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  • Writer's pictureJack Cummings

How To Detail The Exterior Of Your Car By Yourself

Updated: Aug 2, 2023


A person is washing their gray car by using a wash mitt and soap. The car is beginning to look shiny and clean.

Table Of Contents:

What Is Car Detailing?

In general, the term car detailing refers to meticulously cleaning all areas of a vehicle with tools and products that are not typically found at a conventional car wash. The primary focus of detailing is to remove all contaminants from the paint, restore the shine of the exterior, and thoroughly clean the interior.

Learning how to properly detail your vehicle can improve its appearance, maintain its resale value, and prolong your vehicle's lifespan. In this article, I will be discussing the processes, techniques, and some frequently asked questions that go along with detailing a car, truck, or SUV.

Now you may be asking "How can I detail the exterior of my car by myself?". Well, I'm here to answer that question!

What Tools And Products Do You Need?

To begin the car detailing process, you will need to gather some supplies. Below, you will find some of the different items you will need to detail your ride.

A list of basic supplies that will be needed:

  • Brushes: Used to clean a wide range of surfaces from large areas like wheels + tires, and hard-to-get areas like the engine bay. Types of brushes you'll need:

    • Wheel brushes

    • Tire brush

    • Wheel well/ fender brush

  • Buckets: To wash your car, you will need one or two 5-gallon buckets. You can get by with just using one bucket and a Grit Guard, however, experts recommend using the two-bucket wash method -- one bucket to hold the soapy water, and one to rinse your wash mitt and/or tools.

  • Wash mitt: Use a wash mitt to safely remove all contaminants and debris from your vehicle's exterior without causing scratches or swirl marks. A good premium microfiber wash mitt makes all the difference when washing the exterior of your car.

  • Clay mitt or clay bar: Used to remove any contaminants that are harder to get to than just a microfiber wash mitt.

  • Soap: Use a designated car soap for best results. I prefer using a pH-neutral automotive soap.

  • Microfiber towels: These towels will help to dry your vehicle after you are done washing it.

  • Garden hose/ pressure washer: Use either a garden hose or a low psi pressure washer to pre-rinse and rinse your car.

  • Chemicals: Chemicals can be used to get more of a deep clean when detailing your car. There are a variety of different chemicals and brands that can be used, however, I will list a few that I use the most:

    • Wheel cleaning soap & degreaser

    • Tire shine

    • Bug & tar remover

    • Car wax

    • Clay lubricant (a.k.a "Clay Luber")

    • All-purpose cleaner (APC)

    • Streak-free glass & window cleaner

8 Steps To Detail The Exterior Of Your Car


  1. Clean the engine bay

  2. Wash the wheels and tires

  3. Pre-rinse

  4. Wash

  5. Remove bug guts and tar

  6. Clay treatment

  7. Wax

  8. Apply tire dressing (tire shine)

After you have gathered all of the supplies that you will need to detail your car, it is time to get started!

Estimated Time Required: 1-1.5 hours

1. Clean the engine bay.

A person is cleaning their engine bay of their car. The sun is shining on the area and is making it look nice and clean.

Underneath the hood, you will find the key components that make your car run and function properly. It is important that you keep this area clean. Keeping your engine bay clean will help technicians access different areas of your engine more easily should any problems arise. In addition, keeping your engine bay clean will help prolong the life of components by keeping dirt, grime, and grease from accumulating on surfaces, or in/on any moving parts.

Estimated Time Required: 10-20 minutes


1. Open the hood.

2. Make sure that all caps, seals, and hoses are secured and tightened to reduce the risk of water or debris getting inside. Also, make sure that the air intake, alternator, and battery are sealed off with either a towel or a plastic bag.

3. Use either a pressure washer or garden hose to pre-rinse the underside of the hood, then make your way to the engine bay and rinse off any loose dirt and debris. Note: if you are using a pressure washer, be sure to hold the end of the wand at a distance of around three to four feet away from the area you are rinsing.

4. Wipe down the underside of the hood and large components using either a large wheel brush, fender brush, or towel. You can use a diluted degreaser, or APC (all-purpose cleaner) to aid in the cleaning process. Be sure to remove any built-up mud, oil, grease, etc.

5. Wipe down the smaller components and get in the crevices that were not wiped down in step 4 by using a detail brush/ toothbrush, fender brush, or a towel. This is your time to get technical... make sure to make that engine bay look the way it did when it first rolled off the showroom floor! Like in step 4, you can use a diluted degreaser or APC.

6. Rinse down the underside of the hood and engine bay.

7. Apply a shine or protectant: You may opt-in to apply some sort of shine or protectant if you are looking for a wet/ glossy look. After washing your engine bay, just follow the directions on the product you are looking to use, and just like that, you are done with cleaning your engine!

2. Wash the wheels and tires.

A person is using a wash mitt and soap to clean and degrease their wheels. The wheels are beginning to look very shiny

The second step in the car detailing process is to clean your wheels and tires. You'll want to wash them before cleaning the rest of your car to avoid any overspray that can get on your car's paint. By thoroughly cleaning your wheels and tires, you can remove the dirt and brake dust that has accumulated while you have been driving.

Estimated Time Required: 15-25 minutes


1. Use either a pressure washer or garden hose to start pre-rinsing the wheels, wheel wells, and tires to get rid of any loose dirt and debris. Note: keep the area wet throughout this process, this allows for better lubrication and reduces the risk of scratching your wheels.

2. Wash your wheel wells and tires:

2.1: Apply a designated wheel cleaning soap and/or degreaser to your wheel well and tire.

2.2: Use your wheel well/ fender brush to scrub the wheel well.

2.3: Use your tire brush to scrub the tire.

3. Wash your wheels:

3.1: Apply a designated wheel cleaning soap and/or degreaser to your wheel.

3.2: Use your wheel brushes and a small detail brush to scrub the wheel. Helpful tip: a small detail brush works well in tough spots and crevices of your wheels.

4. Rinse: finish cleaning your wheels and tires by rinsing them.

3. Pre-rinse the car.

A person is using a pressure washer and water to rinse the dirt and debris off their car before washing it.

The third step in the car detailing process is the pre-rinse. The pre-rinse phase will get rid of the loose contaminants that have been building up on your vehicle's paint. The best way I have found to complete this process is with an electric pressure washer since it has more pressure than a garden hose, however, a garden hose would work just fine.

Note: To avoid water spots, you should prepare all necessary materials to complete the detail before you start rinsing the vehicle, especially if you are detailing your car in the heat or direct sunlight.

Estimated Time Required: 5-10 minutes


1. Begin by rinsing the roof of your car, then work your way from top to bottom with a pressure washer or garden hose.

4. Wash your car.

Soap is dripping off of a bright red car.
4.1 Apply soap to the car using a foam cannon.

Applying soap to the surface of your car allows you to get a better cleaning and remove all of the contaminants that were not removed in the pre-rinse. You will want to use soap that is made for washing vehicles to avoid harming your vehicle's paint.

Note: Before putting soap on your car, you should fill your buckets. If you are using the recommended two-bucket method, make sure to put in your Grit Guard, then fill one bucket with regular water and the other bucket with soapy water. If you are just using one bucket, still remember to put in your Grit Guard, then fill the bucket with soapy water.

*If you are just using a wash mitt to wash your vehicle, then skip to step 4.2.

Estimated Time Required: 5 minutes


1. When using a foam cannon, you will want to fill the bottle with soap and water, a general rule to go by in regards to the amount of soap used is 1-3 ounces per bottle, although you can experiment and add to your liking.

2. Attach your foam cannon to your pressure washer wand and spray the soap onto the car.

4.2 Two-Bucket Method Contact Wash.

A contact wash with a good wash mitt will allow you to remove most of the contaminants on your car's paint without causing scratching or swirling.

Estimated Time Required: 5-10 minutes


1. Soak your wash mitt in soapy water.

2. Applying light to medium pressure, pass the soapy mitt across the exterior of your car, if you notice that dirt or debris starting to accumulate on the mitt, rinse it off in the bucket with regular water and then dunk it back into the soapy water and continue scrubbing your car. *If a certain section of your vehicle is especially dirty, you may want to make several passes until you notice that the contaminants have been removed.

3. Rinse each section of your car thoroughly.

5. Remove bug guts and tar from the car.

A person is using an orange microfiber towel to remove bug guts from the front of their car.

The fifth step in the exterior detailing process is to remove the bug guts and tar that may still be on your car's bumper, side-view mirrors, and surrounding your wheel well even after you wash and rinse your vehicle in the contact wash.

Estimated Time Required: 3 minutes


1. Spray a little bit of the bug and tar remover chemical on a microfiber towel and then scrub the area with light to moderate pressure.

2. Finish by rinsing the area(s) thoroughly.

6. Clay treatment.

A person is using a clay mitt to remove all contaminants on the car's paint.

The sixth step is to clay treat your car. I prefer using a clay mitt instead of a clay bar, although, both work well. A clay mitt/ bar will remove all contaminants left over on your car's paint after you perform a contact wash.

Estimated Time Required: 5 minutes


1. Grab your clay mitt or bar and spray some clay lubricant onto it.

2. Rub the clay over the finish: Work your way around your car by applying medium pressure on the clay mitt/bar. Note: you will want to work in an up-down or side-to-side method. Do not work in a circular motion. Also, I prefer working in 2'x2' areas which makes it easier to focus on one section at a time.

7. Apply wax to the car.

A person is using a microfiber towel to apply a spray-on wax to their car.

The next step is to wax your car. Wax protects your car's paint, makes it easier to wash in the future, and makes your car look shiny!

A good spray-on wax and a paste wax work about the same although paste waxes last longer per application which makes it ideal for someone who is only looking to apply it once every so often.

Estimated Time Required: 5-10 minutes


1. Grab your wax and a premium microfiber cloth or towel, then work your way around the car by applying the wax onto one body panel at a time and wiping it off with a microfiber towel. It's as simple as that! Note: make sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions.

8. Apply tire dressing to the tires.

A person is using a foam applicator pad to apply tire shine to their vehicle's tires.

You've finally made it to the last step of detailing the exterior of your car! This step puts the cherry on top. Applying a tire shine will make the tires glossy and clean-looking.

Estimated Time Required: 5-10 minutes


1. Grab your tire shine and applicator pad or brush, then spray some of your tire shine onto the pad and rub the product into the tires. Note: Avoid getting tire shine on concrete as it may leave a white stain on the concrete.

Infographic that shows the order of steps about how to detail the exterior of your car by yourself


Cummings Mobile Detailing business logo.

About Cummings Mobile Detailing

Here at Cummings Mobile Detailing, we strive to provide the best quality interior and exterior car, truck & van detailing, and more importantly, the best customer relationships.

With our large service area, accompanied by our mobile detailing setup, we are capable of servicing vehicles in locations including your home or workplace. We are based in Rolesville North Carolina, and we service vehicles in Wake Forest, Raleigh, Garner, and more. Our objective is to keep your vehicle looking great on a schedule that fits your needs. No job is too big or too small.

We seek to deliver high-quality service at a reasonable price. That's why our service packages are affordable and tailored to your vehicle to help you get the most out of each and every detail. The best part about having a mobile setup is that we make it easy to keep your vehicles looking great by offering on-site detailing so you can go about your day as usual.

Before you go through the hassle of going to a car wash or detailing your vehicle yourself, give us a call today or click here for more information!


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