The Detail Mystery

  • What’s the difference between a car wash and a car detail?
  • I just go to the car wash down the street and have my car completely detailed for $39!
  • So, what is “reconditioning” anyway?

These are some of the most common types of questions and statements that we receive here at AQS. We admit, there is a lot of mystery in the automotive world – sort of the Wizard of Oz, “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” scenario. The truth is, there doesn’t have to be a lot of mystery. Just as in most of life – a little knowledge goes a long way. So, we’ll try to shine some light on shadowy beast that is the automotive detail and recondition.

Car Wash versus Car Detail

The difference between a car wash and a car detail? The detail, of course! The car wash process comes in many shapes and sizes – all sharing some commonalities. The basic car wash is the use of water and a chemical detergent to loosen and remove dirt and grime from the surface of a vehicle. Some car washes use a series of brushes and cloths, others use high pressure water, and some are variations of the home weekend driveway detail that we all know and love (as a side note – you are probably doing it wrong! Read our post on how to properly home wash a car). Unfortunately, in most cases, this act of washing a car is slowly scratching and scuffing your car’s paint. The dirt and grime that slowly settles and builds up on the surface of car is relatively benign – though unattractive, it just sits there. When washing, the dirt and grime adhere to the surface of the cloth, sponge, or wash mitt and acts like sandpaper – scratching the clear coat, making it dull and more susceptible to collecting dirt and grime. Here at AQS, we’ve developed a technique to carefully “lift” dirt and grime away from the surface, minimizing the abrasive action of the wash process.

Again, the car wash is just the beginning of the detail process. A quick swipe of your hand across a freshly washed surface quickly reveals that wash only removed the visible dirt and grime. Over time, environmental particulate matter such as sap, bugs, tar, mineral deposits and animal droppings can adhere and even embed into the clear coat surface. This embedded matter, though difficult to see, can have the same abrasive effect when the car is buffed or polished. Fortunately, auto detailers have a secret weapon in their arsenal to deal with these environmental contaminants – automotive clay (Here is a link to one of our recent post taking an in depth look at automotive clay bar). Automotive clay, or clay bar is a clay-like substance that when gently rubbed over the lubricated automotive surface will lift and remove contaminants leaving behind a super clean surface that is now prepared for the next steps in the detail and reconditioning process.

Paint Correction and Reconditioning

Now is when the real fun happens – the true essence of detail, and most likely not covered in the $39 car detail offered by a car wash or mobile detailer. Thoroughly cleaning the exterior cleans and prepares the surface, but doesn’t address or repair any issues or imperfections. Here is where paint correction comes in. Paint shine is all about reflecting light. If light is reflected uniformly from the painted surface, the surface looks rich and bright. If light is scattered in different directions as in worn clear coat, the surface looks dull and scuffed. If we were able to look at a cross section of a painted panel, we would see what looks like the silhouette of a mountain range. The top of the mountains would be the top or outer most layer of clear coat. Over time, with age and wear, the peaks become more numerous and more defined and the valleys of the mountain range become deeper – reflecting more light at different angles and causing the overall surface to appear dull. Waxes and polishes will help to smooth out the peaks and valleys, thus decreasing the number of different surfaces reflecting light and causing the painted surface to look smoother. Yet waxing and polishing are temporary solutions as they too wear away in time. Automotive paint correction takes the smoothing process a step further. Wet sanding and specialized buffing compounds are used to slowly smooth out the peaks and valleys of the mountain range, leaving behind a mirror smooth surface in the clear coat. This smooth surface reflects light more uniformly – causing the paint to look richer and brighter. The corrected surface can then be protected with waxes and sealants to maintain a beautiful shine for years to come.

Automotive detailing exists on a spectrum that can range from quick and easy to meticulous and painstaking. Just as there are varying levels of cleaning the vehicle exterior, interior cleaning also exists on a spectrum. A quick once over to remove trash and crumbs followed by an even quicker pass of the vacuum is what most of us are used to. Yet an interior clean can go much beyond – into the level of reconditioning or restoring a vehicle to a like new condition. Here at AQS, every inch of the vehicle interior is wiped down and cleaned. We’ll start with a thorough vacuum and use compressed air to blow dirt, dust, and debris from all of the cracks and crevices. Then, we’ll follow up with a steam clean or hot water extraction to address problem stains. We can even address repair issues such as dashboard cracks, upholstery tears, or cigarette burns. Once the interior is thoroughly cleaned to our high standards, we can then address odor or biological contaminant issues with our environmentally friendly DrivePur technology (Here is a link to a recent post about odor removal and disinfection).

As you can see, there is quite a large difference between a car wash, a detail, and reconditioning services – and each of these can exist on its own spectrum of thoroughness. Making an informed decision about the level of service needed is about the desired level of cleanliness or the desired outcome. Sure, a quick car wash will make a car look clean, but a true detail can achieve a level of cleanliness that far surpasses the basic car wash and offers more long term protection.