We’ve all been there. Those of us that take pride in detailing our vehicles all have something that we look back on and think “I can’t believe I did that!” None of us were born knowing how to clean a car or polish paint. We’ve all had to learn. And a lot of that learning has come from trial and error. Today I want to share 11 mistakes beginner detailers often make and help you to avoid making them yourself.
Detailing a car is often referred to as an “art form”. I’m here to tell you it’s not. Art is open to interpretation. In the detailing world, either a car is clean or it isn’t. Either a paint job is scratch-free or it isn’t. Your opinion doesn’t really come into play. Therefore, detailing a car isn’t an art form – it’s an acquired skill. An acquired skill that you can absolutely learn, even if you aren’t naturally talented. One thing I can promise you though is that you’re going to make mistakes.
That’s how we learn though. Unless you’re going to pay to attend a fancy detailing course, you’re going to have to learn what you shouldn’t do before you figure out what you should. I can’t steer you away from every possible thing that can go wrong.
But I can share what I believe are the most common mistakes people make and hopefully that’ll give you a head start on figuring this stuff out. If you’re a beginner, I’d highly recommend you check out some of my other articles on this site in order to help you get the right mindset when it comes to caring for your car.
Not educating yourself
There is so much free information on the internet these days. You really have no excuse to go into something new with absolutely zero knowledge. Youtube, Reddit, forums, and websites like this one all contain everything you need to know. You just have to look for it. If you’re too lazy to spend a few hours researching products and techniques then perhaps detailing isn’t for you. It’s a tedious job that requires physical effort and a lot of focus.
Here’s the good news: the road has already been paved for you! Many experienced detailers have already figured out what works and what doesn’t so you don’t have to. You just need to find someone you can trust to steer you in the right direction. Here are a few good Youtube channels you can learn from:
Dallas Paint Correction & Auto Detailing
The Rag Company
It’s important to keep in mind people’s motivation behind the advice they’re giving you. Some guys use detailing channels to promote their products and their products only. Remember, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Some of the channels I mentioned above do in fact sell their own products. But all of them encourage you to find products that work for you, not necessarily theirs. That’s a good sign that they’re giving you solid advice.
You don’t have to be an expert before you get started but you also don’t want to cause damage to your vehicle. So spending a bit of time on the learning stage will help you to make safe decisions. Try not to get so caught up on research that you never actually get to work though. It’s easy to over analyze everything to the point of being scared stiff. Learn the basics, then get out to the garage.
If you’re completely new to the detailing world, you might want to spend some time reading through my Ultimate Detailing Dictionary to familiarize yourself with the lingo.
Trying to be a pro right out of the gate
Once you’ve educated yourself on detailing, you might feel fairly confident. Maybe even over-confident. Don’t let that get you in trouble. You still need to be careful when dealing with strong chemicals and machine polishers.
The pros make it look so easy on the internet. Everything happens quickly and with very little effort. That is not the reality of detailing. That 30 minute paint correction video you just watched probably took an entire week to film. Your back is going to hurt and you’re going to get tired. I can also guarantee it’s going to take you much longer than you expected.
Professionals know what corners they can cut. They have the feel for certain things that others need to focus heavily on. Judgment calls happen in split seconds because their heads are filled with knowledge. They can also get a job done in 2 hours that will probably take you 12. All of this comes from years and years of experience.
Just because you see them do something doesn’t mean you can do it too. Think you don’t need to tape off a piece of rubber trim before polishing? The guy you saw do that has been at it for over a decade. He knows exactly where the edge of his buffing pad is without even looking at it. He has the feel, and can avoid areas precisely without needing to tape them off. You can’t do that. Yet.
You’ll get there eventually. But this is a process you simply can’t rush. You have to enjoy the process itself and progressively get better as you go. When you’re a beginner, you need to act like a beginner.
Spending too much money
The more money you spend, the better it has to be, right? That’s not the case with detailing. This is an industry that will sell you a $5,000 jar of wax if you allow it. It wants you to fill the shelves in your garage up with 60 color-coded bottles. You don’t need that.
If you’ve never polished a car before, you don’t need a $400 long throw polisher. You don’t need a fancy pressure washer and foam cannon for regular car washing. You don’t need an expensive ceramic coating for your show car that never gets dirty. All of these things should be considered luxury items. I’m not denying that they’re nice to use. I’m just saying they aren’t required.
Some hobbyist detailers have more products and equipment than most professional mobile detailers. Think about that for a second.
So many people will go out and buy a huge kit, or one of everything on a website thinking they need all of it in order to care for their car properly. These people often find that they end up with a bunch of untouched bottles in their garage, some of which they don’t even know the purpose of. Buy what you need to get the job done. Just remember, your car doesn’t know how much money you spent on that wax. Either it works or it doesn’t!
You can’t clean what you can’t see! A dark garage is one of the worst places to clean your interior. You might think all of the dirt and stains are gone, but the minute you pull the car out into the daylight you’ll be in for a surprise.
I prefer to clean interiors outside because the lighting is better, plus I have room to open up all the doors and work around them freely. If you have no choice but to work in a dark area, use a work light or at least a flashlight to double check your work. Realizing you missed a spot after putting everything away isn’t a good feeling.
Proper lighting is important for your paint too. You’ll need some kind of spotlight if you’re doing any type of paint correction. That’s the only way to be able to see all of the defects and scratches in the paint. The name of the game here is to imitate the sun bouncing off your car’s paint. It’ll always look good in the shade or on a cloudy day, regardless of what kind of shape it’s in. You need to get it under a strong light to truly be able to judge its condition.
Even something as simple as waxing your paint requires the right amount of light. Leftover haze is really easy to miss if you don’t have any light on the situation. Again, if you do nothing else, at least double check your work with a flashlight. You don’t ever want to give the “You Missed a Spot” guy a chance to be right!
One thing I’ve learned is that lighting is absolutely CRUCIAL when applying a ceramic coating. The spotlight you used for polishing scratches out often doesn’t show any areas you missed when wiping off the excess coating. These will turn into what we call “high spots” once the coating dries, and will require compounding and re-coating to fix properly. Bright, diffused lights are what you’ll need in order to truly see what you’re doing when applying a coating.
Some problems can’t be fixed with detailing. That’s a difficult thing to admit. Sometimes vehicles are just too far gone. You might be able to polish the scratches out of that neglected 20 year old black paint, but the hundreds of tiny stone chips will still be there (and probably filled with white polish!). Perfection isn’t always possible or realistic.
No matter how much money you spend on a carpet extractor, those 10 year old salt stains aren’t going to vanish completely when you’re done. Salt can permanently discolor your carpet if it’s left for long enough. Cleaning the area will improve it, but won’t always fix it 100%.
Sometimes the scratch is too deep. The paint is too thin. The stain is too old. And no matter what you do, it just isn’t possible to achieve perfection. If you can at least improve it, you might just have to be happy with that.
Using the wrong tool for the job
You don’t need to buy every product and tool available, but you do need to use the right one. All too often, beginners complain about not getting their desired results when they’re not using the right stuff. For example, one of those orbital wax spreaders isn’t going to remove scratches from your paint! Neither will a clay bar.
Using the wrong product can really cause damage to your vehicle too. Household window cleaners with ammonia can destroy your vehicle’s window tint in no time. Stick with automotive glass cleaners. Shop towels can and will scratch your vehicle’s paint. Stick with high-quality microfiber towels.
I could go on and on. You just need to make sure you understand the product in your hand and what it’s intended to be used for. Feel free to head over to my Recommended Products page for links to the exact products and tools that I use on a regular basis.
Not planning ahead
If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail. Detailing is all about the long game. You should be thinking at least 3 steps ahead of whatever it is you’re doing at the time. This goes for a lot of aspects in detailing.
Always keep in mind any possible collateral damage that can be caused by the job you’re doing. The reason people like to wash their wheels first before the rest of the car is because they don’t want the sun to dry the wet paint while they’re busy working on the wheels. They also don’t want any dirty water splashing up on their clean paint.
The same goes for cleaning your engine bay. Don’t do it after you’ve washed the rest of the car because there’s a good chance you’re going to splash dirty water and degreasers all over your nice clean fenders.
Choosing when you clean your car is a good idea too. Do it AFTER you cut the grass!
Using too much product
More isn’t always better. Sometimes, using more product only means you’ve used more product. Here are a few things people often use too much of:
The truth is, you need a lot less of this stuff on your pad than you might think. Once a buffing pad has been saturated with product, a few drops every pass is likely all you need. Using too much not only means you’ve wasted product, but it will over lubricate your paint causing it to be far less effective at removing scratches.
This is another thing that people tend to want to cake on. Most manufacturers recommend a very thin layer. Using more than that won’t give you better protection or longer life. It’ll just make it harder to remove the excess and might even give your paint more of a diluted appearance.
Cleaner on a headliner:
Cleaning a headliner is something that can very easily be overdone. Saturating the material with too much cleaner can actually cause the adhesive behind it to break down and you’ll end up with a saggy headliner hanging on your face while you drive. When it comes to interior cleaning, multiple light passes is always a better solution than a single soaking wet one.
Going too far
There’s a very fine line between fixing something and going too far. This relates mostly to scratch removal, but it counts for removing interior stains as well. You only have so much clear coat on your vehicle. The amount on a brand new vehicle is probably even thinner than you’d ever imagine. So any time you’re going to chase a scratch, keep that in mind. I go further into detail about the dangers of chasing perfection in this post.
We’d all love for our vehicles to be scratch free. This just isn’t a realistic option for most of us though. Sure, you can buzz the clear coat down and remove all of those scratches. But remember when we talked about planning ahead? What’s going to happen to that super thin clear coat after it sits out in the elements for the next few years? Is it worth it to remove those deep scratches, only to have to repaint the car later on?
This is one of the most important judgment calls detailers have to make. It’s also one of the most expensive mistakes you can make because once you’ve burned through the clear coat, there’s no going back.
Using abrasives on headlights
This one isn’t talked about often, but it’s a mistake I see people make all the time. If you aren’t purposely doing a headlight restoration, don’t compound and polish them! The reason headlights turn dull and cloudy in the first place is because the factory-applied UV coating has degraded to the point of failure.
By using any abrasive compound or polish on them, you’re only speeding up that process. This is like hitting the fast-forward button on something that’s bound to happen later on down the road.
Non-abrasive products like waxes, sealants and ceramic coatings on the other hand, are perfectly fine to use on your headlights. You’re doing the exact opposite in this case, by boosting the protection of the UV coating on your headlights.
Thinking detailing products and techniques are “1 size fits all”
No two vehicles are the same. Not all paint jobs are created equal. Something that worked great on one car might be ineffective or total overkill on another. Once you have some experience under your belt, you can let your car tell you what it needs.
Surface materials and weather conditions play a big role in how well certain products work. You have to be constantly adapting to the situation. If something isn’t giving you the desired results, take a step back and think it through. Do you need to change your technique? Maybe it’s time to try another product? There isn’t a set recipe or procedure that will work for every car every time. It’s up to you to figure it out as you go.
Detailing your car isn’t as complicated as some people make it sound. By reading up on the basics, you’ll have plenty of knowledge to work on your car safely without harming it. The fact that you’re here reading this article now tells me you’re already on the right track. Pace yourself and always be aware of what you’re doing both directly and indirectly.
Most importantly, if you start to get frustrated, walk away. Take a breather, grab a drink and figure out what’s going wrong. It might be a mistake of yours or it could just be the product not behaving properly. Hopefully by following these tips, you’ll be able to avoid some of the mistakes most people make when they first start out. Happy detailing!