Cleaning is another level up from washing. Washing your SUV removes loose contaminants and dirt from your SUV's surfaces. Cleaning removes bonded contaminants and dirt, and helps to minimize some damage that has gone below the surface of the clearcoat. Some detailers call this step in the process "Preparation" or "Prep," but I'll stick with Clean, in keeping with my detailing gurus at Meguiar's.
When we evaluated our paint, remember those rough patches or sandpapery feeling areas? Now that your SUV has been washed and dried, some of those patches may remain. It's time to clean, to get rid of those bonded contaminants that washing left behind and to treat some of the oxidation, scratches and swirls that plague a great paint job.
The Meguar's guys introduced a metaphor here, and it's mostly apt. In some respects, you can think of your paint job as your car's skin. Washing is still washing; cleaning is like exfoliating -- removing a thin layer of skin (or paint) in order to remove the imbedded dirt. The metaphor can be extended to include polishing and protecting: Polishing your paint is like adding lotion to your skin; Waxing and protecting your paint is like putting on sunblock. The metaphor falls apart at some point -- paint can't heal itself and grow new layers, for instance. But it's a pretty good way of understanding the process.
The clay bar is one of the coolest products on the market today for removing surface contaminants. Several manufacturers make clay bar systems -- I've used Meguiar's Smooth Surface Clay Kit and Mother's California Gold Clay Bar System, and I've heard good things about Blackfire Poly Clay & Lubricant Combo and others.
Claying your paint is simple, and can be quite meditative. First, visualize your SUV broken down into sections -- front fender, hood, driver's door, passenger door, roof, tailgate, etc. We're going to focus on one area at a time when claying your SUV. We'll take this big behemoth of a vehicle and attack it area by area, without getting overwhelmed by the sum of the parts. Remember, this is therapy -- not the cause for therapy.
Work your clay bar into a flat rectangle, about the thickness of a pancake. Spray the lubricant that came with your clay bar system onto the paint, then rub the clay bar smoothly along the paint surface. You don't have to press hard, but you do want to work the paint with some pressure. The clay bar should glide along the surface, slicked up by the lubricant. Take a look at the clay bar now -- in all likelihood, it is now dirty. Flip the clay bar over, and rub the smooth side along the car again. Check it out -- it's probably dirty again. The dirt on your clay bar used to be bonded contaminants on your paint. The clay bar has removed them, cleaning the surface. Now, fold the clay bar back in on itself repeatedly until you can't see the dirt anymore. Flatten it out into a rectangular pancake again, make sure the surface of the SUV is lubricated, and rub away. Keep repeating this process until the clay bar comes away clean -- it might take a few times, but it's worth it. When you can't find a clean area in your clay bar, it's time to get a new one.
Liquid Paint Cleaner/Rubbing Compound
Back in the days of lacquer paints, rubbing compound was an essential part of the detailer's arsenal. Rubbing compound used to be a kind of harsh abrasive paste that would be rubbed into the paint's surface, removing a minute layer of lacquer in the process of cleaning. Cleaning technology has moved along, and traditional rubbing compound has been supplanted by liquid paint cleaner in most detailers' arsenals. These new formulations go by many names, though some manufacturers still refer to them as "rubbing compounds" in order to keep their base customers happy. Meguiar's calls theirs "Ultimate Compound" and claims that it is a "super micro abrasive."
Read the directions carefully, because this is a step in the process that can lead to beauty or heartbreak. In all likelihood, you've got a paintjob that has a clearcoat top layer, so you need to use a product that is clearcoat safe. Clearcoat-safe products are safe for lacquer, but the reverse isn't necessarily true -- lacquer-safe products might cause serious scratching and damage to clearcoat. The directions will tell you the story. Follow application and removal directions carefully, and just like the clay bar experience, work in sections.
Man vs. Machine
Up until now, we've been talking mostly about manual labor. But guess what? There's a tool that can make the cleaning process much easier, and it's consumer friendly.
That tool is a dual action (DA) polisher. A DA polisher is a machine, available air-powered or with an electric motor, with an eccentrically rotating pad that helps keep from burning or swirling paint thanks to its random orbit. The tool feels like it's jiggling in your hands while operating. Good DA polishers have multiple speeds and internal clutches that reduce or stop spinning when pressure is applied.
It might seem like a good idea to use any old rotary polisher on your paint, but it's very risky. Just a moment's hesitation, and you can burn through the clearcoat. A DA polisher is safe for paint, even in the hands of an amateur. I proved that by using a Meguiar's Professional Dual Action Polisher on Moose, and he came out looking a million times better. Getting down into the scratches and imperfections with the DA polisher reduced their appearance dramatically. And the best part is that using a DA polisher is fun, saves time and energy, and delivers great results.
After using a DA polisher on Moose, I'm definitely going to buy one for future detail work. They cost between $130 and $200, and are available from a number of manufacturers.
Now that your SUV is clean, the next step is polishing. Your SUV might not need polishing -- if it's relatively new and has been washed regularly, washing and cleaning might be sufficient. Look at your paint to be sure.