Every car finish shares a common
enemy: pollution. It relentlessly pursues your
car from the second it leaves the factory until your
car meets its ultimate demise. It's in the air
we breathe, it's on the roads we drive, and it
attaches to your car's paint, where it bonds and
begins a process of oxidation.
Surface contamination, as
shown by this diagram, are difficult to
clean or polish off, yet paint cleaning clay
removes it with ease.
When contaminants get a solid grip
on your car's paint, washing alone may not be enough
to remove them. Pre-wax cleaners also may not
be able to exfoliate large particles. In this
case, you have two choices: use a polishing
compound, which removes a lot of paint material, or
use a clay bar. Clay isn't a polish or a
compound, it is a surface preparation bar that
smoothes the paint and exfoliates contaminants.
Clay is not a cure-all or a replacement for
polishing. It's a tool for quickly and easily
removing surface contamination.
One of the many reasons for using
clay is the removal of brake dust. Brake dust
contamination, which attaches to painted rear
bumpers and adjoining surfaces, is a metallic
surface contaminant that can be removed safely and
effectively by using clay.
These are the two most
common retail kits available. On the
left is the Meguiar's
Quik Clay kit, which includes a bottle
of their popular Quik Detailer detailing
spray and a fine grade clay. On the
right is the Clay
Magic Perfect Finish kit, which includes
a soap-based lubricant and fine grade clay.
Clay is also very effective on
paint over-spray. If the over-spray is
particularly heavy, you may want to seek the
assistance of a professional. Tree sap and tar
specks can also be safely removed with a clay bar.
Recently, I have also started using
clay on my windows (exterior) to remove heavy road
film, bug deposits and water spots. It works
very well, and seems to outperform even the best
How do you know if you need to use a clay bar?
After thoroughly hand washing your car, feel the
surface of your car's paint. Do you feel bumps
and rough spots? These bumps are contaminants
attacking the finish of your car. Removing
these surface contaminants (road tar, acid rain
spots, bug residue, paint over-spray, brake pad
dust, hard water spots, etc.) will improve both the
look and health of your car's paint. By the
way, you can magnify your sense of touch by
inserting your fingertips into a sandwich bag or a
piece of cellophane.
No matter how well you hand-wash your car, many of
the contaminants that have worked their way into
your car's paint finish will remain. Have you
ever looked at your foam wax applicator pad after
applying a coat of wax? What do you think that
black stuff is? It's dirt, and you're waxing
over it, sealing it in.
Detailing clay isn't new. Paint and body shops
have been using it for years to remove paint
overspray. Clay is fairly new to the car
detailing market, and is very new to the consumer on
retail shelves. In the early days there was
always a concern that paint damage might occur if
New technology detailing clay bars
are made of fine polishing particles in a soft,
malleable "clay" medium that allows the
bar to be formed and kneaded. Some clay makers
add color to make the bar more attractive or to
identify bars of differing strength (coarseness).
Many clay products claim to contain no abrasives.
This is stretching the truth. The reason clay
manufacturers claim their products don't contain an
abrasive is because the general public thinks the
word "abrasive" refers only to aggressive,
paint removing materials. The fact is that the
abrasives in most automotive clay products are so
fine that you will not see any reduction in paint
gloss. After several uses, paint luster may
Still, I have heard some horror
stories about people ruining a Ferrari paint job
using a clay bar. I can see how this might be
true if an inappropriate product was used or if the
clay bar is used incorrectly.
Using clay is very easy, but you must follow the
instructions. Use clay incorrectly and you
will create a mess or scuff the surface of your
Before using detailing clay, you
must thoroughly clean and dry your car to remove any
loose dirt. Direct sunlight should not fall on
your car's surface, and it's best if the work area
is relatively cool to prevent rapid evaporation of
the clay lubricant.
Flatten your detailing clay
into a flat waffer that will fit comfortably
in your hand.
To use the clay bar, you spray a
lubricant on a small area of your car and rub the
clay back and forth with light to medium pressure.
If the lubricant begins to dry, you'll need to spray
more. Clay is fairly sticky and cannot be used
dry. Try using clay dry and you'll make a big
mess and scuff your paint.
After a few passes with the clay, rub your hand over
the area you cleaned to check for areas missed.
You should feel a distinct difference between the
areas you have clayed and the areas you have not
clayed. Keep rubbing until all
contamination bumps are gone. Finally, wipe
the clay residue off with a soft microfiber towel,
and buff to a nice luster. Just like
waxing, work in small areas.
When your clay is flattened
into a nice wafer, you spray both the clay
and the paint with clay lubricant and rub
the surface lightly with the clay.
Three or four passes over an area is
normally enough to do the job.
An alternative to spray
detailing lubricant is good old soapy water.
Be sure to rinse your wash mitt thoroughly
and use a fresh bucket of soapy water, not
what's left over from washing.
Check the clay bar frequently for
hard particles. When found, pick them off.
Make it a habit to occasionally knead and reform the
bar so that a fresh portion of the bar contacts your
car's paint. If you drop your bar of clay on
the ground, it's history. Toss it out.
Don't take any chances, discard the clay bar if it
becomes impregnated with grit. Read the
manufacturers' directions for the number of uses of
their clay bar. Do not overuse a clay bar.
When you're finished claying your
car, you should wash it to remove the lubricant
film, then go over it with a pre-wax cleaner to
finish cleaning the paint. Finally, seal your
freshly cleaned paint with your choice of wax or
After claying one or two
body panels, your clay will begin to look
dirty. Don't be alarmed, that's just
the clay doing its job. Flip the clay
over and use the other side. When both
sides are dirty, remold the clay into a ball
again and flatten to reveal a clean surface.
USES FOR CLAY
Clay isn't just for paint. You can use
detailing clay on any smooth, hard surface,
including glass and chrome. Do not use clay on
clear plastic, such as headlight lenses.
When I can no longer remold clay to
get a clean surface, I retire it for use on my
windows. The dirty clay will not harm glass,
and it's amazing how much dirt film clay can remove
from your exterior glass windows.
I also use my old clay to clean
wheels. Clay will safely remove stubborn,
embedded brake dust, tar and road film from all
factory wheels. Clay is not recommended on
wheels that do not have a factory clearcoat or
powder coat finish.
With just a little effort,
stubborn brake dust that even the strongest
cleaners won't remove comes off with
Over the past four years I have received a lot of
email questions regarding clay. Here are some
common questions and answers:
Q1. I dropped my clay on
the ground. Can I still use it?
A1. The safe answer is no. Clay will
pick up small particles of grit from the ground that
will scratch your paint.
Q2. If I use clay do I
still need to polish my paint?
A3. Yes. Clay will not remove swirl
marks, scratches or etching from acid rain or hard
water spots. Paint polish is still required to
remove these paint defects. If your paint is
new or like-new, detailing clay will significantly
reduce the amount of polishing required to keep your
paint in good condition.
Q3. What is the best
A3. What label do you like? There are
only a couple manufactures of clay, and the
technology is protected by U.S. patents. Clay
is manufactured with different levels of
abrasiveness and colors to suite different
applications. There are some subtle difference
in technology (plastic vs. elastic material) and the
firmness of the material. In general, softer
clays are safer and easier to use. A firm clay
cleans better with a little more risk of scuffing or
Q4. Is it better to use
soapy water or a spray lubricant?
A4. Both work equally well. If you want
to do the job fast, use a bucket of soapy water.
If you want to work inside or do a thorough job, use
a spray lubricant. With a spray lubricant you
can wipe down each panel as you go and feel for
areas you missed.
Q5. How do I store my
A5. If your clay did not come with a
re-usable plastic container, store it in a plastic
Q6. Will clay remove my
A6. In most cases, clay will "scrub
off" wax protection. Some paint sealants
are hard enough to withstand being cleaned with
clay, but most are not.
Q7. Is it safe
to clay using my buffer?
A7. Detailing clay was not
designed for machine application. Even so,
there are a couple foam buffing pads designed to hold
a waffer of clay. These systems work with the
Porter Cable 7424 dual-action system. The risk
of paint damage is too high to be worth any
potential time saving benefit.
Automotive paint cleaning clay offers many
advantages in the removal of surface contamination
from paint. Even in the hands of a first-time
user, clay is safe and easy to use.
Sure, if you use a dirty clay bar, scratches can
result. However, compared to machine buffing,
compounding, or using harsh chemicals, clay is
safer, faster and easier.