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Paint care & clay basics

January 07, 2009
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Before we get into the proper techniques for paint care we should get a better understanding of the different types of paints.
When the automobile was first introduced they used lacquer, which took forever to dry. Not long after that enamel arrived, both of these applications were called single stage paint systems.
In order to achieve a desirable finish on single stage paint, they had to apply 7-8 coats. This paint system was vulnerable to contaminants since it was not clear coated like today’s modern paint system.
One thing you could do with single stage paint was wet sand and buff it more frequently than today’s paint. Take into consideration that a piece of notebook paper is about 3-4 mils thick, single stage paint systems were about 13 mils. Today’s modern paint is only 7-8 mils thick, so why it is more durable?
The reason is because of the technology, along with how it’s applied. Today’s paint is made up of urethanes that are not only more durable, but because of the clearcoat applied on top of the base coat, the paint is protected from environmental damage.
Dual stage paint systems, as they are called, are made up of on top of the substrate a primer coat, base coat or color coat, and the clear coat. The clear coat is what we are talking about protecting here, and it’s important to remember that it is only 3-4 mils thick, which is the same as a piece of paper. Today’s industry of car care supplies is a multi- billion dollar business, so it’s important to know what to use and how to use it.

Auto Detailing 101

Most scratches and swirls originate during the washing and or the drying stage. While it may be true that car washes themselves can cause damage to the paint, many times the owner themselves cause damage unknowingly using the wrong materials.
Stay away from sponges or towels for washing; use microfiber mitts, chenille mitts, lambs wool, or any other dense type mitt. Keep in mind that for regular washes use only carwash soap, never use dish soap or laundry detergent, it is way to harsh and will remove any protection on the finish.
Rinse the car first before you start washing, this will start to loosen the road grime. Avoid working in the sun because this can cause water spots. Use the two-bucket method, and change as often as necessary. The wheel bucket should never be used the same time as the finish, keep them separate.

After you rinse the car, this is the time to inspect the vehicle for contaminants that did not come off during the wash procedure. Tar is a good example, for this you need to use a solvent cleaner like WD40. This may surprise you, but using an electric leaf blower is a great way to air-dry the car without having to touch it.

Do not dry the vehicle. If you dry your car, there are still micro particles on the finish that did not come off during the wash cycle and these will be sanded into the finish, creating all kinds of scratches and swirls.
Detailing clay
This next step is the most important one. Detailing clay originated in Japan a number of years ago and few people know what it is or what it does. It looks like play dough, but what it does for a finish is remarkable. Used properly, it will remove micro particles and prep the surface for that mirror looking shine.

Claying cars is seldom practiced anymore due to the fact it takes a little extra time during the detailing procedure. In my shop, I clay every car I get in, simply because I believe it is the only way to achieve a true “show car” look.

If you think your finish is fine and doesn’t need to be clayed, do this simple test. Put you hand in a plastic baggie, touch your paint and move it around gently, (don’t worry you won’t harm anything) the plastic will magnify the sense in your skin 10 times that of the bare touch. If you feel a roughness or a gritty feel it needs to be clayed. Chances are it will.
When using clay, there’s only one word you need to remember: Lubrication. I can’t emphasize lubrication enough because most people using it for the first time run into trouble because they don’t lubricate the clay enough.
Most clay comes in three grades: fine, med, aggressive. Most of the time fine grade will do just fine or med are just fine. You can clay any smooth surface: glass, paint plastic, smooth plastic and any paint surface. Areas you can’t clay would be non-coated plastic, rubber, and other non-coated surfaces.

How to clay

Get a bottle of quick detail spray and bucket of soapy water and wash mitt. Get the section you are working on wet with soap; dip the clay in the soapy water. Spray the clay AND the soapy section with detail spray.

Now work in a side-to-side motion using gentle pressure, when the clay starts to hesitate and doesn’t glide freely, repeat the soap/spray until it is lubricated. Lubricate surface and the clay often as you are working.
As you proceed, keep rinsing sections you finished as you go. Another tip is to fold and reshape and clay as you work. Clay has the ability to pull contaminants within itself as you bend and shape it.
If you drop the clay, throw it out, because it will pick up all the dirt and crud from the ground and hold it in the clay, making it a destructive tool.
Now that you have removed these micro particles by claying what I refer to as “on” the finish, we need to concentrate on problems that are “in” the finish. Although for serious paint correction you may need the help of a professional detailer, there are some minor defects you can correct by hand.
If the finish you are working on is in new or like-new condition, you are in good shape to proceed as follows. Paint cleaners have the ability to deep clean the paint while bringing back new like life with some polishing ability. These cleaners can remove minor scratches and blemishes in the finish that claying cannot achieve.

Once you have deep cleaned the paint, you can either use a pure polish (optional) or proceed to seal or wax the finish. The last step is important because it is what protects the paint. Most people typically wax the car, although modern technology has brought us synthetic polymers that are superior to wax.

Car dealers charge up to $1,200 for a single application of paint seal protection. However, you can do it at your shop for around $10.
Most polymers are easier (and cheaper) to apply than waxes. The one thing they need to do is sit on the finish, which is curing time, before you remove it. Once you remove it you will have a protective barrier that will outlast the most expensive wax on the market up to six times longer.
The other thing to remember is to use microfiber towels when removing paint cleaners/polish and sealants. microfiber is the softest most gentle material you can use on your finish. That is all I use in my shop.
Be smart when shopping for these towels. The cheap ones can harm your finish because they use inferior material. Expect to pay around $5 for a regular size towel. I recommend towels from Korea, they are of good quality. Do not use fabric softener when washing, quality towels have been tested for over 500 washes and are still in good shape.

Gary Kouba is the owner of Perfect Auto Finish, Roselle, IL. He can be reached at

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