Auto Laundry News - June 2011

Common Errors — How to Fix Them in Exterior Detailing

By Prentice St. Clair

In the April 2011 issue of Auto Laundry News, I covered interior detailing errors that I believe are among the most common. I had started out writing that article with the intention of covering both interior and exterior errors. As the list of common errors grew, I realized it would be best to devote two columns to the subject.

The four common interior detailing errors discussed were: streaky windows, neglecting to clean the crevice between the seats and the center console, over-saturated carpets, and overdressed interior panels. Included in the discussion were potential solutions for each of these problems. Those solutions typically involve improvements to the techniques and procedures used in each of the problem areas.

I suspect that, as we expand the discussion into the common exterior detailing errors, we will again find the solutions to those errors are often embedded in the procedures used. With that in mind, I would like to cover the following areas in this month’s column: swirl marks, wax residue, and incorrect use of dressing.


Swirl marks are the result of incorrect use of a high-speed rotary buffer. Now when I say, “incorrect use,” I am not just talking about how the device is handled. There are many variables that go into polishing the painted surfaces of a vehicle, and correct decisions must be made for each.

The first consideration is the condition of the paint and the expectation of the customer. If the paint is in bad shape and the customer wants it to look as new as possible, then multiple steps of polishing are likely. On the other hand, if the outcome expectation is the same but the paint has only micro-scratches due to regular washing, a completely different approach will be taken by the detailing technician.

So, the concept of “avoiding swirl marks” begins with an evaluation of the paint, an understanding of common paint problems and how to fix them, and a clear determination of the expectations of the customer. Only then can we consider the other involved variables, which include: what type of machine to use, which pad to choose, what paint-correcting chemical to use, and how many steps will be needed.

I do not have the space to discuss each of these variables in depth. Paint correction is both an art and a science, and if one wishes to master this process, one-on-one hands-on training is highly recommended. None-theless, this article is supposed to be about common problems, so let’s take a stab at it.

In my experience, the most common cause of swirl marks is using an overly aggressive pad or chemical. For example, some operators have the unnerving habit of picking up a traditional wool pad and a high-speed polisher for almost every car. Using a wool pad is okay if the paint condition warrants, but there are very few situations in which this is true.

Usually when a wool pad is chosen by a trained professional operator, it is because the paint condition is very poor. Additionally, the technician will follow-up the wool pad step with at least two additional polishing steps to remove the technical damage placed into the paint by the wool pad and compound.

This brings up a common mistake: going from compound and an aggressive pad directly to wax or one-step. Typically, the assumption here is that the wax will hide most of the swirls put in by the aggressive first step. The problem is that the wax will evaporate or be removed after a few car washes, thus exposing the swirl damage.

Another common mistake is using pads that are worn out. The most delicate swirl removing pad can behave more like a moderate polishing pad if its surface is tattered and torn. For Pete’s sake (who is Pete, anyway?), buy a new pad once in a while!

They are not that expensive if you are charging appropriately for your paint perfection services; using a new pad for every few jobs is quite inexpensive.

Another common mistake is using the same polishing pad with several different strengths of polishing chemical. The problem here is, for example, that a pad that was used with an aggressive polishing chemical will still have some of that aggressive polish in the pad, even though the next use was with fine swirl removing polish. Instead, have one pad dedicated for each type of polish that you use.


Years ago, my friend Emil from Connecticut spent a couple of years working with me here in San Diego. We lamented the many cars that we worked on that had built-up dried wax in the crevices and badges. Often, this was left by the previous “professional” detailer. On one particularly bad example, a car that happened to be owned by a dentist, Emil commented, “This stuff is like plaque on teeth. It’s wax plaque.” Thus, a sub-cultural term was invented.

Wax residue is an inexcusable occurrence for a professional detailer. I will help you with three ways to keep wax plaque from showing up. (And, yes, one of the ways involves using a toothbrush.)

1. Pre-Dress Trim
Pre-dress the plastic and vinyl trim that is adjacent to the painted panels. This will help keep the wax from “soaking in” to these surfaces. Don’t worry about getting dressing on the paint — you will be waxing over it anyway and the wax will take up the excess dressing. Later, during wax removal, you will find that the wax that accidentally got onto these trim parts will come off quite easy.

2. Apply with Polisher
Compared to applying wax with a random-orbit polisher, waxing by hand tends to use much more chemical and leave much more behind in the cracks and crevices. Thus, I recommend using a dual-action or random-orbit polisher to apply wax or sealant. Take care when running the polisher heads near door handles, crevices, and over badges.

3. Detail the Edges
Wax plaque can also be avoided by taking the time during wax removal to detail the edges. I like to use a horsehair brush, either in a toothbrush style or paint brush style. The horsehair bristles seem to remove the wax residue with very little visible scratching on painted surfaces.

I like to do the detail wax removal at the same time that I am removing bulk wax, one panel at a time. First, I remove the wax from the edges with a brush, then run the wax removal towel across the edges, then buff the wax off of the main part of the panel.

The technique that I teach during hands-on training is to run the detail brush across every seam and edge, regardless of whether or not wax plaque is visible — sometimes the wax or sealant may not be visible because it is still wet. But once it dries, the white residue becomes clearly visible to the customer.

A standard cotton swab will help with removing residue from vehicle badges and lettering. Preferable to the drug store swabs are the ones that are designed specifically for detailing. These have much denser cotton and hold up well to working into the lettering of the car.

The edges of each opening door on the vehicle should be wiped as well. This includes the main doors, the trunk or hatch, the hood, and the fuel door. Open each one and run your towel down each painted edge of the door, as well as the edges of the adjacent panels. (Might as well clean the jamb area with a sprits of spray wax at this point.)


In the article on common interior detailing mistakes, I mentioned the overuse of dressing on interior vinyl and plastic panels. This leads to a fake-looking, over-shiny, and greasy-feeling surface that most customers do not appreciate.

This same problem can occur on exterior dressed surfaces as well. For example, overdressed tires can lead to dressing slinging onto the side panels of the car as it drives away. To avoid this and still accomplish the important task of thoroughly coating the tires with dressing, I suggest this: using your preferred tire dressing application method, coat all four tires. Next, allow the dressing to dwell for a few minutes (perhaps while you take care of another part of the exterior detail), then wipe the tires with a utility towel to remove any excess dressing that might sling off later. The tires will have a new, satin shine without a fake gloss.

Bare-plastic step panels create a specific challenge to the professional detailer. If left undressed, they can look dull and untreated, as if we “forgot” to take care of them. However, if they are dressed with normal vinyl dressing, there is a distinct slipping hazard. I suggest using a non-silicone dressing and wiping off the excess after application. Also, there are non-silicone, non-dressing semi-permanent aerosol coatings that make the plastic look great without any slip.


One of the main goals of a professional detailer is to create a delighted customer by providing excellent results. Detailing errors can quickly reduce the level of customer satisfaction. Build up good procedures that include techniques to avoid common errors so that virtually every car coming out of your shop looks spectacular.

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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