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Making a Case for Clay

Product can have tremendous results when used sensibly. While it should not be used as a cure-all for every paint problem, experts say clay can be an effective detailing tool as long as a quality product is purchased and it is used sensibly.

By Denise L. Papa, Assistant Editor

Now seven years after it first entered the US market, clay has changed the way many detailers clean vehicle finishes. Detailers say this soft, pliable material can be used to effectively remove difficult overspray, rail-dust fallout, pollution and surface-rust problems from clear-coat surfaces.

However, as clay has increased in popularity some experts warn that detailers have come to rely on it as a cure-all for paint problems clay cannot reasonably be expected to fix. Experts say clay can be an effective tool only when a quality product is purchased and used sensibly. 

The benefits of clay

Clay was first used as part of the surface-repair process by the Japanese auto-body industry. According to David Miller, president of Auto Wax, Dallas, clay entered the US market in 1993. At first, it caught on slowly among detailers.

"Everyone is generally skeptical of new things and when clay was first brought to the US, it was difficult to sell that first time," he says. Miller says clay has become Auto Wax's top-selling product. The flexible, tacky material is used to remove surface contaminants before a wax or sealant is applied. In short, it keeps detailers from creating an uneven vehicle surface by waxing over dirt. 

According to Jeff Stevens, president of Stevens Car Care Products, Eastlake, OH, clay should be used only after a vehicle has been completely washed and dried. After giving the vehicle a thorough cleaning, detailers should follow three simple steps:

1.) Wet a section of the vehicle with clay lubricant.

2.) Rub the clay bar over the lubricated section. The natural tack of the clay will remove contaminants from vehicle finishes.

3.) Repeat this process in small sections until the vehicle is complete. 

Naturally, the clay will accumulate contaminants the longer it is used. When the clay becomes soiled, simply stretch and fold it to expose a clean surface. Stevens says detailers should always discard a clay bar that has been dropped on the ground, as the bar may pick up dirt particles that could scratch clear-coat finishes. 

Get the most out of clay

Detailers say clay provides easy solutions for some tough vehicle-care jobs. Gary Bean, operator of Every Detail, Lodi, CA, uses clay to remove industrial fallout and overspray.

"It's the most incredible process of eliminating contaminants," he says. Rick White, operator of White's Detail, Bothell, WA, has had success using clay for surface preparation on premium and high-end details. The smooth surface the clay creates allows for a better wax application.

In fact, Stevens says clay has become the surface-preparation method of choice for many detailers. He points out that, in the past, more aggressive methods of removing surface contaminants, such as wet sanding and buffing, were used.

"When attempting to use abrasive compounding methods… the microscopic layers of the clear coat and/ or paint finish are being diminished," he says. "This is, in fact, weakening the strength and protective properties of the finish."

Although clay can save precious mils of clear-coat finish, Stevens is quick to point out that it will not fix all surface problems. He says detailers need to develop a sensible approach to what clay can and can not accomplish.

"The clay bar is not 'snake oil' and it's not the miracle 'solve-all product,'" he says. "It is designed to remove surface contaminants, and will not repair surface defects. Surface defects such as oxidation, acid-rain etchings, orange peel and low gloss will require additional treatment."

Get the most from your supplier

Both White and Bean know the importance of locating a reliable and affordable clay supplier. White purchases his clay from Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, for $9.95 per bar. A typical bar lasts him five overspray jobs.

Bean uses Turtle Wax clay, which costs $20 per bar. One bar typically allows him to do surface preparation for 20 cars.

Auto Wax's Miller says the price of clay has changed little over the past five years and the material should remain an inexpensive, effective tool for detailers.

However, as clay has increased in popularity, wide fluctuations in quality have developed in the market. Miller says detailers should examine the pliability of a clay before purchasing it. The product should form and reshape easily in your hand, like putty. Substandard clay has the tendency to be brittle, with a consistency like window caulk. It often breaks when refolded. 

Stevens says clay that sticks to paint finishes or causes skid marks also should be avoided. He also warns that there are several different grades of clay, and some of the more aggressive grades can be abrasive to vehicle finishes. As with any process in detailing, Stevens recommends detailers start with the least aggressive product. 

Experts say detailers should experiment until they find the right clay for them. A quality clay, used correctly, can eliminate hours from difficult surface-cleaning jobs and enhance the overall look of a waxed or sealed vehicle. 

"It just makes your vehicle look better," says Miller.


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