coat. When the surface temperature drops, the wax will harden and bond that dirt to your paint, dulling the finish. Tell me -- is that what you really want after you spent the better part of four+ hours detailing your car?

Detailing The Interior

The best cleaner here is water, in this case applied with a couple dedicated towels that are kept as clean as possible.

Routine cleaning of the interior involves nothing more than running a most towel over everything, especially the seats and steering wheel -- the areas that typically receive the most dirt, and then using another towel to dry everything.

The only area of the interior that deserves special mention is the gauge cluster. AVOID touching the clear plastic cover as much as possible, because no matter what you do, and no matter how careful you are, you WILL put fine scratches in the plastic. I minimized the potential damage by using my carnauba wax applicator and *carefully* putting some wax on the plastic, and then using the clean dry towel to remove the wax. The result is that dust tends not to stick to the surface, and future cleanings tend to scratch the wax layer, and not the plastic.

One strong note of caution:before you apply wax to the clear plastic, I recommend you use blue painter's tape to mask off the surrounding black plastic. If you get the tiniest bit of wax on the surrounding plastic, you'll see it FOREVER, as there are no environmental forces to wear away the wax.

One thing I do NOT use in the interior of the vehicle is Armor All...not only because I hate that "shiny" look, but because it does exactly the opposite of what it claims. It does not "protect" the plastic...in fact the solvents in the product tend to dry out plastic, so once you apply the stuff you have to apply it forever to keep it looking good (great marketing strategy, eh?).

The only thing Armor All belongs on, in my opinion, is tires, and that's the only manner in which I use it. And, if you want to prove what I've just said to yourself, apply Armor All to your tires on a regular basis for a few months, and then stop using it to see how your sidewalls fade and turn a strange grayish or brownish color.


If you take away nothing else from this page, accept this small tidbit of wisdom:


Even if you follow all of the techniques I've outlined above, and can devote several hours every week to the process, a black car looks great for about 5 minutes. Thereafter, it looks like crap until you get around the time, patience, and courage to work on it again.

Black paint is terribly unforgiving of sloppy cleaning and waxing technique. If you have nothing to do every day but detail your car, buy one painted black. If you want to have a life, buy a color that will better hide dirt and surface imperfections.