Auto Detailing - May 2009

At the Car Wash Part 11: Chemicals
for Express and Full-Service Detailing
By Prentice St. Clair


This is the eleventh column in a series that explores the issues involved with offering detailing services at a car wash. In last month’s column, we continued the discussion of detailing chemicals by describing some of the specialized chemicals that are typically used in providing professional detailing services.

First, we explored the list of chemicals that might be used to protect vehicle surfaces that have been cleaned, including plastic, vinyl, and rubber dressings; carpet and fabric protection; and convertible top sealant. Then a list of polishes for special vehicle surfaces was indicated, including aluminum polish, chrome polish, and glass polish.

Finally, we went over the list of recommended types of chemicals for use in the rejuvenation and protection of the painted surfaces of the vehicle. We talked about the definition, typical ingredients, and suggested uses for detailer’s clay, wax, glaze, polish, compound, sealant, and combination products.

Now, those who follow this column on a regular basis have no doubt noticed that the discussion of chemicals alone has taken four issues thus far to cover. It is apparent that chemicals can be a potentially confusing subject. We have discussed the importance of chemicals and the types of chemicals that might be used at a professional detail operation. Now it’s time to pick from that list for both express and full-service detailing.


The list of chemicals that are recommended for a full-service detailing operation is quite simply every chemical we have thus far named. A compiled review follows:

Cleaning Chemicals

  • All-purpose cleaner
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Solvent cleaner
  • Bug, tar, and sap remover
  • Carpet and fabric cleaner
  • Stain removers
  • Leather cleaner
  • Degreasing cleaners
  • Glass cleaner
  • Wheel cleaner
  • Convertible top cleaner
  • Odor neutralizer and fragrance

Specialized Chemicals

  • Dressing for plastic, vinyl, and rubber
  • Liquid repellent for carpet and fabric
  • Convertible top sealant
  • Aluminum polish
  • Chrome polish
  • Glass polish

Chemicals for Paint Rejuvenation and Protection

  • Detailer’s clay
  • Wax
  • Glaze
  • Polish
  • Compound
  • Sealant
  • Combination Products

For most detailing situations, a properly trained and equipped detailing technician will be able to perform great service with “one of each” from the above list. Nonetheless, it is common to find several types of paint-related products in a shop. The technician, for example, may prefer to have a few types of compounds and polishes, each of which is applied to a specific paint problem. Another example is black cars. Most technicians have a preferred polish, wax, or sealant to be used for the problems traditionally associated with darker colored cars.

Chemicals used on the painted surfaces can sometimes spark heated debates centered around personal preferences. One person likes several polishes, each from a different company while another technician prefers to steadfastly stick with one company’s offerings. Nonetheless, the major detail chemical supply companies typically have a full line of effective chemicals.

In fact, if you are unsure about what paint chemicals to use, I recommend starting with a single company’s “system” of paint rejuvenation chemicals.

Become familiar with that system and how it works with different pads, equipment, and paint conditions. Then, if desired, you can explore chemicals from different companies and compare them to the supply that you currently use.

A recent development in the chemical world is the introduction of single chemical rejuvenation products. The idea here is that, instead of having several different strengths of compounds and polishes, the technician can take care of most paint correction situations with a single product. The impact of the product on the paint is varied by changing the type of pad being used, the speed of the machine, and the pressure applied. My experience with these products is that they are great for general-purpose polishing but do not necessarily substitute for step-by-step paint rejuvenation required in some specific situations.

This brings up an important point regarding chemicals made for the treatment of the paint surface: chemicals are but one of the variables that impacts the paint surface. Other variables include the type of machine being used, the pads being used, the condition of the vehicle and the desires of the customer, as well as the techniques (e.g., method of application) being used by the technician. This is the main reason why I highly recommend seeking out professional training in the service of rejuvenation and protection of vehicle paint.

Moreover, all chemicals associated with detailing are linked with other variables such as tools and techniques. Although it is important to independently understand detailing chemicals, it is also important to understand how to properly combine each chemical with a tool or application device — a technique that requires specific rules of motion — and the condition of the surface to which the chemical is to be applied.


By its less demanding nature, express detailing does not require nearly as many chemicals as full-service detailing does — the scope of express is so much less than that of full-service.

Express interior service requires all-purpose cleaner for general cleaning. It may also be necessary to have stronger cleaners — like isopropyl alcohol and solvent cleaner — on hand for more difficult spots. Leather cleaner and conditioner is necessary for express leather treatment. If using a hot water extractor to clean the carpets and fabric seats, extractor solution will also be needed. Finally, glass cleaner will be used on the interior windows and mirrors.

Now, having delineated a list of chemicals for interior cleaning, it is possible to eliminate virtually all of the cleaners — or at least greatly reduce their use — by utilizing a vapor steam machine for interior cleaning. As mentioned in earlier installments of this series, a dry vapor steamer can clean leather and fabric seats, as well as lightly soiled carpeting, without the need for any cleaning solutions.

The main ingredient of the exterior express detail is some kind of “express wax.” Typically, this will be a product that goes on and wipes off very easily. Some are in the form of spray wax, which is simply sprayed on with a trigger sprayer and wiped off with a clean towel. Others might be a liquid or cream that is wiped on and wiped off.

The exterior express service will also require a rubber and vinyl dressing for the tires and trim. Other exterior chemical needs depends on the extensiveness of the service that you intend to provide. In some areas, bug and tar remover may be necessary for a quick removal of light concentrations of these problems. Other operators include, as part of the exterior express waxing, surface contamination removal using detailer’s clay.

Finally, glass cleaner should be handy to touch up the exterior windows. Also, a quick spray wax may be used to touch up the wheels and doorjambs, if necessary.

So, here is a checklist of the chemicals possibly needed for express detailing:

Interior Express Chemicals (without steam)

  • All-purpose cleaner
  • Isopropyl alcohol (optional)
  • Strong solvent cleaner (optional)
  • Leather cleaner
  • Carpet and fabric cleaner
  • Glass cleaner
  • Leather conditioner
  • Plastic and vinyl dressing Interior Express Chemicals (with steam)
  • All-purpose cleaner (optional)
  • Carpet and fabric cleaner (optional)
  • Glass cleaner
  • Leather conditioner
  • Plastic and vinyl dressing

Exterior Express Chemicals

  • Express wax
  • Rubber and vinyl dressing
  • Bug and tar remover (optional)
  • Detailer’s clay (optional)
  • Glass cleaner
  • Spray wax (optional)

Perhaps the most obvious distinction between express and full-service when it comes to chemical needs is in the area of paint correction and protection. Since paint correction does not fall into the typical definition of exterior express service, the assortment of compounds, polishes, and the like, are not necessary. Moreover, most operators will find one express wax that they like and that’s all that is used in the express area.

Another distinction between the two services is that express does not necessarily need many of the specialized chemicals that are used in full-service detailing. There is only so much time allotted for an express service, so the fancy fine detailing that requires specialized chemicals like aluminum polish and chrome polish is not performed.

So, if an operator had to choose between offering express or full service detailing, one of the decision points might be based on the intensity of chemical use. It can be seen by the information provided above that express detailing requires a much shorter list of chemicals. This impacts several things, including the intensity of training — less chemicals means the technicians require less overall training to use them. It also will impact the complexity of supply: less chemicals means less supply problems.

On the other side of the coin, less chemicals can potentially mean less service capability. Customers with vehicles that have specialized cleaning needs may not be serviceable in the express area because the chemicals to do the job correctly are simply not present.


The required chemical list for full-service detailing is more extensive than that of express detailing. With regard to chemical supply and technical training on chemical use, express has a clear advantage over full-service, especially if the operator decides to employ vapor steam technology. However the limited chemicals utilized for express detailing greatly limits the capability of the express operator to offer specialized services. Ultimately, it’s a trade-off, and the operator deciding which service to provide will include this information about chemicals in that decision.

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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