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Choosing the right clay bar, mitt, towel, or sponge for contamination removal

Posted by rich weichand on

Choosing the right clay bar, mitt, towel, or sponge for contamination removal


Clay bars come in various shapes, sizes, and aggressiveness grades. These traditional clay bars have been around for decades and help remove contamination from different surfaces. While clay is typically used on the paint (clearcoat), some detailers use it on wheels, glass, trim, plastic, and other surfaces on the vehicle's exterior.


Removing contamination from the surface is essential to the entire detail process. With a clean surface, any product you attempt to apply to the surface will adequately adhere to the surface and allow the proper workability of that product. For example: trying to compound or polish a car full of contamination will result in the compound or polish needing to be worked thoroughly, and the removal of the excess product will be more difficult.  If you attempt to apply a wax, sealant, resin coating, or ceramic coating, these products will not stick to the surface, and you are wasting time and money.  


Does your vehicle need to be clayed? Many cars, especially new ones, must undergo the contamination removal process to adequately protect your clearcoat finish.  After washing and drying your vehicle, run your hand over the car’s surface.  Does the finish still feel rough or bumpy? If it does, this contamination should be removed. The normal washing process, whether through a touchless car wash or your typical mitt and bucket wash, is not aggressive enough to remove the contaminants on the surface. Most vehicles need some contamination removal process.  Even ceramic-coated, waxed, sealed, or resin-coated cars might still need contamination removal. Just because a vehicle Is protected does not eliminate particles from adhering to the surface.


Newly purchased vehicles often have severe contamination and need to be adequately removed by the auto detailer employed at the dealership. These vehicles typically sit near a highway, and all the contamination is constantly adhering to the surface without the surface ever being exposed to a friction wash before the sale. Vehicles traveling on the roadway can continually expose these “front line” vehicles to contamination and added contaminants from highway reconstruction projects.  Dealerships are notorious for completing “lot washes,” which involve spraying the car with water and using a drying agent to remove the water to prevent drying spots. Often, the vehicles are not touched with a wash mitt until the time of the sale. This type of washing process allows contamination to build up on the surface. The detailers working at new and used car dealers are typically rushed to complete the vehicle to get the customer in their vehicle within a short period.  Lack of training and experience, clay is sometimes not used or even known by the typical auto dealership detailer. This will, of course, vary per dealer.


Synthetic clay (mitts, sponges, towels, pads) vs. Natural Clay (pliable and kneadable)


Natural Clay Bar Advantages

It comes in a variety of sizes and aggressiveness levels

Typically, cheaper than synthetic clay

“Cuts” faster than many synthetic clays but might mare sensitive paint

It can be torn into small pieces to get into the minor areas of the vehicle

It can be used with clay lubricants and pH-balanced soaps


Disadvantages of a Natural Clay Bar

Determining the correct aggressiveness level to use on the type of color and clearcoat of the vehicle might be difficult for beginners

If you drop the clay bar on the ground, debris can become stuck to the bar, and the bar might need to be discarded

You will need to constantly check the clay bar to see if the clay is becoming clogged and therefore begin to kneed the clay to expose a fresh part of the clay.

Depending on the lubricant used to allow the clay bar to slide across the paint, specific chemicals can break down the bar, which will cause the bar to stick to the clear coat.

It will need to be stored in a container with a lubricant to prevent the clay from drying out.


Synthetic Clay Advantages

Typically are less harsh on the paint than a traditional clay bar

A beginner does not have to understand if the paintwork is composed of a “soft” or “hard” clearcoat

It can be dropped on the ground and rinsed off before use.

Can cover a large area quicker than a 100-gram or 200-gram clay bar

It does not need any kneading

It can be stored without any solution as it will not dry out.


Synthetic Clay Disadvantages

Synthetic Mitt, Sponge, Towel, and Pad

Since most have a dark clay surface, it can be hard to see how contaminated the clay surface is becoming.

Hard to get into smaller areas

Typically, more expensive than traditional clay

“Cuts” slower than traditional clay (Might have to clay the vehicle for a more extended period to remove contaminates)


Tips on choosing the correct clay bar when working on certain color vehicles, polishing vs. non-polishing techniques

 If you plan on not machine polishing your vehicle and it is darker in color, we suggest using a synthetic clay bar or the lightest “cut” natural clay bar.  While a sealant, wax, or a glaze can fill in imperfections, using an aggressive clay technique can cause minor marring on the surface that can be easily removed by machine buffing.

If you plan on machine polishing your vehicle, it is almost irrelevant what type of clay you use under normal circumstances IF YOU ARE EXPERIENCED WITH PAINT CORRECTION. If a vehicle is heavily contaminated, it is best to use an aggressive natural clay bar to reduce working time. Any marring will be removed through the machining process.   Suppose you need to become more experienced with multi-level paint correction. In that case, it is always advised to use the mildest form of clay (synthetic clay or light natural clay) to avoid not being able to remove any marring accidentally created during the clay process successfully.  This method will mostly apply to darker-in-color vehicles.  Lighter-in-color cars, it is harder to see the marring; the light needs to hit the paint at just the correct angle if the experienced detailer is trying to determine the condition of the painted surface.


How to use clay

Clay always has to be used with some form of lubrication. Without lubrication, clay will not slide on the surface. There are typically two forms of lubrication used during the clay process: a car wash solution or a clay lubricant.  

The clay lubricant should not contain wax or sealant, as the entire purpose is to remove any existing contamination to prepare the surface for wax, glaze, polish, resin coating, etc. After the vehicle is washed and dried, spray the lubricant onto a panel (approximately 2 feet by 2 feet) and move the clay bar back and forth on the surface. After completing this area, dry the area with a microfiber towel and determine if the surface is free of contamination. Rub your hand over the surface. Does it still feel bumpy or gritty? If so, repeat the process until the paint feels smooth.

The benefit of using a clay lubricant, it allows you to see the surface as you proceed with the clay process. This is beneficial when the contamination is large enough to see and will begin to disappear during the process. You can also work at your own pace, as the clay lubricant will not drip down the side of the vehicle compared to a car wash solution.  It allows the detailer to clay the surface when time is not a factor.

A pH-balanced soap solution saves money and completes the job faster. Sometimes the surface will stay wetter for longer, allowing you to complete a more extensive section of the vehicle.  This method benefits many mobile auto detailers who work in extreme heat and want to avoid any product drying onto the panel too fast. The downside of using a soap solution is that the paint is covered in suds, and any visible contamination will be difficult to see during removal.  It is also important to note that you should use a pH-balanced solution during the process. A low or high-pH solution may deteriorate the clay bar and allow it to stick to the painted surface.  It is also best to avoid using any soaps that contain protectants within the solution.  The protectant can recoat the surface with a protective area that can affect buffing, sealing, or coating products applied after the clay process.

If you’re working with another detailer, using a foam cannon during the process can speed up the process. You can foam the area to be clayed, start claying the surface and then rinse that area if needed.  If the climate allows, you might be able to clay an entire vehicle and then rinse the car In one step. Each panel will not have to be rinsed if the vehicle is in the shade and the outside temperatures are reasonable.  Determining the best method will vary per detailer, mobile-based vs. shop-based, climate, vehicle condition, services paid for, level of experience, clear-coat type, etc.



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