17 Sep 2012

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I get asked about proper detailing maintenance by clients and enthusiasts all the time.  “How often should I wash the car?  Do I need to wax every time I wash? Should I clay my car before waxing??” etc, etc.  In this article, I’ll list paint maintenance schedules that I recommend to all my clients as well as reasons behind my recommendations.  It’s also something I follow with my personal vehicles.

First off, without going into products, techniques, etc (I will assume that everyone reading this is getting the great products from Detailed Image and using them properly), here’s a basic list of services that together make up a proper vehicle maintenance regimen within the detailing department.  I’ve also added my own short description of each service.

  • Washing (I consider washing a car to include washing & drying the paint, cleaning the wheels lightly, cleaning and dressing tires and wheel wells, lightly cleaning/polishing exhaust tips, wiping down all door, trunk, hood jambs and the engine bay)
  • Washing & Sealing (Washing as described above, with a sealant or wax applied to the paint, wheels, etc., as a last step)
  • Washing, Claying & Sealing (Clay bar decontamination done before sealing)
  • Washing, Claying, Polishing & Sealing (Paint is polished after claying and before sealing)
  • Interior Detailing (Vacuuming, glass cleaning, light wipe down of all leather, vinyl, trim)

That roughly covers all the services.  We all know there are many variations to the above services but for the sake of this article, I’m keeping them as simple as possible.

Maintenance Schedules

First off, let’s talk about the importance of each of the above services.

Washing is obviously extremely important as it gets the dirt and grime off the paint, keeping it clean, shiny and healthy.  In my opinion, proper washing at correct intervals is the most important service within the paint maintenance process.  It is required not only to keep the paint clean and free of contamination, but also as a precedent to polishing, claying and sealing, all of which are necessary for paint preservation.  For instance, if the paint isn’t washed often enough, it can get extremely dirty, contaminated and swirled.  At the same time though, even if that does happen, a proper and thorough wash is necessary before the paint gets the rejuvenation it needs, via claying, polishing, and finally sealing.  So washing is a sort of MUST when it comes to maintaining a vehicle’s finish.  As we all know, proper drying is a huge part of a quality wash process and it must be done each and every time to avoid swirl marks and scratches in the paint.

Second most important service is sealing the paint after washing.  I believe it’s second most important because the protection it offers is not only from the environment (protecting against the sun, bird droppings and rain), but also from people trying to maintain the paint (a sealed/waxed surface is much easier to clean, requiring much less pressure from the person washing it as well as smooth and slick so dirt, water and other contamination can more easily slide off).  This means that sealing and/or waxing a vehicle’s finish plays a major role by protecting the paint and aiding in its maintenance process.

Lastly, I see claying and polishing as services that go hand in hand.  At times, one can be more important and useful than the other, but both are best when used together.  For instance, I see claying as a more important service because claying is a slightly abrasive process through which the paint is decontaminated and fixed to a certain extent.  Claying is important to me as it removes contamination that might otherwise come out randomly during washing or drying and cause severe swirling.  On the other hand, polishing is necessary to bring paint back to life, especially old and faded paint.  At this point the surface paint must be removed so the rest of the paint can be properly cleaned and maintained.  As we all know, sometimes this is just impossible and we can’t do much about correcting the existing paint.

Interior detailing and cleaning is completely separate from exterior maintenance in my opinion and should be done based on a different schedule.  There are way too many factors to consider when it comes to cleaning interiors, such as how many people are usually in the vehicle, are there kids usually in the vehicle, do the passengers smoke, eat, drink, etc, etc.  I’ll briefly explain it below, but as you can see interior detailing intervals can vary from every 2 weeks to every 2-3 months!

Let’s talk a bit about the actual intervals at which I would recommend performing the services mentioned above.

Washing Schedule

The general consensus is that weekly washing is the best interval for washing a vehicle on a regular basis.  While I completely agree with that as a general rule, I always recommend washing be done on an “as needed” basis.  This means different intervals for all the different clients, vehicles and driving patterns.  For instance, a person driving a car daily 10-15 miles to work and back will probably encounter environmental conditions that require washing be done roughly once a week.  Whether it’s rain, bird droppings, pollen, dirt kicked up from the street, etc, the vehicle will be covered and paint dirty.  On the other hand, someone with a weekend car/garage queen will normally take out the car 5-10 times per month and usually on nice sunny days.  This person can easily afford to let the little dust from each drive sit for a few weeks and wash the car roughly 1-2 times per month.

I preach this “as needed” schedule because most, if not all, swirls are caused by washing and drying.  No matter how careful and regardless of the quality of tools, products and supplies used during the process, washing and drying cause tiny swirl marks that will eventually be seen by the human eye.  Sometimes it takes a month, sometimes 6-8 months, depending on many different variables (quality of products, technique, paint hardness, etc.), but they’ll eventually appear.  Washing on average every 1.5-2.5 weeks throughout the year (meaning sometimes you wash weekly sometimes every 2-3 weeks, etc.) will keep the swirls at bay just a bit longer compared to washing every 6-7 days.  This means that polishing will be required a bit less as well, for those who like to polish vehicles every few months to keep them looking as perfect as safely possible.

I also suggest people touch their vehicles as rarely as possible.  For example, if someone washed their car 4-5 days ago and it’s been fairly sunny, but now they know it’s going to rain for 4-5 days straight, it won’t hurt the finish to have some rain fall on it for a few days continuously, especially if it’s well protected.  In this case, washing the car every 10 days to 2 weeks is completely fine.  At the same time, an extremely meticulous person or one that simply must have a clean car every day (an example is a client of mine who drives a limo and requires daily washing… yes, DAILY WASHING) will wash the car today, then take it for a drive and wash tomorrow.

As you can see, there are many different variables that affect a person’s car washing schedule, whether it’s the weather conditions or the person’s attitude toward keeping the car clean.

All that said, I would like to simply reiterate what I said at the top for the washing schedule:  once a week is a very good, probably the best, interval for washing vehicles.  As mentioned, sometimes a vehicle will see good weather and not need washing for a couple weeks, whereas other times it’ll get bombarded by bird droppings and need a wash within a day or two.  So in conclusion, weekly washing is a great standard to stick with, but be your own judge and wash according to your location, driving pattern and simple necessity.  Whatever interval you choose, always strictly follow proper techniques and use good products.

Sealing Schedule

Sealing is a service that will depend on two things, your location/environment and your need to keep the car shiny.  By location I mean what type of weather the car is driven in and how the car is stored throughout the day.  All other things being the same, a car sitting outside in the sun while you’re at work for 8 hours will definitely need a fresh coat of sealant sooner than a car that is parked inside a garage for those 8 hours.  Same if a car sees tons of rain vs one that doesn’t.  Regarding the “need to keep the car shiny” part, I mean that washing a vehicle takes its toll on the sealant over time.  The more you wash it, the shorter the interval at which sealant is applied.  Also, using a higher soap concentration helps strip off sealant, so always use the recommended/necessary amount.  If the car is lightly dusty/dirty, the general 1oz soap to 1gal water works well pretty much all the time.  On the other hand, if you need to get some stubborn bird crap or bugs off the paint, forget the sealant durability and let the soaps do the job of loosening the contamination, as opposed to rubbing at it and causing swirl marks.
All that said, I have found the following to work best for myself and clients in my area.  When using a sealant, such as Klasse Sealant Glaze or Blackfire Wet Diamond, I generally have clients back every 6-8 weeks for a fresh coat.  When using a carnauba wax, such as P21S Concours Carnauba Wax, clients come back for a fresh coat every 4-5 weeks.

As I mentioned before, many variables will help determine how often the car should be protected, but I generally see 2 to 2.5 months protection from sealants and anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks protection with a carnauba wax.

Clay bar decontamination Schedule

Simply put, claying should be done whenever necessary and always before polishing to ensure a clean surface.  Most of my clients will get a clay bar treatment 1-2 times per year, at the same time we do a maintenance 1-step polishing detail.  However, some of the vehicles I maintain (including my own) are driven or parked by train tracks often/daily, which results in a lot of embedded contamination within a month or two.  For these vehicles I’ll typically do what I call a Standard Exterior Detail, which includes a light claying to remove the contamination and then a light all-in-one polish (such as Optimum Poli-Seal) to remove any light marring caused by the claybar.  This ensures the vehicles don’t get too contaminated and require much more involved detailing later on.  Some more reasons to clay “as necessary” would be running through somewhat fresh tar on the roads, getting overspray on the vehicle, etc.

Long story short, clay bar decontamination should be done either before polishing or as necessary according to the surroundings.  Usually this ends up being 1-2 times yearly, unless the vehicle lives in an environment like I mentioned above, in which case it would require more frequent decontamination.

Polishing Schedule

As far as paint polishing goes, I perform a Light Polish Detail (which is a 1-step polishing detail using something like Menzerna po85rd or Meguiar’s 205 with a white Lake Country pad) for all my regulars 1-2 times per year.  Why?  While the polishes and pads used for the 1-step polishing process vary from vehicle to vehicle depending on the paint hardness/softness, the Light Polish Detail (LPD) is aggressive enough to remove the light swirl marks vehicles usually accumulate throughout the year, even with careful washing (again, swirl severity and removal depends on the paint).  By removing these swirl marks, the LPD is capable of leveling the paint to the point where it will once again be glossy and show its true color.

As with anything, there are different variables that need to be taken into account.  One such variable is paint thickness.  I have a few clients who have extremely soft paint, and usually due to a horrible detail job in the past, that paint is extremely thin.  With that, I’m only able to do a very light polishing of the paint even if it’s once per year, as it’s better to live with swirl marks than clear coat failure.  Obviously at some point the paint will become swirled enough to the point where it requires a re-spray, but regular light polishing keeps it in good condition and looking great.

It goes without mentioning that polishing should be accompanied by proper washing and claying techniques, as well as a good coat of sealant at the end to protect the finish.

Interior Detailing Schedule

Interior Detailing is something extremely important but usually overlooked.  Yes we all do a quick vacuum and wipe the windows every couple weeks, but many, many people overlook all the little things settling in on the rest of the surfaces inside the vehicle.  Leather as well as cloth seats take a daily beating, steering wheels obviously see the most use and air vents get dust that should be regularly removed.  For these and many more reasons I always advise clients on regular interior detailing.  I generally recommend that a thorough interior detail, including leather treating and conditioning, be done 1-2 times per year.  This is when every possible crevice is vacuumed, wiped and cleaned.  On some vehicles, like those seeing 3-4 younger children every day of the week, this should probably de done a good 5-8 times per year.  On the typical enthusiast cars though, the ones that rarely even get a single passenger, once or twice per year is plenty.

Besides the thorough interior detailing, I recommend a quick vacuum, window cleaning, and leather/trim/dash wipe down every 1-3 weeks.  Again, this depends on the use of the vehicles, but even most daily drivers that are simply driven to and from work clean up well every week or two.  One thing to remember when doing the very basic interior detailing is to try and slip the vacuum end piece in between seats and wipe down some tough to reach areas, because it’ll leave you with a lot less junk to clean up later on with the more involved detail job.

So in short, thorough and extremely involved interior detailing should be done at least 1-2 times per year on a vehicle that’s kept pretty clean overall.  Same vehicle should get a basic interior detail done every couple weeks or so in order to keep things cleaner than usual and maintain a fresh appearance inside.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned numerous times within this article, detailing schedules are different and vary for each vehicle.  The schedules I’ve used above work well for most cars, but I’d say they mostly refer to an enthusiast owned car that gets driven almost daily.  If the car is a “soccer mom van” then in most cases cleaning will be much tougher than what I even described above, so it’s best to judge each vehicle individually.

I hope this helps out some people and at least gives them somewhere to start when forming their own schedule for their specific vehicle.

Thanks for reading.

Ivan Rajic
LUSTR Auto Detail
18A Golf Center
Hoffman Estates, IL 60169

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