Automobile Detailers

Home | Diesel Engines | Basic Maintenance + Repair

QUICK FACTS about this job:

  • School Subjects: Chemistry, Technical/shop
  • Personal Skills: Mechanical/manipulative
  • Work Environment: Primarily outdoors, Primarily multiple locations
  • Minimum Education Level: Some postsecondary training
  • Salary Range: $18,000 to $45,000 to $100,000+
  • Certification or Licensing: None available
  • Outlook: Faster than the average
  • DOT: 915
  • GOE: N/A
  • NOC: 6662
  • O*NET-SOC: N/A


Automobile detailing is the careful cleaning of the interiors and exteriors of cars, vans, boats, and other vehicles. People use the services of a detailing business to keep their vehicles looking new. Automobile detailers clean the cars in a commercial shop or at the client’s home. They work all across the United States but find the work to be most steady in states where the weather is mild year-round. Approximately 12,000 detail businesses are in operation in the automotive “appearance-care” industry.


Prior to World War I, fewer than a mil lion cars were on the roads and streets of the United States; in the years after, the number grew to five million. By 1925, 20 million cars were in use. About this time, industry pioneer Henry Ford quit producing the Model T because of the growth of the used car market. People could buy better-quality used cars for the same price as the mass-produced Model T. Other car companies met the challenge of the used car market by developing a new version of a familiar model every year.

The used car market, along with the evolution of cars as status symbols, contributed to the development of the car appearance industry. Auto detailers were first hired by used car dealers to pre pare run-down or damaged cars for resale. The late 1940s saw the introduction of Turtle Wax (then known as Plastone) and other car care products, as well as the first automatic car washes. The average lifespan of a car in 1971 was a little over five years; now cars last nearly eight. Auto detailers and car care products help keep these longer-lasting cars looking new.


As with other cleaning services, auto detailing is great work for the clean “freak” who also happens to love cars. With some training, a specially equipped van, and a good eye for detail, automobile detailers make old cars look new again and keep new cars looking new. In some cases, they just do a basic wash and vacuum, but in other cases they focus on cleaning every nook and cranny of a car, inside and out. Detailers polish and wax the exterior surface, cleaning and protecting any rubber, trim, glass, and chrome. They also clean the wheels and tires. With the proper equipment, they can sand and buff exterior paint jobs. Inside the car, they vacuum the carpet, treat the vinyl and leather, and clean the dashboard and vents. Detailers attend to stubborn stains on the exterior of the car, like road tar, tree sap, and grease. As a result, they must have an understanding of cleaners and how they work, and they must be creative in dealing with troublesome blotches and blemishes. Though they rely on specially formulated cleaners, they also find some household items useful in getting at stubborn interior stains, items like vinegar (for all-purpose cleaning), cornstarch (for grease and oil), and pencil erasers (for ink and crayon marks).

“Mobile” detailing is when services are performed at clients’ homes or office parking lots. Many people prefer the services of a mobile detailing service; having the service come to them eliminates the need for driving to a commercial service and waiting for the car to be cleaned. Through a mobile detailing service, detailers can ser vice corporate fleets of vans, trucks, and even light aircraft.

Anthony Rabak owns a mobile detailing service that serves the areas of Elk Grove, Laguna, and Sacramento, California. With a special cargo van equipped with its own water and power supply, Rabak takes to the streets to attend to his appointments. “I’m the kind of person who pays attention to the little things,” Rabak says, “which is very important in detailing. Don’t cut corners!”

To ensure that he blasts every speck of dirt and grime, Rabak carries 110 gallons of purified water in his van, along with an electric pressure washer, a 50-foot hose, and a short-nozzle spray gun. “I use purified water because it doesn’t leave water spots,” he says. “And I chose an electric washer because they are much quieter in a residential area and you can usually plug them into a power source at a location.” In case there isn’t a power source on site, Rabak has a gas-powered generator and a power inverter.

“Usually I perform most of my work in the shade,” he says, “and when there isn’t any, I make my own with a portable, folding canopy tent.” Rabak’s time on site varies according to how much detailing the vehicle owner requests. A basic car wash takes about an hour, while a full detail can take all day.

In addition to the power washer and hose, he uses a simple bucket, car wash soap, and natural sea sponges on the cars’ exteriors. “I use the sea sponges because they cause the least amount of scratches,” Rabak adds. He also uses towels, special cleaning brushes, and a variety of cleaning chemicals.

With a speed rotary polisher and a dual-head orbital polisher, Rabak can effectively wax paint and scrub carpets. “I also use a shop vacuum with a specially made 15-foot hose and various attachments,” he adds. For stubborn carpet and upholstery stains, Rabak uses a shampoo machine, but often he uses just a spray shampoo, scrub brush, and elbow grease.

Some detailers specialize in exotic cars, like Porsches, Jaguars, or Lamborghinis, preparing the cars for shows, races, and other events, while others will clean anything from an RV to a golf cart. Detailers may set up special maintenance contracts with individuals or businesses, regularly servicing vehicles every six or eight weeks. Most individual clients, however, only request detailing services once or twice a year. Detailers who own their own shops may offer more than cleaning. With a garage and employees, a detailer can offer painting, windshield repair, dent removal, leather dying, and other interior and exterior improvements.


High School

If you are considering owning your own detailing business, take courses that will prepare you for small business ownership. Math and accounting courses will help prepare you for the bookkeeping tasks of the work. You should also take any other business or economic courses that will give you some insight into the job market and the requirements of running a profitable business. Join your high school’s business club to learn about business practices and to meet local entrepreneurs.

In addition, while in high school, take English courses to develop communication skills for dealing with clients and promoting your service. Chemistry and shop courses will give you an understanding of the cleansers and equipment you’ll be using and also give you practice working with your hands.

Postsecondary Training

Though a college degree isn’t required to be a detailer, courses in small business management from a community college will provide knowledge for building your own successful service. Check with a local detailing chain or local garage to see if you can be hired on a training basis. Some companies offer detailing training, such as franchisers Maaco, Ziebart, or National Detail Systems.

Certification or Licensing

Detailers do not need to be certified, a fact that has many professional detailers concerned. A survey by Professional Carwashing and Detailing magazine found that 88 percent of respondents have had to fix finishes harmed by another careless detailer. Whether any kind of regulation comes in the future depends on the International Carwash Association.

If detailers plan to run their own business, they will be required to obtain a local business license. In addition, some cities and states also require special licenses for mobile service work.

Other Requirements

Purchasing the equipment to start a mobile detailing service is fairly inexpensive. As a result, it is important that detailers be very professional and dedicated to their customers. Any bad word-of-mouth can hurt business, sending potential customers to one of many competitors. “People are comfortable when I arrive in a clean, organized service vehicle,” Anthony Rabak says. Rabak also wears a uniform and is always polite to his clients. “I show that I have an interest in them as a person, and not just their car. People like to have a relationship with individuals who provide services for them,” he says.

As with any small business, detailers are entirely responsible for their own success. They must be ambitious, disciplined, and self- motivated to seek out clients and schedule their own work hours. They must also be capable of budgeting their money for months when business may be slow.

Finally, detailers have to keep up-to-date on the latest cleansers and treatments. Improvements are made continuously to cleaning materials and procedures to battle harsh conditions that affect cars, such as acid rain and chemicals used to clean and clear streets.


Cleaning a car well requires more than a hose and a bucket; but even without all the proper equipment, you can learn much about cleansers and their effect on a car simply by washing the family vehicle. Learn on your own, for example, how to clean a windshield without leaving streaks or how to best remove stains from interior carpets and upholstery.

Rabak explored the job through research. “I read every book on automobile detailing I could find at the library and bookstores,” he says. “I talked with detailing supply distributors.”

Spend a few days with a local detailer with a good reputation to get a sense of the job. Interview detailers in your area to find out what equipment they use, how much they charge, and how many hours they work. Professional Carwashing and Detailing Online ( features many articles on the business as well as a bulletin board for industry professionals.


A number of companies that sell supplies and equipment also offer franchise opportunities. By franchising with a detail chain like Ziebart or National Detail Systems, you’ll receive discounts, phone support, and marketing assistance. But be very careful selecting a company to work with; some operations sell equipment at a very large price and offer very little support. Check with the International Carwash Association or consult Professional Carwashing and Detailing magazine for reputable companies.

Many detailers are their own employers. Either as owners of a detailing shop or their own mobile business, independent detailers with a solid client base do very well for themselves.


Books on detailing and other research can give you an idea of the equipment detailers need to start out. Before buying, be sure to price-shop the supply and equipment distributors for the best deals. Starting out, detailers need about $500 to pay for an electric buffer, a shop vacuum, and the polishes, waxes, and other cleaning chemicals. Due to the high cost of water tanks, Anthony Rabak rents one.

It took a while for Rabak to get his business going. He tried traditional advertising, including a listing in the Yellow Pages, but none of it produced much interest. Eventually word got around that he did good work, and business picked up. “The best results,” he says, “have come from word-of-mouth. People who were happy with my work, showed their cars to others, and highly recommended me.”


If an automobile detailer’s business has taken off, he or she may feel the need to hire employees and purchase more vans to serve more customers. Some detailing services contract with utility companies, police departments, car dealerships, and other clients with large numbers of vehicles to clean regularly.

Detailers working for an employer may choose to open their own shop. As their new business grows, they may choose to expand the number of services offered. Many detailers offer painting and minor collision repair in addition to cleaning services. They may also do special pin striping, upholstery repair, and convertible top replacement.


Cleaners of vehicles and equipment at automobile dealers earned median annual salaries of $19,302 in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The revenue for an automobile detailing establishment depends on the size of the business, operating costs, number of employees, location, years in the business, and many other factors. Obviously, a single-operator mobile detailing service won’t have as many customers as a large, multiple-bay car wash and detailing business. According to National Detail Systems, mobile detailers can make anywhere from $35 to $55 per hour, charging between $45 and $65 for a basic detail, depending on the size of the vehicle. A more comprehensive detail can cost between $100 to $140, depending on the condition of the vehicle.

Benefits for full-time workers include vacation and sick time, health, and sometimes dental, insurance, and pension or 401(k) plans. Self-employed automobile detailers are responsible for providing their own benefits.


Automobile detailers work mostly on their own without much super vision. Their work, however, may be carefully scrutinized by customers expecting their cars to shine like new. “It’s a great feeling when you see how pleased and amazed people are with your work,” Anthony Rabak says.

The work can be physically demanding, requiring some crawling around and bending; detailers also spend a lot of time on their feet. In some cases, they use harsh chemicals that may irritate skin and any allergies. Most detailing work is done outside, unless detailers own a shop where some services will be performed in the garage. Therefore, weather conditions greatly affect their work.

Rabak charges by the hour. However, between driving to and from appointments and doing the bookkeeping and scheduling, there are many hours for which he isn’t paid. “You’re responsible for all aspects of your business,” Rabak says. “You are the public relations director, advertiser, receptionist, secretary, file clerk, etc.”

Detailers can, however, set their own hours, scheduling appointments only for the days they choose. But they have to work as regularly as possible during the spring and summer months if living in an area with cold winters.


Some auto industry experts predict that the year 2030 will see a billion cars on the streets of the world. On average, people are spending more and more time in their cars than ever before. As a result, they have more of an incentive to take good care of their cars—helping business for automobile detailers. The longer lifespans and higher value of cars will also increase the demand for detailing professionals. Vehicles, on average, are now built to last longer—and they are not getting any cheaper. Therefore, people should continue to hire detailers to help keep their older cars looking new.

The mobile detailer will especially benefit from the growing number of double-income couples. With hectic schedules and more disposable income, working professionals prefer mobile detailing services that cater to their availability, rather than having to drive to a service and sit in line for hours.


To learn more about the car wash and detailing industry, such as consumer car washing attitudes and habits, contact:

International Carwash Association

401 North Michigan Avenue

Chicago, IL 60611-4255

Tel: 888-ICA-8422


For information on training programs and answers to frequently asked questions about the profession, contact:

National Detail Systems

9452 Telephone Road, Suite 175

Ventura, CA 93 004-2600

Tel: 800-356-9485


To learn more about the current issues affecting car washing and detailing, visit Professional Carwashing and Detailing Online, or write to the address below for subscription information.

Professional Carwashing and Detailing

NTP Media

13 Century Hill Drive

Latham, NY 12110-2113

Tel: 518-783-1281

Next: Automobile Sales Workers

Prev: Automobile Collision Repairers

Home     top of page