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Detailing chemicals, Part 1

The first in this two-part series covers the list of everything you need to operate a detail shop.

July 02, 2012
KEYWORDS carpet / chemicals / solvent / vinyl
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Abraham Lincoln once said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” In spite of this sage advice from our 16th president over 150 years ago, there are many suppliers to the detail industry that are still trying to fool all of the people all of the time. More specifically, they attempt not only to fool the detailer but also the motorist.

In today's world of higher education, electronics, computers, television and worldwide communications, we are all more informed and less likely to be fooled.

As the detail industry emerged out of the back alleys and dingy bays of the auto dealerships it was labeled as a “new industry”. However, detailing has been in existence, at least as a service, since the first automobile. Auto dealers have always had the need to clean used cars before selling them to their customers.

An evolving industry
Detailing is an evolving industry. That is, it is evolving to include not only the commercial side, but also a retail side. For that matter, the commercial side of the business is also changing as more and more retail operations develop.

Just as the operators to the detail industry, new and old, must respond to these changes, so too must the suppliers. As more sophisticated operators and businesspersons enter the detail industry the “fast-talking, snake oil salesman” will find customers turning a deaf ear to his spiel about "miracle” and “magic” products.

Not only has the market dictated a change, federal and state government regulations on chemical right to know laws are forcing suppliers to be more analytical in the presentation of their products and to provide clear-cut definitions of products, their makeup and handling precautions.

All a smart detailer needs to do is check the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) of two suppliers' products. They will find the ingredients surprisingly similar.

Setting the record straight
Because of the tremendous amount of confusing, misleading, and in some cases downright false information about car care products, it is time that industry suppliers set the record straight and attempt to present their products in a professional and meaningful manner.

As the industry evolves, there will no longer be room for suppliers who cannot meet the level of professionalism enjoyed by other industries. As both a detail business owner and supplier to the industry, I have struggled with both of these challenges.

To provide the detailer with some clear-cut information, we have taken some of the most commonly asked questions about detail chemicals and attempted to provide clear and concise answers.

What Products do you need to operate a detail center?

Wash Bay: Engine Degreaser (engines); All-Purpose Cleaner (engine compartments, wheels, whitewalls and vinyl tops); wheel cleaner (wheels, chrome); tar and grease remover; carwash shampoo.

Interior: Stain removers; extractor shampoo; carpet and upholstery shampoo; All-Purpose Cleaner; fabric protectant dressing; glass cleaner; fragrance; leather/vinyl conditioner.

Exterior: Heavy compound; medium compound; light compound; micro-fine compound; swirl remover/polish; wax; paint sealant; one-step cleaner/glaze.

Miscellaneous: Paint overspray remover; mag or aluminum polish; adhesive remover; wood oil (for natural wood grain trim); black paint; vinyl paint.

For many operators, this list of chemicals would be considered not enough; for others, far too many. However, after years of research, experimentation, and trial and error, we have found that these chemicals will allow you to detail 99 percent of the vehicles that could come into your center, such as cars, trucks, boats, RVs and motorcycles.

Interior chemicals
For cleaning and servicing the interior and windows of the vehicle, the chemicals fall into several categories.

Stain removers
They are used to get a variety of stains out of carpets and upholstery. They are:

  • Protein stains (organic)
  • Tar and grease stains (inorganic)
  • Coffee/tea stains
  • Red dye stains
  • Rust stains
  • Pet stains

Carpet and upholstery shampoo
Most suppliers have a product designed especially for carpets, fabric upholstery, and another for vinyl, leather and plastic. A good carpet and upholstery shampoo will have a pH of 8.9 and contain brighteners and softeners.

Glass cleaner
Used to clean windows inside and outside, it can also be used for cleaning chrome and plastic. There are several types of glass cleaners that range from a high concentrated or ready-to-use product. Some contain alcohol and some do not. Find one that works for you.

Which you use depends on preference and budget. Most operators prefer the high concentrate that can give up to a 50-1 dilution. Others like the ready-to-use alcohol base because of its ease of use.

Used for rubber, plastic, vinyl and leather, they are available in either solvent base or water base. Simply speaking, the solvent base has a petroleum distillate as the main ingredient with a quantity of silicone to slick and shiny for interiors. The solvents break down rubber and the residual sling off tires onto the paint can cause permanent paint damage.

The water base product is water and silicone that will leave a higher shine.

It is recommended to use the water base as a single product for all applications. There is no need to use one product for tires, engines and interiors.

Fabric protectant
This product was originally introduced by 3M under the trademark name of SCOTCHGARD, a product designed to put a protective shield on fabric materials (carpet and upholstery) to retard the absorption of moisture to prevent staining.

There are two types of fabric protectants available: Water base and solvent base. Which is better is a matter of opinion. Some like the solvent base because it dries faster, but the material must be dry to apply.

Leather conditioners
These products can be called conditioners, moisturizers or cleaner/conditioners. They are usually for leather and their purpose is to replace the oils in the leather lost through evaporation.

The base elements in the product can be beeswax, mink oil or other natural moisturizing oils. The products we have had the best results with are those with mink oil, a product long used by the shoe industry to waterproof and condition leather.

Fragrances are available as an oil or water base product, the oil being more expensive per gallon, but lasting far longer than the water base product. They are available in almost any scent you can imagine, including "new car" and "leather".

Odor eliminators
Unlike fragrance, an odor eliminator has certain ingredients that will kill the bacteria that create the odor. These are very effective in eliminating odors, but the chemical must come in contact with the bacteria

Next month, the second of this two-part series will cover what’s needed to detail the interior of a vehicle and also the miscellaneous chemicals one should have on hand.

R.L. “Bud” Abraham is president of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, and a nearly 40-year member of the car care industry. He is a founding member and the first executive director of the International Detailing Association and a member of the Western Carwash Association Board of Directors. Abraham can be reached at

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