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Ultimate SE-R Detailing
Paint, Interior, Wheels and Tires, Show Tips

By Shell Black
(Best Sentra 1999, Best of Show 2000 National SE-R Convention)

Washing the car

First things first, use a soap designed for car finishes. Dish washing detergent is too aggressive and strips away at wax and polish. If dish detergent is designed to strip grease off a plate, think what it will do to your paint. I use Meguiar’s products exclusively across the line, though the principles here are the same no matter what brand you have an affinity towards. Meguiar’s has a blue, maroon, and black bottle (Gold Class) car wash. All will give you good results. Perform all your car washing and detail work out of direct sunlight.

Rinse often, try not to let the soap sit and dry on the paint. Start from the top of the car and work down to avoid rinsing dirt off onto a clean section of your vehicle. Wash the wheels separately. I use two different washing mitts, one for the paint, and one for the rims. Dragging your mitt through brake dust and then over your paint is not a good idea. I do the wheels first and then the paint so the water does not have time to set into water spots as you do your wheels and tires. This is the way I do it. A lot of people recommend washing the wheels last. If you want to go to yet another extreme, have one bucket with soapy water, and another just with water to rinse your wash mitt before moving on to another section of the car. This is to reduce dragging contaminants all over the car. I use a wool mitt. I think it picks up dirt better than a sponge and can mold better than a sponge in most cases. The only disadvantage of a mitt is that it might snag loose emblems or body trim!

Where do I wash my car? I live in an apartment so I must use a self serve quarter pay car wash. I never use an automatic car wash whether brush-less or dried by hand at a full service car wash. The only thing I am interested in is a covered place to wash the car and a supply of water. I set the wash on “rinse” which is just water so I can hose off the car and fill buckets with water. Always keep a good distance away from the paint with the “wand” – that thing has lethal strong pressure. I also let the water flow for a few seconds in case someone was using soap or wax before me to clear the line of chemicals before spraying down my car. If the stall at the car wash is a mess, I will even use the wand to spray the dirt down the drain so it does not fly up onto the car’s paint while I am trying to wash the car. I know, sounds picky, but it is the same reason you sweep out your garage, less dust and dirt where you store your car keeps it clean longer. One last thing: I remove the license plates when washing and detailing the car – there is dirty paint under that plate!

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Drying the car

Drying the car must be done as quickly as possible. My hand car wash is a few blocks from my apartment so I leave the car wash soaking wet, let the wind dry the car partially driving home and then finish drying the car under a covered parking place. With a black car, you want to avoid the sun during the detailing process (washing, drying, cleaning, polish and waxing). I dry the car starting with the hood (it dries the quickest due to the heat from the engine), then proceed to the roof, truck / deck lid, then the rest of the car. I usually hit the top of the car before the sides. Perhaps more from habit and being methodical, but the “sun up” side of the vehicle always seems to want to spot worse and it takes the most abuse from the elements, so I hit it first.

I dry the vehicle by misting the area with Meguiar’s Quick Detailer to lubricate the section of paint. This helps prevent and remove water spots that might be starting to form as you race to dry the car. I use a terry cloth towel that has been washed multiple times and have it folded into fourths. As the section of the towel becomes saturated with water, I flip it to a clean dry section and continue drying the car. I wipe down and dry the door jams, rocker panels, under the hood, the water drains under the trunk lid – anywhere water can penetrate or spot the paint I wipe it down.

Between washings I carry a bottle of Meguiar’s Quick Detailer in the map pocket of the passenger door along with a single terry cloth towel. Ask anyone who drives in my car – it is always there. If you are unfortunate to have some tree sap, bird droppings or something worse hit your car’s paint, the main thing is to get it off the paint before it has time to etch your finish. If you have ever removed bird droppings from your car that have been there for a while you will see an outline of the droppings on your paint. That is an “etching.” I have also noticed that if you plow through a swarm of insects, being acidic, they also will etch the paint if left unattended. Quick Detailer gives you the lubrication, and the terry cloth towel gives you the ability to lift off the contaminant. When I want to dust off the car, or want to remove the “splash” or spray from driving through a puddle on the road – it’s Quick Detailer to the rescue!

How often should you wash the car? I shoot for every week, or every other week. It can be more or less frequent, just depends on the weather and how much the car has been out and about. The worse is a heavy dirty Texas rain and having the car dry in the hot Texas sun. Then you have serious water spots – I hate that. It might take 2-3 washes to lift the water spots off the black paint.

Cleaning, Polishing and Waxing the paint

All these steps belong together. First of all – what condition is your paint in? Paint in great condition is going to be smooth to the touch. Paint that is smooth to the touch means it is relatively free from contaminants. If your paint feels gritty then you need to clean your paint. I know I sound like a Meguiar’s commercial, but their web site ( goes into great detail on evaluating the condition of your paint.

Basically the better the foundation, the better the luster, depth and brilliance of your car’s finish. Think of your car’s finish as a mirror. The silver coating behind the glass (the car’s paint color) gives the mirror its reflectivity. If the glass above the silver coating is damaged (the clear coat), your reflectivity is greatly reduced. The goal when working on a car’s finish is to repair the clear coat to restore the luster and brilliance, not by touching the actual paint of the car.

How does the clear coat get damaged? Contaminants from bird droppings, tree sap, acid rain, pollution, oxidation of old wax, the environment, dust and dirt. These contaminants can chemically etch the clear coat or leave micro fine scratches. So how do you repair this? Two methods are very popular. You can use a paint cleaner or clay bar. Meguiar’s has a maroon / red 3 step paint cleaning, polish, and wax process. Each bottle is labeled according to its role in the process (1 – Paint Cleaner, 2 – Polish, 3 – Wax). This is a very safe alternative to rubbing compound or wet or color sanding. You will not damage your paint using these products. Always start with milder products and get more aggressive as your skill and comfort level increases. For particularly bad areas of paint you might try Meguiar’s Body Scrub. I think this is marginally more aggressive than their Paint Cleaner in the three step process, and is extremely safe in comparison to a rubbing compound.

prepstuff_small.jpg (7124 bytes)I did a little comparison using a paint cleaner vs. a clay bar this weekend. I found the end results to be very comparable. The clay bar is applied using a lubricant like Quick Detailer. It is very effective in lifting the contaminants off your car’s finish as it slides over the paint. You can visually see the contaminants on the clay. To clean the clay bar you knead the clay until it returns to the same light color as when you started.

A recent tip I picked up is to use masking tape around the windshield washers to prevent wax from clogging up your spray nozzles. Also, lay a towel down over the cowl (where your wiper arms sit) – getting wax out of those grooves is a pain in the rear!

Paint Cleaner can be applied with a buffer or applicator pad. I prefer liquid cleaners, polish and waxes. Pastes are also available – liquid is just my preference. I like doing one step on the whole car before moving on to the next step. Some people like to do a section at a time. I just would rather change out the buffer pad only once for each step. For the places that the buffer cannot reach I use a hand applicator pad – terry cloth type. Once I am done with a step, I replace the used “bonnet” on the buffer for a fresh one before starting the next step. I use terry cloth type bonnets, not foam – again, just my preference.

To remove the paint cleaner (or polish or wax) I use the same technique that I used in drying the car. I take a terry cloth towel and fold it into fourths. As the “nap” of the terry cloth towel picks up more dried paint cleaner (or polish or wax) it becomes less effective in removing it from your paint. Just flip the cloth and refold to expose a clean section of the towel and continue. A terry cloth towel will “squeak” as you drag it across your paint’s finish after using a paint cleaner. At this point your paint should be like glass - smooth to the touch. Now you can apply a polish.

prepstuff_small.jpg (7124 bytes)A polish to me is like using a moisturizer or conditioner on your hair. It replenishes the paint with oils and conditions the paint. I think this step, especially on black paint, gives color depth and almost a “wet look.” Polishing is not waxing, which I think is a common misunderstanding. It is not a step to skip. Polish and wax is applied and removed as explained above.

Wax seals in your work and gives your paint a protective shell. Some waxes have carnuba. No wax has 100% carnuba because carnuba is actually very hard. It has to be thinned with other ingredients to be used as a paint wax. Wax is what repels water on your car and makes it “bead.” I use this as an indicator to gauge when it is time to wax the car again. I can also tell when my car does not dry as easily. That is hard to explain, but if I get some streaking or hazing on the hood that follows the path of my towels when drying the car, I know that the wax is wearing thin. As a temporary fix, I might wax that section again to keep the luster high if that is the only section of the car that is suffering. I noticed Meguiar’s has come out with a Quick Wax in a spray bottle. Probably a convenient product for a quick spruce-up. Almost always the first panel to fade or wear is the hood of the car, due to the heat of the engine.

How often do I do the three-step process? Two to four times a year depending what is going on with SE-R events. How long does it take me? I am very meticulous and I am sure it can be done faster, but even with a buffer the three-step process will take me about 6 hours. Heck, it takes me at least an hour and a half just to wash and dry the car!


I use a Waxmaster 600 (I think) random orbital buffer that I bought many years ago at Pep Boys. I have used it so much that I had to ordered replacement parts for it twice (once for a new pad, once for a new power cord). Orbitals are very safe. If you apply too much pressure the pad stops spinning. You can use a professional buffer that spins at a higher speed, but it may not stop when you apply too much pressure. The risk with a high-speed buffer is that you risk burning the paint from the friction that the pad creates at a high speed under too much weight. Again, my recommendation to you is to start conservatively with known safe products and build as your experience, skill, and confidence increases.

If you are going to try a new product – use it on a less conspicuous part of your car. If you make a mistake it won’t be a glaring as a mistake dead center on the middle of your hood! Resist the temptation to go bananas and do a big section – trust me. I had my 91 SE-R repainted 5 years ago because I was used to using heavy compounds and aggressive products (like on my previous 70’s vintage automobile that did not have a clear coat) and I literally blew past the clear coat and damaged the paint. One summer in Phoenix and my black car was zapped to a black/gray. A decent paint job is not cheap! Since then I have been religious about taking very good care of my car’s finish not to damage it using over aggressive products. Everything I have discussed here is extremely safe. Obviously all of our cars have a clear coat, and this discussion is purposely limiting itself to cars with clear coats.


I am also very conservative when it comes to the interior of the car. All I do is wipe down the leather, plastics and smooth surfaces, clean the glass, and vacuum. I use a pretty odd cleaner to wipe down the interior. I use a pH balanced cleaner called Basic H made by Shaklee. It is not sold in stores. You have to find a distributor to get it – just look up “Shaklee” in the yellow pages if you do not know a distributor. I use a capful for about a half of bucket of warm water. The stuff is amazingly concentrated. I think I have used a half of a bottle in 4 years. I take one of those ever-recurring terry cloth towels, dunk, wring, and wipe. The result is a dash that is clean, not dried out, nor greasy. I absolutely abhor Armour All type protectants that leave a gloss shine. It just attracts dust and makes it increasingly more difficult the next time around to clean your interior.

I vacuum the interior last because inevitably there is always some white fluff left inside of the car from the towels used to clean the glass and from wiping down the interior.


As far as glass cleaners go I still keep coming back to blue Windex. For whatever reason I think it works best. I use a terry cloth once again to clean the glass inside and out. If you experience a haze on the inside glass on a new car, it is from the plastics “curing.” Best thing is just to rub the glass with a dry towel with nothing on it.

Wheels and tires

With bigger brakes and rotors it is hard to clean the inside of the rims. If you really want to clean the wheels – take them off the car. Most after market rims have a clear coat. I use the same type of soap that I use to clean the paint as I do to clean the wheels. I only use tire dressing the day of a show. Otherwise I leave it alone. Again, I think silicone sprays and tire dressing are just dirt magnets, which make your job harder the next time. Also a lot of these tire dressings will fling themselves off your tires and onto the paint as you drive – not good for the paint. I use a scrub brush with car wash soap to clean the side-walls of the tires.

Easy show upgrades and tips

So what have I done to try to step up the appearance of the car? In the interior I have replaced out the worn bits. This includes visors, floor mats, shift boot and knob, and even swapped a steering wheel from a donor car whose leather was in much better shape.

On the exterior I have removed the door dings and dents using a paintless dent removal service. I did not have too many dings, amazingly enough, but the bill ran about $150. I also took my car to Courtesy Nissan and took advantage of their “make ready” paint guy for some touch up work. I had the obvious chips on the front of the car filled in and the top inside fenders under the hood painted. Total bill about $75.

In the past I have replaced the emblems on the rear deck of the trunk lid, and replaced and painted the grill and emblem on the front of the car. I have also replaced some of the badly worn window molding (one was damaged when my car was broken into). For the 2000 SE-R National Rally I replaced the cowl and weather strip and repainted the wiper blade arms. That made a nice difference, I thought, when the hood was up. I also re-tinted the side glass on all four windows, just to make it consistent. Again, I had a break in recently and my window tinting was multiple shades due to age and different brands of tinting haven been used in the past (not to mention that I had tons of nicks from the seatbelt retracting and banging the inside glass – a common SE-R occurrence).


As far as detailing the engine – here's a link to a complete article on called Ultimate SE-R Engine Detailing.

prepstuff_small.jpg (7124 bytes) - Car on display at the National Convention in Dallas – ready to conduct the detailing seminar

prepstuff_small.jpg (7124 bytes) - OK, so I snuck in one open hood shot . :)

prepstuff_small.jpg (7124 bytes) - After your three steps, your finish should be deep and smooth as glass

prepstuff_small.jpg (7124 bytes) - it was hard just picking a few shots to make the statements I wanted, the finish is just that clear

prepstuff_small.jpg (7124 bytes) - this low-res shot just doesn’t do it justice… but trust me, the reflections are amazing

prepstuff_small.jpg (7124 bytes) - See you at the next convention!