The spring cleaning cliché is running rampant this time of the year … and I’m not too proud to jump on that train! Face it, most of us are going to be giving our beloved vehicles a thorough once-over in the near future, but are you doing it the right way? Are there things you can do to make your car look better and last longer? Like you, I wanted to know. So I went to an actual expert, David Riggins, a professional detailer from Jacksonville, Florida. Dave is the real deal; he’s been detailing cars (and boats and planes!) for 15 years and worked his magic on some of the most expensive cars in the country at The Amelia Island Concours a couple weeks ago. He’s also the proud owner of a Dodge Charger! Dave gave perhaps the greatest “Pro Tip” I’ve ever heard. All of the info he shared is great, but the last tip is a game-changer. Make sure you read to the end!
A great detail starts with a great wash and a great wash starts with the right soap. Dave points out that there are two types of soap and you’ll choose which is best based on the type of cleaning you’re going to do. “If you have a good surface on a good car, you’ll want to use a “wax safe” soap. With that, you can wash off the dirt, but keep the protective coating you already have on your vehicle.” However, he says “If you’re going to be doing more of a restoration to the surface, it’s okay to use a more aggressive soap that strips off the wax.” Always wash from the top down and use plenty of water. Speaking of that, Dave has a handful of Pro Tips, including one about water. We’ll get to those in a couple minutes.
Clay bars are a fantastic idea; they have just enough abrasion to get surface imperfections lifted up. Be cautious to keep folding the clay to keep the rough stuff from touching the paint. Sometimes clay can seem like a lot of work, especially on larger cars like the Charger, but that “smooth as glass” surface you get from it really is worth the effort.
Cleaning wheels can be a challenge too; road grime and brake dust cake on over time. The key here is to clean them regularly and prevent that dirt from building up in the first place. Once brake dust is on there, more brake dust will stick to it, really making a mess of things. Store-bought chemical cleaners can be effective, but be cautious to use the right one for your wheels; some can etch certain metals and paints. Pressure washers are a big help here, but again, you have to be careful because that pressure can damage the wheel surface and even knock off wheel weights.
As for products, Dave says stick with a well-known name brand and you’ll be fine. Yes, that includes soaps, waxes and dressings you’ll see at your local auto parts store. While there is a LOT of talk on the internet about small boutique brands, Dave tells us they’re not always worth the extra cash. For example, we were talking about a particular brand of wax (that shall remain nameless!) and he said, “It’s still based on traditional wax, it’s mostly snake oil. You may get a little bit extra shine and a little extra protection, but you don’t have to spend that kind of money to get a quality product.”
That is a perfect segue into one of the biggest buzzwords in detailing these days: ceramic. Ceramic coatings are all the rage and for good reason; they offer a tremendous amount of protection for your paint. However, it’s not something for the novice to try themselves. Dave says “I recommend having it professionally installed by a detailer or dealership, that way there’s a warranty. Ceramic coating is so hard and tough that if you make a mistake you’re going to pay for it.” He goes on, “Think of it as a clear nail polish or even body filler; you apply it and work it in when it’s soft, but once it hardens it’s HARD!” Make a mistake and you literally have to sand it off the surface. Now, the upside is that ceramic coating gives you a number of benefits:
- UV protections that can help slow the fading of paint, especially for cars that live in the hot sun
- Protection from stains. Chemicals in the environment are repelled by the coating
- It’s easier to wash. Ceramic makes it tougher for dirt and grime to stick to your vehicle
- Lots of shine! The coating gives a nice depth to your shiny paint
There’s another process that gets a lot of press: paint correction. I didn’t realize my paint was incorrect! He laughed and said that paint correction is “where you actually get down into the clear coat to take out those fine scratches and orange peel” that mars a lot of cars. It’s not just for older cars either; he points out that it’s not uncommon for cars to have imperfections when they’re brand-new, so you can get a paint correction done right out of the box, then cover it in ceramic for a great look and protection.
Before I let Dave go, I asked about interiors too. Obviously, regular vacuuming keeps things in order, but “you want to catch any spills before the stain can set, and keep up on the car … don’t let it get too dirty in the first place.” Finally, that finishing touch: to get the dust out of air vents, you can use a vacuum with a bush tip, some compressed air … and you can never go wrong with old-fashioned cotton swabs!
I had to ask what was the toughest job he ever had to clean? “It was a boat I had to restore; it had been in a driveway for 10 years and actually had a TREE growing through the seats!” The good news from all of that is no matter how badly winter has trashed your car, and despite your children’s attempts to grind French fries into your carpet, a good detail really can bring the life back into your car!
Now, let’s get to Dave’s Pro Tips:
- Washes, polishes, waxes: buy a higher end, but readily available product from a known brand and you’ll be fine. The expensive boutique brands aren’t bad, but also aren’t necessarily worth the high prices
- Always work in the shade. Work inside if possible. Pop up canopies are great for this too. Don’t work under trees, especially pines (sap!)
- Clean sap and bug residue ASAP because the chemicals can permanently stain paint
- Use fine grade clay bars only on dark colors; clay can cause scuff marks if the grade is too heavy
- When applying polish and wax, only do one panel at a time
- And perhaps the greatest Pro Tip of all time … how to get streaks and spots off your glass! Dave says you need to use “spot-free water.” Okay, what is that? He has special filters on his detailing truck to purify the water he uses, and while that system can cost thousands of dollars, you and I can simply use a carbon filter (like a Brita or Zero system). Filter that water, put it in a spray bottle and after you’ve cleaned with a traditional glass cleaner, go back over it with the filtered water and buff with a microfiber cloth. It really works!