How Owning a Beat-Up Car Made Me a Better Detailer
I am not a religious man, but I do believe the car gods are a vengeful bunch, and that crimes against them rarely go unpunished. I make regular sacrifices to them, and while I may not worship in the temple that is my garage quite as often as I’d like, I’ve dedicated countless weekends over the years to learning the automotive liturgy.
Seeing an otherwise clean car sport the tell-tale signs of incompetent detailing pains me. There exists, surely, a special circle in hell reserved for anyone who ruins a perfectly good paint job through sheer lack of effort. I’m not talking about someone thoroughly neglecting an otherwise pristine car—that’s a different crime, to be certain. Rather, I’m referring to someone who takes either a brand new or else freshly restored car and dives into a “detailing” session with nothing but temerity and a box of goodies from the local Pep Boys.
That said, I’m not what you’d call a detailing snob, and I don’t believe you have to have the absolute best products to get a result so shiny that it alerts every bird within a three mile radius. I rarely buy over-the-counter products, but neither do I pay illicit narcotics prices for pure uncut Carnauba. While I’m hardly a professional either, friends have paid substantial sums for me to detail their vehicles. As with most hobby-level detailers, I’m entirely self-taught, save for occasional words of wisdom from various strangers on the internet. I’ve done nothing special other than pay my dues.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you need an academic approach to your hands-on experience. If you want your car to look its best, regardless of how perfect it may or may not be, you must commit to the time and effort it takes to learn the science-art hybrid that is detailing.
And, crucially, you need to buy a beater.
There’s little reward and massive risk in bringing your car home from either the paint booth or the showroom floor and immediately rubbing it with myriad chemicals, compounds, and materials about which you know next to nothing about. At best, you’ll end up with a decent shine that could have been much better. At worst, you’ll be reserving a spot in the aforementioned fiery afterlife for those who mar good paint while you call a pro to fix the holograms and other maladies you’ve created in your car’s coat.
Instead, teach yourself on a cheap car that’s been around the block a few times. One with its share of scratches and oxidation—something you’re not going to care about as you make the inevitable mistakes. Think of it as a way to gain hands-on experience without the risk of causing grievous harm, not unlike a cadaver for a med student. Technically you could just use a few spare body panels, too, but once you’re through learning on a car, there’s a good chance that you can sell it for more than you paid thanks to the newfound luster you’ve coaxed out of it.
Many years ago, I was lucky enough to have two cars in my garage with just such a mediocre paint job: a Fox Mustang in dire need of all the TLC it could get, and an E30 that was in generally fair condition, but still sported wear commensurate with its 20-year-old paint.
It was on those two cars that I taught myself nearly everything I know now about detailing. Knowing that a paint job was necessary down the line took out all of the risk from the equation. At worst, if I somehow screwed up so horribly that women and children averted their eyes upon seeing me coming down the street, I’d lose only the time invested. At best, I could potentially save the cost of a new paint job.
I studied up on as much as I could, with topics ranging from optics to chemical compounds. I experimented with clay bars, and learned how to gauge how clean paint is based on feel. I bought a random orbital and began using compounds with differing levels of aggression, making mental notes to how each one worked. I adjusted the speed of the machine and the pressure I applied, learning every step of the way. I paid attention to the effect of each variable. I progressed, and even taught myself the basics of wet sanding.
Ultimately, I made both of those cars shine brilliantly, and even managed to salvage one of the paint jobs. More importantly, though, I gained the experience and confidence needed to take power tools to pristine paint, and I acquired a skill set that lets me create a shine of which I can be proud. It’s not like I’m the best detailer in the world, but I would never have progressed to the level I have reached had I not had room to explore in such a risk-free apprenticeship.