You’ve probably heard of detailing clay before but you may not know what it is or if your vehicle needs it. Here’s everything you need to know about using a clay bar.
Detailing clay looks and feels similar to modeling clay. It’s sticky, moldable, and is used to physically pull contaminants out of the pores of a paint job.
Why detailing clay is important
The paint on any vehicle that is regularly driven and exposed to the elements will eventually become contaminated. Your paint job has pores just like your skin – and when things like brake dust, industrial fallout, tree sap, and paint overspray get stuck in them, simply wiping a wash mitt or towel across the surface will not be able to remove them.
This is where a clay bar comes in. Detailing clay will grab onto these contaminants and pull them out of your paint.
Why is it important to remove contamination from your paint? There are a few reasons. First, you’ll be able to feel the rough surface whenever you wash the car. In the case of heavy paint overspray, it’ll sound like you’re rubbing your hand across sandpaper.
Second, allowing metallic particles like brake dust or exhaust soot to remain in the pores of your paint for a long period of time can lead to rust and corrosion forming. Ever seen a white car covered with red or orange dots? Those are tiny little rust stains from contamination. Ignoring this for a long period of time can lead to bigger problems for the body of your car.
The third reason why decontaminating your paint with clay is a good idea is because your wax or sealant of choice will last much longer. Having a perfectly clean surface will allow the wax or sealant to bond to the paint properly. A layer of contamination between the two can certainly cause it to wear off prematurely.
When to use a clay bar
How do you know if you need to use a clay bar on your car? It’s quite simple – touch it. Feel your paint immediately after washing it. If it feels rough and/or you can hear the sound of your hand gliding across it, it’s probably time to break out the clay bar.
Some contaminants like tree sap or overspray can be seen visibly. If your paint has a cloudy look to it or the texture is different in some areas, you could be seeing the effects of paint overspray. In most cases, a clay bar and some elbow grease can take care of that.
One of the most crucial times to use a clay bar is before any type of machine polishing or paint correction. Any contamination stuck in the paint can be pulled up into the polishing pad and wreak absolute havoc on your paint job. You can easily end up causing more harm than good. I will very rarely touch paint with a polisher without using a clay bar first. It’s just too risky.
Using a clay bar isn’t something you should do unless it’s needed. Think of it as a necessary evil. The thing is, every time you use detailing clay, there’s a chance that it’ll mar the surface (especially on softer, easier to scratch paint jobs). The average car owner likely won’t be able to notice it, but it’s there.
My opinion is that you need to do at least a quick machine polish after using a clay bar to maintain the original level of gloss. For more of my thoughts on this, make sure to check out this post about people using clay bars too often.
Is there a difference between clay bars?
This is a topic often discussed online and something many people get wrong (myself included). I decided to do a bit of research on this to educate myself and get to the bottom of it.
It’s widely believed that all detailing clay is exactly the same regardless of which brand you purchase from. This is because clay bars, in general, have been patented. Is this actually true? I thought so, but it might not be the case.
There are 2 different patent holders for clay bars – Tadao Kodate has a patent in Japan and Paul Miller (founder of Clay Magic) has one in the USA. This led people to believe that every clay bar sold worldwide was coming from one of these 2 sources.
But just because the clay is patented doesn’t mean everyone is forced to sell the exact same formula. From my understanding, companies are free to develop any type of clay bar they want. In order to sell it though, one of these patent holders needs to get a piece of the pie.
The question really becomes: was it worth it for North American manufacturers to put time into developing their own clay while still having to pay the patent holder, or did it make more sense to just license the whole formula from them (since they had to pay up anyway)? Without a word from an insider, I guess we’ll never know.
What’s even more interesting, is that the most recent clay bar patent expired in 2018 (Clay Magic). As far as I know, anyone is legally able to develop and sell any type of detailing clay at this point.
There have always been a few noticeably different types of clay bars, mainly elastic vs. plastic ones. There are some that have a polymer added that helps with lubricity allowing straight water to be used as a lubricant. Aside from these, there are also different colors and levels of aggressiveness available (fine grade vs heavy grade).
In the end, I don’t believe every clay bar on the market is coming from the same manufacturer because of these patents. I do believe that most of them are very similar simply because that’s the formula that works best. Will we see more advanced/different types of detailing clay in the future? There doesn’t seem to be a legal reason preventing it.
It’s far more important to choose your clay bar based on how aggressive it is. There are very few situations where a fine grade (least aggressive) clay bar won’t be able to get the job done. I recommend sticking with them. The more abrasive clay bars can and will dull the finish of your paint.
How long does it take to clay bar a car?
I’ve heard people say that using a clay bar on their car takes them all afternoon. There’s no reason for it to take that long. In most normal cases, decontaminating your paint with clay should take no more than an hour. Of course, there are exceptions to that like dealing with heavy overspray or working on an extra-large vehicle. But in most cases, it should be a fairly quick process.
Using a clay bar is somewhat of a physical task, so it might take you longer if you’re out of shape. The key is to be as efficient as possible and avoid overthinking things. Work in small sections at a time and once you can hear/feel that the paint is smooth, move on to the next area. If some areas of the car are less contaminated than others, there’s no need to spend the same amount of time on them.
Using a clay bar alternative like a Nanoskin Autoscrub sponge is a great way to cut down on time. The biggest advantage these have over a traditional clay bar is that you don’t need to take the time to kneed the clay to a clean side. One quick wipe with a microfiber towel and you’re good to go.
The downside to using one of these is that they’re slightly less gentle on the paint. In my opinion, this isn’t a problem because you should be following up with at least a quick polish either way. I still use both a traditional clay bar and a sponge, but I find myself reaching for the alternative much more often due to the ease of use.
How many times can you reuse a clay bar?
A clay bar is not a one-time use product. You can use it on multiple vehicles, multiple times. You’ll know when it can’t be used anymore because you won’t be able to find any remaining clean material when you kneed it. That’s when it’s time to grab a new one.
Another situation where you must start over with a fresh clay bar is if you happen to drop it on the ground. Any dirt or pebbles will get stuck in the clay and you’ll never be able to remove them all. This can be a tough lesson to learn but it’s a necessary one if you want to prevent any damage to your paint.
Can you use a clay bar on glass?
Absolutely! Clay bars do a great job of removing contamination from your glass and making them feel just as slick as your paint. Glass is much harder to scratch than paint is so you don’t need to be quite as careful either.
To learn more about using clay bars on glass, check out this article:
Hopefully, this cleared up any questions you might have had about detailing clay. Remember, the brand you’re buying doesn’t matter as much as the grade of the clay. Stick with a fine grade if you can and don’t forget to hustle – this shouldn’t take all day!
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: