The development of the capability to engineer the surface properties of materials to match specific requirements demands high quality surface characterization techniques. The ideal tool should provide chemically specific structural characterization as well as surface sensitivity and depth profiling. Ideally the characterization method should also be applicable to systems both with and without long range order. X-ray absorption spectroscopy fine structure, when using the standard transmission detection system, provides all this information with the significant exception of surface sensitivity. In contrast, by detecting the reflected instead of the transmitted beam, it encompasses all these requirements because when the incident beam impinges onto a sample surface at glancing angles, in conditions close to the total reflection, only the outermost regions of the system under study are sampled. Such a technique provides information about the local structure as a function of depth as well as thin layer structure in the case of layered samples. Although it is potentially the ideal tool to study surface modified materials, experimental difficulties have hampered its widespread use in the fields of surface and materials sciences. As a solution to the experimental challenges, we provide a detailed description of an appropriate experimental station, the sample requirements, the measuring protocols, and software routines needed to optimize the collection of the data. To illustrate the capabilities of the technique the results obtained for a model multilayer sample are presented and analyzed under the total external reflection approximation. (c) 2007 American Institute of Physics.