Express detailing service has been a staple at many a car wash over the last few decades. There is a generally accepted traditional express detailing approach that has been taught for years. I am here to unabashedly shake things up a bit by utilizing newer developments in equipment and chemicals that can allow express detailing services to be provided with increased speeds and better results, leading to happier customers.


Readers will fall into one of three categories:
1. Already providing express detail services and doing “great”
2. Providing express detail services and struggling
3. Thinking about providing express detail services and wondering how to do it

If you are currently providing express detailing and your operation is a thriving profit center with few go-backs and customer complaints, then I congratulate you. I suggest that you take a moment, however, to read about the advances that I will discuss later in this article, as they may help you deliver even better results.

If you are struggling, then I believe I have some real answers for you. Read on.

If you are thinking about offering express detail, then please read on so that you have information about the new technologies that are available to help you create a successful operation.


Exploring express detailing approaches across the country over the last 20 years or so, one could find several interpretations of the service. There are different models of “express” in different parts of the country, and there are individual operators that have found a wonderful hybrid of express and full-service detailing that works amazingly at their specific location.

Nonetheless, I contend that the vast majority of operators subscribe to the concept of express detailing as being a quick, high-impact, and convenient post-wash service that is delivered while the customer waits. The goal of express detailing has been to target a specific area of the vehicle that typically needs extra cleaning or protection. The service must be perceived by the customer as being necessary and important so that it is relatively simple to sell in a quick manner.

The traditional express detailing menu is something like this:
• Express hand wax
• Express carpet cleaning
• Express seat cleaning
• Interior “superclean”

Allow me a few paragraphs to point out some common problems that occur with these services. If you find yourself nodding in agreement as you read these comments, please continue on with the article to find some suggested solutions.

The express hand wax typically is applied by hand, using an easy-on/easy-off product that provides simple wax protection for a few weeks. The issue with this service is that the wax goes over any surface contamination that might be on the paint such as environmental fallout that is stuck to the paint and does not come off with a normal car wash. So, applying wax over this stuff is akin to waxing the kitchen floor without sweeping it first.

The carpet cleaning is typically performed with a hot water extractor, which leaves a large amount of moisture in the carpeting — even with the most powerful of machines. The typical car wash answer to delivering the vehicle after cleaning the carpets is to leave them very damp, and to throw the damp floor mats in the trunk. The customer is then issued instructions on removing the mats upon returning home.

To me, this is far from “service” — I have to deal with my own wet mats when I get home? And if the customer forgets, then the mats become moldy and stinky in the trunk.

The same goes for “express” cleaning of fabric seats. A common solution is to put plastic covers over the seats before returning the vehicle to the customer, which still doesn’t seem like a very pleasant service experience.

Additionally, with carpet and fabric seats, we have been frustrated by stubborn stains that will not even budge no matter what traditional chemical we throw at them. And how do the “cleaned” materials smell? Wet? Or worse — like cleaning chemical?

Cleaning and conditioning of leather seats is not as fraught with problems. Likewise, the “interior superclean,” which is typically a wipe-down of the dash, center console, and door panels, is fairly straightforward. Nonetheless, there are some new chemicals and tools that make these services easier to deliver while producing better results.

Delivering great results has always been a challenge in express detailing. Some of the problem is in the promises made by service writers. What makes express detailing appealing to the car wash owner as well as the customer is exactly what can make it sometimes turn into a problem.

A big part of the problem, however, is the reliance on old-school technology, in the form of outdated equipment and chemicals that are “the best, as far as we know.”


While express detailing plugs along seemingly without much innovation, the full-service detailing industry has seen an explosion of new technology and chemical improvements that allow us to provide superior outcomes with less effort. It’s time for the car wash industry to educate itself about and embrace these innovations that are radically changing the detailing industry.

Clay and Seal

For the exterior, new developments in both spray-and-wipe type paint protection as well as surface contamination removal (“detail clay”) allows us to perform “claying” of a vehicle surface in a fraction of the time. We can essentially clay and seal the paint in one step.

“Claying” a car removes from the paint all the gritty environmental fallout that does not come off with washing. This has traditionally been performed with a “clay bar” and spray-wax as lubricant and can take too long to be offered as an express detail service. Yet the results of claying a car can be striking — the paint surface feels super-smooth and is ready for protection (waxing).

A new breed of surface contamination removal technology uses a thin layer of polymerized rubber applied to such devices as a microfiber towel or disc that can be used with a dual-action polisher. This material acts as an “eraser” as it is rubbed across the paint surface. The sheer size of a “clay towel” compared to a small piece of traditional “detail clay” makes it a much more efficient surface device for removing surface contamination. This technology can greatly reduce the time it takes to “clay” a car.

Moreover, the new breed of “spray sealants” can be used as the lubricant for these devices. The technique goes like this: mist the area with spray sealant, work the contamination removal device across the area until the contamination is “erased,” then simply wipe up the excess moisture with a clean microfiber towel.

Here’s the ticket: because the spray sealants are so effective, the clayed surface is now protected with a sealant and requires no further waxing. Thus, you have “clayed” and “sealed” the paint in one step! Given a vehicle that has a normal accumulation of surface contamination, this service can easily be performed in 15 minutes by two properly trained technicians.

And the real beauty of this service is that you are providing two additional levels of service beyond the traditional “express wax” by (1) claying the paint, and (2) applying sealant, which is better protection than wax and lasts twice as long. This is a much better value and it is quite acceptable, then, to charge at least twice as much as your express wax price. Make sure you have the customer feel the paint when you are done — he or she will be impressed.

Better, Dryer Carpet Cleaning

Developments in carpet cleaning chemicals as well as the use of steam instead of hot water extraction can result in cleaner carpets that are not nearly as damp.

Traditionally, we have used a single “carpet shampoo” chemical to clean carpets, with mixed results and continued issues with stain removal. Newer carpet chemical systems borrow from the carpet cleaning industry, which understands that it takes more than one chemical to effectively clean carpets. The new chemistry includes separate enzyme pre-treatment that break down stains and peroxide-based follow-up spray that neutralizes remaining chemicals while killing odors, so that the carpet smells fresh.

Some detailers immediately object to the idea of having to use two or three separate chemicals because they think it adds time to the service. I argue that it takes no more (and sometimes less) time than having to go over the same area several times with the less effective “carpet cleaner.” And, I have found that separating the carpet cleaning chemicals greatly increases the chances of coming out with cleaner carpets.

These new chemicals are greatly enhanced by the use of dry vapor steam. (Note that the carpet chemical system does work great with hot water extractors as well.) The advantage of steam is that the rinsing of the carpet is performed with steam vapor, which has 95 percent less moisture than hot water extraction. Thus, you can make the carpets look great without soaking them.

Proper technique can even allow mats to be cleaned in place in the vehicle, and since they are almost dry when done, the vehicle can be returned to the customer with the mats in place.

The advantages of these innovations in cleaning chemicals and steam apply to the cleaning of fabric seats as well.

Improved Surface Cleaning

For vinyl, plastic, and leather interior surfaces, the detailing industry has benefitted from advancements in cleaners and agitation tools.

Newer interior cleaners are safer on interior surfaces without compromising cleaning capability. Most do not need to be rinsed and leave the interior smelling fresh. Long gone are the days of using harsh degreasers that are bad for interior surfaces (and make you cough when sprayed), even when diluted.

Additionally, there are some great scrubbing devices and newer brushes that allow for quicker, safer cleaning of interior surfaces.


I encourage all car wash operators who are currently or considering offering express detail services to get with the experts in the full-service detail industry to discuss the new technologies and chemicals that have improved detailing in general.

Prentice St. Clair is an International Detailing Association Recognized Trainer and Certified Detailer. As the president of Detail in Progress Inc., he has been providing training and consulting to car washes and detail shops since 1999.

He is available at (619) 701-1100 or