How to Detail Your Car’s Exterior: Get a Showroom Shine with These Key Detailing Tips

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National Car Care Month, which is celebrated every April, acts as a reminder to take care of all aspects of your vehicle—including the exterior. Although many owners think a quick wash and wax are all a car’s exterior needs, there’s a lot more to it than that.

Because I’ve been detailing cars since I was a teenager, I know how to make an exterior shine. My skills came in handy when, in my mid-20s, I decided to purchase a 1987 Chevy Cavalier Z24 off of Craigslist.

1987 Chevy Cavalier Z24 purchased on Craigslist.

It took me more than six hours to properly detail the weather-worn, 24-year-old car, but the results were well worth the effort. When I was done, the finish displayed a glossy shine, despite being far from perfect. The car looked great from a distance—and that was good enough for me.

black 1987 chevy cavalier Z24
24-year old Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 after a 6-hour car detailing.

If you really want to make your car shine, the way I did with my Z24, you need to do more than just wash and wax the exterior. The amount of effort you put into detailing will determine how good your car looks while cruising down the street.

How to Detail Your Car’s Exterior the Right Way

Before you jump in and start detailing your car, be sure to gather the necessary supplies. Here’s what I recommend:

1. Wash and dry

man cleaning a car
Wash your car using soap, water, and a sponge.

Before you whip out wax or any other detailing product, you need to wash and dry your car first. Here is the process I use at home:

A word of caution: Microfiber towels can easily trap dirt and debris that might scratch your car’s finish. If you accidentally drop your towel on the ground, consider swapping it out for a fresh one.

Also, microfiber towels can pick up grime from regular use. That’s why, when it comes to cleaning and detailing exterior finishes, I only use my towels one time each. Then, I relegate the used ones to cleaning other aspects of the car, such as the wheels.

The towels eventually end up as shop rags after being used to detail several vehicles.

2. Clean the finish with a water spot remover (optional)

If your car has been exposed to the elements for a long time, the way my Cavalier had, you might want to consider cleaning the exterior with a water spot remover.

Unfortunately, because most high-quality water spot removers are corrosive in nature, they can be difficult to locate. You may need to try a few, professional-grade products before you find one that delivers decent results.

3. Use a clay bar to remove dirt and grime buildup

A clay bar is made up of a resin mixture that helps remove contaminants from a vehicle’s finish. If you apply wax without using a clay bar first, you run the risk of rubbing those contaminants into your car’s paint job—and that’s bad news.

To use a clay bar, simply follow the instructions on the package. The clay bar kit will come with polish that you apply during the procedure.

Remember to work one body panel at a time and plan on spending at least an hour to complete the entire process.

And oh yeah, if you drop the clay bar on the ground, be sure to throw it away. Otherwise, the bar might pick up stones and debris that could scratch your car.

4. Put trim detailer on the plastic and rubber exterior components

Before you wax your car, use a clean rag to apply a trim detailer/protectant to the black plastic and rubber exterior components (e.g., window trim, cowl, etc.).

The detailer removes contaminants from these trim parts while also helping to restore their shine. Plus, the product helps protect against the wax residue you’re likely to encounter during the next step.

5. Apply wax to the paint job

waxing a car
Apply wax to your car once done washing.

Most clay bar kits come with wax. To apply the wax to your car’s finish, first, dip an applicator pad into clean water. Then dab some wax onto the pad while it’s still damp. Apply the wax, wait for it to dry to a haze, then remove it with a clean microfiber towel. You should repeat the process on each of your car’s body panels, being sure to work only one panel at a time.

6. Clean and polish the exterior lights

Most people forget to detail their car’s exterior lights. But applying a cleaner/polish to the headlamps and taillamps can help remove contaminants and protect against oxidation.

To detail your car’s outside lights, use a clean cloth and follow the instructions on the cleaner/polish product.

7. Clean and polish the wheels

After you’re finished detailing the body of your car, you can move on to the wheels.

First, you’ll want to clean the wheels using a dedicated cleaner. Follow the instructions on the product, then afterward, use a clean rag to wipe away any remaining brake dust or road grime. Once everything is clean, apply wheel polish to each wheel, following the instructions on the package.

8. Add tire shine to the tires

The final step is to apply a shine or gloss product to the sidewall of each tire. There are many different types of tire shine on the market, but I prefer the foam spray; it’s easy to apply and yields good results.

To apply shine to your car’s tires, simply follow the instructions on your product of choice.

Most Importantly: Take Your Time

Perhaps the most important advice of all is to take your time while detailing your car. To really get your vehicle to shine, you need to apply TLC to every inch of the exterior, from bumper to bumper. Patience, dedication, and elbow grease are what it takes to achieve a “show car” shine.

Even though I don’t have the free time I had as a teenager, I still put in the effort to ensure my Z24 looks its best when spring rolls around.

To celebrate National Car Care Month, I encourage you to do the same with your vehicle.

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Mia Bevacqua

Chief Mechanic at

Mia Bevacqua is an automotive expert with over 15 years of industry experience. She holds ASE Master, L1, L2, and L3 Advanced Level Specialist certification, as well as a bachelor's degree in Advanced Automotive Systems.

Throughout her career, Mia has applied her skills toward automotive failure analysis inspections, consulting, diagnostic software development, and of course, freelance writing. Today, she writes for companies around the world, with many well-known clients showcasing her work.

Mia has a passion for math, science, and technology that motivates her to stay on top of the latest industry trends, such as electric vehicles and autonomous systems. At the same time, she has a weakness for fixer-upper oddballs, such as her 1987 Chevy Cavalier Z-24 and 1998 Chevy Astro Van AWD.

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