Auto Laundry News - January 2013

IDA Certification — Study Guide: Exterior Detailing

By Prentice St. Clair

Exterior detailing involves four main activities. The first is to prep wash the exterior to remove dirt, dust, and other loose contaminants. Next the paint is cleaned and rejuvenated as necessary to make the paint surface look great. Then, protection is applied to the paint surface to keep it looking great. Finally, other exterior surfaces are detailed.

Before beginning the exterior detail, it is important to come to an agreement with the customer as to exactly what is to be done to the vehicle, how much this service will cost, and how long it will take. To ensure that the agreement is valid, the vehicle condition and the customer’s expectations must be determined.

First, conduct a complete inspection of the outside of the vehicle. Then determine the customer’s expectations as to the desired final appearance of the vehicle. Take the time to explain to the customer the steps that are necessary to bring the vehicle to the desired level of beauty. You can explain the charge for these steps and also offer the customer some different options that might include “good,” “better,” and “best” levels with corresponding appropriate prices.


Because this is such an important part of the process, let’s look closer at the exterior vehicle inspection. Take a quick walk around the car and look for obvious broken or damaged trim parts. Check the bumpers, spoilers, and rocker panels for scrapes, scuffs, and excess kicked-up foreign material like tar and road striping.

Then it’s time to carefully inspect the paint. It is on the painted surfaces of the exterior that you will likely spend most of your time during the exterior detail. Some technicians prefer to quickly wash the exterior before inspecting the paint so that all excess dust and dirt are removed, yielding a clear view of the paint surface.

Determine the type of paint system applied to the vehicle. It will be one of two main types — single stage or base coat/clear coat. A single-stage paint system is made up of multiple layers of pigmented paint, whereas a base-coat/clear-coat system is composed of a thin layer of color over which two or more thick layers of clear (non-pigmented) paint is sprayed. Most modern vehicles are clear-coated.

A simple way to determine the type of paint system is to apply a small amount of compound to a towel and rub an inconspicuous part of the paint (e.g., at the bottom of the spoiler or rocker panel). If the color of the vehicle comes up on the towel, you are dealing with a single-stage paint system. If no color appears, you are dealing with a clear coat.

Truth be told, your exterior detailing procedure will not change dramatically based upon the type of paint system on the vehicle. Most exterior detailing chemicals these days are designed to work on both systems. Nonetheless, on clear coats, do not use harsh products designed specifically for removing heavy oxidation from single-stage paint systems. On the other hand, virtually all “clear-coat-safe” detailing chemicals will be perfectly safe for use on single-stage systems. Check with your supplier if you have any questions about the appropriateness of the chemicals you are using for detailing paint.

When inspecting the paint surface, there are several common maladies that may appear. These fall into two basic categories: surface contamination and sub-surface damage. Surface contamination includes paint overspray, ferrous oxide deposits (rail dust), water spots, bugs, tar, and tree sap. Sub-surface damage includes scratches, etching, staining, and oxidation.


The basic exterior detailing process can be outlined as follows:

  1. Prep wash
  2. Remove surface contamination
  3. Dress and mask the exterior trim
  4. Polish/correct/rejuvenate the pain as necessary
  5. Apply and remove protection (wax or sealant) to the paint
  6. Final detailing: wheels, chrome, door jambs, and windows

First, conduct the prep wash. The purpose of the prep wash is to remove loose dirt, dust, and debris from the vehicle. Since the vehicle is to be detailed and wax applied, it is permissible to use harsher cleaning chemicals during the prep wash. (During a standard wash-only service, harsh chemicals should not be used because they may leave streaks on the paint and other surfaces.)

Some technicians prefer to perform surface-contamination removal (e.g., detailer’s clay or surface prep towel) during the prep wash step. If doing so, first wash the vehicle and rinse it thoroughly. Then use a new batch of car wash shampoo as lubricant for your surface-contamination removal tool. Finally, rinse the vehicle and thoroughly dry it.

Surface-contamination removal during the prep wash is recommended for vehicles with minimal surface contamination. If there is excessive ferrous oxide deposits or overspray, however, this step should be performed separately after drying the vehicle.

The advantage of claying the vehicle during the prep wash is speed. The advantage of claying as a separate step after drying the vehicle is that you can be more thorough and monitor your results as you rub the vehicle’s surface with the clay.

After the vehicle surface has been dried and is cleaned of all surface contamination, it’s time to prepare the exterior for polishing and waxing. Apply dressing to tires and wheel wells. Apply dressing to exterior vinyl, plastic, and rubber trim pieces. Some trim pieces should be masked instead of dressed so that they do not absorb the wax or polish.

Next, perform any necessary polishing steps. The purpose of polishing the paint is to remove minor sub-surface damage and shine the paint surface. A true polish will not add any protection to the paint surface — this is saved for the waxing step. Newer vehicles, and those that are detailed often, typically do not require any polishing, so you can skip this step and apply wax or sealant.

Minor polishing, for example to remove washing scratches, can be performed using a random-orbit polisher and a mild-to-medium-strength polishing chemical. However, the most effective results are yielded through the use of a high-speed polisher.

Extensive paint problems may require the use of several polishing steps to bring the paint back closer to its original beauty. “Paint perfecting,” the art of rejuvenating vehicle paint, is a complicated subject that can take up many pages in this magazine. Thus, I will save a more advanced discussion of paint perfecting for a later month.

Once the vehicle’s paint has been rejuvenated to your and the customer’s satisfaction, it’s time to protect that fresh paint surface with either wax or paint sealant. A high-quality wax will typically provide three to six months of protection. A polymer paint sealant will typically provide six to 12 months of protection. Additionally, a polymer paint sealant provides stronger protection than wax. It is quickly apparent why many outfits charge a premium price for application of a paint sealant — it is a better value for the customer.

Most technicians find that wax or sealant can be quickly applied utilizing a random-orbit polisher. Applying wax or sealant by hand takes much longer and uses up to four times as much product.

Thoroughly remove all of the wax/sealant residue, especially in the nooks and crannies of the exterior details. Utilize some of the available detailing brushes that are excellent for removing “wax plaque.”

Next, spend some time on the other exterior surfaces that may need attention. For example, chrome trim can be polished, the wheels and doorjambs can be spray-waxed and wiped, and the windows should be cleaned and wiped to streak-free.


I recommend having a basic exterior detail package that includes washing, claying, dressing, and waxing the exterior. (It will also include wiping the wheels, doorjambs, and windows; polishing chrome bumpers; and perhaps an interior vacuum.) This service foundation will make most cars look better and keep newer cars protected with regular service.

However, since simple waxing will not remove many types of paint damage, you have an opportunity to mark up the price based on the condition of the paint and the requirements of the customer.

For example, if the rocker panels are contaminated with heavy tar kicked up from the wheels, you may need to add an extra charge for the 30 to 60 minutes extra time it will take to fully remove such contamination. Likewise, if the customer is not happy with a heavy accumulation of normal washing scratches, you will need to charge extra for a high-speed polishing step added in before the waxing step.


Exterior detailing consists of rejuvenating and protecting the exterior surfaces of the vehicle. Assess the customer’s desires for the appearance of the vehicle, and, taking into consideration the condition of the vehicle, perform the necessary steps to make the exterior look as new as possible.

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.

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