Cleaning a car with a pressure washer

Car Detailing is Therapeutic

It’s been nearly a year since COVID-19 hitched a ride on humanity’s air travel infrastructure and blew its viral load across the globe. And I’ll admit: even as a practiced introvert, spending this much time at home is starting to get old.

Thankfully, I’ve managed to shake things up with a new outdoor, social-distance-compliant hobby: car detailing.

For the uninitiated, car detailing is basically a fancy way of saying car cleaning. But detailing can also include tasks performed to extend a car’s aesthetic longevity, such as applying protective sealants and waxes.

This might all sound terribly boring. But as a guy who spends the majority of his life staring at LCD screens, I’ve discovered that tending to my car on a cloudy or sunny day with little more than a wash bucket and a stack of microfibre cloths is oddly therapeutic.

Therapy in Odd Places

Now that we’re a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve become acutely aware of how important therapeutic rituals are. Amid great economic uncertainty and social destabilization, finding pleasures that bring calm or contentment seems to inform whether we’ll spend tomorrow waving our hands at the neighbours or waving a shotgun at their heads.

Even long before COVID, people have found therapeutic value in unthinkable places. In Chuck Palahniuk’s writing guide/memoir Consider This, the Fight Club author shares an anecdote about how getting suits tailored at a Brooks Brothers store was more effective at easing the pain of his mother’s passing than attending talk therapy sessions. He’d stand — frozen but relaxed — as the store’s tailor would tighten the purchased fabric around him, stopping periodically to mark and pin it. Palahniuk said he felt “…as if I’d taken a Vicodin.” Later, he realized the therapeutic value stemmed from the fact that his mother fastidiously tailored his clothes the same way as a child.

The psychological roots of my recent fascination with car detailing might not run as deep as Palahniuk’s strategy for coping with his mother’s death. But regardless, I’ve attempted to explore why it’s become a satisfying pastime.

Non-Linear vs Linear Work Processes

A lot of my day-to-day work life revolves around non-linear processes. If I’m writing an article or story, I have to find the words I’m looking for. But I don’t always find them right away. In fact, I might not find them at all. In some cases, I might find that the process necessitates mashing the “delete” key and starting over again.

The same non-linear process applies to making websites. I might implement a solution to a problem, only to find it creates two more. One step forward, two steps back. It often feels like playing digital Whack-A-Mole.

But unlike my day job and creative work, car detailing is a much more linear process. I can always expect to work in phases, moving top-to-bottom and panel-to-panel to minimize scratches. Then, a rinse, a dry, and a spray sealant application for good measure. There are few surprises or major setbacks: it’s consistent, predictable, and dull work. And in a sense, that’s refreshing.

Pleasure in Prevention

As I mentioned earlier, car detailing is often performed to lengthen a vehicle’s lifespan. It’s like moisturizing your face in the interest of staving off premature wrinkles and creases. And while moisturizing won’t stop ageing, there’s a sense of pleasure in taking preventative steps that can slow ageing.

The same is true for detailing. Cars are an investment — a bad one, by all counts — so I find satisfaction in knowing that my detailing efforts could help protect my investment. It’s also why washing my car is more satisfying than washing other owned items, like dishes or floors: low investment, low attachment.

Finding pleasure in cleanliness isn’t surprising: we humans seem to love exercising control over our lives and feeling like Masters of The Universe. We buy all kinds of insurance, decorate our living spaces with extreme specificity, and trim our body hair to preferential, predetermined lengths. Car detailing is empowering in that same sense.

The Products

Various companies have caught on to car detailing’s cathartic power and capitalized on it in spades. There is a vast array of detailing products out there: sprays, soaps, and sealants for every type of surface and finish; and mitts, brushes, and scrubbers for every conceivable crack, crevasse, nook, and cranny.

This is where things get financially dangerous. Beyond a basic detailing set up (two buckets, wash mitt, soap, garden hose), you can easily spend hundreds of dollars bolstering your cleaning arsenal with protectants, polishes, clays, and all manner of other products. Again, it’s all very reminiscent of skincare, where product selection extends far beyond the scope of what seems necessary.

To minimize costs, I’ve tried to stick to the essential products. But when so many of the products have otherworldly hues, pleasing fragrances, and promise the utmost in cleaning power, it’s easy to see how so many have fallen down the rabbit hole.

Wrapping Up

If you’re curious about car detailing or can’t seem to grasp what the hell I’ve been getting at, check out some of the YouTube videos below. They might provide further insights into the practical and therapeutic value of car detailing in a way that words can’t describe.

Featured image by Clément M. on Unsplash

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