You could take your car to a professional car detailer and spend $150 or more to get it cleaned up for summer. Or you could keep the cash and do it yourself.
How to Wash and Detail a Car
You will need:
✅ trash can
✅ full-size vacuum
✅ window cleaner
✅ soft brush
✅ stiff brush
✅ car wash detergent
✅ upholstery cleaner (recipe below)
✅ leather cleaner (as needed)
✅ water hose or pressure washer
✅ microfiber mitt
✅ microfiber towels
✅ car wax
Pick a Location
You want to choose a place for this major car washing event where you will have plenty of room on all sides of the car. The middle of the driveway is a good choice. Or, if easily accessible, the lawn or in another open space. If your only option is to park the car at the curb in the street, it is not ideal, but we can make that work.
Open the Doors
All of them—including the trunk, the glove box, center console, too. Exception: You won’t be dealing with the engine, so keep the hood closed.
Remove everything from every nook and cranny. Move everything out! Put all of the safety equipment needed for changing a tire and other emergencies in one area of the lawn or driveway. While you do that, make sure that the spare tire is in good working order.
As you remove things from the interior and trunk, deposit obvious trash into the trash can. In another pile, place things that don’t belong in the car and need to be taken to the house later—ditto for items that should find their permanent storage place in the garage.
Group like items that will be returned and stored in the car in another area. You’re going to love seeing how few things land in this pile.
Limit the items you will keep in the glove box to the Owner’s Manual, vehicle registration (required to be kept in the vehicle), service records, and other pertinent information to the car’s operation. Everything else should go into the trash (if not needed) or in a safe place in the house.
Remove the seats (optional)
This is a biggie, and if appropriate for your vehicle, the best thing you can do for this Spring Clean event. With most cars, this is doable. In newer models, while the seats are made to be removed easily, they may have electrical components and sensors. Be careful! Read your owner manual first. If you do not find specific step-by-step instructions for removing the seats and then safely re-installing them, skip this step.
Vacuum your brains out
Using a full-size vacuum (as opposed to a car vac that plugs into a 12-volt outlet or another model that doesn’t have great suction), with its hose and attachments—especially the crevice tool—vacuum the inside of the car like you have never vacuumed before.
Vacuum s-l-o-w-l-y, taking all the time you need to remove every smidgen of sand, salt, French fry, candy, grit, and debris out of that carpet. Empty the vacuum’s dirtbag or container, and give it a second go-round.
Clean the carpet
Using your favorite carpet stain treatment and cleaning detergent, scrub clean the carpet in the car and trunk. Use a stiff brush. Work out the stubborn stains. Blot up as much of the dirty water as you can with a microfiber towel, then use clean, cool water to rinse. Blot again until dry to the touch.
Allow the carpet to air dry with the doors open. Follow with another good vacuuming.
Wash, clean the interior
Use your favorite all-purpose cleaner to clean the vinyl walls, doors, and dashboard—all but the “headliner” (ceiling). Get into all the cracks, grooves, and crevices.
Use a cotton swab or soft brush around knobs and handles. Wipe dry with a good, damp microfiber towel. This will be so much easier if you’ve safely removed the seats. If not, endure the challenge. Get in there and clean up a storm!
Wash the inside windows
Clean the windows inside with a good window cleaner and a clean, damp microfiber cloth or paper towels.
All-Purpose Homemade Window Cleaner
- ¼ cup white vinegar
- ¼ cup isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol See NOTES
- 1 tablespoon corn starch
- 5 drops dishwashing liquid See NOTES
- 2 cups water
- Combine all ingredients in a good 24-ounce (or larger) spray bottle.
- Label clearly.
- Shake well before use.
Clean the upholstery
Tackle the upholstered seats by vacuuming them thoroughly. If your seats are leather, use a leather cleaner or conditioner recommended by the manufacturer or my favorite, KevianClean. If cloth, use a good upholstery cleaner or make it yourself.
If removed, reinstall the seats. Return the emergency equipment to the trunk, the instructional books, and required documentation to the glove box.
Spray your favorite air freshener, and close the doors and windows.
If you have removed floor mats, now is the time to scrub them clean. If yours are vinyl and now covered with winter’s salt stains, remove that with a 50-50 solution of water and white vinegar. Rinse well and allow to air dry.
Wash the outside of the car using a bucket of warm water and a tablespoon or two Blue Dawn dishwashing liquid. Use a microfiber mitt to get all the dirt loose. Clean the wheels with a brush and or sponge.
Using the hose or a pressure washer, rinse well and wipe dry with clean, damp microfiber cloths.
Last, clean the outside windows with your favorite glass and mirror cleaner. Polish dry with a damp microfiber cloth.
Wax the exterior
If you’re up to it, now would be a great time to wax the car with your favorite brand of car wax, following the instructions on the container.
There you go. A fresh, beautiful, Spring-Cleaned car!
Homemade Upholstery Cleaner
- 6 tbsp grated Fels Naptha Laundry Bar Soap
- 2 tbsp borax
- 2 cups boiling water
- Place the Fels Naptha, borax, and boiling water in the mixing bowl.
- Using the egg beater to whisk, carefully mix until all ingredients are dissolved and well incorporated.
- Allow to sit on the counter for about 30 minutes, or until cool enough that the mixture begins to gel.
- Using an egg beater, whisk, or electric mixer, whip the mixture until it looks like whipped cream or shaving cream. It will start out bubbly but then become foam.
- Transferred the remaining amount of foamy cleaner to a food storage bowl with a tight lid and store in a cupboard.
Updated and republished: 5-17-23
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