Focus on Reconditioning - June 2002

Detail Chemicals:
The Selection Process

By Joe Sipowicz

The selection of detail chemicals is one of the most difficult tasks the professional detailer needs to master. Confusion is the key word. Look at the product lists of most chemical companies who supply products to the detail industry. Is there really a need for all these different chemicals to do a basically simple job?

For the most part, every major chemical supplier to the industry offers a similar line of products to do the same job. After months of research and discussions with chemical manufacturers, distributors and detail shop operators, we found that product choice is very simply explained: user preference.

Just about every chemical company claims to have the "best this" or the "best that." It was found that even a high rate of usage wasn't so much a reflection of the quality of the product, as of the sales effort of the distributor, the price per gallon, or the availability of credit.

To facilitate the selection of the appropriate chemicals, we have devised the following criteria:

1. Chemicals that work in a pressurized dispensing system, that are free-flowing, and that do not separate or have to be agitated after sitting in the system.

2. Chemicals that are versatile enough to be used for more than one job.

3. Chemicals that have proved themselves in both laboratory comparison tests and on-the-job testing for several weeks.

Using these criteria, we found that the chemicals listed below will provide a professional detail center everything needed to detail almost any car, boat, truck, RV, or motorcycle.

These are chemicals used primarily for engine and complete exterior cleaning of the vehicle.

Car Wash Shampoo - a concentrated streak-free formula to dissolve dirt and grime without harm to wax. It should be biodegradable, if possible.

Degreaser (Water-Based) - a concentrated water-based product that will dissolve grease and dirt. Can be used for engines, whitewalls, vinyl tops, and RVs.

Engine Degreaser (Solvent-Based) - a ready-to-use solvent-based gel that clings to all surfaces and dissolves heavy concentrations of engine grease. Flushes off with water.

Wheel Cleaner - a non-acid wheel cleaner that is ready to use for cleaning wire wheels, chrome wheels, and wheels with radical styling features to remove disc-brake dust and dust. Friction scrub and rinse off with high-pressure water.

Overspray Remover - a product formulated to soften and dissolve various types of paint overspray. Must be tested before use.

These chemicals are formulated to clean and protect most interior surfaces of a vehicle including carpet, fabric upholstery, vinyl, leathers, plastics, and metal.

Stain Removers - ready-to-use products formulated to remove all types of stains in carpets and fabric upholstery including protein stains, tar and grease stains, red dye stains, tannin stains (coffee and tea), rust stains, and pet urine.

Carpet Shampoo - a concentrated cleaner formulated especially for fabric, carpets, and upholstery. Diluted between seven and 10 parts water to one part chemical.

Vinyl/Leather Cleaner - a stronger concentrated cleaner formulated for all leather, vinyl, and plastic surfaces. Leaves no residue. Available ready-to-use or as a concentrate.

Deodorant - a concentrated water-based fragrance that provides a clean fresh smell to the interior without any heavy fruit or flower scent.

Fabric Protectant - a ready-to-use product that provides an anti-stain shield on all fabric carpets and upholstery.

Odor-Rid - a ready-to-use biological odor eliminator formulated to absorb rather than cover most odors in a vehicle interior including urine, smoke, vomit, milk, etc. Normally used for special situations.

These chemicals are at the heart of the detail process and the source of most of the confusion. It is only with their proper application that a vehicle finish can be effectively restored and protected.
One of the key factors in proper chemical usage is the type of pad used and the follow-up product applied. For example, you need to know when to use a cutting or finishing pad, and whether to use wool or foam pads.

Compounds - These are strictly correction products used to remove oxidation, scratches, water spotting, etc. They must be used with a rotary buffer and cutting pad. Follow with a swirl-remover product.

800 & 1200 Grit Compound
A heavy- or medium-duty liquid compound for use on mainly single-stage vehicle finishes with heavy oxidation, scratches, discoloration, etching, or acid-rain spots. Application and removal: rotary buffer and cutting pad.

2000 Grit
A light liquid cleaner for use on vehicle finishes with light oxidation, surface scratches, and mild water spotting. Excellent for paint blending and spot-ins. Application and removal: rotary buffer and cutting pad.

Micro Fine
A micro-fine compound designed especially for clear-coat finishes to remove spider scratches. Application and removal: orbital waxer and terry bonnet, or by hand.

One Step
A single use product containing both light cleaners and protection agents. Only used for dealer and wholesale vehicles that don't require long-lasting protection and are not severely oxidized or scratched. Application and removal: rotary buffer and finishing pad, or orbital waxer and terry bonnet. Which process to use depends on the vehicle finish.

Polishes - The purpose of a polish is to blend the paint-removing swirl marks and create a deep, high-gloss shine. Some swirl-removing products are only fillers and do not actually remove swirls.

Swirl Away/Polish
A specially-designed liquid product formulated for use after compounds to remove swirl and smear marks left by the cutting pad. Will also restore a high gloss to the paint finish. It can also be used on newer paint finishes that have no oxidation, scratches, or weathering to create a deep high-gloss shine. Application and removal: rotary buffer and foam polishing pad.

Waxes/Sealants - Different than polishes, waxes and sealants are applied for final protection and enhancement of the shine.

Carnauba Liquid Wax
A liquid carnauba wax that provides the final coat of protection and shine for the paint finish. Will provide an extremely high gloss on black and other dark finishes. Lasts about 30 to 95 days. Application and removal: orbital waxer and terry bonnet, or by hand.

Paint Sealant
A polymer-based product that bonds to the paint finish. Can be sold with a one-year-guarantee basis with a six-month renewal, based on the fact that a sealant will last only six months. The product must be applied to a new or clean paint finish. Application and removal: by orbital or by hand with moist sponge.

These are chemicals used throughout the detail process for engines, trunks, exteriors, and interiors.
Tar and Grease Remover - a product used for removal of asphalt, tar, and grease on the body and for use in the engine compartment.

Kerosene - industrial grade kerosene is used to remove many types of sap and pitch that will not dissolve with a solvent.

Lacquer Thinner - typically used in detail shops as an all-purpose cleaner. It is not recommended for use in a professional detail center because of the possibility of damage to certain paint finishes. It is required as thinner for semi-gloss black lacquer paint used to paint engines and wheel wells.

Semi-Gloss Black Lacquer Paint - a quick-drying paint used to paint engine compartments and wheel wells. Usually only required for wholesale accounts. This service is not recommended for retail customers.

Glass Cleaner - a ready-to-use or concentrated cleaner that will remove bugs, wax, and road film from glass and chrome surfaces without streaking. Can also be used in automatic windshield washers.

Dressing (Water Based) - a milky colored, ready-to-use product that can be used to protect all exterior and interior vinyl, tires, and plastic. Can also be used as a protective spray for cleaned engines in lieu of engine glaze. Will not discolor.

Dressing (Solvent Based) - this should not be used on a vehicle. Solvent breaks down and deteriorates rubber.

With the above chemicals at hand, you should be able to detail 99 percent of the vehicles that come into your center. Those you couldn't, you probably shouldn't.

Joe Sipowicz is technical services manager at Portland, OR-based Detail Plus. He has been involved in the detailing industry for nearly 20 years both as an owner/operator of detailing centers and as a manufacturer. Joe has written on the subject of auto detailing for over 10 years. He can be contacted at

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