Auto Laundry News - December 2012

IDA Certification Study Guide: Interior Detailing

By Prentice St. Clair

Continuing with the study guide for the certification tests offered by the International Detailing Association’s (IDA) Certified Detailer (CD) program, the next area of knowledge that I would like to cover is that of interior detailing.

The International Detailing Association offers it’s Certified Detailer
program to both members and non-members of the association. The program currently consists of 10 tests that assess the taker’s background knowledge of detailing. This month’s column is one in an on-again, off-again series that is designed to present a study guide for those interested in taking the tests. Get more information or sign up for the tests at


The standard interior detailing process generally includes these steps:

  1. Remove customer belongings
  2. Vacuum and air purge
  3. Check headliner
  4. Clean vinyl and plastic panels
  5. Clean seats
  6. Clean carpets
  7. Dress vinyl and plastic panels
  8. Condition leather
  9. Clean interior glass
  10. Deodorize as necessary

Remove Customer Belongings
Before you can even get to work on the interior, you need to get rid of all of the stuff in the car that’s in your way. As you make your way through the car, have three items ready during the vehicle clean-out: a couple of gallon-size re-closeable plastic bags for small stuff, a small garbage can for trash, and a box or crate of some sort for the larger items. Obvious trash gets thrown away. If in doubt, save it. Let the customer make the decision.

You may want to have a re-closeable bag for each pocket in the vehicle, and you can label each bag
as to the location from which the contents came. You may also want to ask the customer before starting if you should bother with the glove box or the center console. At the end of the detail, the large stuff gets placed neatly into the trunk or rear compartment of the vehicle and the re-closeable bags are placed on the passenger seat.

One important note about working on the interior of a vehicle: Never reach into an area without first looking. You never know what people have in their cars. I have heard stories about detailing technicians getting poked by syringes or cut by razors while reaching underneath a seat or into a seat pocket. If this happens, you are faced with several months of nervous waiting for the test results to make sure you did not pick up a serious disease from such exposure. Yes, it is highly unlikely that this will happen to any of us, but a couple of simple precautions will make sure it never happens: Wear gloves while you work, and check all areas with a flashlight before reaching in.

During this step, you may want to remove the floor mats and clean them. If they are rubber or vinyl mats, they can be cleaned with your favorite all-purpose cleaner and a scrub brush, and then rinsed. Heavily soiled carpeted mats can be pre-rinsed with a pressure washer (but never use a pressure washer inside the vehicle). A hot-water extractor is then the best way to clean soiled carpet mats. A dry vapor steam machine will do the trick for lightly soiled mats.

The nice thing about cleaning floor mats at this early stage of the interior detail process is that they can be set aside to dry. The sun is a great way to dry carpets for free. If the sun is not available, use an air mover or hang the mats in the shop.

Vacuum and Air Purge
The next step is to remove excess dirt and dust. This is typically done with a combination of compressed air and a vacuum. The compressed air will blow out debris from pockets and under the seats. The vacuum will remove the loose debris that remains.

Along with the vacuum, you need a good set of attachments. There are three must-haves. The upholstery brush, which is a four- to six-inch wide attachment with bristles around the opening, is designed for vacuuming the seats and the carpeting. The duster brush, which is a circular attachment with a ring of one-inch hogs-hair bristles surrounding the intake hole, is designed for “dusting” surfaces in the car like the dashboard, center console, and door panels. The bristles help to loosen dust from nooks and crannies as you gently run the attachment across the contoured surfaces. Finally, the crevice tool, which is the long, thin “wand,” can be used to reach in between and under seats and into door pockets.

Another important tool for vacuuming is the detail brush or paintbrush. You can use this to loosen dust from air vents while holding the crevice tool next to it to suck up the particles as they come loose.

Check the Headliner
Anyone who has had a negative experience with cloth or fabric headliner material knows that they can be tricky. Fortunately, headliners typically only need spot cleaning, which can be accomplished by gently wiping the area with a microfiber cloth that has been moistened with all-purpose cleaner. Another way to clean headliners is by use of dry vapor steam machine — on the lowest setting, please.

It may be tempting to use a hot-water extractor, but this is a big no-no. The hot water shooting into the material might loosen the adhesive that is holding the fabric onto its backing material. If that doesn’t happen, then surely the suction of the extractor nozzle can separate the fabric. This can cause wrinkles in the material or cause it to sag from the ceiling of the car.

In general, most professionals agree that it is not a good idea to spray anything into the headliner.

Clean Vinyl and Plastic Panels
Now it is time to begin cleaning the various surfaces inside the vehicle. We typically have leather, vinyl, plastic, fabric, carpet, and glass to deal with. I like to work on the plastic and vinyl panels immediately after vacuuming. This typically includes the dash, door panels, center console, and other various cover and trim panels inside the car. My logic for taking care of these panels next is this: As I clean these panels, I don’t have to worry about drips falling onto the seats and carpeting, overspray on the windows, and I can sit on the still-dirty seats as I work on the dash and center console. Of course, the carpeting, seats, and windows will get cleaned later.

Cleaning the vinyl and plastic panels is quite simple. The basic process consists of applying a multi-purpose cleaner to the surface, agitating, and wiping away the dirt and cleaner residue with a towel. Use a mild solution of your favorite multi-purpose cleaner. You may want to dilute it a bit more than the manufacturer’s recommendations to ensure that it is safe on the interior surfaces of the vehicle. I like to use a soft-bristled or flagged body panel brush for the scrubbing. I also carry a few different types of smaller detailing brushes so that I can get into some of the tighter areas and nooks and crannies of the center console and door panels. Soft terry towels or microfibers work fine for the wiping.

Work each area from top-to-bottom and from the middle of the vehicle toward the outside. The panels that should be cleaned include: vinyl headliners, plastic visors, the steering wheel, the “A” pillar, center console including cup holders, panels lining the foot wells, the door panels, the “B” pillar, the sides and backs of leather seats if upholstered in vinyl, as well as panels of the rear compartments of SUVs and mini-vans.

A special note: Some vinyl panels (like in newer BMWs) are made of material that is much more porous (for lack of a better word) than other vinyls. It seems that the grain is much deeper and thus holds more dirt and is harder to clean. On some of these, I have even added a “rinse” step after cleaning, by spraying the panel with clean water from a trigger sprayer and then wiping with a clean towel. This extra step seems to help with these “porous” types of vinyl.

Some technicians prefer to use a steam cleaner on this type of panel (and the entire interior) instead. The steam loosens the dirt and grime, at which point you can wipe it away with a clean microfiber. An added bonus of using steam is that it sanitizes and kills germs on contact. But caution must be used with steam; always use it on the lowest settings on plastic and vinyl panels. Also be aware that an intense shot of steam can “blanch” or whiten some vinyl panels.

Moreover, care must be taken when using steam (or any liquid) around electronic controls in the center console, the instrument cluster, and controls on the door panels.


Well, with interior detailing, there is a lot of material (pun noted) to cover. Cleaning and protecting the interior of a vehicle requires expertise in the treatment of several types of surfaces. So this subject will be continued in an upcoming month.

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail or call (619) 701-1100.

Home | About Us | Contact Us | Media Kit | Editorial Calendar | Events | Links | Archives

Auto Laundry News is published by EW Williams Publications Company
2125 Center Avenue, Suite 305, Fort Lee, NJ 07024-5898, USA Phone: 1-201- 592-7007 Fax: 1-201-592-7171