How to Use a Clay Bar – Making Sure NOT to Damage Paint Work!

Let’s face it. When our cars get dirty, we can only do one of two things. Either we pay for a trip to the car wash, or we get the job done at home.

What constitutes a home wash for you might be different for another person.

Maybe you have enough equipment and accessories to serve as a car wash yourself? Specialized car wash soap, top-notch microfiber cloths for cars, a foam cannon — the works.

Or, perhaps a simple scrub down with distilled dish soap is your go-to strategy? There’s nothing wrong with that either, as long as your vehicle ends up clean.

However, if you’re here, you know there’s an item that can make a deeper clean of the surface. That item is a clay bar.

A man's hands using a clay bar with lubricant on a black vehicle
© Jitchanamont Ukkarajarunphon – 123rf.com

In this article, we’ll teach you all there is about how to use a clay bar. We’ve listed all the steps involved in detail so you’ll be prepared and be able to use one effectively.

We’ll also discuss how to know when your car may need to be cleaned with one. You’ll learn what these products are and what distinguishes one type from another, so you get the best product for the job.

Skill Level: Beginner.

Time to Complete: This will vary based on vehicle size. Set aside at least a few hours.

Tools Needed:

  • A detailing clay bar.
  • Lubricant spray (if not included with the bar).
  • Latex gloves.
  • Cotton cloths (buy more than you think you’ll need).
  • Car shampoo or detergent of choice.
  • Water source (e.g. hose).
  • Sponge or wash mitt.
  • Any other car washing equipment you use (e.g. foam cannon).
  • Stepladder (for higher vehicles, shorter users, or both).
  • Drying cloths.
  • Car paint sealant or wax.

What is a Clay Bar?

Automotive clay shouldn’t be confused with the stuff that artists use. The products we use for our vehicles are made of resins, not actual clay.

These versatile compounds are used in many industrial applications. We can find them in windshield repair kits, automotive paint, adhesives, and more, and can be altered according to the need.

For instance, thermoplastic resins stay plastic after being heat-treated, whereas thermosetting turns hard.

To produce detailing clay for cleaning car surfaces, resins are processed to stay malleable. They’re formed into bars that soften with handling so that we’re able to use them.

The degree of malleability will depend on the type, which we’ll discuss later on. Resins can be either natural or manmade (synthetic).

What Does Using a Clay Bar do? What Does it Remove?

Why use a clay bar when you can use soap? What’s the point?

Well, these products can remove debris that most detergents can’t. The tacky material of the bar sticks to firmly stuck surface contaminants that soap cannot remove, and pulls them right off.

At the same time, it shouldn’t damage paintwork, metal, glass, or matte plastic materials. The only surface it’s incompatible with is clear plastic (e.g. your headlight lenses).

There’s only so much you can scrub off surfaces with a sponge or mitt. Miniscule crevices and cracks on your vehicle may still be left dirty. If left, these harmful compounds can have lasting effects on your bodywork.

Consider all the things your car is exposed to during an average day on the road, with pollutants in the air, dirt, oil and other chemicals and grim from the road. Certain contaminants are also more likely to bond to the paint of your car. You should be concerned about:

Stubborn Pollutants

Unfortunately, driving through polluted areas is unavoidable for many of us. Crowded city centers and jammed highways are hotspots for toxic emissions.

Carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and nitrogen dioxide are several examples. Not to mention acid rain, which can fall in highly polluted cities.

These can increase the risk of corrosion if left to accumulate on your car.

Residue from Debris

As we mentioned above, there is an invisible residue that can be left on your car without you knowing. This can occur with organic or chemical debris.

Traces of bird feces can provoke rust — the waste releases acids as it rots. This may not be an issue for some of you.

For others, you may be obliged to park in an area that’s a target zone for passing birds. Tree sap is another culprit, as are insect corpses wedged into awkward places.

Ingrained Dirt

If your vehicle hasn’t been washed for a while, a thorough cleaning is in order. Using one of these resin-based bars can remove months-old ingrained dirt, like road salt, brake dust, mud and other kinds of grime.

How do You Know Your Car Needs Clay Bar Cleaning?

There’s an easy way to determine if your car needs a clay bar cleaning. No special equipment or accessories are required. All you’ll need is your own two hands.

If you don’t want to get them dirty, wear latex gloves or put your hand in a thin plastic bag.

After thoroughly washing your car with good car shampoo, and allowing it to dry, lightly run your fingertips over the surface of your paint. Does the surface feel smooth and glossy, or gritty and rough?

If your answer is anything but “smooth and glossy,” it’s time for a clay bar cleaning. The bumpiness you’re feeling is surface contaminants that have bonded to your car and soap and scrubbing cannot remove.

What Types of Clay Bar are There?

These products can be placed into two broad categories. First, whether they’re made with natural or synthetic ingredients. Secondly, you can choose between different grades.

Natural Vs. Synthetic

In today’s day and age, all-natural automotive products are a rarity. Nearly everything we use from waxes to fabric conditioners is made with synthetics.

Clay bars are no exception. Most of them are made from synthetic rather than natural resins. There are a few advantages to the synthetic varieties.

They tend to be more durable than their natural counterparts. They’re not as particular about the lubricant (e.g. spray, soap, etc) you can use with them.

These types are usually less expensive as well. They’re able to collect more debris without having to be thrown away.

Natural bars are generally stickier. However, they need to be kneaded into the area you’re cleaning.

These products do need a lubricant that’s suitable for natural clay. They’re also more likely to wear out faster and cost more.

Different Grades

The grade refers to how soft or hard the resin is. There are three separate grades:

Soft

Also known as fine, they are the softest type. They’re ideal for upkeep or getting rid of mild contaminants from the surface (e.g. road grime).

Regular

A regular or medium grade clay should be sufficient for most cars. These are firmer and can tackle common stubborn debris. Think pollutants, tree sap, organic residue, etc.

Heavy

Heavy bars are for serious cleaning jobs only. Tough contaminants like overspray or long-neglected automobiles may warrant this grade.

Note that you should be careful using these products on your paint. This is the most abrasive grade clay, and shouldn’t be used unless absolutely necessary.

Which Clay Bars are Best?

The best product for you will depend on several factors. The one that’s right for your vehicle may be wrong for someone else.

Grade — Which One is Best?

Heavy grade models should only be used for heavy-duty contaminants. There’s no need to use them regularly. They can remove more than unwanted debris — like your paint.

Regular or medium products are best for infrequent but regular cleanings. If you plan to perform a claying a few times a year, this type is best.

Products with a light grade are for enthusiastic detailers. These will do the trick if you plan on claying frequently, e.g. every month.

You may also want to choose a light grade if you’re wary of micro-damaging your paint. They’ll work slower, but there’s little to no risk of any abrasion occurring.

Synthetic or Natural?

This is more a matter of personal preference. Keep in mind the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Natural clay won’t preserve as well as synthetic will. If you have a small vehicle, don’t buy an enormous piece that will deteriorate after being opened.

Price may also be a consideration here. The natural types are often costlier than synthetics.

If you’d like more detailed information, we have a dedicated guide to the best clay bars available today.

How to Use a Clay Bar — Step by Step

Are you ready to clay your vehicle? Make sure you have all the tools we listed above handy. Then, follow this step-by-step guide:

Step 1

Choose an area where you can work for a few hours uninterrupted. If possible, try to park in the shade and make sure your vehicle’s body is cool to the touch.

Sunlight can dry out the spray lubricant as you work, as can heat if the bodywork is warm. This will make it more difficult for you.

Step 2

Gather everything you need to wash your car. This means your car shampoo or detergent and sponge or mitt. If you own a foam cannon, set it up.

Wash your car as you normally would, but be extra thorough. Take the time to go over every part of the vehicle.

The cleaner the surface, the easier claying will be for you. When you’re finished, rinse off any and all traces of soap.

Avoid taking the easy way out by going to a car wash. Any residue left behind from the detergent can interfere with the claying.

Step 3

Let your vehicle air dry, or speed up the process with a drying cloth.

Step 4

Put on your latex gloves. If you’ve bought a big bar, you may want to cut it into manageable pieces. Use a sharp knife or a pair of scissors to do this.

You want a chunk of clay that can be held and manipulated comfortably without being too small.

Step 5

Using one or both hands, squeeze and manipulate the clay until it softens. You want it to be pliable, like playdough. How long this takes will depend on the brand and the grade you’ve purchased.

Step 6

You’re going to be claying your vehicle in sections. For best results, begin with less dirty areas. If you start with your wheel wells, your bar will get filthy fast. Begin with the roof, trunk, or hood.

You might need your stepladder to reach the roof. Be careful not to lean it against the vehicle.

Don’t try to rush things — separate each section into sub-sections. Mentally map out small squares — for example, two feet by two feet.

Step 7

Liberally spray your clay lubricant over the first section. Don’t be stingy — make sure the whole surface is slick with no dry patches. You can also spray the bar to prepare it if you like.

Step 8

Slide and rub the clay bar across the lubricated surface. You can use the tips of your fingers or flatten the piece with your palm.

Apply some pressure to keep your grip on the bar, but don’t overdo it. The heavier the grade you’re using, the less force you’ll have to apply.

Move your hand gently in a side-to-side motion. Cover your section with smooth, even movements.

If you encounter resistance (sticking), this is likely from collected contaminants. Too much resistance could mean that you need more lubricant.

Don’t force the product over dry surfaces, as this can cause scratches.

Step 9

Once you’ve finished treating the section, examine your bar. Unless your vehicle is fresh out of the factory, it’s probably looking pretty nasty.

Now squeeze and fold the clay between your hands as you did earlier. Keep doing this until the dirt particles parts are folded within the piece, and the surface of the clay bar looks relatively clean.

You want to do this continuously, always creating a fresh clay surface to work with.

Step 10

Spray your lubricant over the section once more. Repeat steps 8 and 9 until the treated area is spotless.

You’ll know you’re done when the bar stops picking up contaminants, and you can run your fingers over the surface and it feels smooth with no bumps.

Step 11

Using your microfiber towel, wipe off any remaining lubricant. Perform one last check by touching the surface with your fingers.

If you have a smooth surface, proceed to the next section. If not, you may want to pass over it one more time.

Step 12

Repeat steps 7 to 11 until the whole vehicle has been treated. When the piece you’re using is dirty no matter how you fold it, throw it away and use a new piece of clay bar..

Step 13

It’s time to preserve all that hard work. You’ll also want to protect vulnerable parts of your paint job (e.g. tiny cracks), otherwise, corrosion could take hold.

So now you’ve clay barred your car, you want to give it a fresh coat of wax…and then you’re finally free. Take a well-deserved break. You’ve earned it.

How Long Does it Take to Clay Bar a Whole Car?

We can’t give you a specific number of hours. All we can tell you is it won’t take less than two hours, at the minimum.

You’ll have to take into account the following variables and estimate for yourself:

Vehicle Size

A compact hatchback will take way less time to clay than a large truck, of course. The size of your vehicle has a lot to do with how long the task will take.

Condition

It may take longer to clean your vehicle if it’s in bad shape. A car that’s already fairly clean will take less time.

How Often Should You Clay Bar Your Car?

Several times a year is enough for most vehicles. You can inspect your car every so often to see how the surface feels, and clay bar it as required.

If you’ve applied a paint sealant, schedule a claying for when the sealant wears out. Based on the brand this will be anywhere from a few months to one year.

Safety Precautions

Not to worry, these products aren’t toxic or dangerous to you. Still, they can be hazardous to your vehicle’s finish.

Avoid Using Old Products

These materials can and do go bad. If you’ve left an open package in your garage, the bar may no longer be safe to use.

This is most likely to happen with natural bars. If it feels brittle or excessively hard, it may have to be thrown away.

Discard When Spent

Once the piece you’re using gets too dirty, it has to be replaced — it’s spent. You don’t want to rub contaminants back into your paint job, do you?

If dropped, the bar should also be discarded. If not, you risk applying debris from the ground straight onto the surface of your car, or worse scratching your paint work with picked up grit!

Sensitive Paint

Paint that’s aging (e.g. on a classic car) or lacking a finish will be more sensitive. You may want to choose a product with a fine or ultra-fine grade just to be safe.

Final Thoughts

Now you’re familiar with how to use a clay bar. This chore is time-consuming but straightforward to carry out, but the results can be amazing. Patience will be more valuable than expert knowledge here.

Do you have any feedback or questions for us? We look forward to hearing your thoughts. Don’t hesitate to drop us a comment, we’ll respond to each and every one of you!

Kyle Palmer

From childhood go karting and motocross, to collecting and obsessing over scalextric, matchbox and radio controlled cars, I've always had an obsession with cars.Learning through manuals, books, trial and error, and more knowledgeable family members, I've also enjoyed tinkering with the mechanics and electronics of any vehicles I've owned.Now, over 3 decades later, I've started this site as a place for me to share my knowledge, to teach others how to care for and maintain their vehicles themselves, at home, so they can get the most of their vehicles and save a pretty penny compared to always seeking out professional help.

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