How To Resources

How to Clay A Car

Vehicles are exposed to the elements on a daily basis, collecting contaminants that bond to the surface of the paint. These may include brake dust, rail dust, overspray and acid rain. These pollutants do not come off with regular car washing. In the old days, the only way to remove these bonded contaminants was to compound or polish off the defects. While these methods may have been effective, they also had a significant downside. Clear coat is the very thin top layer of coating on a vehicle, protecting the base coat (color) from damaging sun rays and other harmful influences. Since compound and polish are essentially sand paper in a bottle, using either of these to remove the bonded contaminants also results in the removal of some clear coat.

In the 1980’s automotive detailing clay was invented and it was like magic! A clay bar had the remarkable ability to remove bonded contaminants without thinning the clear coat. The best way to determine if a car's paint needs clay is the “Plastic Bag Test”. After washing with a clean microfiber wash mitt, feel the surface of the car with your hand inside a plastic bag. If the clean surface feels rough, it's time.

The procedure is relatively simple. It's not necessary to dry the car, but it is important for the clay to glide easily. A solution to lubricate the clay will be needed. Some people use soapy water, but this may not always provide sufficient lubrication. The best clay lubricant is detailing spray, quick detailer, spray wax or quick wax in a spray bottle. Waterless washes may also work well. Working a panel at a time, (approximately a 2’ x 2’ area), simply spray the clay and the car with the clay lube and rub the surface with the clay in a zigzag motion. Do not rub in circles. Wipe the area with a brand new clean microfiber towel that has never been used with any other product. Feel the surface again with the plastic bag. If it still feels rough, keep working on that panel. If it’s smooth, move on to the next panel. And don’t forget about the roof!

Never clay without polishing afterward and never polish without claying beforehand. Why not skip the clay and go straight to polishing after washing? The answer is because the act of polishing will push bonded particles deeper into the clear coat creating scratches. Why not skip the polish and go straight to the finishing step? This is because the act of claying results in microscopic marring of the surface. Each particle that has been removed leaves behind a tiny space, so the surface will appear dull after claying. In order to bring back the shine, apply a fine polish, either by hand or with a random orbital dual action polisher.

Still considered a major advance in detailing technology, the clay bar does pose a few challenges. First, it can take over two hours to completely decontaminate a car with a clay bar. The surface area is very small, around 2” x 3”. In addition, as it lifts particles from the car, the bar becomes contaminated and so becomes less effective. Several times throughout the process, it must be turned over and kneaded to create a clean working surface. Completely covering a large vehicle with such a small face can be very time consuming.

A huge consideration is that if the bar is dropped, it will pick up whatever particles it touches and transfer scratches to the surface. Discard immediately - no 5-second rule!

One 200-gram clay bar can decontaminate approximately 12 vehicles. At $20 - $30 per bar, the cost per car is $1.50 - $2.50. If it gets dropped, the cost per car is $20 - $30! That can get expensive.

Several years ago, new synthetic clay products were introduced. A rubber-like surface is fused to a microfiber towel or wash mitt, foam sponge or Velcro DA pad. This created a real revolution in automotive detailing. Advantages include:

  1. Speed - The larger clay surface allows for more area coverage in a shorter time, effectively reducing work time from 2 hours to around 30-40 minutes.
  2. It Can Be Dropped – Simply throw it into the wash bucket with soapy water, rub it on the Grit Guard and keep claying!
  3. Cost Effective – Ranging in price from $14 - $45, the new clay products can decontaminate anywhere from 25 -60 cars. This reduces cost per car from $1.50-$2.50 down to 50¢ to 75¢.

Automotive claying has become a critical step in the process of proper paint correction.  Professional detailer or car enthusiast, using state of the art detailing products and procedures will help keep cars maintained and beautiful for many years.


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