Is professional detailing worth the money?
April 28, 2011 7:53 PM   Subscribe

CarDetailingFilter: Is professional detailing worth it? IOW, do the professionals have tools, skills, or something else that means they can do much better work than a determined person can do on his/her own? Details follow.

My little roadster is old enough to get its own driver's license, but has fewer than 80,000 miles. Mostly, it sits in the garage during the winter. Over the years, the exterior has been washed and waxed, and the interior vinyl has been treated, regularly. But there are swirl marks in the paint and I don't even want to think about what the carpet under the seats looks like. I know that my usual tools-of-the-trade (rags, Meguiar's, and elbow grease) won't fix those things. I'm willing to acquire the tools and products needed to spiff up the car, but I worry that my inexperience will do more harm than good. So is it better to pay a pro to do the job? And how do I go about finding a good one? (Bonus points if anyone has a recommendation in the north suburbs of Chicago.)
posted by DrGail to Travel & Transportation (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My experience is that it takes a fair amount of skill to bring a tired-ish paint job back to life. The hassle with buffing is that: 1) you really need a rotary buffer to do the job right ($50 - $150) and 2) using a wool pad on a rotary buffer is not for the inexperienced; you can burn through the paint in an instant and even experts people can make mistakes.

A good detail shop should allow you to see what they're doing in the shop, give you an honest appraisal of the likely outcome of your car's time in their shop, and a pretty solid estimate. They should be happy to let you look at cars currently being detailed and if you arrive towards the end of the day cars which are done.

If they seem to be doing nothing but very new cars, you might want to ask to see an older car they've worked on.

I'd recommend doing a paintless dent go-round at the same time if you've accumulated door dings. If you find a good detail shop they'll be working with a good dent guy.
posted by maxwelton at 8:12 PM on April 28, 2011

Yes, it's absolutely worth it. However, I agree with maxwelton that you should carefully check out the detailer you're considering using. There are a lot of detailers and detail shops out there who can do more harm than good, including seemingly popular and large detail shops (in fact, in my experience some of the more established shops provide the lowest quality). If you find someone who is really good at what they do, it is more than worth the money.

If you want to learn about doing it yourself, has a lot of info. They may also have leads on good local people to go to, though it's definitely biased toward people who post on the site, which may or may not correlate with good quality work.
posted by sharding at 8:27 PM on April 28, 2011

As a teenager in the 90's I was the assistant car detailer at a Turtle Wax Car Wash in the southwest suburbs of Chicago.

There are 2 things that a car detailing shop can do that would be tricky at home: cleaning carpets/upholstery and buffing out scratches. You'd be able to get by cleaning the carpets/upholstery yourself with some store-bought fabric cleaner and a shop vac or you can even use a Rug Doctor.

Buffing out swirl marks should definitely be left up to the experienced as maxwelton points out. However, if your paint is in pretty good condition it shouldn't be too difficult of a job. Even if your pain is a little faded there are ways of bringing back its luster and shine.

You can clean most of the interior plastic/vinyl dashboard and trim with an all-purpose cleaner and then treat it with protectant to make it shiny and smell nice.

There's Turtle Wax car washes in Skokie and Crystal Lake where you can choose from a number of services. You'll probably get the hard sell so you should know what you want done before you go there. I can't speak for any other car detailing place.
posted by photovox at 8:29 PM on April 28, 2011

I used to work at a shop when I was a teenager, and there was no way in hell my boss was going to attempt to teach me to use a buffer. Smart man.

I personally think we did a good job at our shop, considering the before and after. A good shampooing will do wonders for an interior. It's not terribly hard, but it's not exactly fun. Not sure if you can rent them, but to me it just seems easier to have someone else do it. Our "full-detail" ran somewhere around $125 (1997) and for everything that we did to the car, I think it is so worth it. Let's see if I can remember all of it: De-tarring, washing, de-bug, tires, drying, buffing, wax, clean interior, shampooing carpets and upholstery, paint the wheel wells, removing road paint, and driving it like we stole it (j/k, but we would pick it up and drop it off). Also, upon pick-up, it's okay to say something if a spot was missed. However, my boss went over the job with a fine-tooth comb and this rarely ever happened.

One last thing: Do not put "Shine" aka Armour-All on the dashboard. It can create a nice glare in the sun and distract you while driving. And DO NOT put shine on the steering wheel. We like for our customers to be able to grip the steering wheel. /psa
posted by XhaustedProphet at 10:40 PM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is not exactly an answer to your question, but this recent Ask has alot of good tips for interiors, some from former professional detailers, should you decide to DIY.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 11:03 PM on April 28, 2011

If you want to rehab your paint yourself, you want something like the Porter Cable 7424, which under most circumstances is impossible to ruin paint. There is a ton of info about the usage of these at Autopia, and there are also versions of the random-orbital polisher by other companies that have some upgrades, like better-placed handles to prevent your arms from getting tired. Double-check what pads to use if your paint doesn't have clear coat, because single-stage paint is easier to burn. You can definitely get out swirls and get an extremely passable amateur job with the PC, though.

As for the carpet under the seats, the Little Green Machine is a pretty standard beginner's porta-extractor that will work on both the carpets and upholstered seats. Leather, if you have it, takes a little more research and work to rehabilitate.

A PC kit with a starter set of pads and some polish will run you $200-250, and the LGM is under $100. Depending on how much and how often you want to get into this, that's about the price of 3-4 heavy pro detail jobs.
posted by rhizome at 11:03 PM on April 28, 2011

We we too poor to afford a good detailing before I sold my last car, so my husband and I spent a weekend cleaning the interior. We took out the front seats* which helped a LOT in being able to get at the nooks and crannies with a shop vac. We used regular upholstery and carpet cleaners and a good brush and some soft rags, and just went to town. Detailing the inside of a regular car (one that isn't collectible or valuable) is a DIY project if you have the time and attention span.

*Obviously don't do this if you don't know what you're doing.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:53 AM on April 29, 2011

If you're willing to spend the time, a random orbital is almost foolproof. It will take longer than using a rotary, but you won't need to polish for 6mo to a year if you want to maintain the finish. It will probably take 6+ hours of work to do it right.

A good exterior detail will probably run you at least $300. Go on the forums and see if you can find a local detailer that posts on that site.
posted by wongcorgi at 8:44 AM on April 29, 2011

« Older Help us live in a tent this summer!   |   a remote exam under exam conditions Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.