Detailing Best Practices...“Think before you leap”
By Richard T. Lin & Heather Martinez
Photos by Richard Lin
Velvet Red Before (left) and after (right) a major detailing
There are many approaches to detailing your MINI. Although some people just want to try the latest and greatest gimmicks, getting the best results is a combination of acceptance of tried and true methods combined with experience. With the multitude of choices competing for your hard earned dollars, choosing a “system” instead of randomly picking products will increase your chances for success.
Before owning a MINI, I couldn’t tell you how often I would partially wax my daily driver because it was “too much work”. If I was lucky maybe, just maybe, I would wax it once a year or maybe once every two years! Even worse I would split that waxing session over several weeks starting with just the hood, then maybe the trunk lid! This all changed when I brought home the car of my dreams, a 2003 Indi Blue and white MINI Cooper. Reflecting back upon this, it was evident that the reason for not waxing often was because the process wasn’t easy enough to do, and most importantly I wasn’t confident in the results. I certainly didn't want to expend the energy to remove wax off my paint if I had already spent over an hour washing and applying a wax just because I felt guilty for neglecting my car.
Fast forward to today, as a professional paint polisher and detailer, I love spending 6 hours doing a “simple” wash and wax, while a full scale polishing detail might last 12 to 16 hours—all done in a single stint. Why the difference between just a few years ago and today? The only thing that changed was my confidence level. I learned that in order to take an ordinary car and make it into something incredible, you had to follow the right steps—making the right informed choices along the way and most importantly, making every action count so you don’t waste your energy or time. And it all begins with proper evaluation and diagnosis. Your doctor can’t prescribe the right medication if he doesn’t know what’s wrong with you, so why should you go to the local auto store and purchase products without knowing what you need first?
Astro Black Mini after a full 12-16 hour detail. Look at the sparkle!
So let’s get into the nitty gritty of what it takes to give your MINI that new or better than new show car shine. It all begins with good prep and proper diagnosis.
A detail in action using a Porter Cable polisher.
Most likely your MINI arrived by boat and before that journey, to prevent rust and corrosion, the MINI is drenched with a yellow waxy like substance known as Cosmoline. Once it arrives at the VDC, your MINI is prepped and cleaned before being shipped to the local dealer.
Once it reaches the dealer, they are responsible for installing any dealer installed options, and giving your car a final cleaning. Depending on the dealership, this cleaning could result in a phenomenon affectionately known as DISO or Dealer Installed Swirls Option. This occurs when the dealer uses a buffer to apply wax to your paint or otherwise uses dirty towels to dry off your paint resulting in defects called holograms.
If you own a random orbital polisher known as a PC or Porter Cable polisher, making your new MINI "better than new" is achievable! But many owners just don’t know what to look for in their paint before bringing their new baby back home. Another thing, don’t worry about whether your paint is cured enough to be waxed. This is a common misconception. Your paint is already cured at the factory and ready for waxing the moment you bring him home.
One more thing, if you plan to wax and maintain your own MINI, just as you wouldn't pay for DISO, don't pay for any so called "lifetime sealants or waxes" that claim you will never need to wax your car again. In order for these sealants to work, you need to bring your MINI back to the dealer once or twice a year and that’s because a synthetic polymer sealant typically only lasts about 6 months. You can purchase a lot of detailing products for that money and do it much better yourself.
Look at your paint under direct sunlight. Stand so that you can see the sunspot in your paint and then tilt your head from side to side causing the sunspot to move across the paint. As you do this, you will see any defects in the paint. Do a spot check around the entire car. Many people don't realize that swirls or cob web scratches can be easily fixed with the right tools and chemicals and it IS possible to have a gem stone like finish day in and day out!
Left: Swirl Marks in direct sunlight. Right: Those same swirl marks removed after a bit of detailing “magic”
Besides a paint surface free of visual defects, how the paint feels to the touch is a vitally important step that affects both the quality and durability of your final finish. If the surface of the paint is clean, lightly run your clean fingertips across the paint and feel for any bumps. Don't use the backside of your fingers. What you are feeling for are little bumps in the paint. If the paint feels absolutely smooth as brand new glass, then you're in good shape. Some people will place a plastic bag on the paint and touch the inside of the bag to enhance the sensation of any bumps. On a brand new MINI, you may or may not feel any bumps. These bumps are known as bonded contaminants and won't come off during normal washing. Also during the inspection keep a mental note on any abrasions, scuffs, or discolorations on the paint. Quite often these are known as "transfers" which result from being rubbed by an object, and will often be removed during the following claying steps as well.
Touching the finish you can feel for any particles embedded in your paint.
Once the initial inspection has been performed, you will want to keep in mind the following two car care steps.
1 - Prep: Inspect, Wash, Clay, Tape, Polish.
2 - Wax
This article discusses in depth the Prep stages of Inspect, Wash and Clay. We've already covered the inspection, so let's move on.
When washing your MINI, you need to ask yourself what your goals are. If you’re looking to fully detail your paint, then a thorough cleansing is in order. You might even use the dreaded “Dawn” soap for that first wash. You don’t have to feel like a bad parent for using dishwashing soap on your MINI though you may get berated on the forums. You just don’t want to make it a regular habit if you really care about your MINI as the harsh soap designed for cutting through “tough grease" can excessively dry out and remove the protection you've spent so much time applying. For maintenance washes, you might want to use a car wash soap with polymers in it to prolong and enhance your finish. In either case, it is important to measure out the proper ratio of soap to water. Read the label on the soap. Typically it is suggested to use between 0.5 to 1 ounce of soap per gallon of water. So a 5 gallon bucket will require anywhere from 2.5 ounces to 5 ounces of soap. Use a measuring cup or find a suitable measuring device. I like to save the dispenser caps from liquid laundry soap.
A recycled detergent cap makes a great measuring cup.
Fill up your bucket with water. I like to use warm water, and then add the soap. Then stir until the soap is evenly mixed. Some people prefer plenty of foam but I don't because they increase the potential trapping and holding dirt that can then transfer and abrade your paint. Always keep in mind about how you can Reduce the Potential of scratching your finish. You can also purchase protective grills and dirt catching devices that mount to the bottom of your bucket to capture and hold grit that comes from your washing mitt. Ideally you want to use two buckets when washing your MINI, although a single bucket with a dirt catching device and good technique can work in a pinch.
The two bucket wash method consists of a bucket of clean water and a bucket of soap water. The clean water is used to rinse out your dirty wash mitt each time you wipe down your paint, thus minimizing dirtying up your soap water.
A good wash mitt is very important, and that's why using a real lamb’s wool mitt is popular. They hold a lot of soap water and feel slimy when properly lubricated. They also safely pick up a lot of debris from your paint. You never want to throw these on your lawn or driveway to dry out though as they will pick up twigs and foreign matter will become permanently entangled in it.
Very bad, don’t put the mitts on the ground or the grass!!!
How you can tell a synthetic mitt from a lambswool (Sheepskin) mitt. Turn the mitt inside out and see if there is skin!
Chenille Mitt on far left is great for washing wheels and trim.
Synthetic wool mitt is best left in the trash. Lambswool/Sheepskin mitt is best for paint.
Far right is same Sheepskin mitt that’s been used on a dozen cars.
Water spots are caused by mineral deposits in your water. Using a TDS meter, my home water measures about 250ppm of deposits, while my shop's water has over 550ppm.
I can filter the water out to 0 ppm using a portable water deionizing system. I can also purchase distilled water for a few dollars per 2.5 gallons. Removing the deposits will ensure that I don't leave water spots behind, however one way to deal with hard water is to not let the water dry on your paint in the first place. Don't wash under the hot sunlight.
Once the paint is cleaned off and rinsed, use a good microfiber waffle weave towel to dry the paint. A single 16x16 towel is enough to dry a MINI if you use the water sheeting method to rinse off the paint, then dry all painted surfaces before the glass.
The water sheeting method is a technique where you remove the nozzle off the hose and just let it flow water at a medium rate. The idea is to flow the water over the paint, and if you have good wax protection already, the water will sheet off instead of bead, leaving behind just a few droplets of water. You can then wipe these dry.
Every car good finish started with a good claying. Whether your MINI is right off the boat or a year old, giving your paint a good cleansing with clay bar is essential. Clay bar is a small piece of sticky clay that typically weighs between 100 to 200 grams. It looks a lot like modeling clay, but that’s about all that it has in common. Although there is only one manufacturer of clay bar due to it’s patents, it comes in a variety of colors and consistencies. The process is simple. You take this bar of clay and rub it against your paint. Of course, because the clay is sticky, it will just make a sticky mess! So you need to use a clay lube or quick detailer, which will allow the clay to glide across the paint while still doing its job.
First, what is clay?
Detailing clay is a malleable, clay-like substance that was originally used by automotive paint shops to remove overspray and surface contaminants. It comes in many colors and textures and is generally sold in 4-6 oz sizes.
Clay traps particles that can wreck a clean finish.
3 Different clays.
Grey clay is Prima Detailing Clay, Blue is
Professional Mild Clay, Red is Professional Aggressive Clay reserved
for body shops because it scours the paint.
What do we use it for today?
We now use it in much the same way as it was originally intended although its scope of usefulness has expanded. What was once strictly a paint shop tool is now easily accessible to the detailing hobbyist. As consumers experiment with clay, new uses continue to arise. Here is a short list:
• Removing paint overspray
• Removing embedded particles from the paint surface
• Removing mineral deposits from dried water
• Removing minor etching from bird droppings
• Removing minor adhesive residue
• Glass cleaning (beyond what typical glass cleaners can do)
What clay won’t do.
• It won’t fix swirls, scratches or spider webbing
• If properly used, it won’t scratch
• It won’t polish
• It won’t abrade the surface
What kind of particles can get embedded in the paint?
Typically, your car’s finish picks up all types of environmental fallout and contaminants. For new cars, it is often rail dust from the long trip to your local dealer. Rail dust is a result of the metal on metal action of the train’s wheel on the track. Ocean travel can also result in the embedment of salt and other environmental particles. For most other cars, metal particles from your brakes, insect impact and water spots can become embedded in your paint. All forms embedded particles compromise the integrity of your top coat which could leave other layers vulnerable to rust or other damage.
What are the benefits of claying?
Clay removes the embedded contaminants from the surface of your paint. The result will be a smooth-as-glass finish and better light reflection off your vehicles surface. Imagine looking at your reflection in a dusty mirror. You can see yourself, but you are a bit fuzzy. Clean the mirror and the reflection vastly improves. It works the same way with your paint.
By claying, you will also be “cleansing” your paint at a deeper level than most soaps and shampoos are able to access. Claying shaves off the metal particles, industrial fallout and other contaminants from your finish. Of course, imperfections in the paint itself, such as swirls and scratches, will not be removed. This is because clay does not abrade the surface as it shaves. Only an abrasive polish can eliminate such imperfections. However, a good synthetic or carnauba wax can cosmetically fill and seal some imperfections. Wax will protect the paint from environmental elements and will leave you with a protected and smooth surface.
How do I know if I need to clay?
On a clean surface, run your fingertips gently across the paint surface. Do you feel tiny bumps or roughness? If yes, you may want to clay. If your car is new from the dealer, this is the best time to clay. Although somewhat covered in transport, the surface of your new car is likely to have picked up ocean salts from the boat ride and/or rail dust from the train ride to your dealer.
How do I clay?
There are two parts to a clay process; the clay and the lubricant. The clay often comes in a 4-6 oz rectangle. In order to conserve your clay and make it easier to work with, it is advisable to cut it into three or more parts. If you drop your piece of clay, throw it out. Clay is quite sticky and will pick up dirt and other various small debris- the kind you definitely don’t want to drag across your paint. It is absolutely impossible to completely clean the dirt and debris from the clay once it has been dropped.
Claying is a fairly easy process. Of course, you need to start with a clean car. After that, you simply spray a 2’x 2’ area with the lubricant and slide the clay over the surface. It should glide easily across the paint with the help of the lubricant. Many people find that moving the clay in a back-and-forth motion is most effective. For really rough surfaces, you can repeat the process but this time using a side-to-side motion. Be sure to use enough lubricant. If you do not, the clay will grab and scuff your paint. If this happens accidentally, it is likely that you will only need to re-clay the area where the accident occurred. If the paint has been severely scuffed, an abrasive polish may be the only way to recover the area. Using the right amount of lubricant is a bit of a balancing act. Use too much and the clay is less effective. Use too little and you scuff the paint. Finally, as your clay becomes dirty, pull, stretch then fold it to a clean side.
After you have clayed a section, wipe it down with a high quality, plush buffing microfiber cloth. Run your fingers over that section. Does it feel smooth? Are the tiny bumps gone? If no, hit it again with the clay.
Big improvements can be made through little steps if you understand why. The goal of future articles will be to educate you as much about the WHY’s as well as the HOW’s on achieving the ultimate show car finishes for your paint. Whether you want to keep your MINI looking better than new, or just protect the paint from deteriorating prematurely, these techniques will get you there and can be applied to any car you own. I hope that these articles will inspire you to get out there and spend some quality time pampering your favorite car.