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What is Auto Clay?

R. Kayne
R. Kayne

Auto clay is a special type of clay used to prepare auto paint for subsequent waxing by safely removing contaminants and old wax. Auto clay can polish the surface of the vehicle without harming the paint, making it safer to use than abrasive cleaners. This product was once reserved for professionals only, but has found its way into the consumer market much to the delight of auto enthusiasts.

Nothing preserves auto paint better or brings out its beauty and luster like a good wax and seal, but before these products can be applied, the surface of the vehicle must be thoroughly cleaned. Washing with gentle soap is a good place to start, but this won’t remove old wax or stubborn particles lodged in the surface of the paint. Industrial fallout, brake dust and grit from the road can all become embedded in the paint’s protective clear coat.

An SUV that's been cleaned with auto clay.
An SUV that's been cleaned with auto clay.

The standard method to remove grit and grime prior to auto clay was to use polishing compounds. Compounds contain abrasives that "sand" the surface clean. While effective, this also removes minute layers of top coat with each application, potentially jeopardizing the paint system over time.

As an alternative, auto clay was developed in Japan in the early 1990s. The sticky properties of the clay conform to the porous surface of the paint and pull contaminants out of it, rather than relying on sanding. Today auto clay is in the arsenal of virtually every professional detailer. It can remove sap, tar, overspray, bug remains, and just about anything else that sits atop the paint.

Auto clay is used by wetting the surface of the vehicle then sliding a small piece of clay across the lubricant without pressing it into the paint. Some auto clay bars come with their own proprietary lubricant while others suggest using distilled water with a few drops of mild soap. As the clay removes contaminants, it encounters less resistance and slides easier. When the surface of the clay becomes ineffective, it can be kneaded or turned to reveal a new surface. Eventually it must be discarded and replaced.

You can easily test your car, truck or SUV to see if it needs to be clayed. Wash and dry the vehicle, then slip a thin plastic sandwich bag (not freezer quality) over your hand and lightly run your fingers across the paint. The plastic will allow you to feel granulates in the top coat. After claying, try this test again. You should be amazed at the results. Remember that claying removes old wax as well as grime, so the surface will need to be protected after it is clayed. Choose a good quality wax or sealer.

While auto clay is safer than compounds, it also contains some abrasives. The most common medium-grade clay bar is intended for use twice yearly. For those who pride themselves on keeping a spotless, glass-like finish, wax jobs come far more often than twice yearly. In this case a finer grade auto clay bar is available, safe to use as often as once a month.

Auto clay is available everywhere automotive products are sold. Many manufacturers use proprietary formulas and a few have patented their auto clay, so don’t be afraid to experiment.

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    • An SUV that's been cleaned with auto clay.
      An SUV that's been cleaned with auto clay.