Auto Laundry News - June 2012

Detail Shop — Step up Your Game

By Kevin Farrell

Detailing has always been a labor-intensive operation; it can take several hours to completely restore a car to its showroom beauty. Many years ago, people used very little equipment to get the job done. The term “elbow grease” was often employed to signify the hard work and effort that went into cleaning a car inside and out. Hand scrubbing interior components such as carpets, floor mats, seats, and interior trim was the norm. Harsh chemicals were often used along with aggressive brushes.

This was also the case in cleaning and buffing the exterior. Rubbing compounds, harsh wheel cleaners, stiff brushes, and many towels would be used to get the exterior of the car clean and shiny. At the end of the day there were many tired arms, backs, and shoulders from all the scrubbing. The time it took was extreme as well. Of course, detailing has come a long way since that era. Today there are many machines that can assist with specific tasks, and there are many new products and tools that make life easier and help make the cars look far superior, in far less time. However, if you read the annual Auto Laundry News Detailing Survey and examine the percentages of detailers using some of the newest tools and equipment, it becomes clear that not all detail shops and car washes that offer detailing have caught on.

Let’s take a look at some of the equipment and new products a detail shop should strongly consider having on hand to help produce better looking cars and present a more professional image. You may want to consider updating your shop by investing in some of the cutting edge stuff that is out there.


In a car wash you will most likely run the vehicle through the tunnel. However, it may not come out perfectly clean and prepped. For a high-end detail, wheels have to be spotless with no residual brake dust on the face of the wheel and as deep as you can see into the wheels, including spokes and lug nuts. Bugs and their residue need to be completely removed and tar needs to be removed from the body.

To thoroughly wash a car, you will need bug sponges made of either a nylon fabric or microfiber. You will also need a few different brushes to get into wheels such as double sided toothbrushes and softer bristle wheel brushes. In some cases, plastic scrapers can be used to gently remove built-up tar or tree sap. A microfiber wash mitt is a better choice than a traditional wool wash mitt or a sponge.

In a detail shop, you will have to physically wash the car. If you have a floor drain you can use a pressure washer with conventional car wash soap and a chamois to dry the car. The newer more eco-friendly way to wash would be with a waterless car wash product combined with a steam cleaner and microfiber towels to both wash and dry.


Most shops have gone from the old scrub-brush-and-bucket method to using more high-tech ways to clean an interior. Depending on your budget, you can add more advanced tools and equipment to clean an interior. To begin, a vacuum is obviously needed to remove dirt. You have several choices.

Shop Vacs
While fairly powerful, these have large diameter hoses that are cumbersome inside a vehicle. The accompanying attachments are also large and not specifically made for cleaning a car interior. What a detail shop should have is a vacuum with a hose diameter of no larger than 1.5 inches. Horsepower of four or thereabouts will generally suffice. Crevice tools — to get into tight spots — and a carpet attachment will aid in the removal of loose dirt and debris.

Air Compressor with a Blow Tool
Using an air compressor with a blow tool is a great way to blow out dirt and dust from tight places that a vacuum cannot reach. The compressor does not have to be large or develop more than 100 psi, as too much pressure is dangerous for the user and possibly for some items in the interior.

Heated Carpet Extractor
Carpet extractors operate with either cold or heated water. A heated unit is the only way to go. You need the hot water to do a better cleaning job. It will be a huge aid for those vehicles that have ground in dirt and mud and have seen years of neglect. Cold water won’t help in most cases. You will need numerous passes to get an area clean with a cold water unit compared to a heated extractor. A cold-water extractor will make an interior far wetter and take far too long without great results. There are many sizes of carpet extractors available with small and large capacities, depending on the number of cars that need to be done per day. Extractors have various pump pressures that determine how much water is laid down and vacuum lift to suck up the water and dirt out of a soiled

Steam Machine
While a heated carpet extractor is still a great machine to have, the newest, most progressive way to clean an interior is with a steam machine. Steam machines, or steamers, can clean the entire interior, while a carpet extractor is really only good for carpets and possibly seats. And there is a probability of creating too much wetness with any carpet extractor. Many articles have been written (several by myself) on the use and advantages of steamers, and many people are more in tune now with what a steamer can do. The dry vapor will not get an interior nearly as wet as other methods, and with proper brush attachments a steamer can clean everything. It can be advertised as more sanitary, as the extreme heat will disinfect many problems areas. This can be a piece of equipment that takes your shop to the next level. However, if you have the budget, it’s a great idea to have both a heated carpet extractor as well as a steamer.

Steamers are good at removing odors if the source of the problem is found. However there will always be vehicles that have a residual odor that just won’t seem to go away. For these cars, you can use an ozone machine. Ozone changes the molecules in the air and has the ability to disinfect and neutralize odors. It’s a wonderful tool for the problem odorous cars.


Of course the vehicle needs to be compounded, polished, and waxed — or any combination of the above. Many years ago, it was just how much strength you had in your arms and your stamina that determined how good you could get a paint surface to look. There were buffers, but the term “grinder” was more like it. Products were very abrasive and took “dead” paint off to bring up a fresh layer and that was the way cars were polished. We have come a long way since then, and the job is much easier now. The tools we use are still buffers, but they are much better, lighter, and more effective than the buffers of yesteryear.

High-Speed or Rotary Buffer
This type of buffer is still needed for ultimate paint correction. It will level and shave the paint surface more quickly and thoroughly than any other buffer. Various pads can be used to accomplish this along with a variety of buffing products. This used to be a tool that everyone had, and it was an absolute must to use many years ago. But there were drawbacks. This tool can quickly remove too much paint and burn the surface. This problem was common and still can be if care is not taken in its use. Also, this machine can produce nasty-looking swirl marks if used too aggressively. Because of this, more and more detailers — especially at car wash locations — are using this machine less and less. A rotary buffer will be more time consuming to use as there will be multiple steps involved, and the skill level of the detailer needs to be greater, but when properly used this tool can make a paint surface look better than new.

Orbital or Dual-Action Buffer
Orbital buffers have also come a long way. Many years ago, the most popular orbital buffer was a big “can” that was heavy and had two side handles. It vibrated and barely did anything besides waxing a car. It was a huge effort and workout to use one. Most detailers realized that this machine did very little to correct paint so they continued to use a rotary buffer.

Today, the orbitals are smaller, lighter, accept many different pads, and can be used for paint correction to waxing. They are much more powerful and far easier to use. It has become the buffer of choice for many professionals. The big advantage of using an orbital buffer is little to no chance of harming the paint surface. Even a novice can use one, and the learning curve is extremely quick. In a large shop that needs to detail many cars per day, lower-skilled and less-experienced personnel can use this tool. There is little chance of swirling or marring, and many jobs now can be done in one step. Most orbital buffers have adjustable speed, which gives the tool the ability to do a little more correction in fewer steps than a rotary buffer. This enables car washes that are doing express detailing to offer customers a more affordable price and complete many more jobs per day.

Buffing Pads
Wool pads many years ago were the standard for both compounding and polishing. While wool is still the best way to “cut” a paint surface and perform total paint correction, many detailers shun this pad for the safer foam pads. Foam has also come a long way in recent years. They are much more durable, paint-friendly, and do a better job of both correcting and polishing a paint surface. There are various styles and types of foam. However, the newest generation of buffing pad is microfiber. A microfiber buffing pad can actually cut better than a coarse foam pad while being much smoother and still creating a great gloss. This type of pad has tremendous range from cutting to waxing, all with one pad in most cases. It’s been an exciting innovation that will further assist a detailer in creating a better-looking vehicle in a shorter amount of time.

Buffing Products
Buffing products are better than ever. New-generation compounds cut well, but are less dusty and can still create a great gloss. In many cases now, the compound is so good that when used with an orbital buffer and a microfiber pad, it is possible to compound and go directly to waxing. This was unheard of just a short time ago. Most polishes can easily remove swirl.

Let’s not forget the new generation of waxes that are available. They are easy to apply and wipe off with no scrubbing if they set too long. The new waxes give long-lasting protection, a superior shine, and are so much easier to work with than before. All of these tools (and pads and products are certainly tools) will make the job much easier for the detailer in any situation.

Proper towels will help you clean better and save time. The old standard in towels was simply terry cloth. They were used for everything. But there were limitations that were just not evident until better towels came along. Terry will clean. However when they get wet they just push dirt and moisture around and lose their effectiveness. They also can scratch both interior and exterior components after a while. And don’t forget all the lint that a terry cloth towel leaves behind.

Presently, microfiber is the standard. There are different forms of microfiber that can be used to scrub, wipe down the exterior, remove polish and wax, dry excess water, and clean windows. Microfiber is lint-free and will do a far superior job at deep cleaning than a terry cloth towel ever could. You should have an assortment of microfiber for all these cleaning operations. They come in different sizes and colors that can be dedicated for
specific needs.

Electronic Paint-Thickness Gauge
The last tool to look at that many shops disregard is the paint-thickness gauge. It is something that can help you in more aggressive paint-correction situations, such as wet sanding and heavy compounding. A paint gauge will make sure you do not remove more material than needed. A tool such as this can determine if a car has had bodywork or extra paintwork done to it that you may not be able to identify otherwise with the naked eye. It takes just one mistake in buffing or wet sanding to remove too much material. A tool such as this can prevent that mistake and save you much money and embarrassment. Most shops should have this tool.


What makes the job easier and gives you better results? Of all the tools, equipment, and products mentioned in this article, there is no single magic piece. You must update your entire shop and detailing methods to get the full benefits of what is now out there. Upgrading just one or two items is a good start, but consider all the tools and products mentioned and give them a try. It won’t cost as much as you may think. The quality of the job will be far better, the time will be decreased, and customers will be amazed at how great their vehicle will look when you get done with it. Customers are demanding better service and results of every business. You can step up your game and deliver by taking a look at all these innovations in detailing.

Kevin Farrell owns and operates Kleen Car (, a full-service auto-detailing business and a distributor of steam machines, located in New Milford, NJ. Kevin is also an instructor
for a detailing program he developed for, and in conjunction with, BMW of North America. His background includes auto dealership experience and training through DuPont, General Motors, and I-Car.

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