Auto Detailing - June 2008

Wrap-Up Part II:
Mobile Tech Expo 2008
By Prentice St. Clair

In last month’s column, I shared some thoughts and ideas picked up during this year’s Mobile Tech Expo (MTE), which took place in Clearwater, FL in January. As I mentioned last month, there were a number of educational sessions and a bunch of exhibitors showing the latest equipment, chemicals, and techniques for the mobile technician. MTE is the closest I’ve seen to a show that is designed specifically for the automotive reconditioning industry.

Not all of us can make it down to Florida for MTE, so here is some of the information that I took away. Because I was not able to attend every session, these are only some highlights of some information that I think will be helpful to readers. If you need more information on any of the topics I cover here, please feel free to call me or contact the original presenter, whose information I will provide when possible.


Gordon Jones of Headlight Restoration Professionals ( gave a great talk on plastic headlamp lenses. He noted that plastic lenses are typically made of polycarbonate (Lexan), which has excellent resistance to damage from impact (like rocks) but has little resistance to scratches and ultraviolet rays. So the manufacturers spray on an ultraviolet-cured hard coating that absorbs UV rays and provides scratch resistance.

What causes the yellowing or dulling of OEM headlamps? The coating eventually breaks down, leaving the polycarbonate exposed to the elements. You can often see evidence of this problem on lenses that are weathered at the top but still clear at the bottom. Somewhere in the gradual change from bad to good surface, you can see a broken line of the factory-applied coating that is peeling back from the top of the lens, which receives more direct sunlight.

As most of us know, the answer to getting rid of the yellow and re-clarifying the lens is to sand off the yellow and any remaining factory-applied coating, then buff and polish away the sanding scratches. It is much like wet-sanding on clear-coat paint, although, with lenses, we may have to start with 250 or 400 grit sandpaper and work up to 2000 or 3000 grit.

The goal of the initial wet-sanding is to remove the weathered plastic. The run-off of this sanding will be yellow and have a “old” plastic scent. You have to keep sanding until the run-off is crystal white, indicating that you are down to “virgin” plastic that has not yet oxidized.

Once the complete progression of sanding and buffing has been completed, the lens can typically be made crystal clear and look brand new.

The problem is that the polycarbonate lens is now completely defenseless against the elements, and, as mentioned before, will not hold up for very long against scratching and UV rays. The answer then, is to re-coat the bare lens with a protective coating similar to that applied at the factory. There are a number of lens-coating products available, including the one from Headlamp Restoration Professionals. Some simply wipe on and air dry, others require an ultraviolet lamp cure, and still others must be sprayed.


Most of us are familiar with painted-bumper repair techniques. It’s a relatively simple process that involves filling, sanding, priming, and re-painting with matched base coat and then clear coat. This process can take care of minor scrapes, scratches, and gouges in most painted bumpers.

But what about uncoated plastic bumpers, like on older Jeep Cherokees or the classic Toyota Previa? These can become faded or “zebra-striped” with age. Dressing sometimes helps but is really only a temporary fix. We also see this problem with cladding, like the lower trim panels on some Ford SUVs. I have seen one panel faded to a completely different color than the one next to it.

You have probably seen many other similar situations, like uncoated plastic fender flares on Volvo XC70s or the Honda Element.

Fading is due to ultra-violet rays that break down the plastic and its dyes. But, as Kurt Lammon of Urethane Supply Company ( indicates, the solution for this problem is to recoat the surface with a paint product specifically designed for application to uncoated plastic trim.

With proper preparation and the use of high-quality coatings, faded or sun-striped panels can look virtually new, and offer a much more permanent solution than dressing. Some companies offer several colors to help you match the OEM color. The best solution I have found when dealing with one faded panel on a vehicle with multiple panels, is to spray them all and include this in the price. Then there are no matching problems, and all of the cladding looks brand new.

Cracks, gouges, dents, and other damage can also be repaired using heat techniques and plastic welding. Matching the original texture is difficult, but if the process is sold correctly, the customer will appreciate the price savings of 90 percent on a repair versus replacing the part. Just make sure you are clear with the customer that you will not be able to make it look perfect, just much better.


Once again, the guys from Matri-X (Kian Amirkhizi and Doug Snow) gave a great presentation on leather care. They first spoke about how automotive leather is prepared for use, but I don’t have the space in this column for all of those details. One important fact, however, is that the leather tanning process (which converts the animal hide into useable leather) leaves the leather with a natural pH of about 4.3. Thus, it is close to neutral but just slightly acidic.

This is why it is so important to use cleaning products that are specifically designed for automotive leather. Technicians that are using alkaline all-purpose cleaners to clean leather are slowly damaging the material over time. An even better solution for cleaning leather is to use dry vapor steam, which I have found to work better than any chemical cleaner, without the risk of removing dye.

If you do not have access to a dry vapor steamer, use a water-based cleaner that is near neutral on the pH scale (e.g., “pH balanced”). You can determine the pH of your products by dipping in a swatch of litmus paper, available at many drug stores.

Speaking of dye, most automotive leather is sprayed with a coating that seals out contaminants and gives the leather its designer color. At the factory, this coating is virtually solid. As the seat is used, however, the coating begins to crack on a microscopic level, allowing contaminants to work down to the leather itself. One of the biggest culprits is hand lotion and suntan lotion.

You can let your customers see these cracks by using a 30x lighted magnifier, available from many suppliers and some electronics or hobby stores.

The top 20 percent or so of the leather itself is the collagen fibers that give the leather its strength. When this wears off, the leather is subject to breaking down, splitting, or wearing through much faster. To help prevent this breaking down, the leather must be conditioned with a product designed just for automotive leather. Working the conditioner into the leather will help move it through the micro-fractures of the coating, where it can lubricate the collagen fibers, helping to reduce abrasion between and breakdown of those fibers.

Silicone-based dressing is expressly not recommended for leather. These products add no value to the softening of the leather, and indeed attract dirt and oil that promote the breakdown of the protective coating and the leather itself. Not to mention, silicone-based products leave the leather feeling slippery and greasy.


From my notes: with a flooded vehicle, you have a 48-hour window during which the carpeting and fabric can be salvaged by extraction and drying. Using shampoo during this cleaning process is not recommended because it will hinder the drying process. The carpeting must be removed and the jute (padding) underneath replaced to help reduce the potential for mold growth. After 48 hours, no amount of cleaning or mold killing chemical will completely eliminate the possibility of mold developing. So, after that 48-hour window, the carpeting must be replaced.


Hopefully, these notes from Mobile Tech Expo 2008 will help you in your business. I hope that these tidbits of information help you to understand the benefits of attending conferences like MTE and joining organizations like the National Association of Professional Detailing and Reconditioning.

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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