How To Select A Quality Detail Shop

The pressure gauge on the air compressor

It is far too common that the inexperienced go into business claiming the name of a “Detailer” while severely lacking many important experiences and knowledge to do things correctly and well. The detailing industry is littered with sub-par quality work and desperate people willing to say anything to get the business. As a consumer, it is important that you are well informed, so you can make the right decision.


“A Detailer is a Detailer”, right? Wrong. Do not simply trust that because someone says they do a service, they are actually qualified to do so. One of the biggest problems we’ve seen is not just simply that they do not clean well enough; but more importantly, many operate with practices that cause irreversible damage to surfaces.

Chemical Choice

For example, we most often see new “Detailers” using poor chemical choices, most notably the use of high-pH degreasers to clean. If you see that your detailer is using a dark colored purple liquid to clean everything, we strongly suggest finding someone else. In almost every case, dark purple cleaner, even amongst almost every brand, is an extremely aggressive degreaser. It is actually designed for extreme circumstances only, such as degreasing engine parts.

Not knowing anything about chemistry, they dilute the chemical with water and use it as an all purpose cleaner (APC). The problem with this choice is that the aggressiveness causes damage to anything it is in contact with. For example, leather (or synthetic leather) is coated with what is known as a ‘top-coat’ or ‘sealer’. This coating is a protective layer added to the dyed surface to help keep the dye or color on or in that surface. When you repair leather, you remove this coating so you can re-dye the surface. The wrong mixture of high-pH degreaser coupled with aggressive scrubbing will almost immediately remove this protective layer. While it can make things look a lot cleaner, the uninformed consumer is now left with completely exposed dyed surfaces that will not only lose color at an accelerated rate; but in extreme circumstances, will start to dye your clothes, permanently!

The other issue with this choice of chemical is that it has a tendency to cause ‘chemical burns’. When left on a surface for too long, you will start to see ‘drip lines’ or fading where the chemical was in contact. These are actually caused by the chemical physically altering the surface. Usually, after ‘burning’ the surfaces, they ‘slap’ on a bunch of greasy conditioners to mask the damage. As soon as the conditioner wears off, then the damaged condition is shown, which can be weeks after the initial detail.

The choice of chemicals is critical across the board. Even over-the-counter products have cheap fillers that deteriorate surfaces. Ever noticed if you regularly use Armor-All, after a while the surface looks faded and dull? This is by design, so you have to keep re-applying the product to make it look ‘shiny’. Proper conditioners do not leave a greasy shine, they infuse moisture and add a new-car style sheen. The really good ones, which we carry, even add UV protection to keep from sun damage.

Equipment Choice

The truth is, proper detailing equipment is very expensive. In many cases it is cost-prohibitive for a new “Detailer” and they have no choice but to come up with a sub-par alternative. A good example is a hot water extractor or carpet shampooer. A decent entry level machine usually starts at around $2000-$2500. It is very important to use a quality machine as the temperature needs to reach a certain level to deep clean and sanitize and the suction needs to be sufficient to remove the water used during cleaning. With cheap machines most carpets are left wet and in a condition that is perfect for creating mold and bacteria. We have seen an enormous amount of molded and mildew-smelling vehicles due to poor shampooing practices.

Another cheap approach is the use of foam shampoo. You can’t just spray foam on a spill and expect it to magically disappear. On certain lighter stains, foam can moderately clean the stain on the top surface, but it does not pull and shampoo the stain out of the deeper layers. Cheap foam shampoo is actually pretty aggressive chemically and if you use it on the wrong stain or the stain is not 100% gone before it dries, you are almost always left with a permanent dye transfer stain.

The list of proper equipment is extensive from high horse power vacuums to high flow air compressors. Without the right set-up, it is almost a guaranty that something will be missed or done improperly.

Technique & Education

Now even with the most ideal set-up, the “Detailer” is useless if they do not know how to use what and when, and in what order.  The same holds true if you were to step into an operating room, you may have everything you need; but do you know how to perform the surgery correctly?

There is a massive amount of education and practice required to be an expert in detailing. This is why we see so many new “Detail” shops failing each year. You really have to ‘hit the books’ and practice to get good at the trade.

Some of the key basics are: the understanding chemistry, knowing different models of vehicles and the composite of various surfaces, understanding how seats, carpets, leather and headliners (etc) are made and installed (as well as repaired), how electronics are installed and where the wires go, how a vehicle is painted and how a body shop operates. These are just some of the basics, and mastering the art of Detailing takes years of practice.

Questions to Ask a Detail Shop

To help you become a better consumer, consider asking the following questions when interviewing a ‘Detailer’

  • How long have you been in business?
  • Do you own an enclosed shop (controlled environment) or operate mobile?
  • Do you own a hot water extractor (how many stages does it have [needs 2 minimum])
  • Do you have an air compressor?
  • Do you have experience with removing carpets and seats?
  • Can you repair leather or dye upholstery?
  • Have you worked on this specific model of vehicle?
  • Do you have online ratings and pictures that can be reviewed?
  • Are you licensed and have insurance?

Now this short list may not guaranty you find the right place; but it certainly will help lead you to someone who is more experienced.

As always, if you have detailing questions, feel free to give us a call!

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