Recently, I provided training at several dealership detail operations. I have noticed that even at the newest, nicest detail shops, the technicians can benefit tremendously from some formal training in the process of detailing.

There are two reasons to have a solid detail process in place. The first is to increase efficiency, which is the speed at which the process is performed. Efficiency is obviously a very important factor at a high-volume dealership, where it may be necessary to process a few dozen vehicles per day.

The second reason to have a good detail process is effectiveness, which is a measure of how well the job is done, or the final result. The dealerships for which I have provided training have often been very demanding of the detail shop to produce vehicles that look as new as possible. Some of the sales and service managers can be quite picky and could easily have a full-time job as a “detail shop quality inspector.”

The best way to produce increased efficiency and effectiveness is to build it into the detailing system by utilizing excellent equipment, tools, chemicals, and processes. That’s where the professional training and consulting come in.

Sometimes the detail team just “doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.” The detail manager at one recent training event took me aside after the second day of training and admitted, “I am quite frankly embarrassed about the way we used to detail cars.” The used-car sales manager at the same location reportedly had this to say about the first few cars that were produced by the new detail system, “Now that’s how they are supposed to look!”

Does it pay to invest in an expert to come in and train and properly equip the detail center? The answer should be quite simple if the training can yield as much as a 50 percent cut in per-vehicle time while simultaneously producing superior results.

At these training events, if the dealer principals are willing, I work on all aspects of the detail process.


First, there is the prep wash. It is all too easy to de-emphasize the importance of the prep wash — “you’re just getting the mud off, right?” This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

A complete prep wash can include many steps and several parts of the vehicle.

Typically at a dealership, the prep wash includes a degreasing rinse of the engine bay. Using the correct chemical, the correct detail brushes, and a high-efficiency rinsing pattern will cut down the time spent degreasing the engine as well as make it look better when done. The prep wash bay is also a good place to rinse out doorjambs as well as rinse off rubber mats. Additionally, if the carpeted mats are extensively soiled, you might as well blast them with the pressure washer.

Moreover, it’s easier to remove bugs and tar in the prep wash bay. You may also want to perform your surface-contamination-removal procedure in the prep wash bay. Whether you are using detailer’s clay, a clay sponge, or any of the newer polymerized rubber appliances, the wash bay is a great place to perform standard contamination removal. Such “contamination” includes paint overspray, environmental fallout, and iron oxide deposits sometimes called rail dust. The car is wet and you have an endless supply of soapy wash solution for lubrication of the claying appliance.

Indeed, a properly performed prep wash reduces the amount of time spent later in the detail bay.

A team of two properly trained prep wash technicians, working with high-quality equipment, chemicals, and supplies, should be able to achieve an average process time of 10 minutes per vehicle. Of course, this average will vary with the size and condition of the vehicles coming in. But there are many tricks and tips that can help decrease the prep wash time and increase the quality of the output. The higher the quality of the prep wash output, the less time the detail technicians will have to spend finishing the vehicle.

Using treated water (de-ionized or reverse osmosis) allows the great timesaving advantage of eliminating the need to physically dry the vehicle. Instead, the vehicle can be pulled from the wash bay directly into the detail bay and allowed to air-dry while the interior is processed. Nonetheless, it may be a good idea to spend just a couple of minutes to “blow-out” the cracks and crevices of all the trapped water, but no hand drying with chamois or towels is necessary.


The interior detail can benefit tremendously from a few simple tools, as well as a well-followed process that gets the job done fast and well. The guys at this detail shop really liked the detail brushes that I showed them how to use, as well as the order of the steps in the interior detail. Also, I showed them rules of motion (e.g., work from top-to-bottom and inside-out) that produce more efficient work and reduce the potential for missing spots.

Another problem at one particular location was getting spots and moldy smell out of carpeting and mats. They were spending tons of money on aerosol spot-cleaners and mold killers with only moderate results. So they were provided with powerful hot-water extraction equipment that was far superior to the broken-down, old equipment that they were previously using. I also provided them with a way to machine-scrub the carpeting, which, in conjunction with an excellent carpet pre-spotting chemical, allowed for super-deep cleaning of the carpets without a ton of physical scrubbing.

Once the carpets were pre-spotted and machine-scrubbed, the powerful hot-water extractor, with its 200-degree water, was able to thoroughly rinse and pull all the soil and chemical out of the carpeting, leaving most cars completely spot-free and smelling great. The technicians loved the new carpet-cleaning system for two reasons. First, it was easier to use, requiring less physical effort and causing less fatigue. Second, it produced great results, which keeps up morale among the technicians.

This is an important general point for any detail operation. Your technicians will be fatigued, frustrated, and generally produce inferior results if they are provided with only mediocre equipment and chemicals. On the other hand, if they are provided with machines and chemicals that really work and make the job easier, you are likely to have happier technicians. Managers and owners, remember the last time you were trying to get something done quickly with equipment that doesn’t work well (a la the fax machine in the movie Office Space)? Frustrating, wasn’t it? Don’t put your detail technicians through the same frustration on a daily and hourly basis — give them equipment and chemicals that work. They will be happier and you will be happier with the results.


The exterior detail can similarly benefit from the use of good quality equipment and some highly efficient procedures. If paint correction and perfection is an important component of your operation, make sure that all the detail technicians are properly trained and equipped to provide the services. If you are relying on one or two “buffing techs” to do all the paint correction in a multi-bay shop, you have a bottleneck.

With the advent of modern buffing technology with newer machines, pads, and chemicals that can effectively remove paint imperfections without the fear of burning or swirling, there are no more excuses — everyone in the shop should be able to buff.

Similarly, if your technicians are applying wax or sealant by hand, they are wasting time and chemical. There are a number of polishing machines that imitate hand motion while applying a thinner, more even layer of protection while using less product. This layer is also easier to remove than hand-applied product, thus also saving time.

A final inspection is critical for ensuring quality. No detailer is perfect. Even I miss stuff from time to time. It’s good to take the car outside in the sun for the final inspection. This is best performed by the detail or shop manager. If you are using detail carts (highly recommended), have the detail technicians roll the cart out to where the car is so that they have access to all the touch-up towels, brushes, and chemicals they will need to finish up the final details.

Even with the most powerful and hottest extractors available, the vehicle interior may still be damp, especially if cloth seats were cleaned.

To completely dry out the vehicle interior, run the car with the heater and fan on full blast, and also turn on the air conditioner, as this acts like a de-humidifier to remove moisture from the inside of the car. If you just use heat and turn on the re-circulating button, you’re just turning the inside of the car into a sauna.


All detail operations can benefit from process improvement. Process includes technique, rules of motion, as well as choice of equipment and chemicals. In a high-production environment such as a dealership recon department, effective process is especially critical for best results.

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.