Today: headliner cleaning tips that keep the sky from falling.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | May 01, 2011

Dear Tom and Ray:

I recently purchased a '99 Chevy Suburban. It's replacing an '87 Suburban (which I call my "Sanford and Son" truck, and my daughter simply calls "Rusty"). The '99 is a great vehicle, in good shape, but is pretty grubby inside. Rather than send it to a detail shop, my daughter has offered to clean it (for a price) in order to keep the money in the family. She is very meticulous and thorough, and plans to clean every inch of the interior. Our question is this: How can she safely clean the headliner without the risk of having it delaminate? We have had several cars, including the '87 Suburban, where the cloth separated from the foam backing and had to be stapled back into place -- not very attractive. I'm afraid that vacuuming it might cause it to separate, and I'm also concerned that an upholstery shampoo might act as a solvent and dissolve the glue. Aside from hoping the manufacturers are making headliners better than they used to, do you have any suggestions? Thanks. -- Andrew & Chrissy


TOM: How should your daughter clean the headliner, Andrew? Very, very carefully.

RAY: You're right to worry about it. Somehow, headliner technology hasn't managed to keep up with, say, the physics they're using in the Large Hadron Superconducting Supercollider.

TOM: And we won't really know if the technology has improved until the current generation of cars gets to be 15 or 20 years old.

RAY: We checked with our go-to car detailer, Greg at The Car Salon in Cambridge, Mass. He agrees that you need to proceed with caution.

TOM: He says he never uses a vacuum on a headliner. He uses a mild soap and a small amount of water on a sponge or cloth, and rubs the headliner very gently. Then he wipes it off the same way.

RAY: He says you don't want to use a lot of soap or water, because that can easily seep through the headliner and break down the glue.

TOM: The other issue he runs into with headliners is odor. Headliners are wonderful at absorbing and retaining every nasty scent that has ever passed through your car.

RAY: So if you've already shampooed the seats, the carpets, the door panels and the windows, and can't figure out why the car still smells like Uncle Nunzio's cigars, look to the headliner.

TOM: Washing it, as Greg suggests, probably will help. But you also might hit it with a light spray of Febreze or something similar.

RAY: Or, in the case of my brother's car, some napalm.

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