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Detailing Clay & Pre-wax Cleaning

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#1 Autopia Expert

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Posted 10 November 2006 - 01:14 PM

Every car finish shares a common enemy: pollution.  It relentlessly pursues your car from the second it leaves the factory until your car meets its ultimate demise.  It's in the air we breathe, it's on the roads we drive, and it attaches to your car's paint, where it bonds and begins a process of oxidation.

<TABLE style="BORDER-COLLAPSE: collapse" borderColor=#111111 cellSpacing=3 cellPadding=3 width="100%" border=0 bgcolor="#CCCCCC"><TR><TD vAlign=top width="10%">
<IMG src="http://www.autopia.org/ebook/Paint%20Contamination.jpg" border=0 width="238" height="138" align="left"></TD><TD vAlign=top width="90%">Surface contamination, as shown by this diagram, is difficult to clean or polish off, yet paint cleaning clay removes it with ease.</TD></TR></TABLE>
When contaminants get a solid grip on your car's paint, washing alone may not be enough to remove them.  Pre-wax cleaners also may not be able to exfoliate large particles.  In this case, you have two choices: use a polishing compound, which removes a lot of paint material, or use a clay bar.  Clay isn't a polish or a compound, it is a surface preparation bar that smoothes the paint and exfoliates contaminants.

<H3>USES FOR CLAY</H3>Clay is not a cure-all or a replacement for polishing.  It's a tool for quickly and easily removing surface contamination.

One of the many reasons for using clay is the removal of brake dust.  Brake dust contamination, which attaches to painted rear bumpers and adjoining surfaces, is a metallic surface contaminant that can be removed safely and effectively by using clay.

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<img border="0" src="http://www.autopia.org/ebook/Clay%20Kits.jpg" width="424" height="311" align="center"></TD></tr><TR><TD width="100%" valign="top">These are the two most common retail kits available (Meguiar's Quik Clay and Clay Magic). Mothers also makes a fine retail clay kit.  In the boutique offerings, look for the Pinnacle and Griot's Garage brands, which are all fine grade detailing clays.  <a target="_blank" href="http://www.autopia.org/shopping/category/Detailing-Clay/"> Click here to see detail clay bars and kits from our sponsors</a>. </TD></TR></TABLE>
Clay is also very effective on paint over-spray. If the over-spray is particularly heavy, you may want to seek the assistance of a professional. Tree sap and tar specks can also be safely removed with a clay bar.

Recently, I have also started using clay on my windows (exterior) to remove heavy road film, bug deposits and water spots. It works very well, and seems to outperform even the best window cleaners.

<H3>HOW DOES DETAILING CLAY WORK?</H3>I frequently see detailing clay marketing information that reads something like this: "clay pulls contamination off of your paint..." This statement sounds pretty ridiculous when you realize that you must lubricate the surface you're
cleaning with the detail clay. How in the world do you pull on something that's wet and slippery? This myth was born from a fear of telling people the truth. Clay is an abrasive paint care system. Yet used properly, detailing clay is not abrasive to your car's paint; it is abrasive to paint contamination.

Oh my goodness, did I really say that clay is an abrasive? You bet I did.

Read the patents on detailing clay and they describe very clearly that it is a mixture of a clay base (polybutene) and various abrasives. The primary detailing clay patent (U.S. Patent No. 5,727,993) identifies three unique elements (claim 57) used in concert:

"<I>A method of polishing a protrusion or stain from a surface comprising; applying a plastic flexible tool to the surface, the plastic flexible tool comprising a plastic flexible material having mixed therewith an abrasive comprising grains from about 3 to 50 m in diameter and; applying a force to the plastic flexible tool such that a polishing force per area is applied by the plastic flexible tool to a protrusion or stain on the surface, and such that the amount of force per area applied to the surface is less than the amount of force per area applied to the protrusion or stain</I>."

Detailing clay is an abrasive system. If not used properly, detailing clay can cause light surface marring. There's no need to fear if you use proper lubrication.

An easy way to think about detailing clay is simply this: detailing clay is a "selective polish" with a built-in applicator. Its job is to polish away dirt and surface contamination from paint, glass, chrome and plastic without polishing the surface itself. A pretty simple concept, isn't it? Detailing clay technology has been around for many years, with roots dating back to the 1930's. That's when the idea of combining polybutene (a soft plastic resin material) with abrasives was first put to paper.

Enough with the techno-speak; how does detailing clay really work?   What I
learned from my research and speaking with experts is simply this:<ul><li>Detailing clay works by hydroplaning (floating) over the surface you're cleaning on a thin layer of clay lubricant.</li><li>When the clay (polish) encounters surface contamination, it abrasively grinds it away.</li><li>Detailing clay shears off any foreign material above the level surface of the paint.</li></ul>Those are scary words to a car enthusiast, but it's an accurate description. You can see the end results of this grinding work by inspecting your clay. Does your clay have large particles sticking to it or does it have what appears to be a dirty film? It’s the latter, of course, and it’s proof that your clay is doing its job gently polishing away contamination.

You may be wondering if the different colors of clay are really all that different.  The answer is yes.  As it turns out, there is a lot that goes into each formulation of detailing clay. Although most of the clay made today comes out of a single factory in Japan, the formulas can be significantly different, including:<ul><li>Clay resin density (firmness)</li><li>Abrasive particle size</li><li>Type of abrasive</li><li>Abrasive density (ratio of abrasive to clay)</li><li>Color</li></ul>Detailing clay formulation determines the optimal function of the clay and its potential to do damage when used improperly. As an example, professional grade clay that's designed to remove paint overspray is very firm and contains abrasives equivalent to heavy rubbing compound. Used properly it will remove heavy overspray without damaging the paint. Used improperly, it can leave some pretty significant surface marring. That's why it's a professional product.

Most consumer grade detailing clays are designed to be used as an annual or semi-annual paint maintenance tool prior to polishing and waxing. At this frequency, these detailing clay products work great. Simply use the clay as part of your major detailing regimen. The problem we were beginning to see is that many car enthusiasts wanted to clay their vehicles frequently; as often as monthly. At this rate of use, some consumer grade detailing clay can begin to dull clear coat finishes. After all, it is an abrasive!

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<img border="0" src="http://www.autopia.org/ebook/Dirty%20Clay%201.jpg" width="424" height="320" align="center"></TD></tr><TR><TD width="100%" valign="top">Several of the ultra-fine boutique brand clay bars are so fine that they are safe to use monthly to keep paint smooth and clean.  In this picture you can see how little dirt there was to remove from the hood of this car.  The clay easily removes the dirt and makes the paint finish feel smooth and slick again.</TD></TR></TABLE>
<H3>EVALUATING YOUR PAINT FOR CLAY</H3>How do you know if you need to use a clay bar? After thoroughly hand washing your car, feel the surface of your car's paint. Do you feel bumps and rough spots? These bumps are contaminants attacking the finish of your car. Removing these surface contaminants (road tar, acid rain spots, bug residue, paint over-spray, brake pad dust, hard water spots, etc.) will improve both the look and health of your car's paint. By the way, you can magnify your sense of touch by inserting your fingertips into a sandwich bag or a piece of cellophane.

No matter how well you hand-wash your car, many of the contaminants that have worked their way into your car's paint finish will remain. Have you ever looked at your foam wax applicator pad after applying a coat of wax? What do you think that black stuff is? It's dirt, and you're waxing over it, sealing it in.

<H3>CLAY SAFETY</H3>Detailing clay isn't new. Paint and body shops have been using it for years to remove paint overspray. Clay is fairly new to the car detailing market, and is very new to the consumer on retail shelves.

In the early days of detailing clay, there was a concern that paint damage might occur if improperly used.  These concerns have been overcome through proper education and product improvements.

New technology detailing clay bars are made of fine polishing particles in a soft, malleable "clay" medium that allows the bar to be formed and kneaded. Some clay makers add color to make the bar more attractive or to identify bars of differing strength (coarseness).

Many clay products claim to contain no abrasives. This is stretching the truth. The reason clay manufacturers claim their products don't contain an abrasive is because the general public thinks the word "abrasive" refers only to aggressive, paint removing materials. The fact is that the abrasives in most automotive clay products are so fine that you will not see any reduction in paint gloss. After several uses, paint luster may even improve.

Still, I have heard some horror stories about people ruining a Ferrari paint job using a clay bar. I can see how this might be true if an inappropriate product was used or if the clay bar is used incorrectly.  The critical component to safety is proper lubrication.

Most clay retailers recommend using their detailing spray as a lubricant. Detail sprays work as a clay lubricant because they contain chemicals that prevent scratching when wiping away dust and light dirt. The problem is that most detailing sprays also contain some form of alcohol. Used in heavy concentration (the surface must be thoroughly wet with lubricant), alcohol removes wax protection and causes most clay formulations to break down and get mushy. Once this happens, your clay is dead, and it will make a smeary mess. We also discovered that some car wash soaps will cause the same problem when the clay is allowed to sit in the bucket of soapy water.

<H3>USING CLAY</H3>Using clay is very easy, but you must follow the instructions. Use clay incorrectly and you will create a mess or scuff the surface of your paint.

Before using detailing clay, you must thoroughly clean and dry your car to remove any loose dirt.  Direct sunlight should not fall on your car's surface, and it's best if the work area is relatively cool to prevent rapid evaporation of the clay lubricant.

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<img border="0" src="http://www.autopia.org/ebook/clay3.jpg" width="424" height="323" align="center"></TD></tr><tr><TD width="100%" valign="top">Be sure to use plenty of clay lubricant. Retail clay kits come packaged with a proper spray lubricant.  Keep the surface you're working on wet.  Work on a small area at a time. </TD></tr></TABLE>
To use the clay bar, you spray a lubricant on a small area of your car and rub the clay back and forth with light to medium pressure. If the lubricant begins to dry, you'll need to spray more. Clay is fairly sticky and cannot be used dry. Try using clay dry and you'll make a big mess and scuff your paint.

After a few passes with the clay, rub your hand over the area you cleaned to check for areas missed. You should feel a distinct difference between the areas you have clayed and the areas you have not clayed. Keep rubbing until all contamination bumps are gone. Finally, wipe the clay residue off with a soft microfiber towel, and buff to a nice luster.   Just like waxing, work in small areas.

Check the clay bar frequently for hard particles. When found, pick them off. Make it a habit to occasionally knead and reform the bar so that a fresh portion of the bar contacts your car's paint. If you drop your bar of clay on the ground, it's history. Toss it out. Don't take any chances, discard the clay bar if it becomes impregnated with grit. Read the manufacturers' directions for the number of uses of their clay bar. Do not overuse a clay bar.

When you're finished claying your car, you should wash it to remove the lubricant film, then go over it with a pre-wax cleaner to finish cleaning the paint. Finally, seal your freshly cleaned paint with your choice of wax or sealant.

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<img border="0" src="http://www.autopia.org/ebook/clay4.jpg" width="424" height="369" align="center"></TD></tr><tr><TD width="100%" valign="top">An alternative to a spray clay lubricant, is good old soapy water.  This is ideal if your paint is heavily contaminated (very dirty).  Be sure to rinse your wash mitt thoroughly and use a fresh bucket of soapy water, not what's left over from washing.  After claying one or two body panels, your clay will begin to look dirty.  Don't be alarmed, that's just the clay doing its job.  Flip the clay over and use the other side.  When both sides are dirty, remold the clay into a ball and flatten to reveal a clean surface.</TD></tr></TABLE>
<H3>OTHER USES FOR CLAY</H3>Clay isn't just for paint. You can use detailing clay on any smooth, hard surface, including glass and chrome. Do not use clay on clear plastic, such as headlight lenses.

When I can no longer remold clay to get a clean surface, I retire it for use on my windows. The dirty clay will not harm glass, and it's amazing how much dirt film clay can remove from your exterior glass.

I also use my old clay to clean wheels. Clay will safely remove stubborn, embedded brake dust, tar and road film from all factory wheels. Clay is not recommended on wheels that do not have a factory clearcoat or powder coat finish.

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<img border="0" src="http://www.autopia.org/ebook/clay7.jpg" width="423" height="284" align="center"></TD></tr><tr><TD width="100%" valign="top">With just a little effort, stubborn brake dust that even the strongest cleaners won't remove comes off with detailing clay.</TD></tr></TABLE>
<H3>CLAY FACTS</H3>Over the past four years I have received a lot of email questions regarding clay.  Here are some common questions and answers:

<b>Q1</b>. <i>I dropped my clay on the ground.  Can I still use it?</i><br><b>A1</b>. The safe answer is no.  Clay will pick up small particles of grit from the ground that will scratch your paint.

<b>Q2</b>. <i>If I use clay do I still need to polish my paint?</i><br><b>A3</b>. Yes.  Clay will not remove swirl marks, scratches or etching from acid rain or hard water spots.  Paint polish is still required to remove these paint defects.  If your paint is new or like-new, detailing clay will significantly reduce the amount of polishing required to keep your paint in good condition.

<b>Q3.</b> <i>What is the best clay?</i><br><b>A3</b>. What label do you like?  There are only a couple manufacturers of clay, and the technology is protected by U.S. patents.  Clay is manufactured with different levels of abrasiveness and colors to suite different applications.  There are some subtle differences in technology (plastic vs. elastic material) and the firmness of the material.  In general, softer clays are safer and easier to use.  A firm clay cleans better with a little more risk of scuffing or scratching.

<b>Q4</b>. <i>Is it better to use soapy water or a spray lubricant?</i><br><b>A4</b>. Both work equally well.  If you want to do the job fast, use a bucket of soapy water.  If you want to work inside or do a thorough job, use a spray lubricant.  With a spray lubricant you can wipe down each panel as you go and feel for areas you missed.

<b>Q5</b>. <i>How do I store my clay?</i> <br><b>A5</b>. If your clay did not come with a re-usable plastic container, store it in a plastic Ziploc bag.

<b>Q6</b>. Will clay remove my wax?<br><b>A6</b>. In most cases, clay will "scrub off" wax protection.  Some paint sealants are hard enough to withstand being cleaned with clay, but most are not.

<H3>PRE-WAX CLEANERS</H3>Many people assume that detailing clay replaces pre-wax cleaners. While it's true that clay does the heavy lifting, it does not replace the need to use a pre-wax cleaner. Pre-wax cleaners are designed to remove old wax, embedded dirt and light stains from your paint. They also help to restore gloss and remove light surface imperfections. Pre-wax cleaners are a combination of light polishing material and cleaning solvents. Most of their cleaning ability is provided by the cleaning solvents, not the polish. The polish is so light that you would have to rub for hours to remove swirl marks. In fact, you could use pre-wax cleaners every month and not measurably reduce paint thickness. I recommend using a pre-wax cleaner after detailing clay and before waxing. If your paint is in excellent condition, a good pre-wax cleaner will keep it healthy so you can avoid having to use heavier polishes.  My fanatical quest for perfect paint led me to Paintwork Cleanser.  It's not only my favorite pre-wax cleaner, it's my favorite final finish paint polish!<table border="0" cellpadding="3" cellspacing="3" style="border-collapse: collapse" bordercolor="#111111" width="100%" id="AutoNumber2" bgcolor="#CCCCCC"><tr> <td width="100%" valign="top" align="center">
<img border="0" src="http://www.autopia.org/ebook/KlasseAIO.jpg" width="424" height="375"></td></tr><tr><td width="100%" valign="top">In the strictest sense, paint cleaners remove surface defects and swirls, while a polish improves surface gloss.  The lines are blurred, however, as many cleaners provide some polishing action, and many polishes have cleaners.  One of my personal favorite paint cleaners is Klasse All-In-One.  There are many All-In-One (AIO) type products available.</td></tr></table>
Pre-wax cleaning deep-cleans the paint.  The result is a rejuvenated top paint layer, which is then ready for waxing.  There are any number of paint cleaners available.  I classify them in two different categories: pure cleaners and cleaners with basic paint protection.  Sonus Paintwork Cleanser is an example of a pre-wax cleaner that does not contain protection, whereas Klasse All-In-One cleans and contains wax protection.

<H3>Paint Cleaning Tips</H3>When cleaning or polishing paint, always work in a shaded area, out of direct sunlight.  Polishes and cleaners do not work well on hot surfaces.

Work on one area at a time, covering 2 to 4 square feet.  Buff off the polish residues as you go.  Most pre-wax cleaners do not need to dry or haze before being wiped off, but be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions.

You can use a foam, terry cloth or microfiber applicator pad to apply your pre-wax cleaner.  If your paint finish is in new or like-new condition, I recommend a quality foam applicator.  If your paint is moderately oxidized, I recommend a microfiber applicator.

Use a small amount of pre-wax cleaner.  With most pre-wax cleaners, a 1-inch-sized dab is enough to clean and polish an area of 2 to 3 square feet.  If the polishing residue does not buff off easily, switch to a clean wipe towel.  For best results, I recommend using a microfiber polishing towel.

After cleaning, your car's paint should be squeaky clean, smooth, and free of streaks and minor swirls.  It's now ready for waxing.

<H3>SUMMARY</H3>Don't overuse detailing clay. In my opinion, it is often over-prescribed as a cure-all. I think once or twice a year is adequate for most well-detailed cars. Be sure to use a proper lubricant. Choose a pre-wax cleaner with the least amount of cleaning and polishing capability necessary to get the job done without being harsh on your paint. The goal is to maintain your paint in excellent condition, not wear it out by over-polishing.
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