1. If the rugs or cloth seats are very dirty, start by vacuuming out the interior. This gets rid of a lot of dust and dirt right off the bat so you don't have to worry about it settling on everything right after you have cleaned it. If they are still dirty, it is best to give the cloth surfaces in the car a shampoo of some kind. If you do this, wait until the rugs and seats are dry before continuing. The ideal is to use one of the carpet cleaners one can rent from the local grocery store.
2. Next, depending on how grungy the plastic is, you may have to wash some or all of it. I try to stay away from using cleaners, because they can affect the finish on plastic and vinyl. Generally, there won't be too much that a damp rag won't be able to get off. If there are more stubborn dirt spots, spray a bit of cleaner on to a rag and scrub them, then wipe with a damp rag to get the cleaner off. I usually use a gentle vinyl cleaner for all of the plastic bits.
If the interior is just dusty, not dirty, just give it quick wipe with a soft rag.
TIP: I always apply whatever chemicals I am using onto a rag, a sponge or an applicator, then use it to apply them to what I am trying to clean. Applying directly onto a surface can cause the chemical to splatter onto surfaces where you don't want it, and it can also run into little nooks and crannies where you can't get rid of it. This applies to vinyl cleaner, plastic conditioner, car wax, and everything else you might use to clean your car.
TIP: Be very careful of clear plastic, especially the plastic over the instruments. The finish on these lens is extremely delicate. Never let any kind of cleaner or chemical other than water as anything else may opaque the plastic. It is preferable to just use a soft brush to dust off this kind of surface, but a very soft buffing cloth will also work. If you do get it scratched up, Meguiar's makes a scratch remover and polisher for clear plastic.
3. Once the interior is nice and clean, it's time to finish it. Some kind of vinyl/plastic treatment is essential here. It is very important to treat the plastic and vinyl with something to prevent fading and cracking. You'd be amazed at the difference this can make after a few years.
TIP: It is best to avoid treating the rim of the steering wheel and the gearshift knob, as most plastic conditioners tend to be pretty slippery for a week or two.
4. If you have leather in your car, get some kind of leather conditioner like The Tannery Leather will last a long time, but requires occasional conditioning to keep it soft. Use the conditioner as directed on all of the leather in your car.
5. If you are not going to wash the outside of the car
right away, it's time for the windows. If you plan to do an outside wash,
wait until you are done everything and come back to this step. Always do
the windows last, as you will get fingerprints and water/chemical spots
on them when you are doing the rest of your car. Use a glass cleaner (PTI
600 is my favorite, but it's hard to find) and old newspaper (newspaper
works awesome as a lint-free rag when cleaning glass).
Exterior Wash & Waxing
First, some quick tips about exterior work:
Never wash or wax a car in direct sunlight. I find car washing works best in the shade on a warm day.
Never leave water to air dry on your paint.
Be careful if you use a high-pressure wash. High pressure spray can sandblast your finish with the dirt that may be on it. I also find that pay washes usually don't have a nice shaded area where I can dry my car, so I avoid them.
Wax protects your paint. Wax at least 3 or 4 times a year.
Bug guts and bird bombs can eat your finish. Dirt and grime can scratch your finish. Wash your car often to keep all this evil stuff off.
Wash and wax your car using straight strokes running up and down the length of the car. Do not use a circular motion. When you wash your car, inevitably some fine scratches (swirls) are put in the clear coat. If these swirls are circular, light will pick them up from any angle, and your paint will look horrible in the sun. If they are straight, they will be much less visible.
Use a wash mitt with a deep pile to wash your car. Rags, towels, and especially sponges will trap dirt particles and scratch your clear coat. Stay away from wool mitts, as they cost more and scratch badly.
Many steps require soft towels. Use soft, 100% cotton, deep-pile terry towels for washing. It is best to get a whole set of towels for your car (although some people may think you are psychotic at this point). I usually use between 4 and 6 towels to completely clean and wax my car. Don't use fabric softener on your car towels, because it may react adversely with waxes or polishes and leave a cloudy residue.
Most exterior processes on a car (rinsing, drying, and waxing) should be done from the top down. The only exception to this is that you should clean the wheels and the lower parts of your car first because they are usually the dirtiest. I have a set order in which I do everything (roof, windows and pillars, rear, front, right side, left side). By always doing everything in a the same order, you end up with a consistent routine that helps get the job done quickly and thoroughly.
Make sure you don't have any clothes with metal buttons (or jeans with rivets, or whatever). When you are leaning and stretching to get to those hard to reach spots, you may scratch a door or fender.
Use a detergent designed for washing cars. Never use dish soap or some other household detergent. These detergents are designed to cut through household grease, which has similar chemical properties to car wax, and they will strip wax very quickly.
1. First, hose down the car. Try to rinse of any caked on mud with low pressure water. Cover the whole car. This will soften up dirt and bugs, and it cools the paint down, which makes it harder to scratch.
2. I like to wash the wheels and the lower parts of the car first, because they are often the dirtiest areas. Use an older wash mitt for this, and throw out the water when you are done, because it will probably have a lot of dirt in it.
3. If you have any tar, baked on bugs that won't come off with soap and water, little bits of tire rubber ;-) or any other problem residue on your car, take care of it now with an appropriate solvent. A good name-brand bug and tar remover should do the trick. Make sure you test it somewhere innocuous to make sure it's not going to take your paint off too.
4. Now, use a clean wash mitt and a fresh bucket of water and car wash to rub down the whole car from top to bottom. Use a very light rubbing action to avoid rubbing the dirt particles into the finish and scratching it. Make sure you get every square inch of the car. I usually work in sections and hose down each section right after I am done to prevent the soap from standing on the car for too long. You may have to scrub dead bugs and bird crap a bit, but always scrub as lightly as possible to get the job done. Remember to scrub in straight strokes, not circular ones.
Pay close attention the the leading edges of the car, where bugs tend to get physics lessons, as wet dead bugs are sometimes harder to see than dry dead bugs.
5. Once you have scrubbed the entire exterior of the car, hose it down thoroughly to rinse all of the soap and dirt off. While you arer at it, hose off the undercarriage of the car to rinse any mud, salt, and grime that may have accumulated there.
TIP: Here's a simple way to make your drying easier. This works especially well with a well waxed finish. When you are done spraying the soap off of your car, remove the nozzle from the hose and rinse the car from top to bottom by pouring water out of the hose at low pressure. This will cause the water to sheet off instead of beading, and will leave a lot less water on your car, making drying a lot easier.
6. Now, the most important step, drying the car. Do not let your car air dry, as the water will spot your finish. Do not 'drive-dry' your car, as that will not get the entire surface dry and will leave you with a mess.
I used to always use a leather chamois. Then I bought a synthetic chamois, and decided I liked it better (it was a lot easier to take care of as well). Then, I bought a synthetic sponge cloth, called The Absorber. This thing is way better than either, and is what I recommend now.
7. Make a quick first pass over the entire car (top-down, of course) with the sponge cloth. Very quickly wipe of the big drops of water. Do not sweat the details at this point. If it takes you more than 5 minutes to do the whole car, you are being too picky.
8. Next, take the cloth and carefully wipe down the entire car. This time, make sure you leave no droplets behind. Wring the cloth frequently.
9. If you are not going to wax your car, wipe it down now with a soft buffing cloth to get rid of any streak marks the chamois may have left behind and skip to the Exterior Finishing section.
You shouldn't wax your car every time you wash it, but you should try to do it at least every couple of months. I generally go for a wax job once a month. Double check to make sure there are no bug guts or sap or any other types of residue on your car. The last thing you want to do is seal these under a coat of wax.
1. First of all, if you car has any swirl marks (those fine scratches that show up under bright light) treat the finish with a swirl remover (like Meguiar's #9) before you wax it. This is especially important with dark colored cars. Swirl remover is also really good for zapping shallow scratches in the clear coat. Swirl remover can be applied by hand, but it works best using an electric buffer. Apply the swirl remover to the car. Use the buffer pad to spread the stuff around before you start the buffer spinning. This is to get rid of the big globs so they don't fling all over the place when you fire up the buffer.
2. Putting a coat of polish on before waxing does amazing things for the final results. The polish feeds your paint oils that it needs to prevent oxidation and drying. Also, a thin layer of oil will get trapped under your wax and give your car a very slick 'wet look', especially if you have dark paint. I use a colored polish, and I always apply it by hand with a soft terry towel, again using straight strokes.
3. OK, on to the wax. I use Meguiar's #26 paste wax. There are a ton of options, but I have heard from many sources that Meguiar's is the best. It also costs three times as much as almost everything else. I've always been real happy with it though, as it really shines, and it lasts longer than most of the cheap stuff I have used. I like the paste because it is much neater to apply than liquid wax, but that's a matter of taste.
Like the polish, I apply the wax by hand using straight strokes. Try not to get any wax on any textured plastic surfaces you may have on the outside of the car, as it may be tough to get off. Also avoid waxing over any nooks and crannies (body seams or whatever) that you will have trouble getting the wax out of. It looks really ugly to have a nice shiny car with wax residue stuck in every crack and crevice, so be careful here.
4. Once the wax is dry (make sure it's totally dry) rub it off with a clean terry towel. You can work in sections, waxing and rubbing, or you can do the whole car. It doesn't really matter, as long as you wait long enough for the wax to dry before you rub it. Make sure you don't leave any wax residue anywhere.
5. Now, go over the car looking for places where wax residue may be left behind. Wax can get into little cracks and can also get stuck in textured plastic. Gently rubbing with a soft plastic detail brush (or a toothbrush) will get this stuff out.
6. Now, use a soft buffing cloth and buff the whole car. This will polish the wax to a rich shine, and will help to get rid of any wax dust that may be left behind.
7. Finally, some people like to rinse off and dry the car one more time to cool off and harden the wax. Some waxes, like Zymol, react really well to being watered down after they are applied. Your mileage may vary, depending on the wax you are using.
1. Now you should finish all of the exterior plastic, and the vinyl top if you have one. Use a vinyl conditioner the same way as you use it on the interior. I don't recommend using regular vinyl conditioner on the tires, as it tends to turn an ugly brown within a couple of days. Several companies now make no-touch tire conditioners. These work very well, but some have vicious reactions to plastic and mag-wheel clear coat. If you do use something like this, use it carefully. I recommend using a piece of cardboard to prevent overspray.
2. Finally, clean the glass. If you did the interior, you should have saved the inside glass until now. Use glass cleaner and old newspaper to clean your windows and mirrors.
Phew, all done. Your car should now look as good as new. Now would be a good time to show it off.
TIP: If you take the car for a spin right after you wash it, bring along a soft rag. You can be assured that there will be some water stuck in a crack (door gap, trunk gap, or whatever) that will drip out when you move. Wipe this up as soon as you see it so you don't get water spots.