When conducting an interior detail on a vehicle, it is necessary to start by cleaning out the loose and removeable contents so that the cleaning work can take place in earnest.

An interior detail starts with a customer interview to determine expectations and a vehicle inspection to look for anything unusual. During the vehicle inspection, you should note any valuable items and ask the customer to take these with him or her, reducing your liability for losing or even being accused of losing an important item.

Speaking of which, I strongly recommend that before clients leave the car with you, ask if there is anything that they need to take with them. Provide customers with a verbal recitation of the following list: wallet, purse, cell phone, cell phone accessories, sunglasses, appointment book, gym bag, parking pass, and ID badge. This is a quick way to prevent unnecessary inconvenience to the customer. Of course, if the customer does forget something, you will score big points if you are ready and willing to deliver the forgotten item.


Before you can even get to work on the interior, you need to get rid of all the stuff that may or may not be in the car. Some customers “clean the house before the housekeeper gets there” and politely remove all of their belongings before bringing the car to you. This is not to say, however, that the customer is rude who brings in the vehicle fully loaded with their stuff; some people simply do not have the time to unload. If a customer asks me ahead of time, “should I empty out all my stuff?” I respond, “Yes, if you have time.” If they bring the car in still full, I do my best to keep them from feeling bad. “Hey, don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of it for you. It’s part of the job anyway.”

There are several steps in the interior detailing process. In keeping with the notion of performing detailing in a systematic fashion, I like to start each step in the same spot on the car, which, for me, is the front passenger compartment. From there, I go clockwise around the vehicle, one passenger compartment at a time, including the trunk or rear compartment.

Back at the front passenger compartment, I start with three items: a couple of gallon-size re-closeable plastic bags, a small garbage can, and a laundry basket or similar-sized crate of some sort. What you will end up with at the end of this detail step is one or more resealable bags with the small stuff and a crate full of larger stuff. At the end of the detail, the large stuff gets placed neatly into the trunk or rear compartment of the vehicle and the resealable bags are placed on the passenger seat.

My experience has been that most customers appreciate having all the “car junk” in one place so that they can sort through it and clean out the unnecessary items. Others never get around to it — I’ve had annual and semi-annual clients in whose cars I have found the same resealable bags that I filled the last time the car was detailed.

So, back to the process: I sit right down in the passenger seat with the plastic bags in hand and the garbage can and crate sitting next to me just outside the door. Grab the customer’s stuff from the center console area (pens, cell phone charger, coins) and place it in the resealable bag.

Check any center console pockets or bins — if it looks like they need to be cleaned, empty the contents into a bag. A nice touch is to label the contents of the resealable bag with the name of the location from which the contents came. Some customers carry a lot of stuff in their cars but have it well organized and deliberately stored in the various compartments of the vehicle. So later, when the job is done, you can either place the bags on the passenger seat, or, if they fit, back into the pocket where the stuff belongs.

Obvious trash gets thrown in the trashcan. If in doubt, save it. Let the customer make the decision. Larger items like books, blankets, umbrellas, et cetera, are placed in the crate. Basically, I am looking for anything that is not part of the vehicle that will get in the way of the interior detail, for example, beads or other items hanging off the rear-view mirror.

Now, as far as the glove box is concerned, I usually leave that alone, because most people keep “private” stuff in the glove box. (Nonetheless, the glove box must get cleared and cleaned for vehicles that are being prepped for sale. In this case, place the contents of the glove box in a resealable bag and label it “GLOVE BOX.”) Now, turn to the door and check the door pocket. Then, step out of the car and check the floor of the passenger area, removing large trash items and debris that is too big for the vacuum.

Once the front passenger area is done, move to the right rear passenger area and repeat the clean-out process. After that, move to the rear compartment (or trunk, as the case may be). Most people are fairly reasonable with the amount of stuff that they carry. However, you will find that a few customers have half of their household belongings in their trunk. Ideally, this was noted and discussed during the vehicle inspection. My experience has been that most customers who have a trunk filled to the brim are reasonable and suggest that it is not necessary for you to remove everything to clean the area. If the customer offers this compromise, take it! After all, vacuuming and cleaning a stuffed trunk is not going to make much difference since it will simply be filled up again with the same junk.

One important note about working on the interior of a vehicle: never reach into an area without first looking. 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 six to 12 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.


You may also want to remove some of the vehicle parts during this step. For example, ashtrays, removeable cup holders, and rubber tray liners can come out of the car and be sprayed with cleaner and allowed to soak for later wiping.

Additionally, this might be a good time to remove mats. Rubber or vinyl mats can be sprayed with cleaner and allowed to soak. Carpeted mats can be sprayed with carpet pre-spotter and scrubbed for later extraction.

You can also take out removable seats from mini-vans and SUVs, allowing greater ease-of-access during the remaining interior detailing steps. Of course, these items must be fully cleaned before returning them to the vehicle.


Once you have removed the customer’s belongings and obvious trash, you can start to clean the inside of the car in earnest. This begins with removing the three “D”s: excess Dust, Debris, and Dirt. Typically, this is done with a combination of three activities: dry-brushing the carpets, air purging, and vacuuming.

Dry-brushing of the carpets can be performed with a stiff-bristled brush. Many technicians are discovering the benefit of using a polisher with a brush head attached and many go so far as to purchase a second polisher that can be dedicated to this purpose.

The carpet brushing loosens dirt and sand from the carpets, allowing the vacuum to do a more effective job of removing this loose debris. This step will make the carpet extraction step easier and will result in less sand left behind after extraction.

Some technicians like to use compressed air to push loose debris and trash out from under seats and out of door pockets and other catchments. If you use air, you can blow the contents toward one area of the car and then use the vacuum to remove the collected debris.

The vacuum is the last step in the removal of the three “D”s. Invest in an industrial grade shop vacuum, which will provide you with superior efficiency and years of trouble-free service that a discount big-box store model simply can’t match. I recommend getting a unit that has a long vacuum hose — one that’s long enough so that you don’t have to move the base unit while you vacuum the entire vehicle. If your vacuum did not come with a long hose, invest in one separately.

You will find that the higher-end units have plenty of power yet are relatively quiet. The good units are quiet enough so that you can actually talk over the unit while it’s on — you can’t do that without shouting when using the traditional consumer shop-vac.

Along with the vacuum, you need a good set of attachments. There are three must-haves. 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 duster brush, which is a circular attachment with a ring of one-inch hogs hair bristles surrounding the intake hole, is 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 and into door pockets.

Another important tool for vacuuming is the detail brush or paintbrush. 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.

Note any valuable items and ask the customer to take these with him or her.Start again in the right front passenger compartment. Sit in the seat, and carefully run the upholstery brush across the headliner. (If the headliner is at all loose or sagging, leave it un-vacuumed.) Then work from top-to-bottom, vacuuming up the excess dust, debris, and dirt from the dash, center console, door panel, and between the seats. Then, step out of the car, turn around and vacuum under the seat, and the mat and carpeting. Move the seat to its extreme backmost and highest positions so that you can fully access under the seat. Use the combination of the detail brush and crevice tool to work in hard-to-reach areas like door pockets and cup holders.

Continue this vacuuming process in each passenger compartment, working clockwise from the right front passenger area all the way to the driver area. Remember, when working in the rear passenger compartments to lift movable seats so that you can get the debris that collects under them.


The idea behind the initial clean out of the vehicle is to get rid of the stuff that will get in the way of the next few detailing steps. This includes customer belongings, trash, and excess debris, dirt, and dust.


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 prentice@detailinprogress.com.