To continue our Beginner’s Guide to Detailing, today I’ll be discussing the wonderful world of clay. If you haven’t heard of claying (aka clay bar treatment), it’s basically a process in which you remove embedded contaminants from your car’s clear coat. It’s one of the most widely used car care practices, and for a number of good reasons. This article will be walking you through why we clay, when to clay, and how to clay.
What is claying your car?
So maybe you heard your friend talking about how he or she clayed their car this weekend. To those who aren’t familiar with claying, it may sound like some sort of art piece. In reality, of course, claying your car is a very useful (and specific) detailing procedure. Unlike waxing or protecting your finish, clay is used to “fix” a contaminated surface. Often times you’ll feel tiny bumps in your paint or notice that the smoothness just isn’t there – this is, for the most part, a sign that you may need to clay your car. When you do eventually clay, the embedded debris causing the small imperfections in your finish are picked up by the clay bar and removed forever.
When to clay your car
Unlike polishing or a simple car wash, the naked eye can’t really tell when a car needs to be clayed. When to clay is an often debated topic with no one specific answer, but there are plenty of things to consider. First off, if you’re going to polish, you should always clay first. If clay is not used before polishing, those embedded contaminants I mentioned can (and will) be dragged across the surface by a buffer or polishing pad – leaving you with swirl marks and holograms. Secondly, if your paint looks dull, you can do a simple test to see if you need to clay, then polish, then wax. Note that though claying will make the surface more smooth by removing contaminants, the entire process is not done until you’ve finished with a protective sealant. You can check if you need to clay by doing the plastic baggie test. Creative name, I know.
The Plastic Baggie Test: If you put your hand in a sandwich bag (or on top of a piece of cellophane) and lightly glide your hand across the surface, you’ll be able to feel every last imperfection. You’ll feel bumps not visible to the human eye, and these are, in fact, telling you it’s time to clay. The test should take any longer than five minutes and can be done during the clay process to make sure no areas were missed.
How to clay your car
The first thing you want to make sure is that you’ve washed your car – you don’t want to be claying dirt and dust. Then you’ll need the proper car care products: a medium grade clay bar, a lubricant so the clay doesn’t stick to the surface, and a microfiber towel. Or you can buy this clay kit with all of those things for under $30. Once you’re prepared with a clean car and the right products, let’s jump on in:
To make sure your clay is pliable, knead it in your hands for a good five minutes. The heat and constant motion will soften the clay so you can manipulate it and fold it after one side has become filthy with contaminants.
Step 1: Spray clay lubricant.
Sure this may sound a bit funny at first, but it’s actually a very important step in the clay bar process. You see, the claying process is actually somewhat abrasive – after all, you’re rubbing a not-so-soft substance across your car’s finish. The clay lubricant makes it safe and helps the clay pick up contaminants with ease. Without it, the process would fall apart.
Step 2: Glide clay bar on the paint in straight lines, avoiding heavy pressure.
For best results, I recommend sticking to one section at a time. Give yourself about three square feet to play with (a quarter panel or something) to be sure you’ve removed all contaminants from the area. You should clay in straight lines without too much pressure for best results.
TIP: As a matter of safety, it’s always a good idea to flip and fold the clay as you go (section by section) to keep it fresh. Also, if you drop the clay, throw it away.
Step 3: Wipe up excess lubricant with a microfiber towel.
This one should be self explanatory. If you’re continuing on to polish or wax, which you should, you want to remove excess lubricant from the surface. If you do this section by section as you clay around the car, you’ll find it’s much easier.
Again, you’ll want to repeat that process for each section of the car, including the roof, until there’s nothing left to cover. The best way to check if you missed a spot is to whip out that baggie again and test for bumps. If you find some more, just spray, clay, and wipe up the rest. Simple as that. Once you’re done you must remember, no clay procedure is done on its own. There should always be a polish and/or wax involved to make sure the surface isn’t nakedly exposed to the very contaminants that were removed with the clay bar.
Now that you know the secrets behind claying your car (okay, so they’re not secrets), you should be able to do so confidently. You know you need a clay bar, a lubricant, and a towel. You know that after you clay you need to either polish then wax, or just wax to make sure the finish is protected. You know the plastic baggie test, which is awesome by the way… I really suggest trying it out ASAP. That’s about everything amateur detailers need to know about claying, but if you’re hungry for more you can always check out our Clay Bar Guide.
Got a question about claying? Drop us a line in the comments!