Interior Detailing - Common Errors and How to Fix Them
By Prentice St. Clair
The greatest reward for the automotive detailing professional is the enthusiastic approval of the customer upon completion of the detail job. On the other hand, it’s disappointing and embarrassing when the customer points out something left undone or an unsatisfactory result.
The intent of this month’s column is to discuss some of the more common problems of interior detailing and how to avoid them. Although I am sure that the readers can add many others, here are a few that I have seen over the years: streaky windows, the area between the seats, greasy-shiny interior panels, and over-saturated carpets.
The windows are one of those areas on the car that really need to be 100 percent at the end of the job. Avoiding streaky windows begins with approaching the job with the right stuff. The condition of the towels seems to be a large factor in how streaked the windows end up. Over the years, I have gone through phases of using only certain types of towels for windows. And in discussing preferences with countless professionals across the country, it is clear that the chosen glass towel is a matter of personal preference.
One thing is for sure — whatever towel you use for windows, it must be completely dedicated for window use only. This means: • Never use window towels for anything else • Store used window towels in a separate container • Wash window towels separately
I have used white terry towels, but they sometimes leave lint. I have used shiny, lint-free microfiber towels, but they tend to be less absorbent, leading to extra wiping. I have used huck or surgical towels, but they still seem to miss the mark. For the record, I currently use a short-nap, lint-free microfiber. These seem to be working pretty well.
A recent policy that I have implemented and recommend is this: replace your window towels about once a year or so with fresh new towels. They seem to collect streak-producing contaminants, no matter how well they are cared for. Use the old ones for “discard-after-use” tasks like wiping tar, sap, or bodily fluids.
The next issue with windows is technique. The windows should be very close to, if not, the last step in the process. I like to do the inside of the windows including the mirrors at the end of the interior detail, then complete the exterior detail, then clean the outside of the windows. Most technicians would agree that two towels must be used — the “damp” or cleaning towel, and the drying towel. With particularly dirty windows, I use a third towel as a final wipe to ensure removal of streaks.
One way to avoid the whole towel issue altogether is to use lint-free paper towels. Just grab two from the box or roll and toss them when you are done with each vehicle. By doing so, you essentially eliminate the possibility of streaking resulting from dirty towels. And there’s no more laundry.
I always start with the windshield, when the towels are fresh and clean. Clean and dry one window at a time. Fold your window towels into quarters, which gives you eight fresh surfaces to work with. Use at least one fresh set of clean towels for each car, if not one fresh set for the inside and one for the outside. To ensure removal of all streaks, go over all the windows one more time with a final wiping towel (without cleaner).
Window cleaning chemicals can make a difference, too. Use only a high-quality glass cleaner that is designed specifically for automotive glass. Additionally, the chemical must be compatible with aftermarket window films.
Customers will notice if the area between the seats and the center console has been neglected. Usually it is a matter of simply not fully inspecting this area. One thing that I have found to be helpful is to inspect from the opposite side. For example, while I am sitting and working in the passenger seat, I lean over and check the slot between the driver’s seat and the center console.
To get this area clean, start by vacuuming with a crevice tool. Approach the area from above, and from the foot wells in front of and behind the seat. It helps to move the seat to its extreme positions — all the way forward, all the way back, and as high as it can go.
In this area there are also often spills — a few drips of coffee, a bit a salsa. Try wrapping a wheel and spoke brush (“cone” brush) with a towel, mist the towel with carpet cleaner, and work this customized tool between the seats to take away those spill marks.
WHAT’S THAT SMELL?
In my opinion, a detailed car should never be returned to the customer with damp carpets or seats. It is not only unpleasant during the drive home, but also damp carpets can become moldy and smelly if left that way. If this is happening, then the detail technician is not doing the job right.
To help avoid leftover interior dampness, I recommend detailing the vehicle interior first before the exterior. Thus, while the exterior is being detailed, the interior has a chance to dry or be force-dried with the techniques described below. Moreover, clean the mats at the beginning of the interior detail so that they can be set aside to dry.
Avoiding damp carpets starts with proper technique. If the carpets are not that dirty, you can use a dry vapor steam machine to clean them. The steam machine will clean the carpets without soaking them like an extractor. Mats cleaned with a steam machine will completely dry in a couple of minutes if placed in direct sunlight. And the steam machine is a must for fabric seats because the extractor just soaks the fabric and the foam backing with too much water.
If you are using an extractor, make sure your machine has powerful suction so that it can extract as much of the rinse water as possible. Check the hose and fittings for air leaks.
To avoid a soap-odor problem (and premature re-soiling of the carpets), use only clean water in the extractor. Pre-spray the carpets with carpet cleaner, and use the extractor only to rinse the carpets.
Immediately after cleaning the mats or a section of carpeting, wipe the carpet vigorously with a clean terry towel to soak up excess moisture from the carpet fibers. Place cleaned mats in the sun. If sunlight is not available, set up an air mover with the mats lined up single file in front of the air mover on the floor. Using these techniques should yield bone-dry mats by the time the rest of the detail is complete.
Likewise, carpeting and fabric seats inside the car must also be dried after cleaning. One way to do this is to use the vehicle’s ventilation system. This technique involves running the car, so this will not work in a closed-up shop unless it has a vehicle exhaust removal system.
Turn on the car. Turn the fan on full-blast, the heater on its hottest setting, and turn on the air conditioning. It may seem at first counterintuitive to run the air conditioning, but AC, by nature, involves de-humidifying action. Additionally, make sure that the system is set to bring in fresh air, not recirculating. Set the mode of air distribution to “floor.” If you are drying fabric seats, too, set the distribution to “floor and dash vents.”
Another option for drying interior carpeting is the use of air movers. As soon as the interior detail is complete, set up one or more air movers inside the car. This is a great option for closed-up shops that cannot run the car’s engine. If possible, keep the vehicle doors open to allow fresh air to circulate inside the car.
If, for whatever reason, you cannot run the car to dry the interior, park it outside in the sun with the doors (or windows) open and place some air movers inside.
Interior panels, once cleaned, will look better if they are dressed with an appropriate vinyl dressing. However, most customers do not appreciate a super-glossy appearance or greasy-feeling coating on the dash and door panels.
To avoid the “cheap dressing” look and feel, start by using only water-based vinyl dressing on the vehicle interior. Go ahead and wipe it on generously. But here’s the trick: after the interior has been fully dressed, take a clean towel (terry or microfiber, whichever you prefer) and buff off the excess dressing from all of those surfaces that have been dressed. If done correctly, this simple technique will leave the vinyl panels with a natural-looking satin finish that does not feel greasy.
In reviewing this article, it’s interesting that the suggested solution to almost all of these common interior-detailing problems involves the procedure used to perform the work. As W. Edwards Deming said in his famous book Out of the Crisis, if you build quality into the process, the results will almost automatically be of high quality and errors will be greatly reduced.
Prentice St. Clair is an International Detailing Association Recognized Trainer and Certified Detailer. As the president of Detail in Progress Inc., he has been providing training and consulting to car washes and detail shops since 1999. He is available at (619) 701-1100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.