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Car Care Corner: How and why to clay bar your car [Video]

by Mark Kleis

Leftlane helps explain what exactly a clay bar is, how it works and why you should use it on your car. [Video inside]

Welcome to the latest installment of Leftlane's Car Care Corner video and text-based instructional how-to articles aimed at helping empower consumers to take the best possible care of their vehicles without having to pay a professional.

In the latest installment we cover something known as a clay bar, an automotive detailing tool that hails from Japan and is now a mainstay tool for professional, hobbyist, weekend warrior and amateur detailers alike who are looking to get the most out of their efforts in restoring and maintaining their automotive finishes.

What is a clay bar?
Clay bars are similar to a mix of Play Dough and Silly Putty, ranging in malleability, color, aggressiveness and price based on brand and purpose. Clay bars are sold by many different detailing supply manufacturers. Most consumer grade (those found in Wal-Mart, local auto parts stores, etc.) products are very mild and are found in a kit that includes a spray lubricant (often referred to as a quick detailer spray), a clay bar (or two) and sometimes a microfiber towel and small bottle of wax.

For beginners, we suggest not going more aggressive than either a consumer or mild professional grade product as "aggressive" professional clay can potentially mar paint, introducing a new problem. The difference between grades is essentially that the more aggressive clay will remove contamination faster, but at the risk of slightly marring the paint, where as softer consumer grade clay is very safe and with proper technique will not mar the paint.

Why clay your paint and/or glass?
Cars today are exposed to a myriad of above-surface contaminants ranging from tree sap, to industrial fallout, heavy film or tar from the road, paint overspray or transfer and various stains (there are other above surface contaminants as well, but these are typically the kind removed best by clay bar treatment).

These contaminants will often remain on the vehicle even after a thorough wash, leaving obstacles for waxes or sealants that inhibit proper bonding, as well as creating unsightly additions to the finish. By removing the contamination with a clay bar waxes and sealants can then properly bond to the surface, the paint and/or glass will feel smoother, offer more gloss and will often be easier to wash and dry as well.

Specifically with glass, claying will remove contamination that is almost always totally invisible, but after removal one will notice that water does not cling to the glass, instead beading and sheeting away much more effectively. This will increase visibility and improve safety when driving in the rain or early mornings if a vehicle is parked outside and covered in condensation.

What is clay lube? Why use it?
Clay bar lube is a generic term referring to many products that can be safely used for this task, but the role is the same: provide lubrication so the clay can safely and effectively glide over the paint (or glass) to abrade the contamination. Most kits supply a bottle of "quick detailer," which is essentially a mild cleaner product high in lubrication intended to safely remove light dust, fingerprints and bird droppings. Quick detailer also serves as a lubricating agent for claying.

In a pinch, automotive car wash soap and water mixed up in a spray bottle can also work and is very cost effective. We highly recommend not using dish soaps, however, as they may break down the clay bar.

If you plan on doing a lot of claying, you may want to consider buying lubrication products from professional lines that can be had in bulk and mixed with water to various dilution ratios as this is most cost effective.

How do I test to see if I need to clay a surface?
As the video demonstrates, testing a painted or glass surface to determine is clay bar treatment is needed is simple and includes both visual and physical testing. After washing the area, simply start by inspecting it with your eye - if you see specks of color (usually tan or brown), this likely indicates above surface contaminants. Next, you can rub your bare fingers over the area, sometimes feeling the roughness - and in some cases you may hear the scratching sound as well. Microfiber towels will often snag on heavier contaminants.

The final and most critical method is accomplished by inserting your hand inside a plastic sandwich bag, then spraying the surface with water or a clay lubricant and then rubbing the area. The bag helps to magnify contaminants which may have otherwise gone unnoticed by the naked hand or eye.

Which parts of my vehicle can I treat with a clay bar?
If it is smooth, odds are a clay bar can offer some benefit to the surface. Generally speaking, horizontal surfaces (think hood, roof, trunk, tops of fenders) will require the most work as gravity tends to place the most contaminants in these locations.

The rear of the vehicle is also often quite bad as the vehicle tends to lift dirt, dust and debris off of the road due to aerodynamic disruption, placing it on the vehicle.

Wheels can sometimes lend themselves well to claying, however, be warned that wheels are often quite dirty and it is quite easy to fully use up a clay bar on a single set of wheels. We tend to reserve our older, dirty clay for wheel duty and even though we only use it on painted wheels that seem in need, or for high-dollar details.

Glass is definitely a great surface to be clayed as it tends to play very well with claying, and the results are fantastic. This is also one of the most overlooked parts of vehicles for the art of claying as the contaminants are usually so fine in nature they cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Pro tips for claying
While the video goes into great detail about the claying process from start to finish, we will highlight a few key points for quick and easy reference below.

1.) Always work on a freshly washed surface when using a clay bar - never start on a dirty car as the dirt will be pushed into the paint and create swirls and marring.

2.) Start by assessing the surface (whether it be paint or glass) visually, then with your bare hand and finally with your hand inside a plastic bag.

3.) Use 50 milligram-sized clay bars, anything larger tear in half and put away in case you drop it.

4.) If you drop a clay bar - THROW IT AWAY.

5.) Don't be afraid to use some force when claying, but always be sure to properly lubricate the area you are working on. Some contaminants will require many passes to fully remove, while others will come off quickly and easily.

6.) Work in the shade and in an enclosed area if possible as dust landing on the vehicle can then be picked up by the clay bar and in turn risk scratching the paint.

7.) When it comes to clay lube, less is not more. Use it very liberally. Many assume that less lube would be better as the bar grabs onto the paint more, but in actually that is not how the product is intended to work and it is totally ineffective used this way.

8.) Be sure to protect your paint with a wax or sealant of your choice when done as the paint will be bare and unprotected. If time and supplies allow it, it would be optimal to start with a coat of cleaner wax, followed either immediately or after the next wash (within one to two weeks) with a longer lasting sealant or wax.

That wraps up this installment of Car Care Corner. As always, feel free to ask any subject-related questions below and we will do our best to supply you with an answer.