Detailing, like most professions, has a language all its own that includes vocabulary that describes equipment, chemicals, and techniques that are unique to our profession. The vocabulary also includes terms that are borrowed from other industries. We also have what sociologists would describe as a “sub-cultural” language that is all our own. Unfortunately, this latter component can have many variants, depending on the part of the country in which the detailer resides. Moreover, it’s not uncommon to find detail operations in the same town that use completely different terms to describe the same piece of equipment, chemical, or detailing process.

One of the strongest ways to standardize our industry is to use the same vocabulary as we communicate amongst ourselves and to customers. One of the International Detailing Association’s Certified Detailer Program exams focuses on important terms that are used by the professionals in our industry. This will be the subject of this month’s column.

As we have studied the IDA exams through the last couple of years, we have simultaneously established many common detailing terms while communicating the subject matter of each exam. With diligence, it would be possible to fill the entire editorial content of this magazine with an all-inclusive glossary of detailing terms. Nonetheless, for this go-round, I’m just going to worry about the detailing terms that the IDA-CD exam taker is supposed to know.


In detailing, we have several options for equipment used to apply corrective or protective chemicals to the painted surfaces of the vehicle. Part of the confusion comes from the fact that we use two terms interchangeably to describe our paint tools — polisher and buffer. If you look in the dictionary, a “polisher” is defined as “a device that uses friction to make a surface smooth and glossy,” and a “buffer” is defined as “a device for polishing or buffing,” and “buffing” is defined as “cleaning or polishing.”

So an argument about whether a particular device is a “polisher” or a “buffer” can become quite circular. The more important question becomes “what exactly is the motion of the device and its impact on the vehicle surface?”

For example, what we commonly refer to as a high-speed polisher or buffer is definitely a mechanical polishing tool. It is typically used by detailers to correct imperfections in the paint surface. It does this using a simple rotary motion on a fixed axis. This is in contrast to a dual-action (D-A) polisher, which spins in a rotary motion while simultaneously oscillating about the center of that rotation. The D-A polisher is also used for correcting imperfections in the paint but can be used as a wax application tool as well.

Another common mechanical buffing tool is the orbital polisher, which creates a random elliptical motion about the center of the polishing head, thus simulating circular hand motion. This motion makes it the choice of many detailers for applying wax, although it can be effectively used to remove minor paint imperfections.

Regardless of your choice of polishing tool, you will need some kind of pad that makes actual contact with the paint surface. The most common type of pad used in conjunction with a polisher or buffer these days is a foam pad. There are many choices when it comes to this round foam disk. The choice of size, design, and texture of the pad will depend on the needed impact on the paint surface.


I suppose the main equipment for interior detailing can be narrowed down to vacuums, air compressors, extractors, and dry vapor steam machines.

All of us know what a vacuum is, what it is used for, and how important it is to the detailing process. Some of us also like to use a compressor and air hose to blow out the debris from the various hiding places inside the car. When it comes to cleaning carpet and upholstery, we have a couple of choices of equipment to help us get the job done faster.

The committee that first wrote the IDA exams decided to focus on the difference between hot water extraction and dry vapor steam. Although the two are very different forms of cleaning, the terms associated with the machines are often interchanged. For example, it is not uncommon to see a detailer advertising “steam cleaning of carpets” when, in fact, the operator is only using an extractor.

The important difference to understand is that a hot water extractor produces hot water, anywhere from 180-200 degrees Fahrenheit. Yes, the water may have some steam coming off of it, but it is not steam. The dry vapor steam machine, on the other hand, produces true steam that has very little moisture, hence the name “dry vapor.”

Further, most detail operations have an extractor as one of their main pieces of detailing equipment. This device, which is great for cleaning carpets and fabric seats, is a self-contained machine that includes a pump to deliver cleaning solution or rinse water to the surface being cleaned, a vacuum to remove the water and dirt from the surface, and often a heater to heat that water to near boiling temperature.

The extractor performs these duties using a specialized nozzle that applies the cleaning solution in a fan spray pattern and removes the moisture and dirt with concentrated vacuum action. The hot-water extractor is the choice of professionals for cleaning heavily soiled carpets and fabric seats.

Another interior detailing tool that is winning increasing favor among detailing professionals is the dry vapor steam machine. This device generates super-hot vaporized water. If you understand the “law of mass cleaning,” then you know that heat can be a great ally in the removal of grime and stains from interior surfaces. The steam machine can be used to clean multiple interior surfaces, including lightly soiled carpeting and fabric seats, leather seats, headliners, and vinyl and plastic panels (carefully).

Because the steam is so hot, it is possible to clean without the use of chemicals, which is a great benefit for those operators offering “chemical-free” cleaning for chemical-sensitive customers. However, most operators who use steam find that a light application of the appropriate chemical aids in the cleaning effectiveness of the steam machine.


Last year, we spent two full columns discussing detailing chemicals. For the terminology exam, there are two important items to discuss.

First, remember that it is important to have an MSDS for every chemical that you use in your operation. MSDS is an abbreviation for “Material Safety Data Sheet,” which is a standardized sheet that systematically describes the ingredients and hazards associated with a chemical. By law, the MSDS must be made available for all employees in your operation. And it’s a good idea to review the MSDS yourself — you will be surprised what you find out about chemicals that you might take for granted in your shop.

The second item to discuss is the concept of chemical concentration. Many of the cleaning chemicals that we use in a detail shop are shipped as a concentrate. These chemicals require dilution, usually with water, before they can be safely used. Concentrates are in contrast to “ready-to-use” chemicals, which are supplied in the proper dilution for immediate use.

Common examples of detailing chemicals that are typically offered in a concentrated form are glass cleaner, all-purpose cleaner, and carpet cleaning solution. The main purpose of supplying chemicals in concentrated form is to save on shipping and packaging costs; water is expensive to ship because it is heavy.

Do not, however, make the common mistake of assuming that a concentrated chemical works better than a properly diluted one. Using concentrated chemicals without proper dilution can be dangerous to the vehicle surfaces as well as the technician. Not to mention the waste of money — you will use up the chemical much faster if it is not properly diluted.


Well that wraps up the conversation about the detailing vocabulary that is included in the IDA Certification Examination on Detailing Terminology. We covered the correct names for the different kinds of buffers and polishers. We talked about the difference between hot water extraction and (true) steam cleaning. And we finished up with a brief overview of a couple of important terms associated with detailing chemicals.

In conversations with your co-workers, fellow detailers, suppliers, and customers, endeavor to utilize the terms as they are outlined herein. This will go a long way to standardizing the vocabulary across the country and world, so that when we assemble, for example at IDA functions at the various conventions, we can all speak the same language and reduce confusion.

The International Detailing Association offers its Certified Detailer program to both members and non-members. It is the only independent certification currently available to professional detailers. The program currently consists of 10 tests that assess the taker’s background knowledge of detailing. This month’s column is one in an on-again-off-again series that is designed to present a study guide for those interested in taking the tests. Get more information or sign up for the tests at


Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm.

To contact him, e-mail or call (619) 701-1100.