In the February column, I began discussing equipment used by professional detailers. The column covered equipment used during the prep wash, specifically the option of pressure washing versus standard garden hose. This was followed by the important topic of wastewater collection.

(The International Detailing Association offers its Certified Detailer program to both members of the Association as well as non-members. The program currently consists of 10 exams 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 who are interested in taking the tests. Get more information or sign up for the tests at

Next, we covered detailer’s clay or, alternatively, clay towels/mitts/pads. Then, traditional polishing tools were covered, like simple rotary (or “high-speed”) polishers and short-throw dual-action polishers.


A new class of random-orbit polisher has since come along. These machines still spin, but also boast an oscillating motion that travels much farther back-and-forth than traditional machines, yielding greater cutting and polishing effect on the paint. This amount of travel of the machine head is called “throw.” (You can see it if you turn the machine upside-down on a table and watch the head move as the trigger is activated.) Traditional dual-action polishers may have a throw of up to only 1⁄4 inch, whereas modern “long-throw” or “high-action” dual-action machines may have a throw of as much as one full inch.

Many who are new to machine polishing find that learning how to use these types of polishers is relatively easy, and the potential for damaging vehicle paint is minimized. However, one issue with free-spinning long-throw dual-action polishers is that the spinning motion can get bogged down under certain circumstances, thus reducing the overall effectiveness of the tool.

To combat this, some prefer to use another newer breed of polisher, the forced-rotation or gear-driven polisher. The head of this type of machine does not free-spin, but instead rotates in an elliptical fashion as it turns. And because this machine uses off-set gears instead of a spinning shaft, the motion of the head cannot be bogged down by using pressure or tilting the pad on the surface. These facts allow the gear-driven polisher to provide somewhat heavier action on the paint surface than other dual-action machines.

Choice of machine to use is mostly personal preference. Generally speaking, modern detailers shy away from simple rotary machines (except, perhaps, in body shop situations) in favor of the modern polishing technology mentioned above. Those who perform extensive paint correction activities will typically own both a long-throw machine and a gear-driven machine. The newer high-action and gear-driven machines typically support five- or six-inch pads, however, smaller versions are available that support three-, two-, and one-inch pads for tighter areas on the vehicle.


Regardless of one’s choice in polishers, there are numerous types of pads to choose from. (Another variable is the chemical to be used, but we’ll save that potentially lengthy discussion for another month.)

In general, three main categories of pads are available, wool, foam (cutting and finishing), and microfiber. Rely on the pad description provided by the manufacturer, not the color of the pad, to determine the purpose of the pad. Foam pads come in two forms, closed cell and open cell.

Closed cell foams have trapped gas bubbles inside the foam that form during the foam’s expansion and cure. These gas bubbles are permanently locked into place during the curing of the foam. Closed cell foams tend to prevent heat transfer because they are more insulating. They tend to be stronger and less flexible and also resist liquid and chemical absorption.

Open cell foams have “holes” in their walls, so trapped gas bubbles do not form during curing of the foam. The open foam bubbles then interlock and interconnect, creating spaces within the cells that are filled with atmospheric air, much like a sponge. Due to its porous nature, open cell foam will absorb liquids. Open cell foams tend to be not as strong as closed cell forms, but are less dense and thus more flexible.

Wool pads come in two basic forms: twisted and knitted. Twisted wool pads are the ones that look like hundreds of pieces of yarn glued together. They are traditionally used for heavy cutting or compounding for only the worst paint conditions or in the body shop after wet-sanding fresh paint. Knitted wool pads are much softer, consisting of individual wool fibers sewed onto the backing material. Unlike traditional twisted wool pads, the use of which typically must be followed by one or more polishing steps to remove the resulting technical scratches, knitted wool pads can be used for cutting and polishing, depending on the type of paint and the chemical used.

Microfiber pads are simply another option for paint correction. Some claim that microfiber performs better than foam pads, while others claim they can quickly become clogged with material. Really, the choice of using microfiber versus foam is one of personal preference.

When performing paint correction on an entire vehicle, it is better to have too many pads than not enough. Pad material can get overheated during heavy use, and it is recommended to alternate between two or three of the same kind of pad in this case. When compounding or polishing on a vehicle, clean the pad at least once per panel. On larger panels — like hoods — you may need to clean the pad several times while working on that area. Any time the pad gums up with chemical, it starts spitting chemical, or it takes too long to get results in the polishing area, clean the pad and re-apply fresh chemical. use a pad-cleaning brush or dedicated stiff-bristled nylon brush while spinning the pad on the machine, holding the back of the machine on your knee.


The interior detail begins with removing the loose dirt, dust, debris, and trash through the use of compressed air and vacuuming. Some operators use a compressor for blowing out debris from under the seats. Although this is an optional piece of equipment, a vacuum is not. I recommend using one that has a long hose (25’-50’), or buying a hose extension, so that the technician does not have to keep moving the vacuum around the car.

Good vacuum attachments also make the job much easier and more effective. I recommend a crevice tool (for between the seats, etc.), a duster brush (for the dash and door panels), and an upholstery brush (for fabric seats and the carpeting).

At some point in your detail process, those fabric seats and the carpeting will have to be cleaned. The old combination of a bucket of soapy water, a brush, and a wet-dry vacuum is just not acceptable anymore. This combination doesn’t clean well and leaves the carpets wet with soap, water, and leftover dirt. Any detailer that calls him or herself a professional utilizes, instead, a hot water extractor or dry vapor steamer.

A hot water extractor includes a device that has a special nozzle head that combines the capability to spray hot water and suck it out with a highly focused vacuum head. It is essentially a great way to rinse out dirt and chemicals from carpets. To clean them, carpet cleaner is first sprayed on the carpet and then agitated with a brush, or better yet, a random-orbit/dual-action polisher fitted with a scrubbing brush head. This technique of “spray, agitate, and rinse” with the proper equipment will leave the carpets looking and smelling fresh.

A high-quality extractor will have enough power to deliver hot water and good suction, thus minimizing the remaining water content in the cleaned carpets. Nonetheless, even the most powerful extractor will leave some dampness behind. As such, once the carpets and fabric seats are clean, they must be dried. For this, there are a number of air movers of various designs and levels of power. In combination with the heater/AC in the car, air movers can dry out the cleaned carpets

Special note: using a hot water extractor on headliner material is not recommended. The injection of the hot water may loosen the adhesive that attaches the headliner material to the backing. If that doesn’t cause a problem, then the powerful suction of the extractor vacuum head just might.

Another option for cleaning carpets and fabric seats is the dry vapor steam machine, which delivers actual steam (not hot water), which is a very powerful cleaning agent with minimal water content. Carpets that have been cleaned with a steam machine can typically air dry in minutes whereas those cleaned with a hot water extractor may require up to an hour or more to air dry completely. It is recommended to use only distilled, de-ionized, or reverse-osmosis water in a steam machine to reduce calcium buildup.


The first consideration for the mobile operator is a source of power and water. If you cannot rely on a source of electricity at the site of your appointments, you must bring your own by having a gas-powered generator on your rig. There are many options when it comes to generators. Two of the main factors to consider is total wattage of the unit and noise.

The generator you choose will need to be able to power the devices that are running simultaneously while you detail cars. So, considering the equipment that we have already discussed, the generator must be able to run your vacuum, your extractor, and your polishers.

For example, if you have multiple technicians working on multiple vehicles using these devices at the same time, then your generator must be able to produce enough power to support the total wattage and amperage of all the devices that are running at the same time. On the other hand, if you are a one- or two-person show, you may be able to get by with a less powerful generator that is just strong enough to handle the tool that takes the most power — probably a heated extractor.

The other consideration in purchasing a generator is the amount of noise it gives off. Powerful generators are available at relatively reasonable prices, but these are typically quite noisy during operation. For the comfort of those who might be impacted by the noise of your mobile operation, you might consider investing the extra money into one of the many generator models that are designed to run quietly. This will be more comfortable for you as well — there is the very real consideration of “noise fatigue.”

The same discussion can be had regarding your supply of water. If you do not expect to be able to use water at the job site, then you must consider bringing water with you. This will typically require a water tank as well as a way to pump the water. The size of the tank will depend on the number of vehicles you expect to process during a typical day, as well as the flow output of your washing devices (e.g., pressure washer).

Finally, as mentioned in last month’s column, you will need to be able to collect the wastewater from your mobile operation.

This typically involves using a wash mat, a pump, and a “dirty water” recovery tank.


Maintenance of the equipment is as important as having the equipment in the first place. It does not do you much good if your equipment breaks down in the middle of a job due to lack of preventative maintenance.

Equipment comes with owner’s manuals that describe preventative maintenance procedures. Take the time to read these directions and follow them religiously so that you are less likely to find your operation at a stand-still while everyone stands around the broken-down machine scratching their heads.

Some of these maintenance procedures do not happen until after hundreds of hours of use. For example, gas-powered generators will need oil changes and tune-ups, pressure washers will need new fittings and seals, and polishers will need new motor brushes. Other maintenance routines are more often.

For example, a vacuum canister should be cleaned out weekly if not daily. The hot water extractor will also have daily cleaning for the tanks and vacuum hose, as well as less frequent but still necessary flushing of the clean water supply with manufacturer-recommended de-calcifying agents. A steam machine will also require occasional flushing with calcium-removing agents.


Equipment is important to have in the professional detailing operation. Each piece of equipment lends in its own way to the efficiency and effectiveness of the detail performance. And each piece requires maintenance to help ensure trouble-free reliability for years to come.

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