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When did valeting become detailing?  -
7 min read Sunday 29 August 2021

When did valeting become detailing?

We're often asked the difference between valeting and detailing, and even more so, when did valeting start to morph into detailing? And we have to say that, neither are the easiest question to answer, simply because there's plenty here that's left to your own perception, or at least opinion.

It's clear that valeting, or more accurately valeting as we know it nowadays, is a far cry from decades ago, chiefly because professional detailing has helped up the game for both undertakings. The influence of detailing in the UK has had such an impact in fact, that in many ways valeting really has become detailing over the past decade or so. But, for many - particularly industry professionals - there's still a huge distinction between the two.

It goes without saying though, that there are many grey areas with these terms, and the distinction may be tenuous at best, because there is certainly a huge crossover with many of the valeting products and detailing processes involved. But, how do you define and differentiate between the two? If that's even possible. Well, that's where we're here to help…

Valeting - the ultimate cleaning service

The term valeting has been around for several decades as a description of slightly higher end car cleaning. Aside from exterior washing, a valet would be known as a process that often includes cleaning the interior to get a vehicle as close to "as-new', or at least as "passable', as possible.

The actual word is derived from a much older definition of a "valet' which has been used for more than two hundred years to describe a personal servant responsible for the appearance of an upper-class gentleman. In this instance a valet would clean and press clothes, and often be in charge of the personal hygiene for their master. In the same way, a valeter now can be deemed responsible for the appearance and cleanliness of a vehicle, or a number of vehicles. In the motor trade, this is still very much the case with many valeters employed by car dealers to make sure their vehicles are passable for sale.

As for the actual valeting process? Well, this is where the lines start to blur because over the years valeting seems to have has transformed from a simple wash, dry and interior vacuum to (particularly when detailing came on the scene) include much more in-depth processes, like safe washing, snow foaming, hand polishing and using interior cleaners or dressings.

It's true that even a traditional car valet has many tiers, often denoted by a distinct pricing structure, but other than applying a wax or polish by hand, or the occasional tree sap decontamination, the cleaning side is usually about as far as it goes. Although that doesn't necessarily mean that the cleaning processes, or the valeting products involved, are any less than what you'd get when your vehicle is being cleaned by a detailer. Valeting is, after all, primarily a cleaning service, and the better the clean, the closer it will be to what you'd expect from a detail.

Detailing - the enhancement and restoration service

Detailing on the other hand, can be seen as more of an enhancement service. Whereas a vehicle will always need a valet from time to time to keep it clean, that doesn't mean it will necessarily need a full detail, because a detail is all about enhancing and protecting surfaces to an unbeatable standard.

Car detailing, in the UK at least, is a term that's seems to have come over from the USA in the mid 1990s, and one that's used to describe the most in-depth form of car cleaning and, perhaps most crucially of all, the correction of defects, along with restoration, refinement and enhancement of all vehicle surfaces. More than that, detailing goes even further, enhancing parts that simple valeting doesn't cover. Whether that's breaking out the cotton buds to polish the most intricate metal parts, machining interior gloss trim or removing wheels to clean and decontaminate inner arches and chassis parts, concours style. Detailers simply go further and harder in order to achieve the ultimate result.

The actual word "detailing' has been, and still is, used in other areas, most notably in the art world where it describes "the small, often elaborate features or elements added to a design or work'. This definition is undeniably mirrored when it comes to detailing cars. As the word would suggest, it's all about these finer details. In this way, detailing can be seen as the act of pushing a vehicle beyond the realm of valeting, to strive for a condition that's even better than new. Most importantly detailing is seen as less of a quick, commercialised job designed to make money over completing a number of vehicles in the fastest possible time. It's more an operation that requires specialist skills, and takes place over an elongated timeframe to focus on achieving and protecting the very best finish.

Detailing came along at a time when there were very few specialist products available to non-trade consumers. With a long history of immaculate vehicles built for nothing more than car shows in the US, detailing as we know it brought with it education to the mass market and enthusiasts on processes like safe washing (including the importance of a thorough pre-wash procedure), paintwork decontamination and refinement with regards to swirl mark and defect removal, restoration and the protective properties of waxes, sealants and coatings. It's hard to believe we know, but when a need for detailing started to develop here, there were only a handful commercially available car care products, and these were usually limited to car shampoos, general purpose polishes and waxes, and the odd dash or tyre shine - nothing like the range of specialist, decontamination, pre-wash and correction compounds that we have today.

Perhaps the most obvious distinction is that you can look at detailers as surface correction specialists, most obviously paintwork, but with the skills to restore and refine other materials, like gloss plastics, glass and fabrics, both inside and out. Detailer's not only have to master the cleaning processes, but learn specialist skills like machine polishing through single and multi-stage correction processes on many different types of paintwork - and for many this is where the real difference lies. It's true to say that a detailer can do a valeter's job, but not the other way around.
Like perfect valeting, detailing can be learned through training and experience, but these wholly specialist processes tend to take a lot longer to master.

So, where's the crossover?

As we said, it's the methods that have moved on. The bucket, sponge and wax-infused shampoo of 20-years ago has evolved just as much as customer expectations. Valeters have had to moved with it to include pre-washing, snow foaming, two-bucket washes, interior deep cleaning and even light decontamination, hand polishing and application of protection into their services. Nowadays of course, a top-end valeter will be perfectly adapt at providing a safe, swirl-free wash because valeting is a bona fide professional trade, one that takes training and skill, and shouldn't be confused with what's offered by a "hand car wash' in a supermarket car park. While there will always be different levels (and, as with any trade from valeters and detailers to mechanics to builders, some are better than others and command different prices on reputation), a good valeter nowadays will be a detailer up to a point - usually when it comes to the correction of harsh defects and orange peel through machine polishing and specialisms like wet sanding. You could say that the only difference is how far they go, and how much time is spent, to achieve the desired result.

The same can be said for the products used. We have created many specialist detailing products over the years, but the vast majority have become high-end valeting products, too. Simply by default, because modern, professional valeters will choose to use them to complete exactly the same detailing processes. The kind of products that were available to the valeters of years gone by are a far cry from what's out there now, and the traditional idea that a valeter does nothing but remove the dirt from a vehicle with his sponge, is hugely outdated. Again, this is part education, and part the products and processes they choose to utilise to do the best possible job in the correct timeframe. In short, the art of valeting has moved on.

Of course, for many there's a hard line to be drawn, we've heard the difference between a valeter and a detailer described in all sorts of ways, analogies like the being a cook or a chef, or a mechanic and a technician. But, it's also clear that it can be very much a case of blurred lines, it's not unusual to see a high-end professional valeter pick up a machine polisher for a single stage enhancement, any more than it's unusual for someone who calls themselves a detailer to not have the training and experience to be able to wield a polisher for maximum benefit. There clearly are exceptions to every rule.

But, for the most part at least, although no one that sees a distinction between valeting and detailing is wrong, what's most important here is that, when you really think about it, the two have never been closer…

Learn your trade!

Whether it's professional valeting, pro detailing or becoming a Master Detailer, we have a course for you to kickstart your career (or simply take your hobby to the next level) at the Auto Finesse Detailing Academy. Check out our Academy Courses, to see what we can do for you.


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