Car Cleaning Tools & Accessories

There are a wide variety of tools and products available for detailing. Walk into an auto parts store, and there are endless brands of waxes, sealers, polishes, finish restorers, glazes, cleaners, etc. What follows are suggestions of the tools you will need for serious detailing, and a rundown on the types of products available. This information should help you decide which type to buy.


There are a number of tools that you’ll find necessary, and others just helpful. Detailing has come a long way from a bucket, dish washing soap, a sponge, an old bathroom towel, and a can of paste wax. In this section, we’ll go over most of the many tools available to the detailer today.


You’ll need two buckets rather than just one. One is for car wash solution, the other a rinse bucket. As you wash the car, you’ll dip into the cleaning solution, wash an area, then rinse the wash mitt in the clear, clean water. This way, you do not carry dirty washing water — and the scratchy sand contained therein — to the surface of the paint.

Wash Mitt

Forget the sponge! Get a wash mitt. These come in wool or terrycloth. Each works equally well with the single exception that wool will carry more cleaning solution. The advantage of the mitt over a towel is its ability to hold lots of cleaning solution. Using lots of solution helps carry away the dirt with less chance of scratching the paint. The mitt is a very useful tool.

To achieve professional detailing results, you need to use what the pros use – lambs-wool mitt, terrycloth mitt, regular sponge and a “bug sponge”, which has polypropylene webbing around it for light scouring action.


If you don’t have a mitt, natural sponges are among the best items for washing cars. Although they cost more than synthetic sponges, they last much longer. The bigger the sponge, the better, because it will hold more soap and water and thereby allow you to cover more area before returning to the wash bucket. One sponge you’ll need is a “bug sponge.” This is a small sponge, about the size of a kitchen sponge. Around it is wrapped plastic netting. This slightly abrasive (but non-scratchy) material will quickly wash away even the driest dead bug. Whatever you do, don’t use the type of kitchen sponge which has a rough pad on one side. It is too easy to make a mistake during washing and accidentally use the wrong side. This surface can really scratch. It can even permanently scuff the chrome finish on bumpers or trim parts.


There are two types of chamois: natural and man-made. The natural chamois will absorb great quantities of water—more so than the man-made. A natural chamois is a piece of suede like leather oiled and tanned to make it soft and pliant. Once it has been wetted down and wrung out, it will soak up water like a sponge, but will leave the surface dry and streak-free. Plus, unlike a towel or cloth, it won’t leave behind lint clinging to the paint. After a few uses, though, the natural chamois begins to get stiff as the oils are washed out. Fortunately, this stiffness goes away when the chamois is wet. However, the stiffness, when dry, makes the chamois hard to store. It’s like a big board. The disadvantage of the natural chamois, compared to the man-made, is its shorter life and high cost. A less expensive alternative is the synthetic chamois. Some of the synthetic chamois work remarkably well and often hold up better than the natural variety. Plus they cost about a third as much. The Absorber is a particular brand that picks up more water than a natural chamois and it stores away wet, which you’ll find is another advantage.

Using a chamois to dry your car is perhaps the best method to prevent water spotting and streaking. This is the ultimate natural chamois — pure goatskin. Although very efficient, a natural chamois is relatively expensive and does wear out.

Many detailers use a synthetic chamois. The synthetic costs less, absorbs up to 50% more
water, lasts longer and can be rolled up and conveniently stored in the bottle shown here.

Dry Cleaning Cloths — Dry clean your car? Well, almost. A type of cloth called a dry cleaning cloth has been available for years. These are soft cloths treated with a cleaner to help remove light films and dirt from cars. They are used by some car dealers who find it easier to just wipe down the dust which accumulates on the cars overnight instead of doing a complete wash to every car on the lot. Although dry wash cloths shouldn’t be used on heavily soiled cars, they certainly are much faster and easier for a quick, light cleaning. If there is any grit on the car, it may scratch the finish. If you have a dark-colored car or if you’re very picky about its finish, be cautious when wiping down your car with a dry cleaning cloth.


You need a minimum of two separate groups of towels. One group will be used with products containing silicone, the other must never be contaminated with chemical. Silicone on the windshield is nearly impossible to get off and it leaves a smeared surface. If you plan to do any painting, you’ll not want silicone anywhere near your surface. Silicone is the main reason for “birdseyes” in new paint. So, keep two sets of towels; you may want to keep even more. The professionals keep them separated by color. White for nonsilicone products and black for products containing this wonderful, but difficult to deal with, chemical product.

You’ll need more towels than just about anything else. When it comes to towel material, there s little that compares with cotton terrycloth. If you can find them in this age of Huggies, cotton diapers are a good substitute for removing polish and wax. Stay away from T-shirts, especially those with silk screened or embroidered artwork.

If you polish and wax by hand, you may want to keep separate sets for application and buffing of each product. Buffing (rubbing) compounds are more abrasive than polishing compounds. If you should try polishing with a towel that still has compound on it, you run the risk of scratching the surface you’re polishing. Likewise, if you have polish on your waxing towel, you risk the same problem. I suggest you have a different color towel for each application, including window washing, interior cleaning, etc.


There are brushes of every size and description for every job. There are acid swabs, brushes for cleaning carpet, for upholstery, tires, wheels, spoke wheels and excessive dirt on the body. My favorite brush is a 2-inch nylon paint brush with the bristles cut off about halfway down. This gives a very stiff but gentle brush. It’s great for removing dried wax around chrome, brushing crumbs out of the area under the seat-cover welt, getting into grooves, nooks and crannies for washing, or just brushing. Two or three of these brushes will take the place of much of the vast array of those on the market.

Many brushes available to the detailer – feather duster, a soft brush for delicate material, a stiff scrub brush that could be used for carpet care, a detailer s ‘toothbrush” (available with plastic, brass, and stainless steel bristles).

I like to keep a selection of brushes that look much like toothbrushes but have bristles of stiff plastic, brass and stainless steel. These are great for rust removal, hardened grease and other problem areas. They are available, three to a package, one each of plastic, brass and stainless steel bristles. (Apply a little Flitz polish to the brass brush to get the rust you’ll find between the bumper and bumper guard on autos where these items were chrome plated.)

Although it’s not really a brush. I’ll add it here anyway. Buy a small feather duster for the interior. You’ll find lots of uses for it there.

Handy swipes are shaped to a tire’s sidewall to evenly apply tire dressing and prevent sags and runs.


This is a maybe yes or maybe no product. If you’re a professional, or plan to become one, it will make window cleaning go faster. If you’re just doing the family car it won’t do much for you except maybe leave streaks on the window. Using your chamois is more effective.

Vacuum Cleaner and Attachments

If you’re going to buy a vacuum cleaner, buy the most powerful shop vac you can afford. At this writing, Sears offers a shop vac that includes a separate blower. This is great for blowing water out of areas like the groove between the fender and the body, around the doorjambs and other areas where water likes to hide.

The most important attachment for your vacuum is the long narrow wand designated as the tool for cleaning Venetian blinds. This tool really gets down into the cracks and grooves, especially between the seat and the side-body rail. The second most important is the brush. I like this tool for cleaning the instrument panel. It’s also a must for vacuuming headliners.

Professional Tools

These are tools that may not be necessary, but are sure helpful if you can afford them.

Temperature Gauge — Professionals like to know the temperature of the paint. If the surface of the paint is too hot, chemicals for working it will not react as they should. Buffing compounds dry too quickly, waxes also dry too fast and streak. By knowing the surface temperature the professional knows how his or her chemicals will work.

To really determine if you will have enough paint to finesse out defects, you’ll need a paint thickness gauge. These devices will tell you how many mils of paint are in and around a particular defect, be it a scratch or chemical spot.

Paint Thickness Gauges — This great tool measures the thickness of the paint. With just a little arithmetic the user can determine how thick the clear coat is. Knowing this, the user can determine just how much buffing the clear coat can take before it becomes buffed through. There are expensive digital electronic versions, but you can also get by with a less expensive magnetic gauge.

Glossmeter — Pro Motorcar has developed a nifty new device that measures “Distinctness of Image—Gloss.” The instrument, called a Quality of Finish Measurement instrument (QFM) is a small, handheld battery powered instrument that enables measurement and evaluation of automotive finishes.

Worried about burning through paint? The combination above is designed to reduce the likelihood of such a catastrophe. The Black & Decker buffer has electronic speed control to prevent the speed from rapidly increasing when pressure is removed from the wheel. Megular’s foam pads are more forgiving than wool pads and therefore also reduce the chances of burning the paint. The latest advance is the use of Pro Temp non-contact thermometers to check the surface temperature of the paint while learning buffing or while testing out new polishes, pads, or paints. Temperature build-up during buffing is particularly critical on fiberglass or composite panels because they don’t absorb or dissipate heat as well as steel or aluminum panels.

Loupe — A loupe is a photographer’s tool. The photographer uses it to inspect his or her proof sheet or transparencies for sharpness, detail in the shadows and overall appearance. The detailer can use it to view flaws in the paint. Is that a chip or a bug? Is the ring I see sitting on top of the paint or is it etched into it? How deep is that scratch? This is a great tool.

Paint Cleaning Tools

When the car has been thoroughly washed, it may need to be “cleaned.” This means removing surface defects such as oxidation and acid rain spots.

For finessing minor defects, and for color sanding, you’ll need ultraflne sandpaper, ranging in grits from 600 to 2000 grit. These are more like “polishing” papers than sandpaper.


Abrasives have changed to meet the demands of the new paint systems. Bud Abraham of Detail Plus is now offering a Cera finishing paper which is a super fine emery paper graded in 8,000 and 10,000 grit. Detail Plus also offers a new sanding solution Clay Plus which comes in an 8 oz brick. Applied with water, one of its benefits is the reduction in use of solvents making it an environmentally friendly new product. Bud also recommends that paint shops beware of the ingredients in off-the-shelf waxes and detail shop products because many contain silicones.

3M has introduced fine grades of finishing film discs for use on DA’s to help productivity in the shop. Their Stikit P 1200 paper for example can be used dry to remove orange peel and thereby eliminate the need for the clean up and drying associated with wet sanding. In their Perfect-It system, the sanding would be followed by rubbing compound. The final step would usually be application of their Machine Glaze, which comes in Light and Dark for lighter or darker color cars. 3M cautions to “Always use the least aggressive procedure that will effectively do the job.”

Finishing papers have also become color-coded. The Lapika brand of papers from Eagle are available in grits ranging from their L-400 to L-1500. Eagle states that their “roller coating system” used to produce the Lapika papers results in a more uniform grit which reduces the depth of scratches during use.

Ultrafine Sandpaper — Detailing companies such as Meguiar’s and 3M offer microfine sandpaper grits for colorsanding and for removing surface scratches. Get an assortment of grits from 600 to 2000. For more details, see the sidebar nearby.

Power buffers operate up to 4500 rpm. In the hands of a professional, the buffer can be used effectively to restore paint to a deep gloss, using the right chemicals, of course. But in the hands of a less experienced person, it can melt clear coat and paint right through to the metal in the blink of an eye. Practice on scrap metal, burning through the paint on purpose to get a feel for how quickly it can happen.

Variable Speed Rotary Buffer — Pneumatic or electric, the purpose of the buffer/polisher is to rotate at a high speed, usually from 1800 to 4500 rpm, which creates friction and heat, thereby softening the paint. Once the paint is softened, you can either correct the surface irregularity and/or create a high shine using the appropriate pad and chemical. Most paint finish problems require the use of a high speed buffer. Even clear coats with severe etching or scratches will require the use of a buffer to correct the problem. Some models come with true variable speeds, controlled by a trigger, while most offer one, two or three different speeds selected with a switch. Using this machine requires considerable practice before committing it to actually rubbing out the paint on your car. It’s very, very easy to bum right through your paint and into the primer! Never use a high speed buffer on paint less than 3 mils thick.

The orbital polisher is often mistakenly called a buffer, which refers to removing top layers of paint to restore gloss. The orbital is good for applying and removing wax, however, and its orbital action prevents it from burning paint.

Orbital Polishers — Technically speaking, orbital buffers can not be called a buffer or a polisher, since it does not revolve in a rotating motion that creates the friction and heat generated by a rotary tool. In actuality, the orbital duplicates the hand motion that would apply and remove wax or sealant. With some good finishes, it is possible as a first step to chemically clean the finish with an orbital and then apply the wax or sealant. Which you do depends on the paint finish. The orbital is becoming an essential tool for detailing, especially with clear coat finishes that often do not require the use of a high speed buffer for minor polishing defects. Orbitals are available as either electric or pneumatic. There is also a mini pneumatic orbital waxer that weighs less than three pounds.

Pads / Bonnets — Pads are generally used with the rotary buffer/polishers and bonnets with the orbital tools. Pads can be grouped into two categories: cutting and finishing pads. Cutting pads are woven wool and available in diameters of 7″ to 9″ with and without the new Velcro attachment and lengths of 3/4″ to 1-1/2″. The purpose is to remove the paint surface irregularity: orange peel, surface scratches, water spots, etc. Without exception, the cutting pad will cause swirls in the paint when used with an abrasive compound. That is why you must follow its use with a finishing pad. Buffing pads are color coded for their level of cutting action. The “red” pad, which is more burgundy in color, is designed for heavy cutting action and is somewhat akin to the cutting action of the least aggressive wool pad. Use this with light rubbing compounds.


Meguiar’s has a color-coded system to label their pads, and others have similar systems. From left to right is a wool bonnet for aggressive buffing, a red polyfoam cutting pad (less aggressive than the wool pad) used on the orbital buffer, the yellow pad for polishing, tan for finishing and the small yellow again for polishing but used on a small orbital polisher.

The yellow pad is less aggressive than the red pad and is considered a polishing pad. It has a very light cutting action. Use it for applying polish during that stage of your exterior detailing. One of the primary advantages of both the red and yellow pads is that neither produces swirl marks.

The tan pad is considered to be a finishing pad and is used for very light polishing or wax application. It has no cutting action.

Finishing pads fall into three types: 100% sheepskin; sheepskin/synthetic mix; and foam. The 100% sheepskin pads have been the standard for detailers wanting a show car finish. The drawback is the price. By far the most popular is the sheepskin-synthetic mix to polish and remove swirls. Reason: less expensive price. With the clear coat finishes, the foam polishing pad has become quite popular with detailers. It leaves no swirls, or removes swirls; it requires no maintenance to speak of, but it does not last more than 5-6 cars.

Bonnets, as mentioned, are used with the orbital waxer. They are usually made of terry cloth and provide sufficient abrasiveness to easily remove cleaner, polish, wax or sealants. Normally, two are used per chemical application, one to apply it, a second to remove it.

A new innovation in orbital bonnet technology is the se of 100% sheepskin or sheepskin/synthetic mix. These bonnets are only used to remove lighter waxes and sealants to provide a scratch-free finish on dark cars.

New pads are also making their appearance. Foam pads are less aggressive than wool pads and are now commonly used for the final polishing and for removal of swirl marks. And now there are even different grades of foam pads, color-coded so that it’s easier to remember which pad to use with which polish. New varieties of wool pads are also available and for large volume or production shops, Schlegel, a leading pad manufacturer, says that wool pads are the fastest solution to dirt in a paint job. New finer wool polishing pads are also coming out which will reduce linting and fine scratches or swirl marks.

Masking Tape

There are two tapes you’ll never find me without: masking tape and duct tape. Both are indispensable but masking tape helps do the job. Mask off any trim before you begin to buff to prevent burning it or otherwise damaging it. Likewise, place a strip along hood and trunk edges to protect them also. Use masking tape to hold broken medallions to the body while the cement dries.

Masking tape should be used to cover door, hood and trunk edges where the paint is especially thin to prevent burning through it. You may also want to cover certain panels with a sheet of plastic or “visqueen,” as shown above, to protect paint from any caustic chemicals you may use, such as engine degreaser.

Cotton-Tipped Applicators

These rascals are the backbone of the industry and are synonymous with the word “detailing.” In my photo illustrations you can see they now come in every size, shape and length you could want. Use them to clean in the very tightest of places. You can also make your own by wrapping cotton around toothpicks.

These are special detailing cotton swabs, used to get into crevices and areas your finger can’t. They are pretty trick, but you can achieve similar results with a toothpick or shish kabob skewer wrapped in cotton.


The type and variety of products available to the detailer is mindboggling. But remember, they are grouped generally into the categories of washing, cleaning, polishing and protecting.

Washing Products

Today’s dish soaps, long an amateur favorite, are formulated to cut grease, and will strip the wax on your car. There are a number of car wash soaps available, both professional and consumer, that have the proper formulations to protect paint.

The following products are designed for washing, to get the items basically clean.

Washing Liquids — Never use dish washing soap (detergent) to wash your car. Detergent is a natural wax stripper and the product used to strip wax from vinyl tile floors! You’ll actually wash off your wax the first time you wash your car with detergent. Instead, buy one of the brand name cleaning solutions designed for auto exteriors. Meguiar’s has two products called Car Wash & Conditioner (designed to be safe for paint with a clear coat) and Soft Wash Gel. Eagle One’s product is called Car Wash & Wax Conditioner. This is one of the most important products for long term car care. If you send your car through the car wash, you can never be sure whether or not they are using detergent. Use these facilities at your own risk.

Bug And Tar Remover — Some manufacturers combine both products in one aerosol can, others treat each one individually. All of them seem to work well, especially the bug stuff. Remember, however, these products may strip the wax from your car, especially the tar remover.

Wax And Silicone Remover — Here is a product guaranteed to strip off your wax. That’s what it was designed for. It, however, is the most powerful of the tar removing agents. If you have ever driven over a road that has just been reoiled, retarred or resurfaced, you’ll understand how difficult it is to remove these products, especially after they’ve dried for a week or two. Wax and silicone remover will take it off. Buy this by the gallon at automotive paint stores.

Vinyl And Convertible Top Cleaning — Use your car washing liquid for both of these tops. If you happen to be washing the convertible top of an Asian or European luxury car with a cloth top (Haartz Cloth or Cambic) be sure to rinse very, very well. If you have stubborn spots on a vinyl top, use one of the vinyl cleaners designed to clean vinyl interiors. Follow this with a vinyl conditioner or protectant.

The thing to remember about wheel cleaners is to check to make sure it is compatible with the metal type of your wheel. Wheel cleaners are generally caustic chemicals designed to cut through and dissolve brake dust. Check to make sure that the wheel cleaner you choose is safe for your wheels. As shown, a different cleaner exists for chrome, mags and aluminum.

Tires & Wheels — Tire and wheel care has spawned its own mini-industry. There are so many different materials from which the wheels are made, it became necessary to make a product for each wheel. Therefore, when you go shopping for a wheel cleaner, be sure to get one that is designed either as a general purpose cleaner or is specific to your wheel: paint, chrome, aluminum or magnesium.

Tires are a different matter. There are cleaners, dressings and protectants. Cleaners will be necessary if there is a brown ring, called blooming, around the tire.

Westley’s Bleche-Wite is the best product for cleaning whitewalls and white lettering. There are some spray on and walk away dressings that work well if the tire is relatively clean. Protectants and dressings usually have different levels of gloss. In general, you don’t want too much of a shine to the point where the tire looks unnaturally bright.

Vinyl Cleaners — Again, many manufacturers try to incorporate a cleaner and conditioner into a one-step process for interior trim. However, single products devoted to one task seem to be more effective. Vinyl cleaning products can usually be sprayed onto the vinyl and scrubbed with a brush. A good trick for vinyl floor covers in trucks, which tend to get filthy, is to use tire cleaner.

You’ll find a dizzying array of tire dressings, conditioners, cleaners, protectants, restorers, etc. What works best? Personal preference is more the rule of thumb. If the tire has a brown ring around it (called blooming) then you’ll need to deep clean it. A one-step, spray on and walk away type of product may not be sufficient. Go with a cleaner, followed up with a dressing.

Interior Protectants — There are a wide variety of vinyl protectants available, and they are not all the same. First, look for a water – based protectant. Some are solvent – based with potentially hazardous ingredients, such as petroleum distillates, alcohol and kerosene, and can emit fumes and shouldn’t be used inside closed spaces, such as a garage. Second, look for a protectant with UV absorbers, the more strength the better.

Leather requires special care, and there are special cleaners and conditioners. Do not use saddlesoap and neatsfoot oil for automotive leather. These products are not formulated for the leather used in automotive interiors.

Leather Cleaners And Conditioners — Use these products the same way you use vinyl products with the exception of spraying the cleaner onto the leather and scrubbing. This is far too harsh. Spray the cleaner onto a piece of toweling, gently clean the leather surface followed by gentle drying. Use a conditioner for leather as described for vinyl.

Carpet Shampoo — In general, a carpet shampoo formulated for the specific type of grease and oil stains that will be found on a floor mat are probably going to work better than a catchall type of carpet shampoo for the household. Most consumer oriented detail product manufacturers make a carpet shampoo. I’ve personally had good success with several household products, including “Gonzo” which is sometimes hard to find. The other product is called “Resolve” and will be found in the soaps and cleaners section of your local supermarket. These two products do an excellent job of stain removal.

Clear Plastic Cleaners — Both Eagle One and Meguiar’s manufacture a plastic cleaner and polish. These are great for the clear vinyl curtain in convertible tops, for the face of instrument clusters and any other clear vinyl or plastic (taillight lenses, medallions, etc.).

Manufacturers of auto detailing products are focused on formulating a product to remove and clean stains and dirt common to cars only. That’s one factor to consider when choosing a cleaner. To do a thorough, professional job, you really need a shampoo/vac machine, available for rent from supermarkets and hardware stores.

Window Cleaners — If your car has tinted windows, I strongly suggest you use a window cleaning product designed specifically for this. Household window cleaner can etch this vinyl film, reducing your visibility.


Chemically, soaps and detergents are fairly complex and diverse but the concept of how they work is very simple. In fact soaps are one of the oldest forms of chemistry, having been used for centuries.

Basic Soap

Soaps clean dirt and oil by surrounding the dirt and oil particles with soap molecules and allowing them to be dissolved in water.

Simple, eh? A soap molecule is made up of a long chain of atoms (between 10 and 40). One side of the molecule likes dirt and oil and the other side of the molecule likes water. When soap is mixed with dirt and oil then rinsed, the dirt liking side is attracted to the dirt and surrounds the particle. When you rinse away the soap, all the water liking tails stick out into the water and look like millions of microscopic spiny sea urchins.

Why Detergents?

Soap has a few problems, the biggest is that soap is badly affected by hard water. Chemists found that by using similarly shaped molecules (long molecules with dirt liking and water liking ends) they could get better cleaning and less problems with hard water.

These are called detergents. There were a few problems with early detergents also. Since they were designed to be such long lasting cleaners, natural processes could not break them down and they built up in the environment until they became a pollution problem. Now, most detergents still in use today are as biodegradable or more biodegradable than soaps.

Exterior Paint Cleaning Products

These are the items that can be most confusing, but essentially, they are products designed to remove mild surface defects, oxidation and to prepare the surface for polishing. Cleaning products are what we call rubbing or buffing compounds. Not every car will need to be “rubbed out” or cleaned to this extent. If the paint has heavy oxidation, then heavy compounding is called for. If your paint is in excellent condition, you can skip the cleaning step and go right to polishing.

Paint cleaning products vary in their degree of abrasiveness. You’ll want to start with the least abrasive cleaner first. If It doesn’t work, then go heavier. But keep in mind these abrasives remove paint, and the idea is to obviously remove as little as possible.

Always start with the least aggressive compound you think might do the job. If it doesn’t give you the results you want, switch to a more aggressive product. By using the least aggressive material possible, you extend the life of you paint. Remember, in this step you are actually removing either color or clearcoat. Take it easy!

Detailing clay is sold under many brand names, but the purpose is the same: to remove minor paint defects and particles caused by industrial fallout, such as smog, acid rain, and iron particles.

Detailing Clay — The ultimate in washing your car is the use of detailing clay, or as it’s often called, fallout clay. This product is used either during the washing process, or afterward with a lubricant. As you can see in the chapter on washing, this product looks like a patty of plasticine clay or Silly Putty. It is formed into the shape of a hamburger, then lubricated with suds and wiped over the surface area with minor defects. It removes fallout from acid rain, bug droppings, jet fuel, and the corrosion from iron particles mixed with acid rain that causes corrosive damage to the surface of the paint. It also removes hard water spots in some cases. It does not, however, remove the wax!

Compounds — Rubbing compounds, as they have traditionally been called, come in soft pastes or liquids and include a variety of different types of hard to soft abrasives which might include silica, diatomaceous earth or even talc, depending on what the formulator is attempting to achieve with the product. In general, compounds fall into three categories: heavy, medium or light. In addition to the abrasive they include solvents and oils, in varying degrees, and a number of secondary elements. Their purpose, used in conjunction with a high-speed buffer and cutting pad, is to correct a paint surface irregularity. Obviously, the heavy-duty compound is used for severe oxidation, scratches, etching or orange peel. You should never use a heavy-duty compound on a clear coat finish. The light-duty compound differs from the other mentioned compounds in terms of the type of abrasive used in the product. It has abrasive, however light, but it is in the product.

However you try to shake it out, a light-duty compound can provide for your operation a product that will offer “chemical” cleaning of a good surface that is stained; elimination of light surface scratches and water spots and finally a product you can use on scratched or spotted clear coat finishes. If you have a product that can do all this why would you need one especially for clear coats? Think about it.

The formulation we use has an extra amount of mineral oil to keep the product “wet.” That is, it does not dry quickly when used with a high-speed buffer and this helps to prevent burning. It also reduces the amount of product needed to buff the surface.

Combination Products — In an effort to make life easier, many manufacturers have made combination products. These are usually compounds that clean and wax at the same time and are called cleaner-waxes. Their purpose is to provide a quick one-step cleaning and shining of the painted surface. They can be used with a high-speed buffer and finishing pad or applied with an orbital. If a cleaner glaze/one-step product is used, nothing more should be done to the vehicle. If the finish isunsatisfactory after its use, then you have used the wrong product or applied it with the wrong tool and pad. The cleaner glaze product was primarily designed again for the auto dealer car where all that was needed was a quick high shine. (Given the finish was in good enough condition to justify only a one-step product.)

They can also be used for detailing cars where you sell a simple wash and wax; express detail; “hand wax” or other such low cost services. Remember, if you use a cleaner glaze, by definition, it is not necessary to wash or seal the finish afterwards.

Exterior Polishes

We come now to the third of our five step process. The car is washed and cleaned and now it must be polished. By a polish I mean a product that is used as the next step after the compound to remove swirls and polish the paint. It would also be used as a first step on a good paint finish to create a high shine. A “good” polish would include light abrasives to remove swirls, oils, solvents and silicones for ease of use. To remove swirls a polish must be used with a high-speed buffer and finishing pad. If you use an orbital to remove swirls, at best you will only fill them and after three or four car washes they will show as the filler washes away. On a particularly good finish, especially a clear coat, you could use the polish with an orbital as a first step to clean and polish the surface before wax or sealant application.

Chrome Polish — Every major manufacturer of auto cleaning compounds also makes a chrome polish. All are designed to be hand applied. You place a small dab on your towel and rub it onto the chrome, using more product and more effort where rust spots have developed. When the polish is dry then wipe it off. The product I like best is called Flitz and is available in most parts houses and paint stores. This German product does an exceptional job on all metals and never scratches.


Many labels on wax products contain the word “polymer” to hype the product. It would therefore be helpful to know exactly what this means.


The simplest definition for polymer is also the most descriptive: “poly” means many and “mer” means unit. So, any chemical that consists of endlessly repeating identical chemical units is a polymer. Polymers include such (now familiar yet somewhat incomprehensible) materials as polyethylene, polyurethane, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and polyisocyanate. Notice how the chemical name always starts with “poly” followed by another word. For example, poly-ethylene is many units of ethylene. Polymers also include more familiar materials such as wood, starch, rubber, protein and DNA. As can be seen from the latter list, polymers can have an endless variety of properties. In the car polish industry, the word polymer is the single most abused tenn I can think of. For example, most of the thickeners used in car polishes and waxes are polymers, which makes it suspiciously easy to put the words “contains polymer” on the bottle. Judge your product by how it works for you, not because the word polymer is on the label.

That being said, there arc polymers that can make large improvements in the quality of automobile finish products. But they have to meet certain criteria to make them better than waxes or silicone fluids. The most important criteria is a chemical reaction called “cross linking,” which means that there has to be a way for each one of these long chain polymers to connect together. If a polymer crosslinks, it can form a durable net of polymer over the surface of the paint. Depending on other properties of the polymer and the cross link, a more durable coating can be formed than could otherwise be achieved without the polymer.


Silicone fluid is a relatively short chain inorganic polymer called polydimethyl siloxane; please note the prefix poly before the units of dimethyl siloxane. The chain is not long enough to be typically called a polymer but by the technical definition, it is a polymer. Again we see here, the name “polymer” means less and less every time you see it. The properties of silicone fluids range from very thin, volatile liquids that look and feel like petroleum solvents to thick heavy liquids that look like crystal clear honey. The only difference between the thin liquid and the honey liquid is the number of units in the dimethylsiloxane chain.


The chemical dictionary states that the term resin is “so broadly used as to be almost meaningless.” Resin is a catch all term. But, usually, a resin is a polymer that melts or is soluble in specific solvents. In some cases the base material used to make a plastic is called a resin where the finished product containing plasticizers and fillers is called plastic. So, how do you know what resin is being referred to on a product label? You don’t. What does resin do for a polish or sealant? Since there are so many materials that can be classified as a resin, it is anybody’s guess. As with most of the complex sounding names on labels, they are marketing jargon. Use the product that provides the performance and characteristics that you like, not because there is a long name on the label.

Classic cars have yards of chrome, and need a special polish. After polishing, you can add a light coat of wax to the chrome for added protection.

Wheel Polishes — Again, as with wheel cleaners, we enter a very specialized realm. There are polishes for each type of wheel as well as cleaner/polishes and polish/wax combinations. Here, you must again do a little experimenting on your own to find just the product you like. All are good, but as is often the case, you’ll find one product that does just the job you want, where that same product might not do the best job for me. It just seems to work that way. When everything is polished out, you must protect the finish.


Everything you’ve done so far has been to create the best shine possible for your paint. Now, this shine must be protected. Waxes are available in pastes, creams or liquids; they can contain natural or synthetic waxes; by name: carnauba, paraffin, synthetic camauba. They will also contain oils, solvents and silicones. Their purpose is to provide protection and enhance the shine left by the polish. There is really no major difference between pastes, creams or liquids other than the amount of water or solvent in the formulation. The more water the softer the product; the less water and more solvent the harder the product.

Camauba Wax — In its purest form, it is the most durable and most protective type of wax. Camauba wax is a resin produced by the wax palm tree Copernicia cerifera. This tree grows in various parts of South America, but the trees in Northeastern tropical rain forests of Brazil are thought to produce some of the highest quality. Carnauba is available in various grades of purity and clarity: #1 yellow is the top grade going downward to #2 yellow, #3 yellow, and various other commercial grades. Carnauba has a very strong grain structure and is the hardest wax known to man. In addition to being incredibly durable, camauba dries to a deep, natural shine (in contrast, bees wax, paraffin and many synthetic waxes tend to cloud and occlude).

Teflon Waxes — Teflon is a trademark name of DuPont Chemicals for a polymer (see sidebar) known as polytetrafluoroethylene, aka PTFE. Teflon is an example of a polymer that is not well suited for use in a car wax because of several other properties unrelated to its durable slippery nature. Teflon is a powder that melts at 600°F or dissolves in fluorinated solvents such as freon. Those are the only known ways to make Teflon into a liquid form. This is the main reason that Teflon is poorly suited for car wax. If it can’t be made into a liquid, it can’t be made into a coating. If it won’t coat the surface, it won’t stay there. Teflon is a powder that gets wiped away with the other powders in a wax or polish. Eagle One claims to have had success with a low temperature bonding Teflon, and backs up their Teflon wax with a guaranty. I find it hard to tell the difference between a car waxed with Teflon and one waxed with camauba. I’m still from the old school and use camauba paste wax.

Sealants — The term “sealant” seems to have different meanings for different groups. Detail people expect their sealant products to have extra durability, forming a protective film over the paint. Whereas body shops and automobile painters call a product a sealant if 1) they can not repaint the area after using the product or 2) it will impair the solvent evaporation from a newly painted surface. Lastly, paint manufacturers call a product a sealant if the product will stop “bleed through” of undesirable properties from lower layers of paint or substrate to the newly painted surface, such as a primer.

This has created a lot of confusion over the past years. The consumer has to recognize the point of view of the person to whom they are talking to understand which type of sealant is being referred to. For a detailer, a sealant product should be one that forms some sort of cross linking film over the surface of the paint, forming a durable barrier on the surface. Such as a polymer like amino functional silicones. Just beware of the other terminologies that easily confuse the discussion.


When a product sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true. In recent years, we have been bombarded with all types of protection products that promise year long, multi-year and sometimes lifetime protection. And while we would all like to have a product that would keep our cars looking like new for a year or more with just one application, it is simply not possible. Think of all the paint protection products that have come and gone over the last few years that at first sounded like they were the final solution to our car care problems. Each one filled the airwaves and store shelves for a year or two and then disappeared because no one would buy a second bottle. Some even light hoods on fire to supposedly prove miraculous durability. But the truth is that the hood in such demonstrations barely gets warm because heat rises. It’s an old trick that is a demonstration of physics, not paint protection. Unfortunately, the disappointment and frustration that comes from believing the hype and using these products is causing more and more people to become less excited about waxing their own cars at all. There are few things more frustrating than spending several hours waxing your car only to end up with disappointing results. As bad as that is, the real problem comes when the promise of a year or multi-year protection is believed. A car’s paint finish left unattended, except for washing, for a year or more will begin to take on the texture of sandpaper. At that point, getting the finish back to being as smooth as glass becomes a big job.

Maintenance Products

You’ve done a ton of work getting your car this far. Now you must maintain it. Very little work is required. Wash it regularly with a washing solution as discussed earlier. Use detail clay to keep off the elements, then use one of the many products that help keep the shine up. Meguiar’s has a product called “Quick Detailer Mist & Wipe.” Spray on and wipe off every other day or so, and you’ll extend the time between polishing and waxing. You can possibly wipe down your car every day, spray a little onto your towel, wipe it on gently then wipe it dry. It only takes a few minutes and helps keep that shine going between waxings.

Eagle One also has an excellent product called “5 Minute Detailer.” It’s applied in the same way and keeps your car really looking great. There are lots of other products on the market that do the same job. Try several until you find the one that works best for your paint. Remember, every paint job is different and will react differently to each product.

Engine Degreasers

The engine presents its own challenges, but mainly, there are several things to mention about degreasers.

Water Soluble Degreasers — These are the degreasers you’ll find in most of the parts stores. Names that come to mind are “Gunk” and “Berryman’s.” I believe that Gunk is probably one of the oldest degreasers on the market. I remember using it in the ’50’s.

The best way to use a degreaser is with the family’s one or two gallon pressure sprayer, usually reserved for spraying roses with insecticide. Buy a gallon of degreaser, load it into the sprayer and spray the engine. Follow the directions on the container as some products work best with the engine cold while others perform better with the engine hot.

There are a mind-boggling number of products available to you as a consumer and as a professional. Some products make wild claims about their ability to protect and restore paint finishes. You can eliminate a lot of trial and error by sticking to the basics, and by choosing a product suited for a particular application. A good rule of thumb to follow is that if a product seems too good to be true, it probably is.

WD-40 — The second degreaser, and my favorite, is WD-40. Just spray it on and rinse it off. It works every bit as well as a water-soluble degreaser and leaves no smell when you’re done. I think you’ll like the convenience of this degreasing operation.