The secrets of washing your car to perfection

Ever wondered how a professional washes a car? Wonder no more…...

What’s the best way to wash a car and what’s the two-bucket method?

Cleaning the used Audi A3 (13-present) long term test car

Richard Tipper, founder of Perfection Detailing and one of the UK’s best and most successful car detailers, a job that’s a cut above your average vehicle valeter, shares a few of his secrets.

What’s the difference between a detailer and a valeter?

Men washing car

Simply, time. A detailer like me takes much longer over a car than a valeter who may just wash and vac it, and give the interior a wipe. A detailer does that but so much more. The clue’s in the name.

So what exactly do you do?

Car detailer inspecting the paint of a Vauxhall Astra

How I polish a car is the biggest difference between me and a valeter. If they polish it at all, a valeter may just give it a shine. I go further by getting below the defects in a paint finish – the swirls, the overspray and the discolouration which I identify using a special light – to get rid of them.

First things first: what’s the best way to wash a car?

Car detailer talking to John

It’s best to do it on an overcast day or at dawn or dusk when the air is still and the temperature is cool but not cold. Hose down the car and then apply a ‘snow foam’, a pre-wash agent that softens dirt, and leave it on the car for a few minutes. This will avoid you contaminating your wash sponge or mitt with dirt from the car and scratching it.

First things first: what’s the best way to wash a car? (cont.)

People changing wheels on cars

Meanwhile, remove each wheel in turn and clean behind it as well as the hubs, using a special cleaner that reacts with and loosens the bonded-on brake dust, enabling it to be hosed off.

Jet Off

Car detailer rinsing an Astra

Now jet off the snowfoam from the top of the car to the bottom, and only then are you’re ready to wash it. For this part of the job I use a bucket of water with a grit guard to prevent debris contaminating my sponge mitt (I prefer a sponge mitt to a sponge).

Jet Off (cont.)

Car detailer washing an Astra

Alternatively, you can use the two-bucket method: one bucket with rinsing water in it and the other, soapy water. You alternate them as you go. Hose off the water and chammy or blow dry the car before applying polish to seal the paintwork.

Great – what’s the next stage to get the car looking great?

Car detailer clay bar an Astra

Now the detailing really begins. First, I use a clay bar, rubbing it gently over the paintwork to remove microscopic debris such as tar spots and surface contaminants such as tree sap.

Scan

Car detailer buffing an Astra

Then I scan the paint with an ultrasound depth gauge to establish how thick it is before setting to work with a small, handheld buffing machine (next picture), fitted with a variety of different polishing heads.

Scan (cont.)

Ferrari F40

Because I’ve already clay barred away surface debris, there’s no risk of the polishing head picking up any sharp particles and scratching the paint. I usually spend around four hours on this part of the job but I did once spend three days on a customer’s Ferrari F40.

What other things do you do that a valeter doesn’t?

Bentley engine

I’m not saying all valeters don't do these things but I’ll certainly clean the inside of the fuel flap, the inside of the air vents, the top of the glass where it goes into the seal around the frame and, of course, the engine. I recently spent six hours cleaning the engine of a 1928 Bentley.

What can I do that will make a big difference?

Brake calipers

I’ll use a Brillo pad on jubilee clips and a toothbrush in cramped areas if I must. I’ll also take off the wheels and clean behind them and, of course, the brake calipers which are often a big part of a car’s appearance.

What’s the most memorable car you’ve detailed?

Aston Martin Vulcan

Actually, its ‘cars’ – 18 of them and all Aston Martin Vulcans. They were brand-new off the production line and heading for their first owners.

What’s the most bizarre cleaning job you’ve undertaken?

Car detailer next to a Mercedes Sprinter van

In my early days, I used to clean for a bodyshop specialising in stolen and recovered cars. On one occasion I had to clean the back of a car someone had been bundled into during a kidnap.

And the worst?

Land Rover Freelander front 3/4 up muddy hill

A farmer’s wife challenged me to clean her Land Rover Freelander. The carpets were so dirty you couldn’t tell what colour they were until I’d cleaned them.

What’s the most difficult thing about your job?

Man washing car

Knowing when to stop. I am a perfectionist, hence my company name. I’ve had to learn to step away and if the customer says ‘that’s fine’, I have to accept that. If ever I hear myself say, ‘that’ll do’, I know I’ve not done my best.

How did you start in detailing?

Car detailer cleaning a Ferrari 612

I’d been cleaning cars for a variety of companies then one day in 1997 a customer asked me to go to a Ferrari dealer to clean his Ferrari. Just that one car got me talked about in the sports and classic car communities and I haven't looked back.

How did you start in detailing? (cont.)

Prodrive Colin McRae Impreza

I’ve since detailed over 26,000 cars, among them Nigel Mansell’s JPS Lotus 91 Formula One car of 1982. I’ve also detailed the entire ProDrive collection that includes cars driven by [late rally champion] Colin McRae, although I must stress I didn't clean the seats, controls or steering wheels. I wouldn't want to clean away that special contact between the driver and the car.

How much do you charge?

Car detailer with a Porsche Cayman

My current rate is around £650. Customers who are prepared to pay that are pretty serious about their cars.

What’s the attraction of detailing?

Car detailer polishing an Astra

It’s the transformation I can make to a car and seeing the pleasure my work gives my customers. Unlike valeting, detailing is truly personal. My customers become addicted to keeping their car just so.

Thanks Richard

You can follow Richard on Twitter @perfectionvalet

Related cars

Vauxhall Astra

2019 - present

Decent value, with attractive company car tax bills, but the F...

Spinner