Vinyl and Plastic Panels - The Simplified Cleaning Process: Spray, Scrub, Wipe
By Prentice St. Clair
One of the materials we must deal with during an interior detail is the plastic and vinyl panels. This takes place during the interior detail process, after the vehicle is inspected, cleared of personal belongings — which can be secured in re-sealable plastic bags that will be returned to the car when the job is done — and the vacuum/air purge step to remove dust, dirt, and debris.
Now it is time to begin cleaning the various surfaces inside the vehicle. We typically have leather, vinyl, plastic, fabric, carpet, and glass to deal with. I like to work on the plastic and vinyl panels immediately after vacuuming. This typically includes the dash, door panels, center console, and other various cover and trim panels inside the car. My logic for taking care of these panels next is this: As I clean these panels, I don’t have to worry about cleaning solution or drips falling onto the seats and carpeting, overspray on the windows, and I can sit on the still-dirty seats as I work on the dash and center console. Of course, the carpeting, seats, and windows will get cleaned later.
Cleaning the vinyl and plastic panels is quite simple. The basic process consists of applying a multi-purpose cleaner to the surface, agitating, and wiping away the dirt and cleaner residue with a towel. Although a popular method for this is to use a mild solution of your favorite multi-purpose cleaner, this may not be the best chemical anymore. Several chemical manufacturers carry cleaners specifically designed for the interior surfaces of the car. These cleaners are typically not as strong as traditional all-purpose cleaners, but do not leave any residue and won’t damage interior panels.
The super-simplified process is this: Spray, Scrub, Wipe. I like to use a soft-bristled body panel brush (typically green) for the scrubbing. I also carry a few different types of smaller detailing brushes so that I can get into some of the tighter areas and nooks and crannies of the center console and door panels. I then use microfiber towels to wipe away the cleaning solution and loosened dirt. These towels are of a specific color to indicate that they are for “interior use only.” Terry towels can work fine as well, but tend to leave more lint behind.
THE RIGHT ORDER
As I have stated with previous steps in the interior detailing process, I recommend starting in the front passenger compartment (and then working clockwise around the car). Secondly, it’s a good idea to work top-to-bottom in each area so that any drips will be cleaned up as you work down.
Front Passenger Compartment
Sit right down in the front passenger seat. Check if the visor and the A pillar cover are made of plastic. If so, spray some cleaner onto your scrub brush, agitate the panels, and wipe away the residue with a clean towel. Then spray some cleaner onto the top of the dash and do the same. Work down the dash to get the glove box cover. Use your finer detailing brushes to dust out the vents.
Now, turn to your left and start working on the center console. Do not spray cleaner directly onto electronic controls like the radio. Gently use your brushes around these controls. Or you may want to just rub the controls with a towel dampened with cleaner. Also, be careful around clear plastic read-out windows. If you get some cleaner on these, wipe it off thoroughly and gently with a towel as it is possible for the cleaner to etch into the plastic, leaving a permanent mark.
As you work the center console, make sure to clean out any pockets and cup holders, using your long-bristled skinny detail brush. Also wipe the walls of the center console down between the seats; many customers have spilled beverages down there and have a thing about making sure that “detail” is handled. Some cup holders and pocket liners are removable, and it may be easier to remove these and clean them at a washbasin. If there is caked-on residue inside these areas, try spraying them with your interior cleaner and letting them soak as you work on the rest of the inside.
With some residue, like melted crayons or candy, it may be necessary to get out your dry vapor steam machine. You can also use adhesive remover type solvent chemicals for these types of residue.
Next, turn to your right and address the door panel. Use the same cleaning techniques. Make sure to clean inside the door pockets and handle well. However, if the armrest is particularly grimy, you may have to use a stiffer, more traditional “scrub” brush. At the bottom of the door panel, you may see some scuffs from passengers accidentally kicking the door panel as they get out of the car. Typically these scuffs are black and do not come off with standard cleaners. But before you get out a harsh chemical, try some of the new scrubbing tools like scuff pads and melamine foam pads — these work rather well and won’t scratch most panels.
Also try 91 percent isopropyl alcohol, which tends to be safer than a strong solvent cleaner. As a last resort, carefully use a strong solvent cleaner to gently wipe away these stains.
The steering wheel can be the dirtiest vinyl in the car.Once you are done with the door panel, step out of the car, and turn around. Move the front seat to its forward-most position and clean the side of the seat (typically a plastic cover). Then, clean the plastic B pillar panel and the kick panel cover. Again, use solvent cleaner as necessary for shoe scuffs.
Now you are ready to move on to the rear passenger compartment. Sit down in the seat and check out the back of the center console. Since the front seat is already moved forward, the console is more exposed and available for cleaning. Next, check the back of the front seat. Typically, this is upholstered in vinyl, even if the front of the seat is leather, and you can use the same cleaning techniques that we have already discussed. Clean the door panel as well.
The next area to clean in an SUV or wagon is the rear compartment. Usually, the sidewalls and rear hatch are covered in plastic and can be cleaned the same way.
Then, continue to the left rear passenger compartment. You may want to first move the driver’s seat forward like we did with the passenger seat.
Finally, you are ready to tackle the driver’s compartment. Start by cleaning the side of the seat bottom, the B pillar, and the kick panel. Then move the seat back and have a seat. The main difference between the driver’s compartment and the right front passenger compartment is the presence of the steering wheel and instrument cluster. You will find that the steering wheel can be the dirtiest vinyl to clean in the car, save maybe the cup holders. It will take some extra scrubbing.
Cover the instrument panel with a spare towel, which will protect the plastic cover from overspray as you clean the steering wheel. You may want to spray the steering wheel directly with cleaner and then let it dwell for a moment. Then use a towel to scrub the handle area of the wheel. You will see a lot of grime coming off on the towel. The important thing with the steering wheel (and the gear shift and brake handle as well) is to repeat this cleaning process until your towel comes up clean. If you partially clean the steering wheel, leaving behind some residue, it will feel sticky to the customer. However, make sure you are not taking off the color of the wheel if it is covered in leather. Use the same thorough techniques on the “spokes” of the wheel. Then clean the steering column and the control sticks coming off the column.
Most steering wheels can be cleaned very effectively with dry vapor steam as well.
The remainder of the driver’s compartment can be cleaned just like the passenger compartment. Make sure to check the center console from the perspective of the driver’s seat — you may have missed something while working on it from the passenger side. Also, continue to take care not to get overspray on the instrument panel cover. If you do, immediately wipe it off with a clean towel so that the cleaner cannot etch into the plastic.
A Special Note
Some vinyl panels (like in newer BMWs) are made of material that is much more porous (for lack of a better word) than other vinyls. It seems that the grain is much deeper and thus holds more dirt and is harder to clean. On some of these, I have even added a “rinse” step after cleaning, by spraying the panel with clean water out of a trigger sprayer and then wiping with a clean towel. This extra step seems to help with these “porous” types of vinyl. Some technicians prefer to use a steam cleaner on this type of panel (and the entire interior) instead. The steam loosens the dirt and grime, at which point you can wipe it away with a clean microfiber.
Essentially, this part of the detail amounts to “how to clean and protect vinyl and plastic panels.” But it’s not as simple as it sounds. The dash and center console are among the first things that the customer looks at upon returning to the vehicle, so they have to look great.
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.