Auto Detailing - November 2009

Shop Layout —
Promote Efficiency and Appearance
By Prentice St. Clair

The efficiency of a detail operation can be directly affected by the way the detail shop is laid out. Additionally, the layout will determine, in part, the visiting customer’s impression of the business. It is beneficial to take some time to plan the layout for a new operation, and, for existing operations, to examine the current layout for potential improvements. The information presented is “designed” to assist you in your layout decisions.


Perhaps the most significant consideration in setting up a detail shop is the working area. It is critical to have enough workspace to perform detailing efficiently. Considering the largest vehicle that you might be servicing on a regular basis (e.g., extra large SUV), the ideal is to have enough room on the sides of the vehicle so as to be able to easily walk by with its doors fully open on both sides. Also, there should be enough lengthwise room to walk around the front and back of the vehicle. The bottom line is that the best situation is one in which the technicians can quickly and easily maneuver around the vehicle.

For space requirements, take into consideration storage of equipment and supplies. The above scenario is no longer ideal if the door opens up to touch a storage cabinet. Additionally, take into consideration the large equipment in use. It’s great to have “walk-around” space, but this space quickly loses its value if the space is clogged with extractors, vacuums, carts, and the like.

If you are working in a long, narrow space, consider placing storage and in-use equipment at one end, thus leaving the sides clear. If you are working in a short, wide space, consider distributing the storage and in-use equipment along the entire width of one side wall of the shop, making sure that the equipment and storage has a “thin” profile.


Professional detailers are in the business of beautifying and protecting the appearance of vehicles. Our shops should reflect this fact. When your customers walk into your shop, are they impressed by its tidiness and cleanliness? The inside of the professional automotive detailing shop should exemplify the work being done.

Aside from the obvious aesthetic issues (nicely painted, clean floor, clean windows), the equipment and supplies should be clean, organized, and well-maintained. Any hoses or cords that are not currently in use should be rolled up or hung on the wall. I recommend using storage cabinets to stow back-up supplies like chemicals, and anything else that does not have to be on the technician’s cart.

Speaking of carts, they should be clean and organized well. This means attending to the carts each day by refilling spray bottles and dispensers; throwing out trash; removing used and dirty applicators and towels and re-supplying with clean ones; and making sure that the cart is clean by dusting or wiping it off and wiping the sides of any polishing splatter.

Designate a place for each piece of portable equipment (e.g., extractor, vacuum, blowers, carts) and return each piece to its place when not in use. If your budget permits, consider installing centralized systems (e.g., compressed air, vacuum) that both reduce the amount of visible equipment on the shop floor and are more efficient to use.

Cleaning up the shop should be a daily activity. Take some time at the end of the workday to sweep or mop the floor, return all equipment to its designated storage place, and pick up trash. Also, during the workday, keep things tidied up so that new customers who walk into the shop will be impressed with your operation. For example, have the technicians place trash from the vehicle into a small trashcan supplied to each station. Also, have technicians place used towels and applicators into a bin at each station. The appearance of the shop is quickly diminished by trash, used towels, and tipped-over spray bottles littering the shop floor around a vehicle that is supposed to be in the process of being cleaned.


An investment of some time and money into the layout of your new shop — or improvements to your existing shop — will pay for itself many times over through improved efficiency. A more efficient operation can process more vehicles per week, which means more money per week, which leads to increased profit.

For existing operations, a simple way to determine the efficiency of your layout is to take some time to watch your technicians at work. Are they stumbling around equipment? Are they walking back and forth to a supply cabinet or workbench to get cleaning tools? Are they tripping over cords and hoses?

First of all, the machines in your shop must be supplied by adequate, readily available power. If you are using electric machines exclusively, this means having numerous power outlets, each with adequate amperage to operate the most powerful machines (usually the extractor or a compressor) in the shop. A busy technician will quickly become frustrated searching for an open outlet, having to swap out plugs each time a new machine is used, or walking back to reset blown circuit breakers because the rating is not adequate enough for the equipment in use. I suggest numerous waist-high outlets distributed evenly throughout the shop, each on separate circuits.

If there is a distance between the outlet and the vehicle, extension cords must be employed, of course. When doing so, make sure that the extension cord has a power rating adequate enough to supply the necessary wattage and amperage to the machine in use. Retractable overhead power supply is perhaps the most efficient, cleanest looking, and safest (no more cords laying around on the floor) way to go, although it can be quite a bit more expensive.

If you are using compressed air to power your machines, some of the same ideas apply — overhead retractable hoses are best; otherwise, make sure that there is an adequate number of pneumatic outlets in the work area.

Lighting is another big concern in the layout. Adequate lighting makes the job easier, allows for better visual monitoring of the work at hand, and reduces fatigue for the technicians. If possible, several banks of 8-foot fluorescent lamps should be used for each 10 feet of shop length. Shop lights placed on the wall for side lighting will also be immensely helpful for the technicians while polishing the sides of vehicles. Instead of fluorescent lamps, consider super-bright mercury vapor outdoor fixtures, which will put out much more light per fixture and require less mounting space. Also consider portable lamps for placing in or near the vehicle while working on the interior.

Water Supply
In most detail operations, vehicles will have to be washed before detailing. The ideal situation here is to have a separate wash bay with proper drainage. All shops, even those attached to a car wash, should have a washbasin for filling extractors and spray bottles and cleaning of small parts. I also strongly recommend the use of supply containers for your dilutable chemicals, for example, 5-gallon containers into which your favorite concentrated chemicals can be pre-diluted to the perfect water-to-chemical ratio. These containers come with pour spouts that allow easy refilling of spray bottles.

Ideally, each technician should have an assigned workstation that includes all the supplies and equipment necessary to perform the job. An efficient way to perform full-service detailing is to have one technician on each side of the vehicle with a complete workstation.

One of the biggest time-wasters in detailing is a technician walking back and forth from the vehicle to a supply cabinet each time a new tool or chemical is needed. To help solve this problem, create portable work units for each station that allow easy transportation of supplies and equipment to the vehicle. For interior detailing, I recommend using a handheld caddie (like those used in the housekeeping industry) that is big enough for several spray bottles, brushes, and towels necessary to perform interior vehicle detailing.

For exterior detailing, I recommend that a portable cart be used and that the cart be designated as the “polishing” cart. It should contain dispenser bottles of the various chemicals necessary to detail the exterior of the vehicle (e.g., compounds, polishes, waxes and sealants, and specialty products like aluminum and chrome polish); polishers and pads (store the clean pads in covered plastic bins to protect them from dust and debris); as well as applicators, towels, and small detailing tools.

The larger equipment should be stored near the area in which it will be used. If you follow the model of “one technician per vehicle side,” the work station for each technician would be located at the side of the parked vehicle and would include space for an extractor; a vacuum; ergonomic equipment such as roll chairs and stepladders; the polishing cart; and perhaps a small cabinet containing the interior caddie, extra towels, and other small detailing supplies that are used less frequently.

Consider lengthening hoses for vacuums and extractors so that the unit itself does not have to be moved to the vehicle or around the vehicle during the job. This will increase efficiency and reduce the possibility of the machine colliding with the vehicle during the job. Consider wall hooks to store the hoses off the floor between jobs, and encourage technicians to put away hoses as soon as the step that included the machine is complete.

It is also handy to have a utility table at the workstations to store customer belongings and detail tools and supplies during the job — in general, just a place (instead of the shop floor) to throw “stuff” that accumulates during the job. The technician will not have to bend over each time something is needed for the job. Ideally, the table should be cleared at the end of each job or each day.


There are some other important considerations for your operational layout. Perhaps most important is to consider having an area in which waiting customers can relax. Regardless of its size, the “customer waiting lounge” should be clean, nicely furnished, and include amenities that help the customer “feel at home.”

Another important consideration is an office area for the owner or manager to process paperwork and conduct telephone business. Finally, technicians deserve an area away from the immediate work area to call their own. Such “comfort stations” might include a place to sit down and relax between jobs, storage for personal belongings, and a kitchenette that is furnished adequately enough to encourage the technicians to stay on the premises during breaks.


It is well worth the time, effort, and money involved in laying out a detail shop. The return on the investment will be in improved efficiency and improved impression on the customer. Once your shop is well laid out, remember to re-visit the layout a few times a year to determine if there are further possible improvements to be made.

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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