Before we get into the proper techniques of paint care, we need a good understanding of the different types of paints.
When the automobile was first introduced, lacquer was used and took forever to dry. Not long after that, enamel arrived. Both of these applications were called "single-stage paint systems." In order to achieve a desirable finish on single-stage paint, 7-8 coats were necessary. These paint systems were vulnerable to contaminants, since they were not clear-coated like today's modern paint systems. One thing you could do with single-stage paint was wet-sand and buff it more frequently than today's paint.
Consider a piece of notebook paper. It is about 3-4 mils thick. Single-stage paint systems were about 13 mils thick. Today's modern paint is only 7-8 mils thick, so why is it more durable and lasts longer? The reason is the technology, along with how it's applied.
Today's paint is made up of urethanes that are not only more durable, but because of the clear coat applied on top of the base coat, the paint is protected from environmental damage. Dual-stage paint systems, as they are called, are made up of a primer coat on top of the substrate, then a base coat or color coat, and then the clear coat. The clear coat is what we are talking about protecting here, and it's important to remember that it is only 3-4 mils thick.
Today's industry of car care supplies is a multi-billion-dollar business, so it's important to know what to use and how to use it.
Let's start "Auto Detailing 101."
Washing and drying
Most scratches and swirls originate during the washing and/or drying stage. While it may be true that car washes can cause damage to the paint, many times the owners themselves cause damage unknowingly by using the wrong materials and procedures.
Stay away from sponges or towels for washing; use micro-fiber mitts, chenille mitts, lamb's wool, or any other dense-type mitt. Keep in mind that for regular washes, you should use only car wash soap. Never use dish soap or laundry detergent; they are too harsh and will remove any protection on the finish.
Always rinse the car first before you start washing, as this will begin to loosen the road grime. Avoid working in the sun, because this can cause water spots. Use the two-bucket method ' one for the finish and one for the wheels ' and change water as often as necessary.
After you rinse the car, it is time to inspect the vehicle for contaminants that did not come off during the wash procedure. Tar is a good example of such a contaminant. For this you need to use a solvent cleaner like WD40.
This may surprise you, but using an electric leaf blower is a great way to air-dry the car without having to touch it.
Remember that when you dry your car and there are still micro particles on the finish (these often do not come off during the wash cycle), you will work them into the finish, creating all kinds of scratches and swirls.
After you air dry your car, it's time to perform a very important step.
Detailing clay originated in Japan a number of years ago, and few people know what it is or what it does. It looks like play dough, but what it does for a finish is remarkable. Used properly, it will remove micro particles and prepare the surface for that mirror-looking shine.
Claying cars is seldom practiced anymore due to the fact it takes a little extra time during the detailing procedure.
In my shop, I clay every car I get in, simply because I believe it is the only way to achieve a true "show car" look. One thing you need to remember about claying is that it requires lots of lubrication. I can't overemphasize lubrication. Many people using clay for the first time run into trouble, because they don't lubricate the clay enough. Most clay comes in three grades: fine, medium, and aggressive. Most of the time fine or medium works well. You can clay any smooth surface like glass, painted plastic, smooth plastic, and any painted surface. Areas you can't clay would be non-coated plastic, rubber, and other non-coated surfaces.
If you think your finish is fine and doesn't need to be clayed, do this simple test. Put your hand in a plastic baggie, touch your paint, and move it around gently (don't worry, you won't harm anything). The plastic will magnify the sense in your skin 10 times. If you feel a roughness or a gritty feel, it needs to be clayed. Chances are, it will.
Here is how to clay: Simply get a bottle of quick detail spray, a bucket of soapy water, and a wash mitt. Get the section you are working on wet with soapy water, dip the clay in the soapy water, and spray the clay and the soapy section with detail spray. Now work the clay in a side-to-side motion using gentle pressure.
When the clay starts to hesitate and doesn't glide freely, repeat the soap/spray to get it lubricated. Keep lubricating the surface and the clay often as you are working.
As you proceed, keep rinsing the sections that you clayed. Another tip is to fold and reshape the clay as you work.
Clay has the ability to pull contaminants within itself as you bend and shape it. If you drop the clay, throw it out, because since it is sticky, it will pick up all the dirt and crud from the ground and hold it in the clay, making it a destructive tool.
Cleaning, polishing, and sealing
Claying removes micro contaminants on the finish; now we need to concentrate on problems that are in the finish.
Although for serious paint correction you may need the help of a professional detailer, there are some minor defects you can correct by hand. If your finish is in new or like-new condition, you are in good shape to proceed as follows.
Some paint cleaners have mild abrasives mixed with polishing oils which enable them to remove minor scratches and blemishes while at the same time polishing the finish. Claying removes contaminants on the finish; paint cleaners remove blemishes in the finish. Once you have deep-cleaned the paint, you can either use a pure polish (optional) or proceed to seal or wax the finish. The last step is important, because it is what protects the paint.
Many people typically wax their car, although modern technology has brought us synthetic polymers that are superior to wax. Wax will last about 30 days on a daily driver. Car dealers up-charge for paint seal protection up to $1,200 for a single application. However, you can do it yourself for around $10.
People get intimidated by the word "synthetic," thinking only a professional can apply it. They are wrong. Most polymers are easier (and cheaper) to apply than most waxes. The one thing they need to do is sit on the finish, which is curing time, before you remove it.
Once you have a synthetic sealant on your finish, it should last up to six months ' six times longer than the best wax on the market. The other thing to remember is to use micro-fiber towels when removing paint cleaners/polish and sealants.
Micro fiber is the softest, most gentle material you can use on your finish. Be smart when shopping for micro fiber; the cheap ones can harm your finish, because they are made with inferior material. Expect to pay around $5 for a regular-size towel. Do not use fabric softener when washing the towels; quality towels have been tested for more than 500 washes and are still in good shape.
Gary Kouba owns Perfect Auto Finish, a state-of-the-art automotive enhancement facility, in Roselle, Illinois. Gary teaches auto detailing at high schools, colleges, and libraries and does guest speaking at car clubs and other organizations. He is also a PDA Certified Master Detailer. If you want to ask Gary a question on car care or want to invite him to speak at your function, call him at 630-947-2090 or e-mail him through his web site: www.perfectautofinish.com.