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How to Clay Car Paint for Beginners (Step-by-Step)

If you’ve never clayed your car, chances are your car needs it! But there are a few things to know about clay before you jump in.

In this post, you’ll learn what clay is used for, why clay is a good idea, and how exactly to clay your car for the first time.

Why clay car paint?

It’s a good idea to clay your car to remove contaminants that soap alone can’t carry away. Clay will pick up these particles to return the paint to a smooth state. If you run your hand over an old car that hasn’t been clayed in a long time, you’ll notice the paint is rough to the touch even after washing.

When contaminants from exhaust fumes or microscopic iron particles settle, your vehicle’s clear coat will trap and absorb them over time, especially if you don’t wax your car to add protection.

That’s because small particles can get lodged in a car’s ‘pores’. Car paint doesn’t have pores per se, but at a microscopic level paint has ridges that can absorb water and other particles to a degree.

Simply put…clay allows you to remove these embedded contaminants to make things smooth again, and wax and sealants will adhere better.

How often to clay a car

You don’t need to clay your car every wash or even every month, because clay is slightly abrasive. Only clay your vehicle to restore it. Think of claying as a decontamination process..not as part of your normal wash regimen.

If you’re new to detailing and haven’t clayed your car before, chances are you need to. Once you clay a dirty vehicle, check back in a few months to see if you need to make another pass…more on that in a minute.

How to clay your car in 5 steps

1. Flatten clay into a circular disk 

Once you take the clay out of the package, cut it in half or fourths and flatten it like a pancake. Clay requires kneading, much like you would a pizza, so go for a flat, round disc about 3 inches in diameter.

Quick Tip

Use an old rolling pin and cookie cutter to create your clay discs. Place the clay between two sheets of wax paper, roll flat, and cut. Great for achieving flat discs!

If you don’t yet have a clay bar set, there are many online you can find. I recommend this set by Meguiar’s if you are just starting out:

Meguiar’s Clay Bar Set

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2. Apply a clay lubricant

Yes, clay is naturally abrasive, which is why you should always use a spray-on detailer to help the clay slide across the surface. You can also choose to use a dedicated clay lubricant, like this one by Voodoo Ride. It’s affordable and pH neutral, which is ideal.

Clay Bar Lubricant

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You don’t have to use a dedicated clay lubricant, but make sure whatever you use provides enough lubrication. You can technically use car shampoo.

I wouldn’t recommend using snow foam if you use one of these products, because they generally contain fewer lubricants than shampoo; shampoo is designed for handwashing, and is a bit more forgiving.

If you don’t lubricate clay, it won’t be able to slide across the paint, and you’ll likely mar and scratch the paint.

3. Slide the clay back and forth over the paint

After you apply lubrication to the paint, be sure to wear gloves and slide the clay back and forth in one direction…no circles. Don’t apply any pressure when you use clay; the friction created will be enough to pick up contaminants.

4. Use a microfiber towel to mop up excess lubrication

After you clay one section, I recommend a damp medium-pile microfiber towel to lift the excess water from the vehicle. Underneath, you’ll find the surface much smoother.

5. Knead the clay as you go

If you’re claying a car that needs it, you’ll want to flip the clay ‘pancake’ once one side is dirty, and knead the clay periodically to expose fresh, uncontaminated clay.

When you get to the point where you have a lot of black specs or particles, it’s time to grab a new piece of clay.

I like to start with the hood, doors, and body panels first. At the end, I’ll clay the lower panels, because these are the dirtiest parts of the vehicle (so I’d rather not use fresh pieces of clay on these areas).

Types of car clay

They are several different grades of automotive clay, for different purposes.

  • Fine – also called ‘Light’. A softer clay you can use every few months
  • Medium – Most general-purpose clay bars fall in this category. More abrasive than fine clay.
  • Heavy – For very neglected vehicles, and visible deposits on the vehicle

Clay your windshield next!

You can use your dirtier pieces of clay on your windshield since you can apply a bit more pressure to glass vs. paint. I like to keep dirty pieces of clay separate from body clay. For windshield and window use, clay can help remove water spots and soap scum.

Check out my post on how to completely restore and clean your windshield while you’re at it. Good luck claying!

Baxter Overman is the founder of Carwash Country and has been been cleaning up dirty vehicles for nearly 20 years. Since 2017, he's helped thousands of beginners see better results by learning the fundamentals of washing and detailing. He's on a mission to make the car wash process more fun...and way easier.

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