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Car Wash and Detailing Terms You Should Know

August 27, 2020

Car Wash and Detailing Terms You Should Know

It does not take the vision of Walt Disney to imagine how many parts are on your car. There are a lot of them. Tens of thousands. And each of those parts has a name and a purpose. Well, when it comes to caring for your car, it helps to be familiar with not every part, but some of the main ones. For instance, when you schedule your vehicle for a complete brake job, it is nice to know that a technician will replace your brake pads, measure your rotors, service your calipers, and more. And it helps to understand some of the related terms: runout, friction material, “bleeding” the brakes, and so on.

When it comes to treating the exterior and interior of your car, there are hundreds of different products, tools, techniques, and processes that can come into play. Learning all of the terms of the trade would be exhausting. But becoming familiar with some of the language can help you navigate the world of car washing and detailing, and help you make the best decisions for your car.

Here is a sampling of some of the car wash and detailing terms you should know.

Abrasive – A material that is capable of polishing or cleaning a hard surface by rubbing or grinding. Abrasive could also refer to a substance (sand, gravel, et al.) that can cause scratches.

Acidic – This refers to a compound’s position on the pH scale. If a substance is acidic, it has a pH below 7 (neutral). Anything above 7 is considered alkaline. Various car wash chemicals are aimed at attacking different types of contaminants. Cleaners (such as a car wash pre-soak) that lean toward being acidic are used to remove inorganic soils like salt and sand.

Acid Rain – Rainwater that is contaminated with acidic materials is known as acid rain. When certain pollutants are released into the air, they rise high into the atmosphere where they react with water, oxygen, and other chemicals to form an acidic pollution that returns to earth in raindrops. Acid rain can cause damage to automotive paint finishes and glass.

Alkaline– Where an acidic compound has a pH below 7, an alkaline one has a pH above 7. Cleaners that employ an alkaline chemical treat organic contaminants, like bug residue, grease, bird droppings, etc.

Alloy Wheel – Wheel made from an alloy of aluminum or magnesium. Where many vehicles of the past featured steel wheels (garnished with hub caps), most new vehicles today come with alloy wheels. They may come bare, clear coated, or painted.

Automatic Car Wash – An automatic car wash is a facility where a vehicle is washed using an automated process rather than washing your car by hand. With some automatic car washes, the vehicle remains stationary while the mechanized apparatus moves past, while in others, the vehicle is pulled through a tunnel of equipment on a conveyor. Automatic car washes may feature soft-touch or touch-free technology.

Buffing– While the term “buffing” is sometimes used to describe a number of processes in automotive detailing, technically it refers to the use of a rotary or dual-action polisher, a buffer, and rubbing compound to machine the surface of the paint on a vehicle. Therefore, “compounding” and “buffing” can carry the same meaning. Some people use the term to describe the use of an orbital buffer to apply wax or other coating.

Car Wash Extras – Upon entering an automatic car wash (at most car wash businesses), a driver is presented with a number of service levels, sometimes referred to as “car wash extras”. A basic package car wash extra services might consist of a trip through the wash, wheel cleaner, and towel drying at the end. Each successive package adds options – triple-foaming conditioner, underbody wash, polymer sealant, wax, and so forth – and bears a higher price tag. The “extras” are those items that are either added to premium wash packages or available ala carte.

Car Wash Club (Membership)– To accommodate drivers with an affordable option and an incentive to wash their vehicles more frequently, many automatic car wash businesses offer a car wash membership or club. With this arrangement, patrons generally pay a monthly fee (based on the wash package selected) for either a set number of washes or unlimited visits.

Carnauba – Made from the leaf of the Brazilian carnauba palm tree, Carnauba wax is considered a premium wax product to protect an automotive paint finish. When the amount of Carnauba present in a wax product is sufficient, it produces a firm coating that sheds water easily and acts as a sacrificial barrier coat over the paint.

Ceramic Coating (Opticoat, etc.) – Like wax (and polymer sealant), ceramic coating is a layer of protectant applied to the surface of the paint on a vehicle. Ceramic coating is a chemical polymer solution that cures extremely hard and adds a hydrophobic layer to repel moisture and contaminants. Premium ceramic products must be professionally applied and are extremely difficult to remove. Fortunately, although they tend to be quite costly compared to waxes or polymer sealants, when properly applied, they last significantly longer than either.

Clay Bar (Decontamination) – Over time, contaminants such as dirt, sand, sap, rail dust, overspray, and more can become embedded or firmly attached to the glass and paint surfaces on a vehicle. A clay bar is an extremely uniform piece of soft clay that is rubbed on the surface to lift such contaminants. Clay bars come in multiple grades, from aggressive to gentle and are used with some form of lubricating liquid.

Cleaner/Wax – This liquid paint treatment is a combination of a light abrasive cleaner and wax that allows a user to shine and protect a paint surface in one step. Generally used by the do-it-yourselfer, a professional detailer has a number of tools and products that allow for a targeted repair approach in stages.

Compounding – Rubbing compound is a liquid abrasive used to reduce imperfections on a painted surface. Used in combination with a rotary or dual-action buffer (polisher), rubbing compound machines the paint, removing light scratches and other imperfections. The process is called “compounding”.

Detailing – Beyond a simple car wash procedure, car detailing is the process of systematically treating vehicle surfaces to clean, renew, restore, and protect a vehicle body. Detailing can be performed on the exterior, the interior, or both and usually entails a set of strategic actions with specific car care products and techniques. Detailing might include paint correction and application of protective coatings in addition to deep cleaning. Because some of the techniques in paint correction can cause damage if not done properly, it is recommended that a professional detailer be employed to restore a paint finish.

Extractor (vs vacuum) – a vacuum is typically used to remove dirt and debris from a carpet. If water or a cleaning solution is needed to remove stains from the interior surfaces of a car (the carpet or cloth seats, for example), an extractor is generally used. A carpet extractor is a vacuum device designed to pull liquid from carpeting. Carpet extractors are usually fitted with a pressure nozzle that sprays water and often feature on-board water heaters for hot-liquid cleaning and extraction.

Full Detail– A full detail is a complete detailing service of the interior and exterior of a vehicle, complete with any needed paint correction and the application of a protective coating.

Glaze – Whereas rubbing compound contains an abrasive agent to machine a paint surface and remove imperfections (during the buffing phase), glaze is a smooth abrasive-less product, also designed to machine the surface but to a finer degree. Glaze is meant to remove swirl marks left behind from buffing. It can also remove slight imperfections such as some minor spider web marks and scratches. Glaze is used during the “swirl removal” or “glazing” phase, after buffing and before wax or sealant is applied.

Hard Water Spots – These are mineral deposits left behind from hard water that has been left to dry on the surface of a vehicle. Hard water spots can be difficult to remove from automotive glass, and they can eat into and damage the paint.

OEM (Original) Factory Finish – This refers to the paint that was applied at the factory when a vehicle was manufactured. By way of contrast, an aftermarket paint job is one that was applied during a repair at a body shop. The OEM finish is baked at up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit to create a hard and durable surface; force-drying (what some refer to as “baking”) in a body shop is done at about 140 degrees or so to speed up the dry time, although complete curing does not happen for 30-60 days in which time wax or sealant should not be applied. An OEM finish, though extremely durable, is relatively thin and does not accept a great deal of aggressive correction.

Orange Peel – Orange peel is a paint condition where the texture of the paint, rather than being smooth and evenly reflective, is rather rough, like the surface of an orange. While the condition is most likely to occur during an aftermarket paint job, some vehicles from the factory come off of the line with a fair amount of orange peel.

Orbital Buffer – Sometimes confused with a polisher, an orbital buffer is a power tool designed to apply wax and sealant coatings evenly to a painted surface. The name is a bit confusing since the tool is not used to “buff” a surface. Since the rise in popularity of dual-action buffers/polishers that are used for buffing, the confusion over the term has only increased.

Overspray – When paint is applied with a spray gun that atomizes the liquid paint into a vapor, some of the airborne material lands on unintended surfaces. Including body panels and glass on a car. This can happen in a body shop if panels that are not being painted are left unmasked. It can also happen if someone is using a spray can of paint around the yard and near to a vehicle, or if an industrial painter is spraying a nearby building or bridge. Overspray feels gritty or sandy on the surface of a car.

Oxidation – Because the surfaces of a vehicle are constantly exposed to oxygen, they are prone to oxidize. Oxidation is a chemical process where a substance loses electrons and begins to deteriorate. When it happens to car paint, the result is a dull finish. Vehicles of old were highly susceptible to oxidation of the paint. Today, modern paint finishes are more resistant to the condition. Exposure to the sun can exacerbate the problem. Alloy wheels can also oxidize. Protective coatings – wax, sealant, ceramic – lessen the chances of oxidation.

Paint Correction – Paint correction refers to the physical machining of a painted surface with the intention of repairing or restoring its gloss. To make it smooth and shiny. Paint correction might begin with the use of a clay bar to remove embedded contaminants and can include wet sanding, buffing, and polishing. As far as automotive detailing is concerned, paint correction stops short of body repair or refinishing.

Polishing – This is another term that can be confusing and is often interchanged with other words. For many, polishing is synonymous with glazing, a phase of paint correction where a polisher/buffer is used along with a gentle foam polishing pad and non-abrasive glaze. Polishing is aimed at removing small, slight imperfections such as swirl marks. Some people might also use the word polishing to refer to buffing with rubbing compound.

Polymer Sealant – Similar to car wax, a polymer sealant is a paint protection product that is applied over the paint finish. Polymer sealant forms a thin, hard, waterproof barrier. Unlike wax that is made from natural ingredients and forms a sacrificial barrier, polymer sealant is made artificially and is too thin to be sacrificial. Some auto enthusiasts prefer one over the other; others opt to use both, sealant then wax.

Rail Dust (Industrial Fallout) – Named for a condition that developed as a result of new vehicles being delivered on trains, rail dust can now be found anywhere. Bits of iron dust kicked up from train tracks embed themselves on the surface of the vehicles-in-transport. When the metal dust begins to corrode, orange or brown speckles form on the paint. The condition can happen to cars carried by trains, but it can also happen almost anywhere since iron is common in industrial areas or anywhere around train tracks.

Recycled Water – To cut down on the amount of water used, many automatic car washes reclaim and recycle wash water. Contaminated water is drawn from a holding tank, treated to remove contaminants and chemicals, deodorized, and sent back to the wash system for reuse. This serves to cut down on fresh water and sewer costs and minimizes the impact of contaminated water on the environment. Some municipalities require a car wash business to use a recycling system.

Scratches, Swirls, and Spider Web Marks – Each of these is typically a minor imperfection of a vehicle’s paint finish. Of the three, scratches can be the most severe and, depending on how deep the scratch penetrates into or through the clear coat layer, may not be repairable through paint correction by a detailer. Swirls are microscopic scratch marks, a result of the abrasive action during the buffing phase of paint correction or by careless wiping across the surface in a circular motion when dirt is present. Spider web marks are also microscopic scratches that appear as a spider’s web when the light reflects off the surface at just the right angle. They are the result of any light abrasion, including that from an old-school nylon bristle car wash. Scratches, swirls, and spider web marks are generally removed during the full detailing process.

Soft Touch (Soft Cloth)– A soft touch automatic car wash is one that employs gentle agitation to vehicle surfaces with soft foam or cloth implements. Some outdated auto washes may still use nylon bristle brushes that can leave behind slight scratches. In contrast, soft touch washes are easy on the finish while still affording the benefit of agitating the contaminants for removal, unlike touchless car washes.

Touchless– This term refers to a type of automatic car wash in which no part of the wash system comes in contact with the vehicle. Also known as “touch-free”, touchless car washes rely on strong chemicals to loosen up contaminants and high-pressure water jets to rinse the vehicle clean. While they do offer the benefit of being touch-free, they are sometimes criticized for having trouble removing all contaminants and for their use of harsh chemicals.

Wax – Car wax is a protective coating applied to a paint surface to provide a thin barrier coat capable of repelling water and contaminants. Wax is generally made from naturally occurring substances, like beeswax or Carnauba, but some products include synthetic resins and polymers to enhance the hardness and shine.

Wet Sanding – In order to remove small imperfections in a painted surface, a detailer will often use a rubbing compound and a polisher. Sometimes it is necessary to first reduce the imperfections with micro-fine sandpaper before buffing. A detailer will often use water to lubricate the paint surface and sandpaper in the process. This is known as wet sanding.


This article is intended only as a general guidance document and relying on its material is at your sole risk. By using this general guidance document, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from or related to your use of this guidance document. To the extent fully permissible under applicable law, Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the information, content, or materials included in this document. This reservation of rights is intended to be only as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of your State of residence.

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