There is a noticeable change in the attitude that some professional detailers have toward detailing the interior of vehicles. Many are finally coming to realize how much effort and time it can take to properly clean and condition a vehicle interior. This causes some of those professionals to virtually abandon interior detailing in favor of the profit margins afforded by paint correction and ceramic coating application.

Others are significantly increasing the amount they charge for interior detailing. Regardless of which approach you may decide to take, I recommend every professional detailer take a close look at interior detailing packages and whether you are really getting paid properly for the effort.


One way to reduce the costs involved in interior detailing is to increase efficiency, which requires taking a systematic approach, following a regimented step-by-step process to obtain the best results in the least amount of time.

The standard interior detailing process generally includes these steps:
1. Remove customer belongings
2. Vacuum and air purge
3. Check headliner
4. Clean vinyl and plastic panels
5. Clean seats
6. Clean carpets
7. Dress vinyl and plastic panels
8. Condition leather
9. Clean interior glass
10. Apply fabric protection if requested
11. Deodorize as necessary
12. Return customer belongings


Before you can even get to work on the interior, you need to get rid of all of the stuff in the car that’s in your way. As you make your way through the car, have three items ready during the vehicle clean-out: a couple of gallon-size re-closeable plastic bags for small stuff, a small garbage can for trash, and a box or crate of some sort for the larger items. Obvious trash gets thrown away. If in doubt, save it! Let the customer make the decision.

You may want to have a re-closeable bag for each pocket in the vehicle, and you can label each bag with the location from which the contents came. You may also want to ask the customer before starting if you should bother with the glove box or the center console. At the end of the detail, the large stuff gets placed neatly into the trunk or rear compartment of the vehicle and the re-closeable bags can be placed on the passenger seat.

One important note about working on the interior of a vehicle — never reach into an area without looking first. You never know what people have in their cars. I have heard stories about detailing technicians getting poked by syringes or cut by razors while reaching underneath a seat or into a seat pocket. If this happens, you are faced with several months of nervous waiting for the test results to make sure you did not pick up a serious disease from such exposure. Yes, it is highly unlikely that this will happen to any of us, but a couple of simple precautions will make sure it never happens: wear gloves while you work and check all areas with a flashlight before reaching in.

During this step, you may want to remove the floor mats and clean them. If they are rubber or vinyl mats, they can be cleaned with your favorite all-purpose cleaner and a scrub brush, and then rinsed.

Heavily soiled carpeted mats can be pre-rinsed with a pressure washer (but never use a pressure washer inside the vehicle!). A hot-water extractor is then the best way to clean soiled carpet mats. A dry vapor steam machine will do the trick for lightly soiled mats.

The nice thing about cleaning floor mats at this early stage of the interior detail process is that they can be set aside to dry. The sun is a great way to dry carpets for free. If the sun is not available, use an air mover or hang the mats in the shop.


The next step is to remove excess dirt and dust. This is typically done with a combination of compressed air and vacuuming. The compressed air will blow out debris from pockets and under the seats. The vacuum will remove the loose debris that remains.

Some carpets require “dry brushing” prior to vacuuming to loosen sand and soil. This can be performed by hand with a stiff-bristled scrub brush or with a brush attachment on your favorite dual-action polisher or even a cordless drill.

Along with the vacuum, you need a good set of attachments. There are four such tools that will help during vacuuming: upholstery brush, duster brush, crevice tool, and a detail brush with soft bristles. The upholstery brush, which is a four- to six-inch wide attachment with bristles around the opening, is designed for vacuuming the seats and the carpeting. The upholstery brush can perform the dry brushing for you while you vacuum.

Another useful attachment is the duster brush, which is a circular attachment with a ring of one-inch hog’s-hair bristles surrounding the intake hole, designed for “dusting” surfaces in the car like the dashboard, center console, and door panels. The bristles help to loosen dust from nooks and crannies as you gently run the attachment across the contoured surfaces. Finally, the crevice tool, which is the long, thin “wand,” can be used to reach in between and under seats, into door pockets, and any other place where the other tools won’t fit.

Another important tool for vacuuming is the detail brush or paint brush. You can use this to loosen dust from air vents while holding the crevice tool next to it to suck up the particles as they come loose.


Anyone who has had a negative experience with cloth or fabric headliner material knows that they can be tricky. Fortunately, headliners typically only need spot-cleaning. Always try the vacuum hose fitted with an upholstery brush first as many surface stains, dust, and smudges will be reduced dramatically with this simple technique. If the soil won’t come off, gently wipe the area with a microfiber that has been moistened with a mild interior cleaner.

It may be tempting to use a hot-water extractor, but this is a big no-no. The hot water shooting into the material might loosen the adhesive that is holding the fabric onto its backing material. If that doesn’t happen, then surely the suction of the extractor nozzle can separate the fabric. This can cause wrinkles in the material or cause it to sag from the ceiling of the car. The same goes with steam.

In general, most professionals agree that it is not a good idea to spray anything into the headliner.


Now it is time to begin cleaning the various surfaces inside the vehicle. We’ve typically got leather, vinyl, plastic, fabric, carpet, and glass to deal with. I like to work on the plastic and vinyl panels immediately after vacuuming. This typically includes the dash, door panels, center console, and other various cover and trim panels inside the car. My logic for taking care of these panels next is this: As I clean these panels, I don’t have to worry about drips of cleaner falling onto the seats and carpeting, or overspray on the windows, and I can sit on the still-dirty seats as I work on the dash and center console. Of course, the carpeting, seats, and windows will get cleaned later.

Cleaning the vinyl and plastic panels is quite simple. The basic process consists of applying a cleaner that is safe to use on these surfaces. Many detail chemical manufacturers offer “interior surface cleaners” that have the correct pH and active ingredients that will not damage plastic, vinyl, or leather. Do not use degreasers or heavy-duty cleaners on the interior surfaces, as these have a higher pH and ingredients that can actually damage, discolor, or stain such surfaces, even if highly diluted.

Some professionals warn against spraying cleaners directly onto plastic and vinyl surfaces, concerned that it might streak or discolor the area before being wiped off. This is certainly true when working in high temperatures or using a stronger cleaner. However, with modern cleaners designed specifically for these surfaces, we don’t typically have any issues. Nonetheless, to be completely safe, it may be wise to spray your scrubbing device with the cleaner instead of directly onto the surface.

Apply cleaner to the surface, then agitate gently with an appropriate soft-bristled brush or other scrubbing device, then wipe away the dirt and cleaner residue with a microfiber towel that is dedicated for interior surface use. I also carry a few different types of smaller detailing brushes so that I can get into some of the tighter areas and nooks and crannies of the center console and door panels. A gentle scrubbing pad can be used for tougher stains like shoe scuffs. And the last resort is the melamine sponge, which must be used gently, as it actually micro-sands the surface.

Work each area from top-to-bottom and from the middle of the vehicle toward the outside. The panels that should be cleaned include: vinyl headliners, plastic visors, the steering wheel, the “A” pillar, center console including cup holders, panels lining the foot wells, the door panels, the “B” pillar, the sides and backs of leather seats if upholstered in vinyl, as well as panels of the rear compartments of SUVs and mini-vans.

Some technicians prefer to use a steam cleaner on areas like door panels, misting the area so as to loosen dirt and soil, then wiping it away with a microfiber. An added bonus of using steam is that it sanitizes and kills germs on contact. But caution must be used with steam; always use it on the lowest settings on plastic and vinyl panels. Also be aware an intense shot of steam can “blanch” or whiten some vinyl panels. Moreover, care must be taken when using steam (or any liquid) around electronic controls in the center console, the instrument cluster, and controls on the door panels.


Well, with interior detailing, there is a lot of material (pun noted) to cover. Cleaning and protecting the interior of a vehicle requires expertise in the treatment of several types of surfaces. So, this subject will be continued in an upcoming month.

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