How to clean, detail and wax your car's exterior

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Do a professional car detailing job at home

How to detail a car - Dirty car
A worst-case scenario: Loaded with dirt and a neglected finish. Photo © Aaron Gold

Regular washing is important, but to keep your car looking good, you should detail and wax it on a regular basis. Even if you've neglected your car's finish, making it look almost-new isn't really all that difficult. The folks at Mothers showed me how to use their products to bring that new-car shine back to my filthy Mitsubishi, and the results were impressive.

What you will need:

If your car has been regularly washed and waxed, you will probably only need a few detailing products:

1. Microfiber towels (the more, the merrier!)
2. Black-trim treatment
3. Spray-on detailer
4. One-step polish/wax
5. Wax applicators or orbital polisher

If your car hasn't been waxed recently or has a neglected finish, like mine, you'll probably need to call in the heavy artillery:

5. Clay bar
6. Mild polish or pre-wax cleaner
7. Wax

NEXT: Wash and dry

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Wash the car thoroughly and dry completely

How to detail a car - wash
Wash the car prior to detailing. Photo © Aaron Gold

This may seem pretty obvious, but I'll say it anyway: Wash and dry the car thoroughly before starting your detail work. Washing the car gets off the "easy" dirt so that the cleaning products you'll be using later on can take care of the hard stuff. (See my related article: How to wash your car like a pro.)

NEXT: Clean the jambs

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Clean the jambs

How to detail a car - cleaning the jambs
Cleaning the door jambs with detail spray. Photo © Aaron Gold

Doorjambs and inner door panels tend to collect dirt, but they don't get cleaned during a normal wash. Before wiping down the inside edges of the doors and the doorjambs, spray them with a between-wash detail spray.

Products used:

  • Mothers Showtime Instant Detailer 
  • Microfiber detail towels (compare prices)

NEXT: Treat black trim

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Treat black trim

How to detail a car - treating trim
Black trim and weather seals should be cleaned with special products. Photo © Aaron Gold

Unpainted trim and weather seals are usually made of rubber, vinyl or some other type of plastic, and will get brittle, stained and oxidized over time. The black trim on our Mirage was in pretty good shape, but for the sake of thoroughness we cleaned it with a Mothers product called Back-to-Black Heavy Duty Trim Cleaner. It includes a brush for easy application. For older, oxidized trim, Mothers recommends following up with their Back-to-Black Trim and Plastic Restorer. NOTE: Do not use trim dressing or protectant-type products on pedals, running boards, or other surfaces you step on, as it can make them slippery.

Products used:

NEXT: Treatment on older trim

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Back-to-Black treatment results

How to detail a car - treated black trim
Untreated trim on the left, treated trim on the right. Photo © Aaron Gold

This photo shows the results of using Back-to-Black on an older car with badly oxidized trim. Untreated trim on the left, treated trim on the right. Amazing, eh?

Products used:

NEXT: Clay the paint

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Clay the paint

How to detail a car -- claying
Clay is used to remove dirt and stains without damaging the car's finish. Photo © Aaron Gold

Clay is used to remove deep ground-in dirt and stains without damaging the car's finish. This is especially important on newer cars which use clear-coat paint. Mothers sells a clay kit that includes two clay bars, detailing spray (which is used as a lubricating agent for the clay), and a microfiber towel. After claying the car, the surface should feel noticeably smoother.

Products used:

Mothers California Gold Clay Bar Paint Saving System (compare prices)

NEXT: More about clay

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More about clay

How to detail a car - dirty clay
Dirt picked up by the clay bar. Photo © Aaron Gold

Claying is incredibly easy: Spray the area with detailer then slide the clay back and forth over the paint. The clay basically pulls up the dirt and shaves it off. Periodically flatten and fold the clay to expose a clean surface. There's one major caveat: Don't drop the clay! Dropping the clay renders it useless, as it will pick up dirt that can scratch the car. The detailer you'll be spraying on the car makes things slick, and I managed to drop a bar -- good thing the kit comes with an extra bar. Consider spreading out a beach towel beneath the area you're working on.

Products used:

Mothers California Gold Clay Bar Paint Saving System (compare prices)

NEXT: Polish the paintwork

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Polish the paint -- but only if necessary

How to detail a car - polish
Applying polish with the Wax Attack orbital polisher. Photo © Aaron Gold

Clay removes both dirt and wax, so you'll need to re-wax after claying. If your car's finish is in good shape, you can use a combined polish/wax product such as Mothers' Cleaner Wax, but if the finish is in bad shape, a two-stage polish and wax process is better. Most car-care product companies offer several different types of waxes and polishes; you can call their tech support line for advice on which product is best.

More about polishing: Polish smooths, clarifies, and cleans the surface of your car. Polishing will remove some small scratches, but it can also remove paint, so if you polish by hand, be careful to use light pressure. Using power tools to polish a car used to require finely-honed skill to avoid paint damage, but today there are electric orbital polishers that make the job easy and virtually foolproof. Mothers sells a kit called the Wax Attack, which includes the orbital polisher plus bottles of wax and polish.

Products used:

  • Mothers Wax Attack Polisher
  • Other orbital polishers (compare prices)
  • Mothers Microfiber Applicator Pads 
  • Mothers Caranuba Cleaner Wax 

NEXT: Wax the car

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Wax the car

How to detail a car - wax
Checking ot see if hte wax is dry. Photo © Aaron Gold

Wax doesn't just make your car look nice -- it provides a coat that protects the paint underneath. Though many people swear by carnauba wax, which is made from the leaves of the Brazilian-grown carnauba palm, modern synthetic waxes work just as well and are more gentle on the elbows -- they require less effort to remove than carnauba wax. Also, synthetic wax can be used in direct sunlight if need be, which carnauba wax can't -- though waxing in the shade is always preferable. Mothers recommends a cleaner wax for oxidized or stained paint and synthetic wax for healthy paint.

Wax can be applied by hand, but an electric orbital polisher/waxer can save a lot of time and effort, and is a sensible investment for large cars and trucks. Apply the wax directly to the applicator, not the car, and work on one small area at a time. Be careful not to get wax on black plastic trim; it will stain. Allow it to dry. When the wax looks hazy, run a finger through it. If it breaks apart ahead of your finger, it's ready to come off. Buff the wax off gently with a microfiber towel. If using a power polisher, be sure to use a new pad.

Products used:

  • Mothers Wax Attack Polisher 
  • Other orbital polishers (compare prices)
  • Mothers Microfiber Applicator Pads 
  • Mothers California Gold Synthetic Wax 

NEXT: Polish the headlights

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Polish the headlights

How to detail a car - Polishing the lights
Plastic headlight polish contains a UV protectant that can stave off clouding and oxidation. Photo © Aaron Gold

While waiting fot the wax to dry, Mothers suggested I polish the lights with a product called PowerPlastic 4 Lights. Plastic headlight covers will oxidize and fog up over time, and while they can be polished clear, this product applies a UV protectant that can stave off oxidation and clouding.

Products used:

  • Mothers PowerPlastic 4 Lights 

NEXT: Wax the wheels

NEXT: Wax the wheels

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Wax the wheels

How to detail a car - Wax the wheels
A quick coat of spray wax keeps the wheels protected. Photo © Aaron Gold

Waxing the wheels will help protect them from dirt and brake dust, and will make them easier to clean. You can use the same wax you applied to the paint, but a spray wax product makes the job quick and easy, and is a good thing to have in your cleaning kit for regular car washes.

Products used:

  • Mothers California Gold Spray Wax 

NEXT: Almost done! Wax clean-up and maintenance

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Wax clean-up and maintenance

How to detail a car - results
The end result: A car that glimmers like new with its paint protected under a coat of wax. Photo © Aaron Gold

You're almost done! Use a microfiber towel or a detail brush to clean out any wax that may have accumulated around trim pieces, emblems and badges.

Once that's done, give yourself a pat on the back! Your car is not only clean, but you've applied a protective barrier that will protect your car's finish. And doesn't the car look great? (Compare the picture above to the picture in step 1.)

You should continue to wash your car regularly as weather permits; re-wax in six to twelve months or when water no longer beads on the surface of the paint. For between-wash touch-ups, a detailing spray like Mothers Showtime will give your car that just-waxed look.

Products used:

  • Microfiber detail towels (compare prices)
  • Mothers Detail Brush
  • Mothers Showtime Instant Detailer 

Back to the beginning

Related: How to wash your car like the pros

Special thanks to Jim Dvorak and the folks at Mothers, who provided space, supplies, know-how and elbow grease for this article. Visit them online at