Professional Carwashing & Detailing

To clay or not to clay?

October 11, 2010

For those that have seen clay in action, the origins of body clay are sometimes as mystical as how it works.

Some say it came from Asia for the removal of airborne particles from paint surfaces, while others swear it came from creative painters in the US for the removal of over-spray.

Clay works by literally grabbing the object and removing it from the paint surface.

Even today, after countless clay jobs, detailers are still sometimes amazed at its simplicity. No matter its origins, body clay is something that every detailer should be familiar with.

Before you begin

Before you get started on claying, make sure you have a few items handy:

1. The clay bar of choice: Depending on the manufacturer, you may choose from light, moderate or highly aggressive clays.

2. A lubricating agent: While some will suggest water, studies show that this increases the chance of micro surface scratches developing.

A good suggestion is to use either soapy water or a liquid spray detailer product.

3. Several drying cloths: Micro fibers or shammy's are a common recommendation.

4. A lighted magnifying glass: This will allow you to inspect the paint finish both before and after claying and is also a great sales tool when shared with customers.

Claying 101

The process for correctly claying a vehicle is a very simple series of actions.

First, make sure to give the vehicle a thorough wash and clean all soil and dirt from its surfaces. Dry the vehicle and inspect the finish for any imperfections you can work on.

Before applying to the surface, remove the clay from the packaging. Preferably, break the clay in half and roll one half of the clay into a ball.

Next flatten the ball into a pancake — this will allow easier movement on the surface and better the quality.

Before starting, check the paint surface for dust and or debris. Even a slight breeze can deposit dust on the surface that, in turn, will cause scratching.

Use your senses

Watch the area that's being worked on with clay. Watch for the visual changes being made.

Feel the clay glide across the finish. Utilize your senses within your hand to feel for the clay sticking, this may mean you need more lubricant. Also feel for the clay grabbing onto imperfections.

Listen to the sounds made as you clay. Listen for scratching sounds or if the sounds change.

This could save you both time and money from having to remove surface scratches from the finish. Using your senses should be an active part of claying.

The claying process

With your flattened clay in hand, start on the high points of the vehicle. Apply a generous amount of lubricant to the surface.

Begin on the high points of the vehicle and with strokes in the direction of airflow. Make the strokes from front to back and break the area into reachable sections that are small enough to clay without the lubricating agent drying.

Follow these claying strokes by drying the area and rubbing your hand across the surface to inspect for smoothness.

Inspect the area with the magnifying glass and compare to the areas not yet clayed. This action allows you to visually see the change.

If surface debris remains, you may want to re-clay and this time start in the opposite direction of airflow or from front to back and then side-to-side. This change in direction will sometimes dislodge surface material that was not coming off with single direction strokes.

Tip: As you use the clay bar, make certain you turn the clay. This is done by rolling the clay back out and kneading the clay, which will cause the clean internal clay to move to the outer areas and thus reduce the chances of micro surface scratches.

You should perform this step several times while claying a vehicle.

Repeat the above steps on the entire vehicle, finalizing the top sections first. Leave the lower 12  of the vehicle for last, as these areas are usually the most contaminated and can cause a quick death for clay bars.

When you have completed the claying process you may need to re-wash the vehicle or at least use a liquid detailer to wipe the finish down so that the finish is ready for the next step within the detail process.

Think outside the box

Body clay remains a fantastic tool for removing over-spray but other important uses have been developed.

Deposits on paint surfaces of any type continue to be a challenge to many detail technicians and clay can come to the rescue and assist at achieving higher quality work.

Not only are technicians using clay on paint, many parts of a vehicle can be enhanced with the use of clay including:

1. Wheels: When clay has served its life by restoring paint surfaces and is nearly ready to be tossed, it can then be put to work on wheels and wheel-well trim.

Clay works great at removing stubborn wheel stains and deposits. The painted areas within the wheel-well trim are another area that nearly discarded clay can improve.

2. Windows: While several methods exist for cleaning windows, clay can also be an effective source for removing bugs, road film and other contaminates from windshields and side windows.

3. Chrome bumpers: When bug and road grime build up on chrome bumpers and trim, clay can be an effective avenue to try.

4. Front grills: For example, a newly purchased truck was delivered, and it was quickly noticed that the chrome grill had a tremendous amount of hard water deposits.

Using clay within the recesses of the grill, all hard water spots were safely removed without affecting the grill finish.

5. Pre-polishing prep: Before polishing paint, some detailers prefer to clay. This preps the paint, making certain the surface is smooth and clean of paint deposits.

With that said, clay is not an answer to all issues. Certain paint deposits will not be affected by clay and may need chemical or machine interdiction for proper restoration.

Using clay properly can assist technicians at several paint restoration tasks including:

  • Over spray removal;
  • Sap removal;
  • Road tar removal;
  • Industrial fall out;
  • Railroad metal deposits; and
  • Minor hard water spots.

Claying is a vital and important step within the detailing process. Clay's original introduction into the industry and its portrayal as being revolutionizing has turned out to be very appropriate. Detailers' love affair with body clay is here to stay!

Renny Doyle is the founder of Attention to Details, Ltd., which specializes in detailing cars, aircrafts, boats, RV's and custom bikes. Doyle can be reached at