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Clay Bar: A Secret Weapon for Auto Detailing

A photograph of a clay bar towel

We’ve learned that frequent and proper washing of a vehicle is essential to preserving the shine of its factory finish. Proper car washing technique is the key here (as detailed in one of our previous posts: Proper Car Washing Technique) – as the very act of washing a car can cause damage to painted surfaces by brushing dirt and grime around, and thus, scratching the clear coat surface.

Yet even after a good thorough wash the car isn’t as clean as it could be.  Washing is great for removing relatively large dirt and grime particles – the dirt, dust, and grime that is visible with the naked eye.  Though washing alone can’t remove microscopic contaminants from the surface of the clear coat – there is a secret weapon that can: Detailing Clay.

Detailing clay was developed in the 1980’s in Japan as a mixture of resins that could remove over-spray from the surface of painted surfaces without the use of compound or harsh chemicals.  Protected by a patent, it wasn’t available in the United States until the early 1990’s.  Now that the patent has expired, there are many companies manufacturing automotive detailing clay – making it cheap and readily available for both professional detail operations and the home detailer.  Detailing clay has progressed into a soft, sticky, clay-like product that will safely and easily remove contaminants from automotive surfaces such as paint, glass, and plastic.  Within the last few years detailing clay has become even simpler and now comes in the form of a synthetic clay towel.  These synthetic clay towels act just like a clay bar, yet they can be washed and re-used!

Over-spray, tree sap, road grime, bugs, brake dust, industrial fallout, etc. will embed into the surface of the clear coat – causing it to have a rough, bumpy feel to it. After a thorough washing these contaminants may no longer be seen, but they can be felt. Gently rubbing one’s finger tips over a painted surface will reveal the presence of these microscopic contaminants. Fortunately, automotive clay bar will remove these contaminants – leaving a super clean, contaminant free surface.

Detailing clay is simple to use, yet can be easily misused. The sticky, adhesive nature of the clay is what removes contaminants – not the friction from applying downward pressure. Applying too much pressure can cause scratching – use a gentle light touch to simply slide the clay across the surface (let the clay do the work). Stubborn contaminants may need more passes with the clay – not more pressure. It is also important to discard a clay bar if it is dropped on the ground. The same adhesive nature of the clay that removes contaminants will also pick up dust, sand, or other material from the ground. Obviously, rubbing a clay bar with sand embedded will scratch the painted surface!

It is also important to lubricate the surface and the clay bar before using. One can either use a quick detailer product or a water/automotive wash solution as a lubricant during the clay bar process. Here at AQS we fill a clean wash bucket with fresh water and automotive wash solution and use a fresh wash mitt to lubricate our surface and clay. If using a waterless wash or spray detailer as lubricant, we recommend using a product that has some cleaning properties, but little or no protective properties. Our aim at this point is to remove contaminants – not seal them in. The idea of the lubricant is to allow the clay bar to move easily across the surface. Using clay without enough lubricant can cause marring and leave small, difficult to remove, pieces of clay behind.

A photograph showing proper use of a clay bar towel that is lubricated by a quick detail spray

Here we demonstrate the proper use of a clay bar towel – lubricating well with a quick detail spray.

The clay should be moved across the surface in straight, overlapping lines – not circles. Think of the clay as a farm tractor in a field – creating straight rows of freshly churned soil. When rubbing in circles it is too difficult to maintain a constant light downward pressure on the clay. Work in small 18″ x 18″ sections and keep kneading the clay to expose a clean clay surface. When drawing the clay bar across the surface you’ll feel the clay bar catch as it comes in contact with contaminants. Continue to make passes, adding lubrication until the surface has been cleaned. You’ll be able to tell when the surface has been cleaned of contaminants as the clay bar will slide effortlessly across the surface.

After claying, the painted surface is about as clean as it will get – the perfect time to protect the paint with a sealant or wax.

Here, we’ll provide a step-by-step procedure for using clay bar on your car:

  1. Wash the entire vehicle to remove as much large dirt and dust as possible. Rinse thoroughly.
  2. Clean and rinse the wash bucket and wash mitt. Refill with fresh water and automotive wash.
  3. Break off and flatten a piece of clay from the bar that is about 1/3 of the bar. Flatten this smaller piece for use.
  4. Use the fresh wash foam as a lubricant – wet the surface and the clay bar. Use light pressure in overlapping, back-and-forth lines to remove contaminants. Continue working on an area until the clay slides effortlessly across the surface. Stubborn contamination can require more passes or more lubrication to remove.
  5. Work from the top down – saving the dirtiest parts of the car for last.
  6. Knead the clay after every few sections to expose a clean clay surface.
  7. Reserve the cleanest clay for painted surfaces. Slightly used clay can be reserved to clean glass or rims.
  8. Once complete, rinse the entire vehicle again to remove residual clay bar lubricant or washing solution. Dry the surface with a clean microfiber towel
  9. Paint is now ready for a protection layer – either a sealant for a wax. Oh, man it looks good!
2 Comments
  1. Great article! My vehicle 2013 detailed 6 months ago. I am concerned about damaging the clearcoat. I have a clay bar(light) that is still in the original package can I use it or buy a new one? All my products are Chemical Guys. I would use their Luber and spray it on.

    Thank you for any advice.
    George Smith

    • admin

      Hello George – thanks for checking in! As long as the clay is still in the original packaging and hasn’t been used it should be fine. If the clay gets dropped on the ground or becomes visibly discolored with accumulated debris, it should be discarded. Remember that clay is a step in the cleaning process – it will often leave some fine abrasion marks behind. It is meant to clean the clear coat before a polish step. The polish step will remove any of the fine scratching and swirl marks, correct the paint, and ready the surface for a protective layer. So, in short, clay shouldn’t be the final step. If you aren’t comfortable machine polishing, we’d suggest skipping the clay until you can have the car professionally detailed as it can do more harm than good. Chemical Guys make some great products – we suggest also reading up on their website for tips on using their products. Thanks again, and please let us know if you have any additional questions!

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21670 Red Rum Drive, Suite 149
Ashburn, VA 20147
Phone: 571-291-9401
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