Most professional detailers would agree that there is a set of staple equipment and tools that are used to provide quality detailing results. These would include a shop vacuum, polisher, brushes, buckets, hose, towels, and applicators. Depending on the level of sophistication and previous experience, some detailers would include other equipment as “required” for a professional operation.

In this month’s column, I would like to discuss the importance of the use of equipment in the professional detail process. We will explore the reason why equipment helps the detail process. We will also look at some of the equipment that many experts deem as essential, as well as some equipment that is more specialized but increasingly recommended.


I remember back in the early days of my detailing career, when it was simply an avocation performed on weekends for friends and family, I bragged to new potential customers that “I do everything by hand.” Some customers were actually (ignorantly) impressed. But I also remember that these detail jobs took all day. It was not unusual to work on a car for eight hours and gross well under $100. That’s okay for an avocation (definition: a hobby that earns money), but not for a living.

Now, I must add that my customers were always very happy with my work. I was able to produce great results with slow and inefficient, yet thorough techniques. The car looked good, but was it really clean? I did not own an extractor, so seats and carpets were only vacuumed. I did not know about clay, so paint surfaces were left with gritty fallout.

The point of sharing this story with you is to acknowledge that it is possible to delight customers without all of the latest, fanciest equipment. However, if you are in this business to make a professional living, you need to be able to produce excellent results in a fast-paced manner. For example, I can now perform a detail in about half the time with better results than the early days. That is because of all the great equipment that I now have.

That being said, the purpose of having equipment for detailing (or for any job, for that matter), is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the job. By improving efficiency, we get the job done faster. Most equipment will help you improve the speed by which the job is completed. For example, using a random-orbit polisher will help you apply wax much faster than applying it by hand. And since the wax coating is thinner using a polisher, the wax residue wipes off easier, saving more time.

By improving effectiveness, we get the job done better. Most equipment will also help you improve the results of your work. Continuing with the example above, applying wax with a random-orbit polisher will leave a more even coat of wax than if applied by hand, yielding better protection for the painted panels of the vehicle.

In some cases, use of a machine might increase the time it takes to complete a particular task. Nonetheless, this is usually balanced by a significant increase in effectiveness or final results. For example, carpets can be cleaned by misting with carpet cleaner and wiping with a towel. This process might take just a few minutes. Using a hot-water extractor, on the other hand, will require extra time to set up the machine and use it properly. However, the extractor will deep clean the carpeting and, when used properly, leave no chemical residue behind. The spray-and-wipe method leaves chemical residue that attracts dirt to the carpeting in a matter of days.


Let’s discuss some of the equipment that many consider to be essential to a professional detail operation. There are some of you reading this whose feathers will be ruffled by the mere mention that something is not “absolutely essential.” This is a good thing and indicates that you are trying to perform high-quality details in an efficient manner, using the best equipment possible.

First of all, how do we wash the car? The conventional wisdom is that this must be done with a pressure washer. This is certainly true for the fixed location. However, there are situations in which a pressure washer is not absolutely essential. In some mobile situations, the increasing attention to the

restrictions against water run-off prescribes a low-pressure/low-water wash system, especially for operations that are set up in parking garages.

I believe that removal of paint-surface contamination (e.g., fallout or rail dust) is an essential part of a professional detailing service. Applying wax to a car that has not been clayed is like waxing a kitchen floor without first sweeping it free of dust and dirt — without claying first, you are simply applying wax onto the dirt and debris. In the old days, detailer’s clay was the only choice for this. Now we have other options like “surface prep” towels, mitts, sponges, and pads for use with orbital polishers. Whichever surface contamination system you prefer, it should be on the list of “essential.”

Applying wax by hand is about as smart as applying floor wax to the kitchen floor on your hands and knees. Most professionals agree that wax can and should be applied with a random-orbit polisher, which imitates hand motion. There are several choices of orbital machines, and your choice will be based mostly on personal preference. There are some special situations in which using a machine to apply wax is not advised, for example, when working on a classic or collector vehicle. Occasionally, a customer will insist that no polishers be used. In these cases, I gladly oblige the customer but charge extra for the extra time it will take to complete the job.

Let’s move to the inside of the car. Without a doubt, a vacuum is essential to remove the loose dirt, dust, and debris from the inside of the car. Unless you plan on picking up the individual pieces of dirt by hand, there is simply no way to get this job done without the equipment. Likewise, a hot-water extractor is pretty much standard equipment nowadays for cleaning carpets and mats (although it is possible to clean lightly soiled carpets with a steamer — see below).


Now let’s talk about some pieces of equipment that have a more specialized purpose. Some will say, “Ah, that’s not necessary,” while others realize that these items are becoming increasingly standard in the professional detailing community. Here are some examples:

Odor Neutralizing System

The purpose of such a device is to eliminate odors that do not go away with normal interior detailing. There are a few options available to the professional detailer, including ozone generators and fogging machines that coat the inside of the vehicle with odor-killing agents.

A device like this is all but essential for removing tobacco smoke, pet odors, and vomit. For minor odor problems, one can avoid this equipment by using one of the many available odor neutralizing chemical sprays.


Dry Vapor Steamer

An industrial-grade unit, putting out “dry” steam at over 300 degrees Fahrenheit, is fantastic for cleaning several surfaces inside the vehicle, including fabric and leather seats, lightly soiled carpeting, and steering wheels. It does not leave carpet and fabric wet like an extractor does. It’s also great for removing gum, melted candy, crayon, and adhesive.


Polisher/Buffer for Paint Correction

To correct imperfections in the paint, it is necessary to polish the surface and remove a minute portion of the paint surface. This can be done by hand, but takes forever with marginal and uneven results. The standard for decades has been the simple rotary or high-speed polisher/buffer. There are, of course, potential problems with use of a high-speed machine, including the introduction of swirl marks and the possibility of burning or damaging the paint.

Newer polisher technologies exist such as “forced-rotation” machines that have similar paint correction power to that of the rotary buffer with far less potential of causing damage. Standard random-orbit or dual-action polishers can do some polishing, but for heavy paint correction, most professionals find it necessary to have a couple of types of polisher/buffer machines in their toolkit. With proper training, these tools can help the professional yield excellent results as well as generate great profits.

It is possible to make a car look great without an ozone generator, steamer, or high-speed polisher. Nonetheless, you can obtain even better results with the use of these items, as well as providing specialized services that command a hefty price. Increasing your detailing capability, with proper marketing, will increase your profit potential, as well as your image in the community as the expert for all things auto appearance.


The purpose of using equipment in the detailing process is to increase your speed and improve your results. You don’t have to have every piece of equipment mentioned here to do a good job, but each time you add equipment to your inventory, you increase your capabilities, increase your efficiency, and increase your profit potential. When making decisions about equipment purchases, either during the initial outfitting of your new detail business, or when you are ready to improve the capability of your existing operation, it is wise to consult with your trusted colleagues in the industry and perhaps with an independent (i.e., not associated with a specific retailer) consultant who can help you with your equipment purchase decisions.


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.