Using an automotive Clay Bar to mechanically decontaminate your car’s paintwork is an essential stage of the detailing process. The question of how often should you clay bar your car is a common one, often asked by those new to the car detailing scene. In this article we’ll explore the factors that will influence when to, and how often to clay bar your car.
What you should know about using a clay bar on your car
You’ve washed your car and it’s clean – right?
Wrong! Your car is most likely covered with bonded contaminants. These tiny, almost invisible particles of contamination build up over time. They are near impossible to remove safely with normal washing methods.
In order to achieve a flawless, perfectly clean finish to your car’s paintwork, from time to time, you need to safely and effectively remove these bonded contaminants.
Detailing Clay Bars are the perfect solution as the soft, malleable clay can grab and absorb these tiny particles. Clay bars gently pull these tiny particles off the surface of your car. Think of a clay bar like the eraser on the end of a pencil, slowly removing the unwanted debris.
What does using a clay bar on a car do?
Using a clay bar on the paintwork of your car helps to remove bonded contaminants, including:
- Iron particles
- Tar spots
- Tree sap
- Plant pollen
- Dried bug splatter
- Water spots
- Mineral deposits
- Chemical deposits
Factors to consider before claying your car?
How often to clay your car will vary depending on a range of factors, including:
- How often the car is driven?
- How many miles does the car drive each week/month/year?
- Is the car garaged or parked outside?
- Do you live or work in a rural or urban environment?
- Do you live or work in an area with a high level of industrial fallout?
- How often do you wash your car?
- Is the car waxed, protected, or ceramic coated?
How often the car is driven?
Frequently driven or daily driven cars will generally suffer from higher levels of bonded contaminant, even if those journeys are relatively short.
How many miles does the car drive each week/month/year?
The more miles you drive each year, the more your car will be exposed to harsh road contamination. This contamination includes road salts (winter), grit, tar spots, plus iron fallout caused by brake dust and bug splatter (summer).
Is the car garaged or parked outside?
If your car spends most of its life parked outside, then it will be exposed to more airborne contaminants. These include tree sap, bird mess, airborne dust/dirt and contamination from other vehicles as they pass by.
Cars lucky enough to spend some, or a lot of time garaged, away from the day-to-day outdoor environment, are often far less contaminated than their outdoor counterparts.
Do you live or work in a rural or urban environment?
If your car spends a lot of time in urban environments, then there is a good chance it will be exposed to more industrial fallout. It will also be exposed to more airborne dust and debris from construction sites, plus iron fallout (brake dust) and exhaust particulates from passing vehicles.
Those vehicles that are based in more rural areas are typically more contaminated with tree sap, plant pollen, bird bombs, bug splatter and airborne dust/dirt.
Do you live or work in an area with a high level of industrial fallout?
If you work in a heavy industry, then the factory, mill or plant where you work, may generate a great deal of chemical or industrial fallout. The fallout generated by these businesses might then fall from a smoke stack, chimney or cooling tower, straight onto your car’s paintwork.
How often do you wash your car?
The more time contaminants have to bond to your car’s bodywork, the harder they are to remove. Regular maintenance washes will help to remove most of the contamination which builds up in-between these washes.
Is the car waxed, protected, or ceramic coated?
Some waxes and paint sealants can help to prevent certain types of contaminants from fully bonding to the paintwork. With regular washing, many of these lesser contaminants will naturally be washed away.
Ceramic coatings provide an extremely hard barrier between your paintwork and any external fallout or contamination. Only the harshest of contamination will be able to bond to the coating.
How do I know if my car needs to be clayed?
You can generally ‘feel’ when your car needs a clay bar treatment. After washing your car, when the paintwork is clean but still wet, gently run your finger-tips across the surface of each body panel to feel for any rough spots. If your feel any tiny lumps or bumps, you’re feeling bonded contaminants that need to be removed.
If the contamination is really bad, and you perform the fingertip test on clean, dry panels, it can sound like you’re rubbing your hand on sandpaper!
Some less experienced, or amateur detailers prefer to use the ‘plastic bag method’. This is where you put your hand inside of a clean plastic bag, then gently wipe the plastic bag across the surface of your freshly washed and dried car. If anything grabs at the plastic bag, or you feel any rough spots, then you know that you need to clay your car.
How often should I clay bar my car?
A good rule of thumb is that almost all cars will benefit from a clay bar treatment at least once a year. The precise frequency will depend on the types of bonded contaminants that affect your car’s paintwork.
Remember, some types of bonded contaminants can be removed easily with chemicals. For an example, iron particles, generated by vehicle brake discs when braking, can be dissolved and removed safely with the application of an iron fallout remover.
Similarly, road tar spots can be safely dissolved with a tar and glue remover, then easily wiped away with clean microfiber cloth.
A clay bar can remove tar spots and iron particles as well, but it’s not always necessary.
When should I use a clay bar on my car?
When should you clay bar a car? You should only use a clay bar on your car when you need to. It should not be part of your regular detailing routine. In general, you should only need to clay your car once or twice a year.
Depending on where you live, and the environments in which the car is driven and parked day-to-day, we recommend claying your car once at the end of the winter months or beginning of spring. This will help to cleanse the car of microscopic bonded contaminants like salt, grit, and tar which built up during the winter.
You may need to clay your car once more at the end of the summer months or in early autumn. Using a clay bar at the end of the summer will cleanse the car of bonded contamination like tree sap, plant pollen, bug splatter, road tar and iron fallout.
Can you clay bar your car too much?
Yes. Clay bars contain mild abrasives and because the clay bar comes into direct contact with your car, you can damage the paintwork when you use a clay bar, inducing swirls and micro-marring.
The damage can be minimised by using a good quality, dedicated clay lubricant with a fine grade or mild clay bar. You can also minimise any problems by following the tips and techniques in our PRO Detailer guide on How To Use a Clay Bar On Your Car correctly and safely.
The more you clay bar your car, the more potential that there is for you to inflict minor damage to the clear coat. Even if your car is a daily driver, or racks up high mileage each year, you can minimise the need to clay bar your car with a few simple steps:
- Wash your car more frequently
- Apply a ceramic coating or paint sealant
- Wash your car with a high strength decontamination shampoo
Wash your car more frequently
By washing your car more frequently, you will reduce the amount of contaminants on the surface of your car’s paintwork. Regular maintenance washes will limit the amount of time that contaminants have to bond to the clearcoat. For a complete step-by-step guide on how to safely wash your car, check out our PRO Detailer in-depth guide.
Apply a ceramic coating or paint sealant
Modern ceramic coatings offer an extremely hard, chemically resistant barrier between your paintwork and the external environment. Many harsh and heavy contaminants simply can’t bond to the coating, so are washed away during routine car washes.
Wash your car with a high strength decontamination shampoo
Once every 6-8 weeks, wash your car with a high strength decontamination shampoo. Some of these products use high alkaline formulations, stronger detergents or diminishing abrasives in the shampoo formula. The extra cleaning abilities or these additives can remove more embedded and bonded contaminants than regular shampoos. The downside is that they will also strip most Last Stage Protection (LSP) products like waxes, glazes and paint sealants. Always re-apply a coating of your preferred LSP product after using a decon-shampoo.
For a complete step-by-step guide on how to use the two bucket car wash method check out our PRO Detailer in-depth guide.
Can a clay bar scratch or damage your paintwork?
As a clay bar makes physical contact with your paintwork, the clay bar can potentially damage your paintwork. But with careful use, and with the proper products and precautions, any damage inflicted will be minimal and invisible to the all but the closest of inspections.
In fact, if you follow our PRO Detailer guide on How To Use a Clay Bar On Your Car, you shouldn’t inflict any damage at all!
The minor damage that a clay bar can sometimes inflict is called micro-marring. Micro-marring is essentially tiny, microscopic scratches to the clear coat of your paintwork.
As most detailers only use a clay bar on the paintwork of a car before paint correction, any microscopic damage caused by claying the car will be corrected by machine polishing at a later stage.
Can you clay bar a car in the sun?
The question ‘Can you clay bar a car in the sun?’ is one we’re often asked at PRO Detailer Tips. You can clay bar a car in the sun but it’s not ideal and should be avoided if possible. But providing you take precautions to minimise the risk of marring your paintwork, you can clay bar your car in sunlight.
We advise that you work in smaller sections and use plenty of clay lube. If the panels are warm or hot to the touch, soak them in water first to help cool them down before using a clay bar in the sun. Keep spritzing the panels with water as you work if necessary.
Keep the panels wet and lubricated if claying your car in the sun. DON’T let the panel you’re claying dry out!
There’s a lot of useful information in our guide on The Best Way to Wash Your Car in the Sun: 10 Essential PRO Tips which will transfer to using a clay bar in the sun:
- Clay your car in early in the morning or late in the evening
- Clay in the shade and turn the car midway through the process
- Use an awning or pop-up shelter
- Apply sunscreen – to yourself, not the car
- Use a pressure washer or garden hose to cool the panels before claying
- Work in small sections one panel at a time
- Use plenty of clay lube
- Plan ahead and prepare your equipment before claying
If at all possible – avoid using a clay bar on your car in the sun.
Should you clay bar a new car?
Yes. The journey a brand-new car takes from the factory to the dealer can take days, weeks or months, depending on where in the world the car was produced. Your brand-new car may have travelled by road, rail or sea, even all three!
If your brand-new car was transported via road, it will have been subjected to exactly the same kinds of dirt, fallout and contamination as it will during your ownership. Tiny particles of dirt, dust, oil, grease, brake dust, iron particles, tar spots, tree sap, bug splatter, bird bombs and exhaust emissions will have stuck to and contaminated the paint.
If your brand-new car was transported by rail, it will likely have been subjected to even more brake dust and iron contamination from the train carriage brakes and railway tracks. There could even be dirt, dust, oil, grease, bug guts and some bird poo splatter too.
Maybe your brand-new car was built in a factory in another country and was transported on a ship across the ocean, or several oceans! Whilst these vehicles are transported in a controlled environment whilst onboard the transport vessel, they are often delivered with other forms of contamination. Notably, these new cars will sit on the dockside for hours, sometimes days whilst they wait to be carefully loaded and unloaded. Sea spray, salt water and bird bombs from resident seagulls are the most common issues here.
All of these forms of bonded contamination will need to be removed carefully and safely and the clay bar is often the best method of decontamination.
Should I use a clay bar before polishing my car?
Here at PRO Detailer Tips, we advise that you fully decontaminate your car with a clay bar prior to machine polishing it.
Before you attempt any machine polishing or paint correction, always chemically and mechanically decontaminate your car.
After performing a safe contact wash, chemically decontaminate your vehicle with an iron fallout remover, then tar and glue remover. The final stage of the decontamination process is to use a good quality automotive clay bar before machine polishing your car.
If you don’t clay bar your car before paint correction, you risk the polishing pad dislodging some previously bonded contaminants. These tiny particles of contamination will be picked up by the wool, foam or microfiber polishing pad on your rotary or DA machine polisher and will marr or even scratch your paintwork. If this happens, your polishing pad will be inducing damage to the paint, not correcting it!
How long does it take to claybar a car?
When working in ideal conditions, or indoors, an average sized car will take 25-35 minutes to clay bar. Larger vehicles will take longer, smaller cars and convertibles, will take less time.
How long does a clay bar last for?
If stored correctly, good quality automotive clay bars can last for a surprisingly long time – 2-3 years is not unheard of.
Clay bars are often sold in 200g-300g slabs and in different grades of clay – Fine, Medium or Coarse. When using a clay bar on your car, you don’t need to use the entire slab of clay.
To decontaminate a typical, average sized car, a single 50g piece of clay will suffice.
Toss a couple of 50g pieces of new clay into a bucket of hot water and allow to soften for a few minutes before use.
What should I do with a part used clay bar?
Clay bars can’t be recycled or used for any other purpose so need to be safely disposed of after use. After claying your car, if your vehicle was not heavily contaminated, you might want to keep the piece of clay to use on the glass or wheel barrels at a later date.
Similarly, a lightly used piece of clay could be kept to use on the very lowest parts of your car, for example, on the underside of the side skirts, where contamination can be heavier.
If you drop your clay on the ground IMMEDIATELY THROW IT AWAY – DO NOT just fold, knead and carry on. The only contaminants that the clay bar can safely absorb are those tiny particles which are bonded to your car. Particles of dirt and grit on the ground cannot be safely absorbed by the clay bar and WILL DAMAGE your paintwork if used.
If you drop your clay on the ground IMMEDIATELY THROW IT AWAY – DO NOT just fold, knead and carry on.
Automotive clay is not overly expensive and is a rarely used, sacrificial item. It is best practice to throw away used clay bars in order to minimise the risk of inflicting damage on your paintwork the next time you clay bar your car.
Use a fresh piece of clay each time you use a clay bar on your car.
Although there is no set schedule which determines how often should I clay bar my car, we have established that it is possible to clay bar your car too much. There are many factors which will affect how often to clay bar car. These include how often you wash your car, how many miles you drive and where the car is parked. Another factor is if the car is ceramic coated or not.
The fact that you can feel many bonded contaminants with your finger-tips during and after the wash process, means that you should be able easily assess if and when your car needs a clay bar treatment by how smooth the paint feels to the touch.