How to Detail Your Car’s Exterior Like a Pro

How to Detail Your Car’s Exterior Like a Pro

Last Updated August 8, 2023 | Hamilton Schutt

A good car detailing involves more than just a wash and wax. An exterior detailing takes on not just the painted panels of your vehicle, but also the trim, glass, tires, and wheels. Even though it's a lot of work, when you finish, your ride will look better than ever.

But in order to get those results, you need to know what to expect. Whether you choose to do it yourself or hire a professional, understanding the process lets you anticipate what's needed.

Though it may seem challenging, many enthusiasts discover they really enjoy doing this work themselves. More to the point, you'll save hundreds of dollars by taking this project on yourself. While there's no substitute for a true professional detailing, with time and practice, you can get phenomenal results.

Note: While we're not covering it here, most experts agree that starting with your interior detailing makes the most sense. Our interior detailing guide covers that process. You may want to split these activities between two days or try it in one if you're especially ambitious.

Before You Get Started on Your Detail

A good detailing takes patience and know-how. So read this section before you shower your vehicle in an endless supply of chemicals - in direct sunlight.

What Supplies Do You Need for a Full Detail?

The tools and supplies you'll need will change depending on how deep of a detail you want.

The following list includes everything recommended by some of the best detailers in the business. But you can certainly complete a great detailing without a pressure washer or foam gun.

To stay organized, gather your supplies in a safe location like a caddy or table. Most importantly, you want to keep items like your clean microfiber towels from picking up rocks and debris. You'll also want a separate area to keep dirty brushes and towels so they don't contaminate your clean supplies. A laundry basket or bin works great here.

How Many Buckets Will You Need?

You should have three buckets. One without a grit guard and two with grit guards. The bucket without a grit guard is for the wheel and tire brushes and can be filled with water and car shampoo.

The buckets with grit guards are for washing the rest of the car. Fill one of these buckets with clean water. This is the rinse bucket. Fill the other bucket with water and car shampoo. This is the wash bucket, and also where you'll keep your wash mitts.

Note: Don't use a sponge to wash your car. Rocks and debris can get stuck in the holes of the sponge and scratch your clear coat.

Protect Yourself

Some of these chemicals are harsh or may cause unexpected reactions. Work in a well-ventilated area and wear protective gear like gloves and safety glasses. Different products will have different precautions in terms of spray distances and dilution amounts. Follow these recommendations to keep yourself safe.

When and Where Should You Detail Your Car?

You'll need to avoid direct sunlight so the water and cleaners don't dry and cause water spots. Find a covered location like a tent or carport, a shady spot, or pick a day when the sun's not out.

Make sure your car's exterior stays between 50 and 80 degrees. You'll also want to check the forecast to avoid rain. Not only will rain make it harder to see where you've already cleaned, but it makes it impossible to complete some steps (like waxing).

How Long Does a Full Detail Take?

Generally speaking, a full exterior detail takes about 4-8 hours. The three major things that will affect your timeframe are:

  • Dirtiness - The dirtier the car, the longer it will take to clean.
  • Size - Bigger vehicles just take longer.
  • Standards - Perfection takes time.

How to Detail a Car Exterior

Now that you have your supplies, the right day, and enough time to do a good job, you're ready to get to work. Remember to stay hydrated and call up that neighbor who owes you a favor when you need a break!

Step 1: Pre-wash and Rinse (Optional)

Pre-washing a black car with a foam gun and snow foam

Pre-washing your vehicle loosens some of the dirt, grime, and bugs layered on top of your paint. This step isn't necessary, but it does provide a better finish. If you decide to do a pre-wash, you can use either a snow foam or a pre-wash spray.

Snow Foam vs. Pre-wash Spray

Snow foam is fun and simple to use. It also makes it easy to see if you miss any hard-to-see spots during the rinse. However, it requires the use of a foam cannon or foam gun.

Pre-wash sprays are also easy to use and the only extra equipment you need is a working hose. But, they aren't as fun and typically spray on clear so it's easier to miss spots during the rinse.

Coat the exterior of your car (including wheels, grilles, and every nook and cranny) with snow foam or pre-wash spray. Let the product sit for the manufacturer-recommended amount of time. Once the time is up, rinse your car from top to bottom to remove the loose layer of gunk.

Pro Tip: Use bug remover spray on splatter hotspots like the grille, front fender, and headlights to loosen bugs that won't budge.

Step 2: Clean the Wheels and Tires

washing the wheels of a car with a detailing brush

The wheels and tires should be the first area you clean after the pre-wash. This is because they're the dirtiest part of the car. If you save them for last, you run the risk of spraying dirt and grime onto your freshly cleaned paint.

  1. If you skipped the pre-wash, take a second to rinse off the initial layer of filth.
  2. Spray your wheel and tire cleaner on and scrub with your brush.
  3. Use a smaller brush to get around the brake calipers, lug nuts, and any intricate spoke patterns or difficult-to-reach areas.
  4. As your brushes get dirty, rinse them off and keep scrubbing.
  5. Continue this spray-and-scrub method until the visible lather is no longer dirty. Then rinse.
  6. Repeat this process on each wheel and tire.

If you're up for it, you can use your iron decontamination spray on the wheels and brakes. This will remove any brake dust buildup. After decontaminating the wheels, rinse them again and you're good to move on.

Step 3: Wash the Body

washing the roof of a soapy blue car with a wash mitt

Rinse your vehicle from top to bottom and begin to wash it using the two-bucket method. You need one bucket with a grit guard and clean water, and one bucket with a grit guard, clean water, shampoo, and wash mitts.

Wash in sections starting at the top of your vehicle to avoid having to rewash areas. As you finish washing a section, rinse it before moving on to the next.

  1. Use the wash mitts from the wash bucket to clean the painted panels.
  2. When the mitt gets dirty, plunge it into the rinse bucket.
  3. Rub it against the grit guard to remove rocks and debris.
  4. Wring the mitt out, and then dip it back into the wash bucket for more shampoo.
  5. Use a smaller brush to get bugs free from the grille, remove dirt from emblems, or touch up any other hard-to-reach places.
  6. Repeat the process until your car is clean.
  7. Once your ride is clean, rinse it again and dry it with plush microfiber towels. Make sure you dry your vehicle faster than the water can evaporate to avoid water spots.

If you have a modern vehicle with plastic light housings, you'll want to wash them exactly the same way you're washing the body (including the clay bar steps). Like the grille, you may need to apply some bug remover to your lights. If you have an older vehicle with glass lights, then follow the instructions in the glass section below.

It's common to come across various bumps, dings, and dents when washing an older car. If you find anything during the washing process, it's a good idea to consider paintless dent repair to help remove small dents from your car without damaging your paint.

Step 4: Use an Iron Decon Spray (Optional)

If you've never decontaminated your clear coat, it's likely full of tiny iron particles. You need to dissolve these particles before claying your car. Otherwise, the clay bar or mitt will be less effective.

Decontaminating your clear coat is very easy. Coat the painted body panels with your iron decon spray, wait the manufacturer-recommended length of time, and then rinse the spray away. Make sure you quickly dry your car again after the rinse.

This step is optional because you only need to do it every six months. Feel free to move on if you've recently used an iron decontamination spray on your car.

Pro Tip: If you want to see how many iron particles are living in your clear coat, pick a decon spray that changes color when it comes in contact with iron.

Step 5: Clay the Body

claying a black car with a clay bar

Claying your vehicle removes embedded particles and pollution from the clear coat to restore paint depth and luster. A little resistance at first is normal, but as you continue it should get easier to move your clay around.

  1. Coat a small section (2' x 2') of your ride's painted body panels with clay lubricant.
  2. Gently rub the clay bar (or clay mitt) across the lubricated surface from side to side and then up and down.
  3. Once your clay bar can move easily across the section, wipe the area clean with a microfiber towel.
  4. Repeat this process for all the painted body panels.

If you drop your clay bar on the ground, don't use it on your car again. The clay is sticky and can pick up rocks and debris that will scratch your car. Once you finish claying the panels, they should feel as smooth and slick as glass.

Step 6: Polish Out Imperfections(Optional)

polishing a black car with a mechanical polishing tool

Use polish and a microfiber towel, foam pad, or mechanical polishing tool to fix imperfections in the clear coat. There are many grades of polishing compounds available. Make sure you start with the gentlest option.

Only use the more aggressive compounds if you absolutely need them. Also, if you plan to add a ceramic coating to your car, make sure you get a polishing compound without any glaze. Ceramic coatings and glazes are not compatible with each other.

  1. Add a few drops of polishing compound to your applicator.
  2. Dab your applicator onto a small section (2' x 2') of your car's paint and work it in. You want to do this in a circular motion. If you begin to run out of polish, add more to your applicator, dab the remaining area, and continue working.
  3. Go back over the same section with your applicator, moving from side to side and then top to bottom. This ensures you don't miss any spots.
  4. Once you finish polishing the panel, wipe it down with a microfiber cloth to remove the excess polish.

Make sure you check for swirls or scratches with a flashlight before you move on to the next section. If there are still scratches or swirls, hit the section again. If these imperfections are persistent, you may need a stronger polishing compound. Repeat this process on each painted body panel.

Step 7: Clean the Windows

Spraying cleaner onto the windshield of a car

Getting crystal clear windows takes a little more effort than you might expect, but the result is worth it.

  1. Spray your favorite glass cleaner directly onto your microfiber cloth and wipe away the dirt on the window, working from side to side and then top to bottom. For bigger windows, it's a good idea to work in 2' x 2' sections.
  2. Use a clay bar to remove particles that attach to the glass. Make sure you use a fresh clay bar or clay mitt for your windows, though. If you reuse the one from the body panels, you could scratch the glass. Coat the glass in clay lubricant, and rub it down with a clay bar. Again, work in 2' x 2' sections on bigger windows.
  3. Once the window is free from contaminants, wipe it again with a microfiber towel and glass cleaner.
  4. Dry the window with a waffle-weave towel or another clean microfiber, making use of that cross-hatch pattern again.

Step 8: Apply a Paint Protectant

ceramic coating a car with a foam applicator and cloth

The last step in your detailing journey is to add a layer of protection to your car. This will keep your car looking great for longer and make it easier to clean. Without it, your car might need a wash much sooner.

You generally have three options: wax, sealant, and ceramic coating. All three of these options have pros and cons. Here's a more detailed breakdown of sealants vs waxes vs ceramic coatings so you can pick which is right for you. Of these three, ceramic coatings will have the most involved application. Here's a walkthrough of how to apply a ceramic coating if you choose to go that route.

Step 9: Polish the Trim and Protect Your Wheels

applying tire shine to a black car's tires

Some items, like your exhaust tips or metal emblems, may need a little extra polish after you're done washing. A metal polish, applied first to a microfiber cloth, will remove any oxidation or other signs of age and give your metal pieces a little sparkle.

Plastic or rubber trim pieces also need to be wiped down and have protection applied. The protectant sprays for these parts will specifically guard against UV damage.

Remember to also add a layer of protection to the wheels and tires. Wheel protectants can help keep your wheels clean and ward off brake dust. Not to mention they make your wheels look better. Tire shine guards against UV damage to prolong the life of the rubber.

Making Your Exterior Detail Last

After the time you just poured into your vehicle's exterior, it would be a shame for your work to be ruined by a pigeon who had a little too much espresso. Keep a bottle of quick detailer and a few microfiber towels on hand to remove daily contamination as it happens.

You'll want to detail your vehicle again in about four to six months. Until then, a basic wash every two weeks and a spritz of spray wax, sealant, or ceramic booster should hold you over just fine!

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Sources: 2018 Ford Mustang Brochure, Dealer eProcess | How to Detail a Car Completely, TurtleWax | How to Detail Your Car's Exterior Like a Pro, TORQUE Detail | The Beginners Guide to Car Detailing, AvalonKing | How to Clean Your Wheels and Tires, Pan the Organizer | How to Choose the Right Compound or Polish, Chemical Guys | How to Clean Car Windows like a Pro, Pan the Organizer | How to Wash a Car Wrap and Maintain It After, Ceramic Pro | Six Secrets for Maintaining Your Vinyl Wrap, AvalonKing | How and When to Use Quick Detailer Pro, Pyramid Car Care | How to properly Clean Car Wheels and Rims, AvalonKing

This article was researched, written, edited, and reviewed following the steps outlined in our editorial process. Learn more about CJ's editorial standards and guidelines.