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Down & dirty: Carpets and Upholstery

October 11, 2010
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In detailing, the major focus seems to be on paint finishing:

  • What tool to use? Buffer or orbital;
  • Which pads to use? Wool or foam; and
  • Which chemicals to use? Com-pounds, polishes, swirl removers, waxes or sealants.

Certainly, there is a learned skill involved in paint finishing and a bit of what could be called scientific analysis. But as much as paint finishing is a science, so too is cleaning carpets and upholstery.

Knowledge of materials

Ask the auto manufacturers what materials they are using in their vehicles. In almost all cases the carpets are nylon, and the fabric upholstery can be any number of materials so detailers need to know what they can use on them in terms of chemicals.

Detailers must also identify the type of dirt or stain(s) that have to be removed and to what extent they can be removed.

In most cases, 85 percent of the soil is dry, which can be removed by good vacuuming. The remainder is soil, which must be removed with a combination of chemical, friction scrubbing and heated extraction.

Automobile carpets and upholstery can also have a number of stains from tar, grease, blood, wine, coffee and more. Each type of stain has its own peculiarities and requires an appropriate stain remover chemical and special process before shampooing.

Detailers must also determine the proper protocol. For example, vacuum and extraction or vacuum/stain removal/friction shampoo and extraction.

Cleaning tools

A detailer must decide what tools will be used and what methods will work best to remove the stain:

  • Hand scrubbing with a brush;
  • Rotary shampooing with an air tool and nylon brush;
  • Hot shampoo extraction; or
  • Vapor steam.

With all of these choices my answer is always to use all of them.

As a cleaning professional you should have at your disposal all the technology available to do the job. As there is no one chemical that will do it all, there is no one tool or method that will do it all either.

Some dirty or stained interiors will require more than one method of cleaning or a combination of methods.

Friction vs. non-friction

If hand or rotary scrubbing is called friction cleaning, the extraction or vapor steam methods could be called non-friction.

In this case it depends upon the dirt to be removed by the action of the chemical being injected into the fabric under pressure and simultaneously removed by a vacuum.

Or, it can be liquefied by hot steam and removed by vacuuming or extraction. Remember, all extraction or steam methods require pre-spotting and hand scrubbing of heavy stains before using the extractor.

Sticky situation

Depending upon the situation, you could use a combination of methods.

Example 1: The vehicle's interior has plush carpets and velour upholstery.

The carpets have grease stains as well as coffee and what appears to be gum. There is also a heavy concentration of ground-in sand.

The upholstery is in unusually good condition considering the state of the carpets.

Step 1: Use an air gun to blow all dirt and grit out of the cracks, crevices, seams, etc.

Step 2: Next, thoroughly vacuum the entire interior utilizing both a snorkel nozzle and the long slender crevice nozzle to get to those hard to reach places between seats.

Step 3: Utilizing the appropriate stain remover chemicals, apply to all spots on carpets, upholstery and door panels.

For any chemical to work effectively it must have time to dwell. This is especially true with stain removers.

Step 4: After allowing the stain remover to dwell for 10 to 15 minutes, agitate with a hand brush.

Be sure to move inward toward the center of the spot rather than outward. An outward motion can spread the stain.

Certain stains are better removed by blotting rather than scrubbing. This process could require two or three spotting applications to remove the stain.

Tip: The gum can be removed by using an appropriate remover or hardening it with ice and using a putty knife or scraper to remove.

Step 5: After removing the spots you are ready to shampoo the carpets and upholstery.

Determine the right process

In determining which process to use:

  • Rotary or hand scrubbing
  • Extraction or vapor steam

Consider the types of soil and stains needing removal.

Remember, shampoos designed for scrubbing have foaming agents; when agitated by the hand or rotary brush the foam encapsulates the dirt particles and lifts it to the surface where it can be easily extracted and vacuumed up.

One problem with using a high-foam shampoo is that even after extraction you leave a shampoo residue in the carpets. This will make the carpet fibers sticky and attract new dirt.

So you must thoroughly rinse the carpet fibers of all residues to avoid what is called re-soiling.

Example 2: There is a carpet with a lot of ground-in dirt.

Step 1: After thoroughly vacuuming, saturate the area with shampoo.

Step 2: Allow to dwell for a few minutes and then aggressively scrub by hand with a scrub brush.

Step 3: After you have created a lot of dirty foam, use the heated extractor to rinse and vacuum.

Depending on how dirty the carpet is you may have to repeat the process two or three times to drag out all the dirt. This method does work. It just takes some patience and persistence to successfully detail interiors.


Upholstery fabrics (excluding vinyl and leather) are far more varied than carpets and although they all seem to clean the same, they are different.

Dismissing these differences in fabrics would be like dismissing the differences between base-coat/clear-coat and single stage paint finishes.

When cleaning upholstery apply the same logic as with carpets. Identify the fabric, identify the cleaning problems, choose the proper chemicals and select the best cleaning methods.

As with carpets you will have to spot stains based on the type whether grease, protein, etc. Then after evaluating the extent of the dirt decide whether to use the scrubbing method, vapor steamer, extraction, or a combination of all.

Some fabrics, like tightly woven tweed that are extremely dirty, you may have to saturate with shampoo, aggressively hand scrub and then extract.

Challenging, not impossible

If you take only one thing away with you, let it be that carpet and upholstery cleaning is not easy.

It requires a scientific approach involving stain removal chemicals, shampooing chemicals and a variety of tools and methods, as well as an ability on the part of the detailer to properly evaluate the cleaning problem.

However, don't give up too easily when confronted with really dirty carpets or upholstery. Once is not enough in many cases, especially with ground-in dirt.

If you understand the different chemicals and have all the cleaning tools and methods available, you can clean almost any dirty interior.

R.L."Bud" Abraham is president of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, and a 30-year member of the car-care industry. He can be contacted at