The Devil's in the Details: How to Detail Like a Pro


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By David S. Wallens• Photography By the author

Gleaming paint, sparkling chrome: It’s enough to capture just about anyone’s eye, car buff or not. However, no matter what the vintage, detailing a car so that every visible surface shines like a diamond takes some serious work.

“Generally, the cost is based on an hourly schedule,” explains Tim McNair, owner of Grand Prix Concours Preparation. Typically, he continues, a professional detailing job runs from $1500 to $3500—figure 25 to 50 hours of labor.

And that’s starting with a car that the average person would consider to be clean.

Welcome to the world of high-end detailing jobs, the likes of which are routinely shown off at places like Meadow Brook, Amelia Island and Pebble Beach. Tim has been in the concours-level detailing business for more than 25 years, and he’s not one for keeping all of his secrets to himself. As he recently showed us, a nice detailing job doesn’t have to be expensive—providing you’re willing to do the work yourself.

As he explains, making a car look its best is all about creating definition: pitch-black tires, bright amber lenses, and yards of gleaming chrome and paint. The end result is a car that pops. Tim recently visited us and demonstrated some tricks of the trade.

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Soiled mags? A narrow paintbrush teamed with P21S wheel cleaner works well. To prevent scratches, wrap the ferrule with some duct tape.

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Dirty detailing tools aren’t much help. Tim keeps his clean by carrying them in a simple, clear plastic case.

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Chrome-plated plastic tends to grow dull over time. To get full access to our BMW M3’s grille, we removed it from the car. Then Tim shined it up with Nuvite metal polish applied with a makeup sponge.

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Tim likes Plexus plastic cleaner for clear parts. Using it is simple: Remove the offending part, spray it with Plexus, and then polish it with a microfiber towel.

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Are your original decals old and tattered? Replacement decals are often still available. Moss Motors, CarClassic, Re-Originals and Kilimanjaro Designs can probably help.

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Tim’s secret weapon: the simple bamboo skewer. They’re available at most any supermarket, and a pack of a hundred should only cost about $2. The bamboo is strong enough to dislodge dirt, yet it won’t scratch paint.

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There’s no exact science to using the skewers, so feel free to improvise. A stick and a microfiber cloth are great for removing built-up wax from body seams.

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Detailing the engine bay might seem like a daunting project, but Tim has some solutions that make it manageable. If it’s really dirty in there, warm up the engine and then spray it down with a degreaser. He favors Poorboy’s Bio-Degradable All Purpose Cleaner and Degreaser, although he also has good things to say about Simple Green. Agitate the nooks and crannies with a throwaway paintbrush before hosing off everything.

This method should remove the bulk of the grime, but Tim admits that the process makes a bit of a mess. There’s also more time involved, as you then have to wait for the water to dry.

Ideally, the engine bay is in decent enough condition that Tim can start the detail work with a cleaning solvent like Eastwood Pre Painting Prep and some rags. Lacquer thinner can be effective on stubborn crud, but Tim notes that this method can remove paint. In other words, it’s not for beginners.

Stiff bristle brushes are good for cleaning the bare metal parts found under the hood. Start with plastic bristles. If they’re not aggressive enough, try brass bristles. Once the engine room is clean, apply your favorite plastic and rubber dressing.

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Someone accidentally dry your convertible top with a natural chamois? Remove the mess with a short, stiff brush.

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Wax and dirt often build up around badges—especially individual letters—so ideally Tim removes them to gain access. If he can’t take off the badges, he uses a bamboo skewer to clean around each one.

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Some quick detailer applied with a makeup swab works well for cleaning small chrome badges. For those who’d rather not be seen shopping in the cosmetics aisle, S100 Detailing Swabs are available online or at your local Harley-Davidson dealer.

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For touching up small nicks, Tim likes to use tiny brushes. They can be found at hobby shops, and Microbrush is one of the more popular brands.

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Nuvite chrome polish works well on chrome bumpers. Tim usually uses a flannel cloth, but a low-nap microfiber towel works well, too.

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Don’t forget the lower parts of the car. Dirty exhaust tips? Shine them up. (This is why putting the car on a lift is a nice luxury.)

8 Steps to Beautiful Paint


Step 1

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Before starting the compounding process, Tim wipes down the car with a clay bar. Simply spray a section of paint with a quick detailing product—we used Prima Glide clay lube—and then run the clay over the finish. The clay will grab contaminants from the surface.

Step 2

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Paint tends to be thinner near the edges, so these areas need to be protected during the detailing process. Tim favors 3M architectural tape. This thin plastic tape is chemical-resistant and peels off cleanly.

Step 3

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Now it’s time to start the compounding process. Raising the car with a lift while removing the tires and grille provides access to the entire body.

Step 4

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Now it’s time to fire up the power tools. Tim starts the process with a Metabo PE 12-175 rotary buffer fitted with a 3M Perfect-It Plus 05731 compounding pad. His compounding product of choice is Meguiar’s Ultra Cut Compound, and he lightly sprays the pad with some Prima Glide to keep the dust down. Use a microfiber towel to compound the hard-to-reach areas.

Step 5

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Don’t use too much product, as just a few dabs will do. Tim uses a Wilton decorating squeeze bottle to apply the stuff; he says that these bottles are just the right size, shape and softness. They retail for $1.69 each.

Step 6

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Always work with the lines of the car, using a slow buffer speed and long strokes. You can use the edge of the pad to increase heat and bite—as Tim admits, developing the right feel is a big part of the process. He also recommends doing no more than a 2-by-2-foot section at a time.

Don’t leave the compound material sitting on the paint; when done with a section, clean it up with a waffle-weave microfiber towel.

Step 7

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Tim then polishes out the swirl marks with Prima Swirl applied with a blue Lake Country CCS Dual Action 6.5-inch Smart Pad fitted to a Porter Cable Ultimate Detailing Machine. These collapsed cell structure pads are available in different compounds; the blue ones are at the softer end of the scale.

Step 8

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Finally, it’s time for wax. Tim uses a black Lake Country CCS Dual Action 6.5-inch Smart Pad to apply a coat of Prima Epic for a deep, wet shine. After applying a thin coat of the Epic, he lets it set up overnight before wiping the car clean with Prima Slick quick detailer on a microfiber plush towel. For areas that might not need all three steps—wheel wells, under bumpers, rocker panels, and so on—Tim recommends Prima Banana Gloss. This cleaner-wax is quick and easy to use.

Turn Signal Turn-On


Step 1

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Remove the lamp.

Step 2

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Before taking the lamp assembly away from the car, check out the cavity behind the lamp. Our Tiger had collected a fair amount of road grime behind the front turn signals, giving rust a great place to breed.

Step 3

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Tim first cleans the lenses with a quality degreaser before finishing up with Plexus and a microfiber towel. (Backup lights and taillights located near the exhaust tips tend to get especially sooty, he notes.) The rubber seals can be rejuvenated with a shot of vinyl protectant—we used Prima’s Nero.

Step 4

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Again, a bamboo stick is useful for the detail work.

Step 5

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Reinstall the now-clean lamp.

This article is from a past issue of the magazine. Like stories like this? You’ll see every article as soon as it's published, and get access to our full digital archive, by subscribing to Classic Motorsports. Subscribe now.

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Comments
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hurstad
hurstad New Reader
3/1/19 11:56 a.m.

Tim McNair is a master!

 

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