How to Use a Clay Bar to Clean Your Car

The final step in smoothing out your vehicle's paint.

Clean car with clay barShutterstock

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A clay bar treatment is a detailing trick that can improve the appearance of your vehicle's paint. While traditional car washing does a great job of removing surface grime, there can still be contaminants embedded in a car's finish that don't come off with a simple scrub.

This is where a clay bar kit is really useful. The sticky properties of clay can latch on to paint contamination (such as iron filings from train rails, insect impact residue, airborne pollutants, and brake dust), pulling it out of the clear coat in a way that a soapy wash mitt never could. It's an easy extra step that usually takes no more than an hour, but makes a world of difference in caring for your vehicle.

How To Choose a Clay Bar

There are numerous options when it comes to purchasing a clay bar to clean your car. A full clay bar kit typically comes with a hunk of detailing clay, a spray bottle of lubricant (usually quick detailer), and a microfiber cloth. You can also just buy the clay itself if you already have detailer and drying clothes hanging around your garage.

As with any detailing product, it's easy to go down the rabbit hole of quality and marketing and end up paying that much or more for just the clay itself. Not all clay bar kits are expensive — you will most likely pay between $20 and $35 for reputable brands such as Meguiars, Mothers, or Chemical Guys, and can get enough of each product to complete at least one claying session of your entire car or truck (assuming an average-sized vehicle).

How To Use A Clay Bar To Clean Your Car

The first step in the claying process is to completely wash and dry your car. Next, take the clay bar and break it into four equal-sized pieces. With the first piece in hand, flatten it out until you can easily hold it between your thumb and first two fingers.

Take the provided lubricant (or detailing spray) and mist it over a section of the vehicle's paint. Run the clay up and down that section, sliding it gently but firmly back and forth until you've covered the entire wet area. When you're done, wipe away any wetness that might remain.

Look at the bottom of the clay you used. You'll notice all kinds of gunk that it pulled from your paint. Fold the clay over on itself so that these contaminants are covered, flatten it out again, and go to work on the next section. Change up the clay once it no longer presents a clean face after folding.

Once you're done, your car’s paint should feel noticeably smoother to the touch. If you notice any rough areas remaining, it's time for round two.

Pro tip: to feel how contaminated your paint is, mist a section of paint with either a mild soap solution or your detailing spray/lubricant, and place your hand inside a plastic bag (a sandwich bag works well). All the little bumps you feel are really particles stuck to your paint. Perform the same test after using your clay bar to feel the difference.

Protect Your Work

A clean and clayed car deserves an extra dose of paint protection. In order to help keep future contamination from affecting your paint, applying a coat of wax or sealant is the final step after claying.

You don't need to use a clay bar every time you wash your car, but it's a good idea to do each time you plan to apply wax to make sure you're sealing in the cleanest paint possible.

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Benjamin Hunting
Benjamin Hunting is a writer and podcast host who contributes to a number of newspapers, automotive magazines, and online publications. More than a decade into his career, he enjoys keeping the shiny side up during track days and always has one too many classic vehicle projects partially disassembled in his garage at any given time. Remember, if it's not leaking, it's probably empty.