Professional detailing can cost anywhere from $200 to $500, but doing it yourself can be surprisingly inexpensive and straightforward. Plus, you likely already have many of the tools and materials needed. Keeping your car “like new” can increase its resale value by hundreds, or even thousands of dollars.
Here’s everything you need to know.
Cleaning Materials and Tools
If you have a decent vacuum cleaner and an assortment of cleaning products, you already have most of the needed items. Throw in a variety of towels, brushes, rags, and sponges, and you’re ready to proceed.
- Vacuum Cleaner. A vacuum cleaner with an extension hose and hand-held attachments is ideal – you’ll need attachments to clean carpets and tight, hard-to-reach nooks. A steam cleaning machine can be helpful too.
- Chemical Cleaning Products. It is likely that you already have the necessary products on hand to clean surfaces including vinyl, plastic, upholstery, and carpeting. Take a quick inventory your car’s surfaces and assemble a basket of your favorite cleaning products.
- Wiping and Polishing Materials. For serious detailing work, you need a wide assortment of towels and rags – everything from terry cloth towels for scrubbing to lint-free, fine cloth rags for cleaning and polishing. For a beautiful shine on surfaces without the worry of scratches, you can’t beat a microfiber cloth. Before you start, make sure the cloths are free of any residual chemicals.
- Brushes and Applicators. Different-sized brushes are a must for cleaning dust from air vents and other hard-to-reach places. Depending on the cleaner, you may need a stiff-bristled brush, sponge, or rag. See instructions on the label and be sure to use the proper applicator – it can make all the difference.
When using cleaning products on your car’s interior, be certain that they are meant for your car’s surfaces. If in doubt, test it on an inconspicuous area. If a blemish or stain results, it will be hidden from view.
Carpets and Floor Mats
This is a good place to start given carpets and floor mats tend to be the dirtiest. However, depending on how dirty the rest of the interior is, you may want to clean the carpet last – if the cleanup of the seats and dash creates a mess, you will not have to redo the carpet.
Before you begin, remove all coins, papers, junk food wrappers, and other objects that have accumulated. Slide seats forward and backward to make sure you don’t miss anything.
Remove the floor mats and vigorously shake the dirt loose. Some mats have deep indentations to trap water and melting snow from your winter boots, and dirt can become caked between the grooves.
If a good shake is not enough, try loosening grime with a stiff brush. Clean between the grooves with your vacuum cleaner’s bare hose nozzle. Once all the mats are dirt-free, wash them out with a strong jet of water from your garden hose. Allow them to air-dry completely. If you wash mats with a detergent, make sure the cleaning product will not leave mats slippery and unsafe while driving.
First, vacuum the carpet completely. Use the brush attachment and various nozzles of different shapes and sizes to clean crevices and areas around the seats.
As mentioned, the best way to wash almost any carpet is with a steam cleaning machine – hand-held models are ideal if you have one. If not, numerous commercial carpet cleaning products will still work. The foam variety of carpet cleaning products is a good choice. Something like Bissell Carpet Cleaning Foam, which costs approximately $6.99 per bottle, not only cleans carpets, but also leaves them smelling fresh. General purpose products like Black Diamond Carpet & Upholstery Cleaner, selling for $9.98 a quart, is a spray-on cleaner that can get the job done as well.
For most products, you simply need to spray it on and brush it in with a medium-stiff brush, applying some elbow grease to stains and problem areas. Take care not to get the carpet too wet as this can promote the growth of mold or mildew. If the carpet becomes saturated during the process, use a clean, absorbent towel to blot it dry.
Stains that are difficult to extract may require an industrial strength or specialized cleaning product. Resolve Professional Strength Spot and Stain Carpet Cleaner, which sells for $6.89 per 32-ounce bottle, can work wonders. If you find chewing gum matted into the carpet, rub it with ice cubes for several minutes. When the gum turns brittle, gently pry it off the carpet.
The three main types of material used for car seats are leather, vinyl, and cloth upholstery, each requiring different cleaning methods. Give your seats (and the areas around and between them) a thorough vacuuming to get as much dirt off the seats before applying any cleaning compound.
Luxurious leather does have a drawback: keeping it clean and looking new can be difficult. As time goes by, dirt and grime become embedded into the surface, possibly changing lighter-colored leather to a dingy shade. Fortunately, a good leather-cleaning product can take care of that in no time.
Most leather-cleaning compounds must be sprayed or applied to the seat, worked into the material by rubbing with a towel. If using a towel, make sure to flip it often so that you are constantly using the clean side. Once the cleaning process is complete, dry the seats with a microfiber cloth.
Allow a couple hours for the leather to dry thoroughly. Then, apply a leather conditioner to keep the material supple. You can both wash and condition the leather if you use a two-in-one product, such as Weiman Leather Cleaner & Conditioner.
Compared to leather, vinyl seats are a snap to take care of. Cleanup is quick and easy. Many products that you may already have will work fine. Even some brands of glass cleaner do a good job.
Go through the labels of products you have on hand to identify one that is compatible with vinyl. Then, spray the car seats with the cleaner and wipe with a rag. Make sure not to get the cleaner on any interior material that may be damaged by the excess. Wipe down the seats completely, using a second cloth to dry. In an hour or so your vinyl car seats should be ready for use.
When cleaning cloth car seats, you must ask yourself a few questions. Are there any tough stains you have to take care of? Do the seats need a general cleaning or do you also have to get rid of nasty odors? These factors will dictate the type of product or method you use.
A multipurpose upholstery cleaner, such as Tuff Stuff ($3.47), can work well. But if you have problem stains, you may need a specialized stain remover, such as Scotchgard Carpet and Fabric Spot Remover ($11.61). You may also want to use a household odor elimination spray if the products used up to this point have not left your car smelling fresh. Try Febreze Free Nature Fabric Refresher ($8.89).
When dealing with a tough-to-clean cloth seat, use caution. The more liquid cleaning products you use, the more damp the seats become -fabrics that soak up too much moisture won’t dry completely, leaving your car smelling musty.
To minimize using harsh chemicals and run the risk of wet car seats, sprinkle some baking soda on the seats. After several hours, vacuum the baking soda and your car should smell nice and fresh. Just remember: the longer you let the baking soda sit, the more odor it absorbs.
Windows and Mirrors
A glass cleaner and a microfiber cloth can work wonders when cleaning glass surfaces. However, make sure you are cleaning glass, not plastic. For example, gauge covers on the front console are usually made of plastic. For this, you can use an all-purpose cleaner.
If you have tinted windows, be even more cautious. Some tinting is part of the window while other tinting is actually a sheet applied to the inside of the window – these are easily damaged by cleaning products (especially those that contain ammonia). When in doubt, contact the shop or vendor that applied the tinting.
When cleaning windows and mirrors, spray the cleaner on the cloth (rather than on the glass itself) to reduce streaking. This will also avoid getting cleaner on other parts of your car that may be damaged by harsh chemicals.
Lastly, roll down your windows partway. See that line of grime along the top quarter-inch? Many people completely forget this, but detailing like a pro means you do not overlook a single detail, so give it a good wipe.
If you are dealing with streaks, it can be maddening to figure out whether it is on the interior or exterior surface of the glass. To combat this frustration, wipe exterior glass surfaces horizontally while wiping interior glass surfaces vertically. This way you are never in doubt which side the streak is actually on.
The front panel is the area that we see most. Unfortunately, thanks to all the knobs, switches, vents, and dusty nooks and crannies, it can seem difficult to clean – but not if you have the right tools.
Whether your dashboard consists of leather, vinyl, or some other material, it can be one of the most difficult parts of the interior to clean. The angle of the windshield in some cars can create hard-to-reach areas on the dash, and worse, it tends to be the most dusty area in your car.
Vacuum all the dust before you apply a cleaning product, making sure to reach as far as possible during the entire process. After cleaning, you may want to apply an interior dressing appropriate for the material to keep it from fading or cracking from exposure to sunlight.
The many buttons and controls in your car can be a nightmare to clean. Dust can get into every crack and crevice. There is a simple trick to fix this.
To make yourself a specialized implement to clean the tightest spots and grooves on your console, simply wrap a cloth around the tip of a flat-head screwdriver. The key is to use the thinnest cloth possible so as not to make the screwdriver head too bulky to do the job. If you are worried that a metal screwdriver may harm your console, you can use a plastic knife wrapped in a cloth or cotton swabs instead.
Air vent grills are not too difficult to clean, but can be extremely tedious thanks to their many parts. Using the proper tools can quicken the job – and a soft, long bristle brush and a can of compressed air can clean those dirty vents in no time.
Using the brush, wipe off as much of the vent grill as possible – this will take care of most of the dust. To give it that brand new look, fire a few jets of air from the compressed air can onto the grill. Compressed air canisters can be purchased from most office supply stores for less than $6 a can.
In many cars, door panels are made of a material or combination of materials that are the same as the upholstery, the seats, dashboard, or other parts of the interior. Whichever methods and products that were used on those areas should be used on the door panels.
Keep in mind that many door panels have cup holders or open compartments. These can be some of the filthiest areas inside your car. Before cleaning with a chemical product, remove everything that is large enough by hand. Vacuum the rest thoroughly.
Lingering odors, especially those caused by cigarette smoke and pets, can be difficult to remove. Fortunately, there are some great odor removal products on the market, such as Dakota Odor Bomb Car Odor Eliminator ($10 per five-ounce spray can) and Ozium Smoke & Odors Eliminator Gel (approximately $9 for a small jar).
Before you rush to purchase any odor-eliminating product, make sure there is nothing causing the offensive smell stuck in a hidden or hard-to-reach place – even the best product can’t permanently neutralize a horrible odor if the source remains. If you are certain the odor is coming from the upholstery or carpet, generously use the odor removal product to neutralize the unpleasant smell. These products are designed to take care of even the toughest, most unpleasant scents.
If you are a smoker or regularly travel with pets, odors are bound to return. To improve the smell of your car, hang a car deodorizer from your rear view mirror, or use this trick: Find an old plastic food storage container that won’t be missed and check to ensure that it easily fits beneath your car seat. Cut one-quarter inch slots into the lid, filling the container with ordinary lumps of charcoal. Securely snap on the lid and slide it under your car seat, making sure it is hidden from view. This helps to absorb nasty odors, freshening the interior of your car without the need for car deodorizers, which merely mask bad smells.
Unless you drive a significant amount, a thorough interior detailing every six to eight months should be sufficient. The first time you detail the interior of your car, expect it to take longer, especially if it has not been cleaned in a while. However, if you continue to detail your car at regular intervals, it will maintain that “new car” look and feel for many years. That could bring you hundreds, or even thousands of extra dollars when you sell or trade-in your vehicle.
When was the last time you detailed the inside of your car? Any other tips or tricks?