Common Errors — How to Fix Them in Interior Detailing
he greatest reward for the automotive detailing professional is the enthusiastic approval of the customer upon completion of the detail job. On the other hand, it’s disappointing and embarrassing when the customer points out something left undone or an unsatisfactory result.
The intent of this month’s column is to discuss some of the more common problems of interior detailing and how to avoid them. Although I am sure that the readers can add many others, here are a few that I have seen over the years: streaky windows, the area between the seats, over-saturated carpets, and greasy-shiny interior panels.
I don’t receive too many complaints from detail customers, but when I do, one of the most common complaints is about streaky windows. We all know how detailer’s “love” to do windows, and, yes, I am being sarcastic. I’ll admit, it’s a bit frustrating putting in six labor hours on the “mini-van from hell,” and the only thing the customer sees is a streak on the windshield; but let’s face it, the windows are one of those areas on the car that really need to be 100 percent at the end of the job.
Avoiding streaky windows begins with approaching the job with the right stuff. The condition of the towels seems to be a large factor in how streaked the windows end up. Over the years, I have gone through phases of using only certain types of towels for windows. I have yet to find the perfect window towel that works every time.
One thing is for sure: Whatever towel you use for windows, it must be completely dedicated for window use only. This means:
- Never use window towels for anything else
- Store used window towels in a separate container
- Wash window towels separately
I have used white terry towels, but they sometimes leave lint. I have used lint-free microfiber towels, but they tend to be less absorbent, leading to extra wiping. The latest towel that I like is a huck towel or surgical towel. These seem to be working pretty well.
The next issue with windows is technique. The windows should be very close to, if not, the last step in the process. I like to do the inside of the windows at the end of the interior detail, then complete the exterior detail, then clean the outside of the windows. Most technicians would agree that two towels must be used — the “damp” or cleaning towel, and the drying towel. With particularly dirty windows, I use a third towel as a final wipe to ensure removal of streaks.
One way to avoid the whole towel issue altogether is to use lint-free paper towels. Just grab two from the box or roll and toss them when you are done with each vehicle. By doing so, you essentially eliminate the possibility of streaks resulting from dirty towels.
I always start with the windshield, when the towels are fresh and clean. Clean and dry one window at a time. Use at least one fresh set of clean towels for each car, if not one fresh set for the inside and one for the outside. To ensure removal of all streaks, go over all the windows one more time with a final wiping towel (without cleaner).
Window cleaning chemicals can make a difference, too. Use only a high-quality glass cleaner that is designed specifically for automotive glass. Additionally, the chemical must be compatible with aftermarket window films.
Remember that cleaning the interior glass means the mirrors as well. I have had problems with employees forgetting these. To avoid this, set down a procedure for window cleaning.
Customers will notice if the area between the seats and the center console has been neglected. Usually it is a matter of simply not fully inspecting this area. One thing that I have found helpful is to inspect from the opposite side. For example, while I am sitting and working in the passenger seat, I lean over and check the slot between the driver’s seat and the center console.
To get this area clean, start by vacuuming with a crevice tool. Approach the area from above, and from the foot wells in front of and behind the seat. It helps to move the seat to its extreme positions — all the way forward, all the way back, and as high as it can go.
In this area there are also often spills — a few drips of coffee, a bit a salsa. Try wrapping a wheel and spoke brush with a towel, mist the towel with carpet cleaner, and work this customized “tool” between the seats to take away those spill marks.
WHAT’S THAT SMELL?
In my opinion, a detailed car should never be returned to the customer with damp carpets or seats. It is not only unpleasant during the drive home, but damp carpets can also become moldy and smelly if left that way.
To help avoid leftover interior dampness, I recommend detailing the vehicle interior first — before the exterior. Thus, while the exterior is being detailed, the interior has a chance to dry or be force-dried with the techniques described below. Moreover, clean the mats at the beginning of the interior detail so that they can be set aside to dry.
Avoiding damp carpets starts with proper technique. If the carpets are not that dirty, you can use a dry vapor steam machine to clean them. The steam machine will clean the carpets without soaking them like an extractor. Mats cleaned with a steam machine will completely dry in a couple of minutes if placed in direct sunlight. And the steam machine is a must for fabric seats because the extractor just soaks the fabric and the foam backing with too much water.
If you are using an extractor, make sure your machine has powerful suction so that it can extract as much of the rinse water as possible. Check the hose and fittings for air leaks. Immediately after cleaning the mats or a section of carpeting, wipe the carpet vigorously with a clean terry towel to soak up excess moisture from the carpet fibers. Place cleaned mats in the sun. If sunlight is not available, set up an air mover with the mats lined up single file in front of the air mover on the floor. Using these techniques should yield bone-dry mats by the time the rest of the detail is complete.
Likewise, carpeting and fabric seats inside the car must also be dried after cleaning. One way to do this is to use the vehicle’s ventilation system. This technique involves running the car, so this will not work in a closed-up shop unless it has a vehicle exhaust removal system.
Turn on the car. Turn the fan on full-blast, the heater on its hottest setting, and turn on the air conditioning. It may seem at first counterintuitive to run the air conditioning, but AC, by nature, involves de-humidifying action. Additionally, make sure that the system is set to bring in fresh air, not recirculating. Set the mode of air distribution to “floor.” If you are drying fabric seats, too, then set the distribution to “floor and dash vents.”
Another option for drying interior carpeting is the use of air movers. As soon as the interior detail is complete, set up one or more air movers inside the car. This is a great option for closed-up shops that cannot run the car’s engine. If possible, keep the vehicle doors open to allow fresh air to circulate inside the car.
If, for whatever reason, you cannot run the car to dry the interior, park it outside in the sun with the doors (or windows) open and place some air movers inside.
I once got into a detail shop manager’s mini-van as we drove off to lunch. Although the interior of the van was — as expected — very clean, it had a noticeable odor of soap. Upon observation of the shop’s carpet cleaning procedure, it became obvious as to why this was the case — they put carpet-cleaning chemicals in the clean water tank of the extractor. To avoid this odor problem (and premature re-soiling of the carpets), use only clean water in the extractor, pre-spray the carpets with carpet cleaner — use the extractor only to rinse the carpets.
Now I realize that, even with the best drying techniques, the vehicle may not be bone dry upon return to the customer. In this case, I will recommend that the customer leave the windows “cracked” open overnight in the garage just to make sure that any remaining dampness is dispersed.
Interior panels, once cleaned, will look better if they are dressed with an appropriate vinyl dressing. However, most customers do not appreciate a super-glossy appearance or greasy-feeling coating on the dash and door panels.
To avoid the “cheap dressing” look and feel, start by using only water-based vinyl dressing on the vehicle interior. Go ahead and wipe it on generously. But here’s the trick: after the interior has been fully dressed, take a clean towel (terry or microfiber, whichever you prefer) and buff off the excess dressing from all of the surfaces that have been dressed. If done correctly, this simple technique will leave the vinyl panels with a natural-looking satin finish that does not feel greasy.
Now some operators, like my friend Greg Swett, who owns Classic Appreciation detail shops in Michigan, avoid the interior dressing issue altogether by using no dressing at all. In my opinion, the interior panels look better with appropriately applied dressing, but Greg insists that his customers love the results and never complain about “lack of dressing.”
It’s interesting that the suggested solution to almost all of these common interior detailing problems involves the procedure used to perform the work.
Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail Prentice@DetailinProgress.com or call (619) 701-1100.