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How to complete a full car detail by hand

As a million and one people are asking for help and advice on detailing a car, it inspired me to write this tutorial to save me starting from scratch every time. The products I’ve mentioned are available from Halfords (such as Meguiars and Autoglym) or from online retailers such as If you struggle to find any products then just drop me a PM.

The processes, methods and products are the same that as use on my own car. Feel free to choose your own products, as there are hundreds out there. It is purely a choice of price, brand and final finish. I may mention processes that go against what the manufacturer recommends but I have found that these work better, if in doubt follow the instructions provided with the products.


Pre wash

This process is extremely important as it loosens all the dirt from the car and removes it safely (if done correctly). The best way to do this is to use a product called Super Snow Foam mixed together with a high foam shampoo such as Chemical Guys Maxi Suds. This can be used through a foam lance or with a “super sprayer” hose attachment.

The most common mixture is 1-2 inches of snow foam with ½ to 1 inch of maxi suds. A foam lance will produce a lot more pressure and therefore create more foam, which is safer for the paintwork although I find the super sprayer to be adequate. Once the foam has been applied and left to dwell for 5-10 minutes it needs to be fully washed off.

At this point it is good to check for any parts that are still heavily soiled; the bottom of the car, side skirts, wing mirrors and bumpers are common areas. For any tar spots or flies use a dedicated cleaner such as Autoglym Intensive Tar Remover or Autoglym Active Insect Remover.

For cleaning wheels I use an Autoglym Wheel Brush and Autoglym Clean Wheels, cleaning and rinsing each wheel at a time. The foam mixture can be sprayed onto the wheels, although I prefer not to.

Exterior plastics and tyres are often left out of the pre-wash stage but I clean them every time to prevent product build-up, it also allows you to get a better finish as your dressing will be able to stick much easier and last longer. To do this I use Meguiars All Purpose Cleaner (APC) and a soft brush.

Door shuts and wheel arches look a million times better when they are clean. I use a long handled brush (cost about £1 from wilkos) and Autoglym Engine and Machine Cleaner. When you come to rinse the dirt off, start the hose/jet wash “off the job” and move it “onto the job”. This shouldn’t create any spray onto the interior. When you rinse the boot shut, close the boot so it latches but doesn’t fully cloth and then rinse. This prevents any water entering the inside due to it sitting on the rubber seal.

The Actual Washing Process

The next step is to fully wash the exterior of the vehicle; this is done using a wash mitt and the 2-bucket method. Mix up 2 buckets of car shampoo diluted to the manufacturers recommendation, over concentrated shampoo will not improve results and may strip wax and other protective layers off the paintwork. Using 2 bucket with soapy water stops the mitt loose suds when placed in the dirty bucket.

One bucket is used as the “clean” bucket and the other as the “dirty” one. Soften your wash mitt in the clean water and wash a panel (or half), then dunk your mitt in the dirt water and wash it out so it is perfectly clean before repeating the process on another panel. I prefer to wash the top half of the vehicle (above the rub strips) on the 1st trip around the car, bottom half on the 2nd and a full wash on the 3rd.

Grit guards are a useful item to use as they will remove grit from your mitt and prevent it floating around in the water. Most guards are quite big (about 10”), once I can find ones that fit my buckets I will start using them.

Once all areas have been washed, the car needs to be fully rinsed to remove the suds and dirt.

Drying Process

A traditional chamois leather has the potential to create swirl marks and scratches as it has no where for any dirt (not that it should remain) to go. The best drying towels are the Sonus Der Wonder ones. Dry using a pulling action on large areas and “pat dry” on smaller areas. I then use a synthetic leather on my plastics, wheels, tyres, door shuts and windows (also wipe around the windows on 3 door versions).

During the drying process I apply a very basic wax, called Wax it Wet from Turtle Wax, to the vehicle which adds shine but no real protection.


Claying the vehicle

If it is your first time claying then I would recommend you buy a clay kit as it will come with a mild clay and detailing spray (also known as lube) which will work perfectly together. I use Meguiars Last Touch as my lube and Meguiars clay from my original kit. Sonus “green” clay is also perfect for beginners.

The idea behind clay barring is to remove all the bonded on contaminates that are in the paintwork such as industry fallout, bird mess and tree sap. It’s a simple process that involves spraying the lube onto a panel and rubbing it with the clay bar. Some tips for claying are:
  • Make sure you use enough lube, if the clay doesn't slide across easily then use more as you don't want to create marring lines in the paintwork
  • Use little bits at a time and as soon as it's dirty remould it until a new bit shows
  • Once it’s fully dirty or you drop it on the floor, throw it away and use a new piece
  • Use a piece a couple of cm’s across and place it "flat" between your hand and the paintwork so it looks like your hand is wiping the paint
  • Apply a little bit of pressure as it'll have more effect
  • If the clay isn’t mouldable then hold it between your hands to warm it up
  • Be careful around the bottom of the car/bumper etc as it'll get dirtier a lot quicker than you think and it might remove any tar spots which could cause scratches
  • I tend to do the top half of the car (above the rub strips) and then the bottom
Once the claying is finished you will have to re-wash the car again to remove all the lube and dirt. The pre-wash obviously isn’t necessary but a quick rinse is then start the 2 bucket method.

If you are claying then miss out the basic wax, as it’ll be a waste of product and time. Also drying the car 100% is pointless so I just give it a quick wipe over with the towel. Once the 2nd wash is complete the car must be 100% dry before continuing.


Before polishing you can apply a paintwork cleaner such as Meguiars Deep Crystal Paint Cleaner. The 2nd step (or 3rd if you use a cleaner beforehand) is to polish the paintwork. This will add a shine as the polish removes an extremely fine layer of clear coat. But it will not add any protection; regardless of what myths you have heard. One of the best polishes is Autoglym Super Resin Polish as it contains fillers, which will mask swirl marks for a short period of time.

The easiest applicator for polish is an Autosmart Polishing Sponge (couple of quid from ebay). Soften the sponge under hot water (the hotter the better) and dry it using kitchen towel so it is warm and damp. This allows the product to go further and let it cure easier. I use a standard foam applicator pad for the paint cleaner so you don’t mix products on the sponge.



As the name suggests these are products that add to the shine. They are extremely easy to work with and are best applied using a foam applicator pad or the Autosmart sponge but make sure it has been washed out after applying the polish.

I use Chemical Guys Ez Créme glaze if working by hand or Meguiars #7 Show Car Glaze if working with the machine, although Megs #7 works fine by hand."



These products seal the paintwork and other products (such as glazes) into the paintwork. As the glazes they are easy to work with and should be applied using the same methods. I use Chemical Guys Wet Mirror Finish for my car.


Another very important stage to a detail is waxing. It is always the final stage as it provides the most protection and will seal everything (including sealant) into the paintwork. There are loads of different makes to choose from and 3 different types.

Spray Wax: Such as Meguiars spray wax, these are easy to apply as you just spray it on and work around with a foam pad but they offer the least protection and are more suited to just “topping up” the shine and protection, like at a car show.

Liquid Wax: I regularly use Meguiars Carnauba Wax, which is a “soft” wax. Soft waxes are normally liquid form, which allows them to be applied and removed very easily. This type of wax adds quite a good protection to the car.

Paste Wax: This is the hardest wax to work with, as it takes longer to apply and remove, although it will offer the best protection. Paste waxes are available in soft and hard form. I have just bought a bottle of Collinite 845 and applied it to paintwork that hadn't been detailed and was impressed with the results after one coat.

Applying the wax
  • Spray waxes are best applied with a foam pad or a new applicator from Meguiars called “even coat applicators”.
  • Liquid waxes can be applied using either a foam pad or a clean Autosmart sponge.
  • Paste waxes are best applied using a foam applicator pad.
The wax needs to be left to cure on the paintwork until it is ready to be removed. The way to tell when it’s ready is by doing a swipe test.
  • Swipe a clean finger across the first panel that you applied the wax to
  • If it removes the wax fully then it is ready to be removed, if it leaves it smeary then it needs longer to cure.
Applying a thin coat of wax will do a lot more than whacking on loads as only the layer that is touching the paintwork is doing the work. Two thin coats are better than one thick coat. If you are using both hard and soft waxes then it is best to apply the hard one first as it will protect the paintwork, then the soft wax will seal in the hard layer. It is easier, quick and probably cheaper to replace the soft layer.

A trade secret is to apply the 2nd layer using the “spit shine” technique.
  • Once the 1st coat has been removed spray cold water (colder the better, shove a bottle in the fridge) onto a panel.
  • Apply the 2nd coat over the top of the water and rub until you can’t see any more water.
  • Allow 2nd coat to cure and remove when ready, using the swipe test to tell when.
  • You will have to turn your cloth more or use a new cloth, as the water will create a small smear when removing the 2nd coat.
Once the wax is fully removed you can then “quick detail” the car using your clay lube and a clean towel/cloth. Spray a panel at a time, wipe, then dry fully, 2 or 3 cloths maybe required as they will get damp quite quickly.


These are the little jobs, which make a huge difference to the final finish and appearance of the car.

Dressing the tyres

There are plenty of different tyre dressings on the market but I highly recommend Autoglym Instant Tyre Dressing as I have found it gives the most shine and lasts the longest (including a 400 mile round trip on holiday along dual carriageways). It starts out as a white liquid, which dries within about 45 minutes. Don’t worry about getting any on the wheels as it dries smear free.

Dressing the plastics

As above, plenty of products to choose from, I use Autoglym Bumper Care applied with a foam pad. If there is any white residue from the polish etc then a quick rub with a pencil eraser will remove it or a clean with a product called Wax Blaster is a good idea.

Exhaust Tail Pipes

Like the other 2, a few different products on the market, I Use Autoglym Metal Polish and an old rag. If the exhaust is covered in stubborn dirt then using glass polish and some fine wire wool will remove it, then use the metal polish.


As you dried them at an early stage there shouldn’t be any water marks but a quick coat of polish (and wax if you want) will add a shine. I use Meguiars Cleaner Wax as it polishes and waxes at the same time.


Once any tyre dressing has dried you can protect the wheels using polish, sealant and wax. You can get dedicated wheel sealants, which will be better than the ones used on the bodywork. Removing the wheels and cleaning the insides every so often is a good idea to prevent dirt/brake dust build up and to check the inside edge of the tyres.


The last stage is to clean the windows to remove any watermarks or products (such as wax) that have made there way onto them. If I’m doing a full detail I also do the same to the windows. I use Autoglym window cleaning products.
  • Spray window with cleaner, work product around so window is fully covered using kitchen towel
  • Using fine wire wool, rub the whole window to remove any dirt, watermarks etc etc.
  • Wipe clean using kitchen towel and buff dry using a micro fibre cloth.
  • After every window (inc. wing mirrors) has been cleaned I then go round and apply a water repellent called RainX.
  • Once each window is coated I then remove using the first 3 steps.
  • The windows are then polished to make sure any remaining cleaner or product is removed.
The whole car is then given a final wipe over with a microfibre cloth.

General Tips
  • If any item is dropped on the floor then use a new one. Or give it a full wash out before re-using it.
  • Once a pad or cloth is dirty use a new one.
  • Use quality, deep plush micro fibre cloths.
  • Don’t store your cloths on the floor, I place them on a large tray or in a clean bucket.
  • Follow manufacturer instructions if in doubt.
  • After the detail wash out your equipment fully.
  • Look after your products, don’t store them in a really cold place such as the garage (especially in the very cold weather due to condensation)
  • Research of products is always good to get people’s opinions and reviews before buying.
I haven’t put links in the guide as the products can be found on the website I posted at the beginning or in Halfords, I’m not doing all the work for you.

If you have any questions, queries, comments, or anything else then just drop me a PM.


8,587 Posts
Discussion Starter #2
As I can't edit the original post I'll add some random info here.

Pre wash

Arches: These can be cleaned using a degreasing product like AG Engine and Machine Cleaner or Megs Safe Degreaser. I use Megs APC diluted 4:1. The same dilution rate can be used for scrubbing the tyres and exterior plastics.

Wheels: I've now moved onto Autoglym Custom Wheels as it is an alkaline based products as opposed to the traditional acid based. It's available in 5 litre bottles aswell from

Drying Process

Spraying the vehicle with Detailing Spray before drying helps with the process as it repells water and makes it run down to the bottom and off the car. Drying the roof last is a good idea as you don't want to soak your towel early on then try to dry the rest of the car with a wet towel.

Finishing Touches

Tyres: When applying tyre dressings it looks alot better if you cover upto the first line of tread, instead of just the wall. If you're using a spray dressing then move your bottle around the tyre as the spray so you get a nice even covering.

Glass: When using the wire wool squirting white vinegar instead of glass cleaner will remove the "invisible" dirt from the window. It'll run extremely quick so don't soak the glass.
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