When you look at your car, does it look dirty or dull? When you run your hand over it, does it feel gritty or uneven? Has your car been exposed to contaminants, pollutants, or bird droppings?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, it may be time for a clay bar treatment. Clay bar treatments are a part of the detailing process that make sure a car’s surface is squeaky clean, helping protect the paint and clear coat finish in the process. They are also a versatile and effective tool for removing stubborn water spots from your car’s paintwork.
In this guide, you’ll also learn about why regular car washing isn’t always enough, how to do a clay bar treatment yourself with a step-by-step guide, and tips on picking the best clay bar for your specific needs.
What is a Clay Bar Treatment?
A clay bar treatment is a detailing process that uses an automotive clay bar — an engineered resin mixture that’s used to remove pollutants and contaminants from paint, glass, fiberglass, metal, and any other surface material on the outside of your car. While automotive clay bar can be made from natural clay or synthetic, synthetics are most commonly used.
A clay bar treatment uses automotive clay bar to remove contaminants, some of which are microscopic and impossible to see with the naked eye, from your car. This is important because contaminants like rail dust, brake dust, and industrial fallout can penetrate through paint, glass, and even metal, slowly destroying your car over time.
Furthermore, these contaminants can create a dull appearance, decreasing the aesthetic appeal of your car. The clay bar treatment helps in maintaining the vehicle’s gloss and shine by offering a deep cleanse. Regular washing and polishing may not remove all of these contaminants. In this guide, we’ll explore the specifics of how a clay bar treatment works.
How Does a Clay Bar Treatment Work?
The engineered resin surface of the clay is sticky, and designed to hold onto metal particles, pollution, and other contaminants that can get on top of your car’s surfaces. When the clay bar is glided or stretched across the car’s surface, it picks up dust, dirt, and all those other surface contaminants.
When done correctly, claying is safe and non-abrasive. It can even be better for your car than polishing, since it’s possible for polishing to remove a thin layer of paint.
Before a clay bar treatment, remember to always spray your car down with lubricant or detailing spray, so particles picked up by the clay don’t scratch the paint or surface coat. This lubricant creates a slippery surface that allows the clay to glide smoothly, encapsulating contaminants within its structure. This way, the contaminants are trapped without causing further scratches or damage to the car’s surface.
When Should You Give Your Car a Clay Bar Treatment?
The standard rule is that you should get a clay bar treatment about twice a year. If you live (and drive) somewhere with a lot of pollution and other contaminants, you might consider getting treatments more often. On the other hand, if you drive infrequently or keep your car inside a garage when it isn’t being used, you might be able to go longer in between treatments.
A good way to see if your car could use a clay bar treatment is to simply rub your hand along its exterior surfaces. If they feel rough or gritty, it’s probably time for a clay bar treatment. In addition to the rough feeling, signs like visible contaminants or a lack of shine in your car’s appearance may also indicate the need for a clay bar treatment.
Furthermore, if your car has been exposed to harsh environments or driven through areas with heavy industrial activities, a clay bar treatment may be necessary.
What Does a Clay Bar Do for Your Car?
Most people who seek out clay bar treatments for their vehicles do so for the simple fact that it makes them look better! It improves the paint finish, which leads to a smoother, shinier overall look.
But there are other benefits, too. Claying will generally lead to better results after polishing and waxing, since doing those things with contaminants in the clear coat or paint can trap them there, or move them around, scratching the vehicle’s surface.
As previously stated, claying also helps protect your vehicle against future damage. The longer contaminants stay on your car, the more they can penetrate through protective layers, eventually reaching paint, glass, or even metal.
Beyond improving the look and feel of your car, clay bar treatments can contribute to preserving the car’s value by maintaining the integrity of its exterior. However, it’s important to remember that while a clay bar treatment can work wonders, it isn’t a cure-all solution. Some severe contaminants might require professional attention.
Clay Bar Alternatives
While a clay bar treatment is the best way to remove pollutants and contaminants from your vehicle’s exterior, it can be an intimidating process, particularly if you’ve never done it before.
Synthetic clay mitts and towels are good alternatives as they offer similar results with a slightly easier and faster application process. But remember, while they may be more convenient, they don’t offer the same level of precision as a traditional clay bar.
One alternative to a clay bar is a clay mitt. These are microfiber and rubber gloves that you can use to clean your vehicle and improve its overall look. While they will remove some pollutants and contaminants, they aren’t as effective as clay — though they’re easier for beginners to use and run less risk of damaging your vehicle.
If you’re intimidated by the idea of doing a clay bar treatment at home, but still want to clean and protect your vehicle, consider having a professional detailer do the claying for you.
Types of Clay Bars
There are several types of clay bars available on the market, each with their unique properties that make them suited for different purposes:
Fine clay bars: These are typically the most gentle and are ideal for use on cars with relatively minor contaminants or for those new to using clay bars. They are less likely to mar the surface and are excellent for maintaining already well-kept cars.
Medium clay bars: These are more aggressive than fine clay bars and are capable of removing more stubborn contaminants. Medium clay bars are great for cars exposed to average to heavy contamination.
Heavy clay bars: These are the most aggressive type of clay bars. They are best used on cars with severe contamination, such as overspray. It’s important to note that while heavy clay bars are effective at removing contaminants, they might leave marring on the surface that needs to be removed by polishing.
What Are the Best Clay Bars and Kits?
- Patented, rubber polymer technology quickly shears off and removes surface and embedded contaminants
- Effectively removes paint overspray, water spots, fresh tree sap, rail dust, bird droppings, light oxidation and brake dust
- Restores brilliance to car's paint, chrome, glass and smooth plastics
If you’re new to claying your car, you can buy a kit that conveniently offers everything you need.
What is in a Clay Bar Kit?
Kits typically come with:
- Clay bars. A typical kit should contain anywhere from 2-8 ounces of clay.
- Microfiber towels. Microfiber cloths and towels are essential tools for car detailers because they don’t leave behind any lint.
- Detailing spray or lubricant. This is essential to the claying process, because claying a dry car surface can scratch the car by pulling dust, dirt, and other particles across it. By using detailing spray or lubricant before a clay bar treatment, you ensure that the clay can glide smoothly across the surface of the vehicle.
Some kits may also include a microfiber wash mitt for added convenience, a storage box to keep your clay fresh, and a detailed instruction guide to ensure you get the most out of your clay bar treatment.
How to Choose the Right Clay Bar for Your Car
There are many factors you may take into consideration when buying a clay bar or kit: Color and price point, just to name a few. But the most important thing to consider when buying a clay bar is how aggressive it is. Clay bars range from consumer-grade (medium aggressiveness) to professional or fine grade (high aggressiveness).
Consumer-grade bars require more work to clean surfaces, especially those that are highly contaminated — but they’re gentler. If you’re new to claying, a less aggressive bar will decrease the likelihood that you damage your vehicle.
Also, consider the brand reputation, customer reviews, and whether or not the clay bar comes as part of a kit with other useful tools.
How to Use a Clay Bar
Claying your vehicle isn’t too technically difficult, but it becomes easier the more you practice. Here are the steps to take when doing your first clay bar treatment.
Step 1: Wash and Dry Your Vehicle
Wash your vehicle using soap and water, rinse it thoroughly, and then dry it with microfiber cloths or towels. This will remove any surface-level dust and dirt, leaving only the more stubborn or embedded contaminants that will require clay to remove.
Step 2: Use a Lubricant or Detailing Spray
If you run a clay bar across your vehicle’s surface when it’s dry, it will be far more likely to drag contaminants across the surface and damage it. To properly clay your vehicle, you need to lubricate it, using a clay bar treatment lubricant or a detailing spray.
Put about a quarter-sized amount of lubricant on the clay itself, then spray it on the vehicle’s surface. Pray from a distance of about 12 inches away, and make sure the vehicle surface is completely and evenly coated with lubricant. Work in sections about 2×2 feet in size at a time.
Step 3: Glide the Clay Bar Across the Vehicle’s Surface
Using a back-and-forth motion, begin gliding the clay across the vehicle’s surface. It will likely catch and stick in places — those are the spots where it’s picking up contaminants. Gently roll and stretch it across those spots until it glides freely. Once the clay glides freely across an entire section without sticking or catching, you’ll know it’s time to move on to the next section.
Step 4: Check the Clay Regularly
As the clay bar picks up contaminants, they will be embedded in its surface and can scratch your vehicle if you drag the clay across it with those contaminants exposed. Every few minutes, check your clay. If it looks dirty or gritty, flip it over and use a clean side. When you run out of clean sides, you can fold and mold the clay until it looks clean again.
Step 5: Check Your Work
After finishing a section of your vehicle, wipe it clean with a microfiber cloth and check your work. If it still appears gritty or uneven, you may need to go back over it with your clay bar again.
Step 6: Finish with Wax
Once all the contaminants are removed from your vehicle, there may be gaps in the paint or protective coating where they wore through it. You can fill and seal these gaps with car wax once you’re finished claying the entire vehicle. We recommend doing this immediately after a clay bar treatment to ensure that the newly exposed surface is protected against further contamination.
Step 7: Store Your Clay Properly
Store your clay in its original container or another airtight container, like a zip-top bag or plastic container. One piece of clay can be used many times, unless you drop it on the ground. If you do drop your clay, you’ll have to throw it away and get a new piece — it will pick up dirt and dust from the ground that could easily damage your vehicle’s surface if you use the clay again after dropping it.
What to Expect: Before and After Clay Bar Treatment
Before the clay bar treatment, your vehicle’s surface may feel rough to the touch, and its shine may be dulled by contaminants that regular washing can’t remove. You might also notice small, rust-colored specks on your car’s paintwork, known as rail dust.
After the clay bar treatment, expect your car to feel smooth to the touch – as if it’s just come out of the showroom. The paint will look brighter and more vibrant because the contaminants dulling its shine have been removed. If you had visible rail dust before the treatment, you should see a significant reduction, if not a complete elimination.
However, do keep in mind that clay barring can sometimes leave marring on your vehicle’s surface, particularly if you’ve used a medium or heavy clay bar. This is normal and can be corrected by a round of polishing. Post-clay bar, it’s always a good idea to apply a wax or sealant to your car’s paintwork. This not only enhances the shine even more but also provides a protective layer against future contaminants.