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Step by step interior cleaning

October 10, 2011
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Interior detailing is often ignored by detailers who seem to believe their skill as a detailer centers exclusively on their ability to restore a paint finish to a flawless, scratch-free, glossy shine.

However, the interior is as important, if not more important, than the exterior of the vehicle since this is where the motorist spends their time in the automobile.

Moreover, women drivers are especially sensitive to the vehicle interior, more so than men. Considering that over 50 percent of the drivers on the road today are women, and they account for over 58 percent of the automotive services purchased, today's detailer needs to focus more on learning about the materials in the interior and how to effectively clean and restore them to a like-new condition.

Interior materials

To prove a point, listed below are the many materials that are used in today's vehicles so you can get an idea how complicated proper and professional interior cleaning is:

  • Headliners – fabric or plastic
  • Seats – all types of synthetic fabric, leather or vinyl, plastic edges
  • Dashboards – vinyl, plastic
  • Panels – clear plastic covering
  • Carpets – almost all automotive carpet is nylon
  • Console and glove boxes – interior material
  • Door Panels – plastic, vinyl, carpet material
  • Glass – plain, tinted, film covered
  • Wood grain trim
  • Carbon fiber trim
  • Painted surfaces

Now for the knowledge

A true "professional" will be able to identify all of the materials, and not only understand the nature of the material, but identify cleaning problems and have the tools, chemicals and knowledge of correction procedures. It should never be, "guess and trial and error," which has been the modus operandi of the detailer. Try something and if it works, great.

I would hate to think my doctor worked on my body with that kind of mentality.

To make an analogy, the doctor is educated and proven to understand every organ in the body; has knowledge of every disease that can affect these organs; and, in most cases, is knowledgeable on how to correct the problem. On the other hand, if they are not able, they do "know what they don't know," and they refer you to a "specialist".

With this knowledge, the doctor can diagnose the problem, finally identify the problem and find a solution.

Let us use an example closer to home: The auto mechanic. You bring in your vehicle that is not operating properly. He asks you to tell him what is happening and then he will do a couple of things:

  • Listen to the car;
  • Take it for a test drive to ascertain the problem; and
  • Put it on the computer to see what it says.

In short, he diagnoses the problem to determine how to fix it.

Then, a professional auto repair specialist will have all of the equipment, tools and access to supplies and chemicals needed to repair the problem.

Equipment, tools, supplies, chemicals

A true professional detailer will not only have the knowledge of the materials they will be working with and the knowledge of how to correct the problem, but they will have all of the equipment, tools, supplies and chemicals required to make the correction. It does not make much sense to know your materials, be able to identify the problem, know how to correct the problem but not have the necessary equipment, tools, supplies and chemicals to do the cleaning and correction. Unfortunately, that is all too often the case with detailers. Their excuse, "I can't afford everything I need," or "I don't need it." (The second is an excuse for not being able to afford it).

Unfortunately, even those who can afford to have some equipment, tools, supplies and chemicals do not have all they need and do not have the true knowledge of what they are doing. No training.


So what equipment do you need to clean and detail today's interiors? The following list is what every detailer who claims to be a professional should have in their arsenal:

  • A powerful vacuum
  • A heated soil extractor
  • A vapor steamer
  • An ozone generator or fogger
  • An interior dryer


  • Shampooer tool – air or electric
  • Nylon scrub brushes
  • Parts cleaning brush
  • Detail brushes
  • Detail tool brushes
  • Razor blade scraper


  • Microfiber towels – one for glass, one for chemicals
  • Q-Tips
  • Scrubbie pads
  • Dressing applicator pads
  • Floor mats – either plastic or coated-paper
  • Seat covers
  • Loose items bags
  • Plastic or metal razors


The professional philosophy regarding chemical use is this: Use chemicals for what they were formulated for. Use carpet shampoo for carpets; glass cleaner for glass; extractor shampoo for extractors; leather cleaners for leathers, etc. As obvious as this might seem, far too many detailers use a degreaser, which is formulated to "burn" dirt off metal engine parts, as a carpet and interior cleaner. Of course it works. Joy could be used to wash your hair, but you would not, or should not, do that because of the damage to scalp and hair.

  • Stain removers for all types of stains
  • Extractor shampoo – a no-foam shampoo
  • Carpet shampoo – foaming type
  • All purpose cleaner – a low pH alkaline cleaner for leather, vinyl, plastic
  • Glass cleaner
  • Water-based dressing
  • Leather conditioner
  • Fabric protectant – anti-stain treatment
  • Fragrance
  • Biological odor eliminator

Keep in mind that you do not absolutely need every piece of equipment, such as a vapor steamer, but they do aid in getting a more effective and faster cleaning. Neither do you need an ozone generator, but it is very effective in eliminating odor.

The steps

Even with all of the right equipment, tools, supplies and chemicals at hand, if you do not have proper procedures this can be for naught if you or your employees miss or skip steps in the cleaning and shampooing process.

For that reason, as well as reducing the time to complete the job, you need a step-by-step procedure for a complete interior detail.

There can be many ways to detail an interior, but the one below was developed from a time and motion point of view to ensure that each and every part of the interior is cleaned or shampooed and treated with the least amount of wasted motion and time.

Exterior prepping and washing steps

  1. Read the service order for instructions.

Pressure washing

  1. Quickly pre-rinse the entire vehicle.
  2. Open hood and pressure wash engine and compartment.
  3. Wash front end of car before applying engine degreaser.

Chemical application and prepping procedure

  1. Apply engine degreaser to engine and engine compartment.
  2. Scrub engine area with engine wash mitt and/or wheel brush; rinse and inspect.
  3. Pressure wash wheels and wheel wells.
  4. Apply wheel cleaner and all-purpose cleaner to wheels, tires and mud flaps.
  5. Scrub with appropriate brushes as needed. (If prepping is done outside and temperature is hot, rinse each wheel and tire immediately.)
  6. Pressure wash wheels and tires.
  7. Pressure wash door and trunk jambs, and inside of gas cap area.
  8. With wash mitt, wash door and trunk jambs and the inside of gas cap area.
  9. Pressure wash door and trunk jambs.
  10. With scrubbie, remove insect residue from front end, bumper and license plate.
  11. Clean fender edges using whatever is necessary to remove dirt, asphalt or road paint.
  12. Apply a tar and grease remover to lower rocker panel areas of the vehicle and wipe off.

Washing procedure

  1. If an automatic carwash is available, run the vehicle through the wash. Or hand wash the vehicle front to back, top to bottom, using a clean body wash mitt.
  2. Rinse the vehicle front to back, top to bottom.
  3. If the water is hard in your area, hand dry the vehicle in the wash bay or in the detailing bay area to prevent spots. If the water is soft, there is no need to hand dry the vehicle.

Paint finish restoration procedures

Before beginning work on any paint finish, it is critical that you follow these preliminary steps:

  1. Identify the paint finish type: Either single stage or base coat/clear coat.
  2. Identify the paint finish problem – oxidation, scratches, dulling, water spotting, etc.
  3. Choose the correct procedure.
  4. Choose the correct buffing/waxing tool.
  5. Choose the correct pad(s).
  6. Choose the correct chemicals.

Final detailing steps

  1. Before removing sealant/wax, apply dressing to the engine, tires and exterior trim. This will prevent silicone from getting on paint.
  2. Start at the front of the vehicle and remove all sealant/wax from vehicle using either a towel or orbital waxer with a clean bonnet.
  3. With detail brushes and a towel, start at front of the vehicle and remove all wax residue front to rear. Open hood, all doors, trunk and gas cap lid to remove wax residue from edges.
  4. Move around the rear and work up to front (if two people, just front to back).
  5. Use steel wool and glass cleaner or polish moving from front to back of vehicle.
  6. Spray glass cleaner on all windows front to back. Use window towel to clean and dry.
  7. Inspect the vehicle in and out correcting any omissions. A final interior vacuum may be necessary.

Interior cleaning steps

Preliminary steps

  1. Read the service order for instructions.
  2. Open doors and evaluate condition of the interior.
  3. Remove floor mats (front and back and give to person cleaning trunk or clean/shampoo immediately and place near the rear of the vehicle to dry.
  4. Push front seat all the way back.
  5. Use loose items bag to bag loose items (front and back), use a separate bag for glove box and one for console. Set bags on rear seat.
  6. Remove ashtrays (front and back), clean and dry. Before replacing, clean area around ashtray.
  7. Flip down sun visors.
  8. With the air blower, blow out entire interior (front and back) concentrating on dash, panel, vents, under seats and cracks and crevices in seats.
  9. Vacuum the entire interior – carpets, seats, panels, etc.
  10. Apply appropriate spot remover (front and back) to all heavy spots on carpets, seats, door panels, etc.

Cleaning steps

  1. Starting on driver's side, clean headliner and front half.
  2. Clean sun visors, visor mirror and rearview mirror.
  3. Clean trim around doors and front window.
  4. Clean/scrub dashboard.
  5. Clean panel, steering column and glove box.
  6. Scrub spots/stains on front carpets.
  7. Apply shampoo and friction shampoo carpets (if necessary).
  8. Using extractor, extract all shampoo and dirt residue.

Fabric seats

  1. Scrub spots/stains on fabric seats.
  2. Apply shampoo and friction shampoo seats (if necessary).
  3. Using extractor, extract all shampoo and dirt residue.
  4. Using Scrubbie clean/scrub center console.

Vinyl and leather seats

  1. Scrub vinyl/leather upholstery with Scrubbie or rotary shampooer and wipe dry.
  2. Using Scrubbie clean/scrub center console.
  3. Clean/shampoo front seat belts.
  4. Push the front seat all the way forward.
  5. Scrub spots/stains on front door panels.
  6. Clean/shampoo door panels using a scrubbie, nylon scrub brush or rotary shampooer. Wipe dry and/or extract residue.
  7. Spray doorjamb and door edges with an all purpose cleaner (as needed) and wipe dry.

The rear

  1. Place loose items bag(s) on front seat.
  2. Clean the headliner, back half from front to rear.
  3. Clear rear window deck (be sure to blow out dirt near window).

Fabric seats

  1. See steps 19 – 22

Vinyl/leather Seats

  1. See steps 23 – 24
  2. Clean/shampoo back of front seat following procedures for either fabric or vinyl/leather upholstery.
  3. Scrub spots/stains on rear carpets.
  4. Apply shampoo and friction shampoo carpets (if necessary).
  5. Using extractor, extract all shampoo and dirt residue.
  6. Scrub spots/stains on rear door panels.
  7. Clean/shampoo rear door panels using a Scrubbie, nylon scrub brush or rotary shampooer. Wipe dry and/or extract residue.
  8. Spray doorjamb and door edges with an all purpose cleaner (as needed) and wipe dry.

Dressing/conditioning procedure

  1. Starting on the driver's side, move front to back and dress all vinyl, leather and rubber in the interior. Wipe off with dry towel for satin finish.

Window cleaning procedure

  1. Spray all interior windows and mirrors with glass cleaner.
  2. Using window towel, clean each window individually and dry.
  3. Put all windows down and clean top edge, put up again.

Final inspection procedure

  1. Make complete check of interior, looking for dirt on carpets, improper application of dressing, dirty/smeared windows and correct.
  2. Do a final vacuum (if necessary).
  3. Spray deodorizer under front seats.
  4. Put in plastic floor mat, seat cover and litter bag.
  5. Put in window sticker reminder (if used).

There you have it, a complete anatomy of what is needed to end up with a clean and flawless interior. Two detailers with the recommended equipment, tools, supplies and chemicals, following the procedures outlined above were able to clean the inside of an average dirty Chevrolet Tahoe in 36 minutes, a total of fewer than 1.5 man-hours.

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 also the executive director of the International Detailing Association and a member of the Western Carwash Association Board of Directors. Abraham can be contacted at

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