Help me clean my car!
April 26, 2011 8:48 AM   Subscribe

What products and methods should I use to go about cleaning the interior of a car?

My parents gave us their old car- yay! However, its interior is an accretion of two decades of coffee spills, mud stains, tuna fish sandwich accidents, and trips with the now-deceased dog.

I'd really like to have the cup holders no longer be suspiciously sticky and to have the patina of dirt removed from all the seats, but I'd really prefer not to pay to have it professionally cleaned. What's the best way to get it into decent shape myself? Products, techniques, types of sponges or towels? The seats are some sort of fake leather, and the dashboard and other components just look like plastic.
posted by foxy_hedgehog to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I've never used any of their carpet cleaning products, but I am a frequent user of Armor All's products for the fake leather and plastic components. A very small amount of effort goes a long way in restoring the interior. (This message not brought to you by Armor All.)
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 8:58 AM on April 26, 2011

You don't need anything fancy. Start by vacuuming out everything that's loose. Sticky stuff can be addressed with a rag and a bucket of water. A household surface cleaner like Fantastik or 409 will help with more stubborn stuff. Windex works on car windows, too.

There are specialized products available for babying nicer cars, but they're expensive and unnecessary for the remediation you're facing.
posted by jon1270 at 8:59 AM on April 26, 2011

Mr. Clean Magic Erasers are awesome for getting spots out of hard surfaces, but are mildly abrasive. I'd use one to get rid of any major smears/stains/scuffs, then use an all-purpose cleaner with some rags to do an overall cleaning on it. I like Windex's cleaner with vinegar, because it doesn't smell like Windex, but there are probably some more effective cleaners (my fiance swears by Simple Green). Maybe use washcloths like these Kitchenaid ones, which are nice because the mesh backing adds some extra scrubby power.
posted by specialagentwebb at 9:01 AM on April 26, 2011

Baking soda, vinegar.
posted by JesseBikman at 9:01 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh sorry, and also lots and lots of microfiber rags.
posted by JesseBikman at 9:02 AM on April 26, 2011

It would help to know what kind of car it is. When I detail, I like to read the manufacturer's recommendations if I can. In my 91 Firebird, I use a mild solution of Dr. Bronner's on an old tshirt to wipe dirty surfaces. One thing: Don't spray the solution directly on the surface. Soak the shirt and wring it out, so it doesn't drip. You don't want soapy water running into crevices.

I risk the wrath of the car gods by using vinegar water on the glass and clear plastic.

For the carpets, I spray Spot Shot on stains. For black soft trim, I use a vinyl protectant. Low gloss on everything. Same with the tire protectant. I hate shiny tires.

Be careful on the upholstery. I thought our Chevy had fabric seats and they turned out to be leather, which is way more of a pain to clean than plastic. I stained a spot on the driver's seat that way and it will never be right again. Sob. If the seats really are plastic, you can use the soap solution on them too. You can also take seats out to facilitate extra thorough floor vacuuming.

I use the same vacuum for the cars that I use in the house. It has a ton of attachments for that purpose. The sponges I like for the car are larger and have no scrubby side (ya feel me? the green scouring pad side that dish sponges have). I don't use towels on the cars, or shop cloths, because they are too linty. The last thing I want to do after the car is sparkling clean is to go back and try to lint-roller up some red fibers from a shop cloth.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 9:12 AM on April 26, 2011

If the car has fabric upholstery and normal carpets, rent a Rug Doctor machine, with the upholstery attachment, to clean the carpets and seats. Buy a bottle of their upholstery cleaning detergent and their anti-foam agent (this stuff will clean carpet very well, too, and a bottle of each should be sufficient for even a large sedan). The high vacuum a Rug Doctor machine produces lets you spray a lot of solution into the fabric, while immediately pulling it back out, along with more dirt than you can imagine. Thus, you never leave the upholstery or carpet "wet," and your car doesn't develop a mildew smell after cleaning.

Dawn dishwashing detergent in a normal water solution will gently and safely clean nearly all other surfaces, including glass. Follow up, if you like, with a sun protectanct like Armor All on interior vinyl/plastic surfaces like the dashboard.
posted by paulsc at 9:19 AM on April 26, 2011

I used to detail cars like this. Here's a quick overview:

Tools: Get some (a lot) of microfiber cloths, a bucket, and a bristle brush.

Products: Get some Simple Green, Armor-All, and some Invisible Glass if your local auto parts place is cool enough to carry Stoner products. If the upholstery is really bad, get some Stoner Upholstery Cleaner. In general, if Stoner makes the product you need and you can get it, do.

If possible, get your cloths in four different colors. If not, mark the corners with a Sharpie. Use one set for glass, and only glass. Use another for vinyl, and only vinyl. Use the third for upholstery, and only upholstery. Use the last set as junk cloths for cleaning the worst of something off of any surface.

Work top to bottom. I used to do upholstery/carpet first because it can take the longest to dry. Get that bristle brush and cleaner. Spray the upholstery down, giving special attention to any specific stains. Let sit for however long it says on the can, then go to town with that brush in circular motions. Wipe up the leftover "juice" with your upholstery cloth. Repeat if necessary. If the upholstery isn't bad, you can skip the specific cleaner and just use Simple Green and water.

For the vinyl, hit any nasty stains first with your cleaner and junk rag. Then follow the instructions on the Armor-All. If you like things shiny, get the shiny stuff. If you don't, get the low-shine stuff.

For the pleather seats, use Simple Green, water, and your brush to do a rough clean, then wipe up the mess with your cloth. You can Armor-All them afterwards, but don't use the high shine stuff or you will slide around like a greased pig.

Always do the windows last, because you will wind up having to redo them otherwise. If you can't get Invisible Glass, I found the next best thing is white vinegar and water, in a 1:4 ratio.

We used to use all manner of chemicals when doing interiors. Once, our shipment was delayed, and we had to wing it with soap/water. It worked well enough for most things that we cut out about 80% of the chemicals we used.

This is just a quick and dirty, so to speak. If you have a specific trouble spot(s), let me know and I might have an idea how to beat it.
posted by rollbiz at 9:31 AM on April 26, 2011 [21 favorites]

Vacuum all surfaces.
Clean windows with a vinegar/water solution (with just a dab of soap) and newspaper or newsprint.
Wipe down hard surfaces with soapy vinegar and water mix.
Wipe down with a clear water rinse.
Clean carpets and upholstery with a steam cleaner (not too expensive to rent. you can use hot water with vinegar and a touch of soap instead of the cleaner if you'd like).
Repeat steps anywhere you see remaining scum or stains.
When you finish cleaning allow the car to dry out completely
Mix a teaspoon or two of vanilla extract into a spray bottle full of everclear (grain neutral spirits). This is to remove smells. Vanilla is good because the low notes cover other smells well. Including skunk. The volatile alcohol breaks up lots of organic compounds that smell. You could break down and use febreze, but that shit stinks.
You may want to test upholstery and carpets in a non-noticeable location, but I have never had a problem with this.
Spray the everclear mix evenly onto all soft surfaces. Wipe the solution across the fake leather seats.
Leave the car open and allow the alcohol to evaporate. Do not smoke or have any open flame or heating element near it.

If you have ink stains, mix cream of tartar with lemon juice. Soak the area and dab up the liquid as best you can when the ink starts to run. Repeat until ink stain is gone. This works ONLY on gel inks. Other inks are harder, but cleanable, sometimes.

I have successfully rehabilitated a smokers car using this process.
The trick is to be extra thorough and leave not one square inch uncleaned.
posted by Seamus at 10:43 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I should add that I finish by doing a quick re-clean of the windows to catch any smears or drips from the interior washing process. The huge problem with windows is the film that appears from nowhere over time (off-gassing synthetics? smog? road haze?).
posted by Seamus at 10:45 AM on April 26, 2011

Not mentioned above, but I get some q-tips/cotton swabs and clean out the vents as much as I can reach to get the smells out. Also for use around gear shifter and any hard to reach place.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:32 AM on April 26, 2011

Armor All usually leaves a weird slick-greasy-sticky residue that a lot of people don't dig. Some of the other companies make interior detailer that doesn't do this. I like Meguiars. You can use household cleaner like 409 or 7th generation, but finish with an interior detailer that provides a bit of sun protection. A few different types of brushes are useful for stubborn bits or hard to reach areas.

If you have leather, water & woolite (6:1) in a spray bottle is fantastic and cheap.

If the windows are tinted, do NOT use Windex. Invisible Glass is, however, acceptable and sold around the car detailing bits in your local big box outlet. Sometimes, laying a fresh towel over the dash/back deck is helpful when spraying glass cleaner so you don't get it on the dash you just cleaned.

+1 to microfiber, lots of microfiber.
posted by ijoyner at 11:58 AM on April 26, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone- this is wonderful advice and is exactly what I was hoping for! Here is a follow-up question: where might I buy some of the specialized products mentioned in the thread- Microfiber cloths, Invisible Glass, Armor All? Is this the sort of stuff that's available at your average hardware store? Sorry if this sounds like a stupid question; I've just never looked for these specific products before.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 12:42 PM on April 26, 2011

Try the auto parts store. That is where I have found most all of theses things.
posted by nimsey lou at 1:43 AM on April 27, 2011

When I used to detail cars, we would order Stoner and 3M products direct. Since then, I've found Invisible Glass and a couple of other mentioned products at both my local Home Depot and Auto Zone, so those (or your local equivalent) would be worth checking. I personally recommend going to an auto store, my local Auto Zone carries several variations of Armor-All (including the non-greasy, low-shine stuff I mentioned). I hate having a shiny dashboard, personally, especially when it reflects in my newly cleaned windshield and distracts me.

Some people like shine, and for them I'll take the opportunity to shill for another Stoner product: Trim Shine. It's not greasy, and provides a final POP that people paying a couple hundred dollars for a full detail really seemed to like.
posted by rollbiz at 12:00 PM on April 27, 2011

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