You may have seen PRO Detailers using a clay bar and wondered what on earth is going on! Why would anyone knead and mould a ball of clay in their hands before rubbing it back and forth, all over the bodywork of a car?
In this guide we’ll share our clay bar tips and explain how to clay bar your car safely and effectively, as part of your paintwork decontamination process. Our clay bar tips will also include when to use a clay bar and how often you need to clay 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 finish to your car’s paintwork, you need to safely remove these bonded contaminants.
Detailing Clay Bars are the perfect solution as the soft, malleable clay can grab and absorb these tiny particles, gently pulling them 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
Can a clay bar damage your car?
The golden rule with detailing your vehicle is this:
“Any contact is bad contact.”
As a clay bar makes physical contact with your paintwork, the clay bar ‘can’ damage your paintwork. But with careful use, and with the proper products, damage will be minimal and not visible to the naked eye.
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 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 PRO 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.
Do brand new cars need to be clayed?
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.
When should I use a clay bar on my 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 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 contamination like tree sap, bug splatter, road tar and iron fallout.
Should I use a clay bar before polishing my car?
There is one other time when we advise that you fully decontaminate your car with a clay bar. 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. Finally, you should always use a clay bar before machine polishing your car.
If you don’t clay 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 pad on the machine polisher and will marr or even scratch your paintwork. Your polishing pad will be inducing damage, not correcting it.
How often should I clay bar my car?
How often should I clay bar my car will depend on a number 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/work in a rural or urban environment?
- Do you live/work in an area with a high level of industrial fallout?
- Is the car waxed, protected, or ceramic coated?
A good rule of thumb is that almost all cars will benefit from a claying at least once a year. The precise frequency will depend on the types of bonded contaminants that affect your car’s paintwork.
Some types of bonded contaminants can be removed with chemicals. As an example, iron particles can be dissolved and removed with the application of an iron fallout remover. Tar spots can be 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.
If you want to learn more about How Often Should You Clay Bar Your Car, read our full, in-depth article. Let PRO Detailer Tips explain how often to clay your car!
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’. Place your hand inside of a clean plastic bag, then gently wipe the bag across the surface of your car. If anything grabs at the plastic bag, or you feel any rough spots, then you know that you need to clay your car.
What do you need to clay your car?
There are several options when it comes to the type of clay product you might want to use when claying your car. You’ll need one of the following:
- Automotive Clay Bar
- Clay Cloth
- Clay Mitt
- Synthetic Clay Substitute
In addition to a clay bar or synthetic clay, you’ll need the following items:
- Quick Detailer Spray (or)
- Clay Lube Spray
- Microfiber Towels
Preparing a car for claying
Immediately before using a clay bar to decontaminate your car, you must wash the vehicle safely and thoroughly. For a full, in-depth explanation of the safe wash process, check out our guide on how to safely wash your car.
First, safely wash your car using the two bucket method. Next, we advise that you chemically decontaminate your vehicle before claying your car. If you follow our step-by-step guide on safely washing your car, after Step 8: Drying Your Car, add in the chemical decontamination stage. Use both an iron fallout remover and tar and glue remover.
Chemical decontamination stage
When applied, a vehicle’s disc brakes generate brake dust which contains tiny, red hot iron particles. If these red hot iron particles, hit your paintwork, they can bond to the clear coat on your car. The normal wash process can’t remove them but they can be dissolved with the application of an iron fallout remover.
The chemicals in most iron fallout removers typically change color when they chemically react with iron particles. Most change color from a clear liquid chemical to a deep purple liquid. This is why they’re often referred to as ‘bleeding’ fallout removers. Once the color change has occurred, simply rinse the treated area with a pressure washer. This will remove the chemical and the dissolved particle residue.
Tar spots are generated by melted road tar and can be loosened and sometimes dissolved with a chemical tar and glue remover. The chemicals in tar removers react with the tar spots, dissolving them, then leaving tiny brownish trails of dissolved tar behind. Any remaining chemicals can be rinsed away with a pressure washer and stubborn tar spot residue can be easily wiped away with clean microfiber cloth.
Once your car has been washed, rinsed, chemically decontaminated, then rinsed again, you’re ready to begin the claying process.
How to use a clay bar on your car
Clay bars are often sold in 200g-300g slabs and in different grades of clay – Fine, Medium or Coarse. The coarser the grade of clay, the faster it will exfoliate and decontaminate the paintwork. But the coarser the grade of clay, the more damaging it can be to your clearcoat.
If you’re new to the clay bar process, or are unsure how to use a clay bar on your car, we recommend you start with Fine Grade Automotive Clay. It will still remove the maximum amount of bonded contaminants, it just may require a fraction more time and effort to get there. Better to take a little more time and use a fine grade clay, than rush in with coarse clay and possibly marr the paintwork on your car.
How much clay will I need?
To fully clay an average sized car, SUV or pickup truck, you only need a 50g piece of clay bar. Fresh, fine grade automotive clay can be very stiff and difficult to use. It needs to be worked and kneaded, like bread dough, to gain some elasticity.
One method to generate elasticity is to work it in your hands by folding it half and kneading it between your fingers, repeatedly until the clay is soft and malleable. The PRO Detailer method is to pour a jug or two of hot water (not boiling) into a clean, empty bucket and toss in a couple of 50g pieces of clay. If your bucket has a lid, keep the lid on to retain heat in the bucket. After a few minutes in the bucket of hot water, carefully retrieve a piece of clay and work it in your hands to make a thin, flat disc of clay.
What is the best clay lubricant?
Working methodically, one panel at a time, mist on some Clay Lubricant or Quick Detailer Spray directly onto the paintwork and the surface of the clay bar. Make sure to get a thin, even coating of lubricant over the entire panel that you’re working on.
Place the soft, malleable piece of clay onto the paintwork and gently work the clay back and forth, several times, in short, straight, overlapping lines, across the panel. You don’t need to apply any pressure, simply let the clay bar glide over the surface of the panel, collecting contaminants as it goes. You should be able to feel and sometimes hear the clay bar picking up contaminants as it glides over the surface of the car. If needed, or if the clay ‘sticks’ to the paintwork, apply more lubricant to the panel and clay bar, then continue the claying process.
Regularly inspect the clay for contamination
After working a small section of the panel, inspect the face of the clay bar. You may notice that the clay bar has become discolored, appears ‘stained’ and has tiny black or brown streaks running across it. This is perfectly normal – this is the contamination which the clay has removed from your car! Simply fold the clay in half, then in half again, and knead it to make a ‘fresh disc’ of clay. The clay bar will have absorbed the microscopic contamination and you’re ready to clay the next section of your car.
Clay bar inspection routine
It’s good practice to regularly inspect the face of the clay bar to see how much contamination is being removed. Certain areas of the car will naturally be more heavily contaminated than others. So contamination levels will vary from panel to panel. Always fold and knead your clay bar at the end of each panel. Do this more frequently on heavily contaminated areas.
To check your work, gently run your fingertips over the panel that you’ve just clayed and see if you can feel any tiny lump, bumps or roughness. If you do, clay the area again, making sure to apply more lubricant and knead your clay bar. If the paintwork feels perfectly smooth and ‘glass-like’, great job! Move on to the next section.
From start to finish, using a clay bar to thoroughly decontaminate your car should take no more than 45 minutes for beginners, or 20-30 minutes for experts. You can also use your clay bar to decontaminate exterior glass and wheels too.
What do you do after claying your car?
Now that you know how to use a cay bar on your car, and you’ve successfully clayed your car, you need to consider what to do next. After claying your car, the paintwork will be fully decontaminated and glassy smooth. But it will be completely unprotected.
Using a clay bar on your car will removed any bonded contaminants but it will also remove any sacrificial protection, waxes or paint sealants which you may have previously applied.
You have the following choices:
- Do nothing
- Apply a glaze or resin polish
- Apply a wax or paint sealant
- Compound and polish for full paint correction
If you’ve made it this far into our guide on how to use a clay bar on your car, you’re unlikely to choose option one.
Before doing anything, we recommend that immediately after using a clay bar on your car, you wash the car again. Use a pH neutral, wax free car shampoo and clean wash mitt. Washing your car after claying will help to remove any clay lube residue, clay bar fragments, or any previously bonded contaminants that were not cleared away from the paintwork by the clay bar itself.
Apply a Glaze or Resin Polish
Option two, applying a glaze or resin polish after using a clay bar on your vehicle is a quick way to fill or mask any slight imperfections in the paintwork. Light swirl marks from contact washing and fine scratches can be hidden as the resins in the glaze fill the imperfections in the clearcoat, helping light to reflect from the surface of the paint, not the ‘valleys’ that are the scratches and swirls.
Applying a glaze or resin based polish will add some protection, boost gloss and improve hydrophobicity but the overall effects are temporary and will only last for a few months. Once the glaze degrades, and the swirls become more visible, you can apply a fresh coat to mask the defects once again.
Apply a Wax or Paint Sealant
Option three is the least that you should do after claying your car. By applying a wax or paint sealant, you add a layer of protection to your glass-like smooth paintwork, increase hydrophobicity and boost gloss and shine. Some tinted waxes can help to mask swirl marks but in general, waxes and paint sealants don’t do as good a job of hiding imperfections as glazes.
Waxes and paint sealants do offer slightly longer term protection. Modern synthetic paint sealants able to offer very long lasting UV protection, hydrophobicity and chemical resistance.
Compound and Polish for Full Paint Correction
The very best thing to do after using a clay bar on your car is to then undertake a full paint correction. This is best done with a machine polisher, either rotary polisher or dual action (DA) polisher.
Paint correction can be done by hand but will take significantly longer. Added to which, the final results won’t be as consistent as machine polishing.
Machine polishing your car will remove a microscopic layer of clear coat, levelling off the peaks and troughs created by the scratches and swirls.
Once machine polishing and paint correction is complete, the application of a ceramic coating is the best option to protect your perfected clear coat finish. At the very least, a wax or paint sealant should be applied.
What should I do with my old 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.
Automotive clay is not overly expensive and is a rarely used, sacrificial item. It is best practice to throw away used clay bars. This minimises the risk of inflicting damage on your paintwork the next time you clay bar your car.
Using a clay bar on your car is a vital stage in decontaminating your paintwork. It quickly and safely removes bonded contamination. If you follow our guide on how to use a clay bar on your car, you’ll be able to achieve a glassy, smooth, contaminant free finish. All without inflicting any visible damage to your clear coat.
Claying your car is a vital stage in preparing the paintwork before machine polishing and paint correction. After reading this article, you’ll understand that it’s a rarely needed, yet important tool in your car detailing arsenal.