Clay barring a vehicle is one of a few methods of decontaminating the paint on your car. I think of it as the primary method. Paint decontamination is essentially the process of removing the dirt and grime that is so stuck to the surface of your finish that a thorough washing won’t remove.
Most people need to clay bar their car or truck no more than once, maybe twice a year. Some people suggest every 3 months but I think this is far too often except for rare circumstances. This is only a guideline though. Your circumstances may vary from this general rule of thumb.
Knowing what to look for is far more important than simply following a schedule. Keep reading to learn how to “know” how often “you” need to clay bar your car.
How to tell when you need to clay bar your car
It’s usually not easy to see individual contaminants bonded to the surface of your clear coat. Large problems such as bug guts are pretty easy to spot obviously but small iron particles aren’t likely to be noticed with a visual inspection.
A better way to determine if it’s time to clay bar your car is to simply feel the surface of your paint with your fingertips. If the surface feels slightly rough after a good washing then it’s definitely worth considering using a clay bar on your finish.
It’s important to wash your car before doing this or you could confuse dirt that could be easily washed away for contamination. It’s also better to not touch your paintwork when it’s dirty to avoid creating fine scratches in the clear coat.
Some people suggest using a plastic bag to put their hand in to make it easier to feel rough contaminants that are bonded to the surface. If I’m honest, I’ve never bothered to do this but it could be helpful for those that haven’t felt contaminants on a car’s paint surface before.
Even a brand new car can benefit from using a clay bar. If your new car or truck was shipped uncovered by rail it likely has a decent amount of iron contamination on the surface from the train wheels and rails.
A good clay bar session will make a difference in the look of your finish but unless your car or truck is particularly neglected don’t expect dramatic improvements. Don’t think that this means it isn’t important to clay your car.
Clay bars should be seen more as protection than as a product that improves shine. Shine will improve but the biggest benefits of using a clay bar are protecting the clear coat from swirls and scratches that could be caused by contaminants breaking loose while polishing or waxing, or the breaking down of the clear coat from the corrosiveness of the contaminants.
Why should (or shouldn't) you clay bar your car
If you can feel rough contamination on the surface of your clear coat it’s usually a good idea to remove it. Removing contaminants will not only make your finish appear closer to that of a freshly painted car or truck but it will also help protect the clear coat.
You shouldn’t use a clay bar if you feel like it’s time to do so but can’t feel contaminants. If your paintwork is smooth to the touch it’s probably safe to skip claying your car or truck. The downside of a clay bar is that you always run the risk of marring the finish. Contaminants get stuck in the clay and if you’re not good about folding your clay frequently those contaminants could cause fine scratches in your clear coat.
An important note is to pay attention to your clay. If it is beginning to get dirty fold it so that the dirt is moved to the inside of the clay and expose a fresh surface free of grit. If it becomes impossible to fold your clay so that you have a clean face to clay your car with you need to switch to a new piece of clay. If you drop your clay on the ground, throw it away. Grit from the ground could do significant damage.
What is paint decontamination?
I mentioned earlier that paint decontamination is removing dirt and road grime that can’t be removed by just washing your car. Unless your car is never driven and is kept garaged, it will get exposed to elements that will bond with the surface of your paintwork. Some examples of these bonded contaminants are tree sap, brake dust, iron particles, bug guts, and more.
These contaminants can eat into the clear coat of your finish over time and accelerate the breaking down of your finish. They can also contribute to a duller look to your paint. Last, they can contribute to swirls and scratches in your clear coat that can dull your finish. Fine swirls and scratches can make your paintwork look particularly bad, especially on darker colored cars.
Paint Decontamination Methods
While a clay bar is probably the most effective method for decontaminating your car’s paint it isn’t the only method. There are 4 methods I recommend but I don’t recommend any without a clay bar as the first step. Essentially these are escalating steps for the level of decontamination you’re going for. The only exception to the order would be spot treating difficult areas such as bug guts or asphalt tar with a bug and tar remover or quality paint-safe degreaser such as Citrol 266, but this can be done after using a clay bar as well.
Here are the 4 methods:
- Clay Bar
- Iron Remover
- IPA Wipedown
A proper car detailing clay bar should always be used as the 1st step in paint decontamination. It will do the bulk of the work and increase the effectiveness of the other decontamination methods.
How does car detailing clay work? After you wash and dry your car, you can safely glide a clay bar across the surface of your clear coat (you need to use a good clay lubricant) and it essentially knocks off contaminants that stick up from the surface of your car’s paint. The contaminants get embedded in the clay and removed. A lubricant is needed to allow the clay to slide across the paint without sticking or causing scratches.
If you have a vehicle with some age on it and it’s been exposed to the elements frequently you’ll be amazed at the amount of dirt that collects on the clay bar. It is extremely effective.
An iron remover does exactly what its name says it does – it removes iron particles. An iron remover is a common component of a wheel cleaner to help remove brake dust buildup. Brake dust contains iron, as does a lot of other elements in the air. Vehicle emissions, trail rail dust, industrial fallout, etc.
Iron particles can be smaller than what a clay bar may be able to remove and a quality iron remover is a better solution for removal of these particles.
An iron remover is usually a spray that is sprayed away after it has been allowed to sit and react with the iron particles. Often you can tell iron remover is reacting with iron because it will turn purplish in color due to the chemical reaction.
I’m not going to dive deep into polishing but I did want to include it here. There may be times that you will encounter some stubborn contaminants that clay barring or iron remover can’t remove. A light polish can usually remove just about anything. What polishing actually does is remove a minute amount of the clear coat so if there are any bonded contaminants on the surface they will get removed.
Polishing is primarily for removing light swirls and scratches in your clear coat and is part of the paint correction process. Decontamination is important before polishing because contaminants could potentially get embedded in your polishing pad and create new swirls instead of removing old ones. If you’re resorting to a light polish to deal with contaminants you’ll want to inspect your work thoroughly and plan on using a fresh pad for a second pass.
IPA is an abbreviation for isopropyl alcohol, also referred to as rubbing alcohol. An IPA wipedown is usually necessary after clay barring and using iron remover to eliminate any oils, wax, or other residues that may be left on the finish. It’s good to do this before applying paint protection such as a paint sealant or ceramic coating. Clay lubricants such as spray wax or quick detail spray need to be removed before paint protection is applied. This will ensure the protection of your choosing will adhere properly and last as long as possible.
The isopropyl alcohol is usually diluted 1 to 1 with water at a minimum. Diluting further is also common. Some use it without dilution but try to minimize contact time. The more diluted the less effective it will be but the more it could damage plastics or rubber, stripping the oils that help give them their shiny appearance and elasticity. Use care when wiping down your paint surfaces with IPA and avoid prolonged contact with anything other than your paint surface. I would also minimize contact with your paint out of an abundance of caution.
After clay bar, what is the next step?
The usual next step after you clay your car is to use a quality iron remover but this isn’t required. Often people consider clay bars to be enough to decontaminate their paintwork before applying wax or other paint protection.
I suggest an IPA wipedown after using a clay bar since clay bar lubricants usually leave behind oils and films that may impede the ability of wax or other protective coatings to properly bond with the clear coat.
It’s more important to know when to clay bar your car than to simply follow a schedule. Being able to feel the surface of your car’s paint after a wash is the best way to know if it’s time for claying. Claying can potentially be harsh to your paintwork so it isn’t something that should be done unless it’s necessary. If you’re decontaminating your clear coat to accept a quality synthetic wax, ceramic coating, or graphene coating you’ll want to clay the surface at a minimum to ensure maximum adhesion of your paint protection of choice.