Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Detailing chemicals, part 2

The second in this two-part series discusses wash bay and paint finishing chemicals and answers the most frequently asked questions.

August 1, 2012

Last month, in the July issue of Professional Carwashing & Detailing, I talked about the various interior chemicals needed to operate a detail business. Part of a two-segment series, this month, is a discussion of wash bay and paint finishing chemicals. You might consider this article a mini-encyclopedia on chemicals. There may be more or less products used in your operation, but the key issue is to know that these detail products involve nothing but basic chemistry. And, because of the tremendous amount of confusing, misleading, and in some cases downright false information disseminated about detailing chemicals, hopefully this two-part series will help alleviate some of the confusion.


What is a compound?

It is an abrasive liquid or paste product (either equally as good) that is usually available in four grades: Heavy, medium, light, or micro fine. The grades represent the type and amount of abrasive in the product. An abrasive is a substance that will wear away a surface by rubbing. There are several types used in compounds such as talc, aluminum oxide, silica, etc.

What is a polish?

A polish is a micro-abrasive product designed to smooth out and eliminate the light scratches and swirls left by compounding. It will also provide a "spit shine" to the paint finish. Some paint finishes that do not need compounding would be first "polished" then waxed or sealed.

What Is a wax?

There are many major types of waxes used in detail products, but the most common are natural or synthetic carnauba. The most popular type is carnauba. They provide not only shine, but protection. However, they break down very quickly and last, at best, no more than 30 to 45 days.

What is a paint sealant?

The answer to this question depends on whom you ask. However, it is defined as an amino-functional silicone-based product used to seal the surface. Silicones are any of a large class of polymers, which consist of a high molecular mass. An amino functional silicone is a product that plates a surface after it is exposed to air. They are far more durable than a wax, providing a high shine and more resistance to repeated washings.

How long will a paint sealant last?

Contrary to claims of up to three to five years, research shows that no sealant will provide both shine and protection for more than six months.

What Is the difference between a wax and a sealant?

Simply speaking, a wax sits on the paint finish much like wax on your leather shoes. A sealant bonds to the finish because of the molecular action of the amino-functional silicone. It will wear off, but it takes longer to do so than wax.

What is a glaze?

There are glazes and cleaner glazes.

A glaze is a body-shop safe product that contains no silicones or waxes since a new paint job cannot be sealed for 60 to 90 days to allow the solvent to evaporate completely from the paint. If it is sealed what can occur is what is called “solvent-popping.” They are not particularly durable but help to remove swirls and provide a measure of protection for a few weeks.

A cleaner glaze, also called a one-step, is a combination of a light abrasive cleaner and silicones that allow the detailer to clean and shine the car in one step. It is formulated mainly for auto dealer cars where shine is more important than durability.

Which products are best for paint finishes?

The answer to this depends on the condition of the paint finish. Basically, there are three types of paint finish conditions: Bad, moderate or good.

A bad finish could require a heavy or medium compound for correction, then a polish, wax, or sealant.

A moderate finish might require a light compound, polish, wax or sealant.

And, finally, a good finish would require polish and wax or sealant.

With an auto dealer or wholesaler whose vehicles might have a moderate or good finish, you can use a one-step cleaner glaze with a high speed buffer or orbital waxer.


In the wash bay you would use several different chemicals falling into the following various categories.

  • Engine degreasers

There are basically two types of degreasers: Solvent-based and water-based ones.

The solvent base ones can be a liquid or gel. They are quite effective in dissolving engine grease. The gel type tends to adhere to the engine surfaces for a more effective cleaning.

The water-based products contain caustics (sodium hydroxide), and surfactants with a few other secondary components. These must be used with caution if you plan to use them for something other than engine cleaning. For example, many operators will use a water-based degreaser as an all purpose cleaner, as a pre-soak; as a vinyl top shampoo; and as an upholstery and carpet cleaner. But, take caution as I do not recommend this approach. It opens you up too many potential serious damage claims because of the caustic, high pH nature of the engine degreaser.

  • All purpose cleaners

For many, an all purpose cleaner is another name for a water-based degreaser. It is my recommendation that if you want an all purpose cleaner in the wash bay, you use it only for:

  1. Vinyl tops
  2. Tires
  3. Loosening heavy dirt concentrations in the engine compartment and the front and rear areas of the vehicle.
  • Wheel cleaner

There are two basic types: Acid based products and non-acid based.

The acid based, while more effective in cleaning quickly, pose many serious health risks for the detailer. They are losing popularity because of these health hazards.

The non-acid based products are generally a combination of gycol ether (solvent) and surfactants plus other secondary ingredients.

  • Tar and grease remover

Whatever they may be called, these products are usually some type of petroleum distillate. They are not lacquer thinner.

  • Carwash shampoo

Many detailers like to use a water-based degreaser or all purpose cleaner for shampoo. However, the possibility for paint damage is too great. Use only a carwash shampoo and measure it out to be about 1-2 ounces per 5 gallons of water.

  • Miscellaneous chemicals

Wood oil: Used to oil real wood trim in cars, RVs, motor homes, etc. Any such product will provide satisfactory results.

Black paint: Usually a quick-dry lacquer used for engine compartments and wheel wells. Most paint manufacturers can supply you with this type of paint.

Bumper black and grey: A latex paint designed to renew faded black or grey plastic and rubber bumpers and trim. This specialty product is only available from a few suppliers, so you might have to do a little research to find it.

Vinyl paint: Used to renew or dye vinyl tops and upholstery. Again, this is a specialty product.

Paint overspray removers

  • Chemical: Used to remove paint overspray from vehicles. Such a product should not in any way damage the paint finish. However it may not remove all types of paint overspray. In some cases a simple cleaning solvent or thinner can work as well. Be sure to use caution when considering straight lacquer thinners to remove overspray. They can seriously damage some paint finishes.
  • Clay: Body clay has become the product of choice to remove paint overspray as well as industrial fallout (IFO) on paint finishes with no resultant damage. There are numerous clays available on the market. Find one that works for you.
  • Mag or aluminum polish: A variety of such products are available in liquids, creams, or pastes. All are designed to polish and/or remove stains from magnesium and aluminum wheels.
  • Adhesive remover: As the name conveys, a special cleaner designed to quickly remove pin striping and side molding adhesive as well as decals, etc. 3M offers a very good product.

R.L. “Bud” Abraham is president of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems of Portland, OR, and is 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