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How to Use a Clay Bar

How to Use a Clay Bar

The term blood, sweat, and tears are used a lot by us ‘old school’ car guys. Back in the day, removing bug guts, tree sap, and other hard-to-remove stuff mainly broke down to using elbow grease and just a splash of turpentine, so you didn’t completely f-up your paint job. Life would have been much easier for us if the detailing clay bar was a thing back then.

As with everything in the automotive world, time and technology simplify and improve things. Today, DIY enthusiasts and professional detailers use a clay bar kit to get rid of those hard to remove deposits and prepare the paint for enhanced protection products – like a ceramic coating.

If you’re new to DIY car care and are thinking about buying a do-it-yourself ceramic coating, it’s quite possible you’ve been advised to clay bar the car first. But what is a clay barring treatment? How is it used to provide a smooth surface? Can it be done by a detailer or is it a DIY solution? Or even better – why is it so important to use before applying a ceramic coating?

These are the questions we’ll answer in today’s blog. So, let’s get it on.

What is a Clay Bar?

Today’s automotive clay bar is a specially formulated resin mixture that many automotive quick detailer companies use to remove pollutants and contaminants from paint, metal, fiberglass, or glass. It is either natural or synthetic, with most auto clay bar products manufactured with synthetic ingredients.

Image source – AutoGeekOnline.com

The substance is very similar to natural clay, as it’s quite elastic which permits it to be stretched or molded into different shapes. This includes flat or smooth surfaces like that on your car. However, it’s elasticity also allows it to seep into the tiny imperfections found on clear-coated surfaces. When it’s used correctly, its ‘sticky’ nature grabs tiny particles of debris, which leaves the surface area fairly clean.

Clay bar is available in many grades and by many companies like Chemical Guys, Meguiar’s Clay Bar and more. The soft and gentle grades are designed to remove minor contaminants and are generally used for light debris removal projects or routine maintenance for the serious car wax user.

The hard or rougher grades are often used as a prep product for removing deeply embedded debris. The problem with harder clay bar materials is they pose a higher risk of damaging paint. They also usually require waxing after washing the vehicle to fill in any holes.

What is the History of Clay Bar Treatment?

The original variants of clay bar treatment we used today was initially launched by a Japanese scientist named Tadao Kodate in the 1980’s. The product was used exclusively as an automotive paint contaminant removal product mainly in Japan and Korea until it was discovered by an American auto wax consultant, Dennis Dehn during a visit to the Far East. He worked with Mr. Kodate to bring the detailing clay product through an automotive wax company in the 1990s.

Today the majority of clay bars are manufactured by the same primary company, as they held a patent on the product which expired in 2014. From that time, new clay bar variant products, such as the clay mitt have been introduced to the car care segment.

A detailing clay mitt is similar in design to a wash mitt but contains small, beaded synthetic clay materials that accomplish the same task. In fact, many car care enthusiasts prefer to use the clay mitt, as it fits easier on your hand and covers a larger surface area.

How Does Auto Detailing Clay Work?

Image source – Washos.com

Think of clay bar treatment as portable flypaper. Essentially, it works by gliding along the surface of your painted vehicle and grabs items that protrude from the surface area like dirt and grime.

Since the clay is exceptionally sticky or tacky is a better description, it collects particles that have bonded with the clear coat of paint. Due to its tacky nature, the product is used by applying a lubricant on the surface frequently. This helps to reduce friction and the build-up of heat, which reduces the potential of paint damage.

When you use the clay bar treatment as recommended by the manufacturer, it is completely non-abrasive and safe. In fact, many professional detailers opt to use a surface clay bar as opposed to frequently polishing, since this method does not remove clear coatings. In order to be effective, any type of clay bar must be used with a clay lubricant.

While most manufacturers and auto detailers offer spray lubricants specially designed for their clay bars, DIY enthusiasts can create their own clay bar lube by using a concentrated mix of water with automotive-specific car wash shampoo.

What Does Clay Bar Treatment Remove?

Most car owners will use clay bar treatment when they are preparing their vehicles for a long-lasting paint protection product, like a PPF, ceramic coating, or paint sealant. It is designed to remove those hard to remove contaminants and debris that tends to become trapped in the clear coating such as brake dust, road grime, acid rain deposits, rail dust, metal particulates, bug guts, bird dropping residue and stains, sap, and other forms of paint contamination.

The reason why it’s recommended to use a clay bar before using a ceramic coating specifically is due to the potential of oxidation. Most contaminants contain some level of acids, or as they age, begin to break down.

Eventually, the debris will penetrate the clear coat and begin to eat away at the paint surface. When you apply a ceramic coating, the debris is trapped under the coating, which accelerates the paint damaging process.

When Do You Need to Clay Bar Your Car?

While it’s critical to clay bar treat your vehicle as part of the pre-ceramic coating installation process, there are other times when completing a clay bar treatment is recommended. And believe it or not, there is a really simple DIY test that will help you discover when it’s time.

It’s called the bag test. Basically, the process involves using a zip-lock or standard sandwich plastic bag. The bag acts as a magnifying glass for your fingers, as tiny particles are amplified to feel like gritty or a rough surface.

All you need to do is completely wash and dry the vehicle with a towel made from the microfiber cloth. This will help reduce swirl marks. Once this has been completed, you place the sandwich bag over your hand, and gently rub or wipe the paint surface. If you feel grit or rough surfaces, you need to clay bar the vehicle.

Steps for Using a Clay Bar or Clay Mitt

If you’ve decided that it’s time for a clay bar treatment, the process is fairly simple to complete. Most automotive clay is sold as a two or eight-ounce bar. A two-ounce bar is more than enough to complete treatment on most cars, trucks and, SUV’s.

While DIY enthusiasts can make their own spray lubricant with automotive car soap, many manufacturers of clay bars and clay mitts make a clay-specific lubricant formula that works best for their products.

So – here are the steps for using a clay bar or clay mitt for removing debris and contaminants from your vehicle.

Step 1 – Wash and Dry your Vehicle

Using the two-bucket method addressed in-depth with this article on how to wash your car, completely wash and dry your vehicle. This completes the first, vital step of removing dirt and surface debris, providing you with a “cleanish” template to work with.

Step 2 – Gather Your Supplies

Consumers have two options for clay treatment – and most of them are sold as a DIY kit. You can either use a hand-held clay bar or a clay mitt. We’ve outlined the benefits of each above, so it really breaks down to comfort level or personal preference.

That being said, to complete a clay treatment correctly, you’ll need the following

  • (1) Clay bar or clay mitt
  • (1) Bottle of clay bar lubricant spray
  • (3) Clean microfiber towels (for drying after you’re done)
  • (1) Plastic sandwich bag – for quality control – no shit.

Step 3 – Pick a Starting Point

Clay bar treatment is best completed in small sections at a time – generally, no bigger than 2-feet x 2-feet at a time. It’s a good idea to start with the left front of the vehicle, and complete sections in a circular pattern, until you come back to the original starting point.

Step 4 – Spray the Lubricant

Using the recommended lubricant, apply a liberal amount of lube on the surface area you will be working. The key is to not skimp on lubrication here.

Step 5 – Begin to Clay the Vehicle

Once the surface area is properly lubricated, you’ll begin to gently glide the clay bar or clay mitt back and forth on the surface. When you’re completing this, you’ll feel the clay bar or mitt begin to grab at the paint surface. Don’t worry about it – this is natural. Move the clay bar or mitt in a forward and back motion, until the grip level reduces. Continue to apply lubricant if needed until the entire section has been completed.

Step 6 – Check Your Work

The best way to determine if you’re done with a section is to use a clean, plastic sandwich bag. We mentioned this check above, where you’ll use the plastic bag as an amplifier to indicate if the surface area is clean and free of debris. The important thing to remember is to always check your work and complete each section fully before moving to the next section.

Step 7 – Rinse the Vehicle with Clean Water and Dry

Once you’ve completed the entire clay bar or clay mitt treatment, finish the job correctly by spraying fresh water over the entire car. This will remove any soap residue or loose particles from the clay treatment. When you’re done, use multiple microfiber towels to fully dry the vehicle.

Wrapping it Up

Using a clay bar or clay mitt is an easy way to remove contaminants that are hard embedded in the paint surface. Most manufacturers recommend using a clay bar to treat your non-ceramic coated paint at least once per year.

If you’re clay treating your vehicle before applying a DIY ceramic coating, consider using a complete prep kit, such as the one we are offering soon. This kit comes with a new and improved clay mitt, and our special clay mitt lubricant spray, good enough to clay treat most vehicles.

If you enjoyed this article, then you'll love AvalonKing's automotive care products for Do-It-Yourselfers. We create "No B.S products" for an affordable price. And the best part, we treat our customers like family, so if you have any questions or just looking to chat about cars, we're only an email or call away. Check out our homepage here.

Tim Charlet

Tim is part of the AvalonKing team as a content editor. A 30-year automotive guru, marketing super freak, and accomplished publicist & columnist, “Timmah” is also a licensed NHRA Drag Racer, a proud dad of two, and loves a good Guinness two-part pour.
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These are our recommended quantities for the respective type of vehicle. The Volume Savings can be seen besides/below.

Type of Vehicle Recommended Quantity Volume Savings
motorcycle   Motorcycle 1 bottle*
small car   Small car 1 bottle*
sedan   Sedan 2 bottles* Save $35 (25%)
pick-up truck   Pick-up 2 bottles* Save $35 (25%)
jeep   Jeep 2 bottles* Save $35 (25%)
suv   SUV 3 bottles* Save $70 (33%)
van   VAN 3 bottles* Save $70 (33%)
boat   Boat 4 bottles+* Save $110 (39%)

*Please note that it may be a good idea getting an extra bottle, ensuring you don't run out when doing an application.

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