Best Clay Bars: Clean Your Paint the Right Way
Achieve cleaner paint on your vehicle with our top picks for the best clay bars
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BY Rebecca Henderson / LAST UPDATED ON May 8, 2019
You’ve tried everything from harsh chemicals to citrus sprays, but it’s not enough. There are still dirty spots marring your paint that you can’t seem to remove. Times like these call for a clay bar. Made of flexible, Play-Doh-like material, clay bars slide across your paint to remove stubborn contaminants. In this buying guide, we discuss the best clay bars you should consider purchasing.
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Benefits of a Clay Bar
- Improve and protect your vehicle’s paint. Besides waxing, clay barring your vehicle is one of the best ways to keep the paint looking new. Think of clay bars as paint cleaners, while waxes seal the paint’s pores like a top coat of nail polish. Clay barring alone will maintain your vehicle’s paint much longer than waxing.
- Maintain the paint. Removing scratches, waxing, and polishing your car’s paint could take more than a day, but clay barring your vehicle should only take a few hours. Even the largest vehicles can be clay barred within a few hours’ time. Plus, you won’t have to spend money on various equipment and/or compounds to have better-looking paint.
- Avoid paying a dealership or detail shop. You change your own oil and air filter, so why not clay bar your own vehicle? Some companies may charge high fees for a job you can easily complete in an afternoon in the comfort of your own garage or driveway.
- Teach your kids. Whether you’re in the automotive industry or just want to pass on your knowledge, showing your children how to maintain their vehicle helps them appreciate it more. You don’t have to be an expert to use a clay bar, but it will teach you how to spot imperfections—a useful skill when picking out that first car.
Types of Clay Bars
There are three main types of clay bars: fine, medium, and heavy-duty. Fine clay bars are best used on older paints because they remove contaminants with a softer touch. Medium clay bars are a good all-purpose bar to have, while heavy-duty clay bars should be used with caution. A good way to differentiate between the compound types is to think of sandpaper. Fine clay bars are like 3,000-grit sandpaper, while heavy-duty clay bars are more like 600-800 grit.
While most, if not all, clay bars can be used on car windows, there are a few products out there specifically made for automotive glass. Clay barring your car’s exterior windows helps remove hard water spots, light etching, and any contaminants that might cling even after razor-blading. Glass-cleaning clay bars require a lubricant as well and help the glass to shed water, similar to the results you get with a typical clay bar.
Holding onto a clay bar—especially when it’s wet—can be hard after you’ve been scrubbing your car for a few hours. Clay mitts are a convenient alternative as they simply slip onto your hand like a wash mitt. Made of microfibers and clay bar materials, the exterior of the mitt is designed to improve the efficiency of your scrubbing action. Generally speaking, you’ll be able to cover a wider area in less time with a clay mitt.
These types of clay bar products are actually designed more like a sponge, with two distinct layers. The top half of many of these products is meant for gripping, so it’s made of a foam-like material that attaches to the bottom half, which is where the clay barring action happens. Similar to the type of material used on clay mitts, rubber polymer/synthetic clay bars use a different compound to achieve the same clay bar-like results.
Founded in 1990, Griot’s Garage is headquartered in Washington. Well-versed in the car detailing business, the folks at Griot’s Garage offer a variety of products for the do-it-yourself detailer. Check out its Brilliant Finish Synthetic Clay if you’re curious to try a synthetic clay bar method.
With decades of experience under its belt, the Chemical Guys’ team has been racking up the auto detailing hours beneath its hometown Californian sun. If you’re looking for a clay bar kit, check out its Clay Bar & Luber Synthetic Lubricant Kit. It comes with all you need to get started with clay barring.
Another alternative to “traditional” clay bars, the Mother’s Speed Clay 2.0 bar is ergonomically shaped to fit in your hand. Mother’s has been a big name in the automotive industry for quite some time and calls California home.
For over 110 years, Meguiar’s has been taking care of vehicles across the nation and abroad. Its Smooth Surface XL Clay Kit comes with everything you need to spend an afternoon clay barring your car. Meguiar’s, like many other automotive detailing companies, hails from California.
Clay Bar Pricing
- $5-$10: Most of the clay bars at this entry-level price point are of a fine to medium grade, meaning they’ll work on most vehicles and are safe for older paint surfaces. You can often find multiple clay bars sold at this price, though they may not provide the results you’re looking for (or in an efficient time span either).
- $12-$20: Jars typically house the clay bars priced around $15-$20, which comes in handy for storage after use. There are some kits available at this price point, which may or may not include clay lubricant and/or microfiber towels along with the clay bar. Some companies also offer multiple clay bars at this level, with or without the additional accessories.
- $22-$30: Both synthetic clays and clay mitts will be priced a bit higher. This is largely due to the fact that while traditional clay bars must be disposed of if they are dropped on the ground, synthetic clay bars and mitts can simply be washed off and reused. Brand-name clay kits will also be available around the $30 mark.
It’s important to purchase the right strength of clay bar because it will greatly impact your time spent clay barring. Paint surfaces older than 15 years will respond best to fine and medium duty, while heavily-contaminated and newer paint jobs should be able to withstand heavy-duty clay bars.
Knowing how many clay bars you need depends on the size of your vehicle and the level of contamination on the paint. Clay bars typically come in a 100-gram size, or if they are packaged in a resealable jar, around 8 ounces. Either of these amounts should be enough to clay bar a family sedan or compact SUV with mild paint contamination. If you have a larger vehicle, consider purchasing multiple clay bars to have on-hand.
Clay bars should not be used without a spray lubricant. Some companies include a lubricant, depending on which products and kits you purchase. If your clay bar didn’t come with anything, consider your favorite spray wax as an alternative. The most important aspect of the lubricant is that it provides a slick surface for the clay bar to work while still protecting the paint from damage.
- Material Quality: Considering the fact that you’ll be dragging the clay bar across the entire painted surface of your vehicle, you’ll likely want to pay a bit more for a quality bar that won’t scratch or damage your paint. While the strength of the clay bar plays a role in this aspect as well, investing in a quality clay bar is something you’ll be thankful for once the job is complete.
- Experience/Comfort Level: Though clay barring your vehicle might seem like a straightforward task, it’s not for everyone, and that’s okay. Clay bars are inexpensive enough that you can easily attempt the process, no matter your experience level. At the same time, consider your comfort level. If you’re worried about damaging your personal vehicle, pick up a painted scrap at your local junkyard or ask to borrow a friend’s car.
- Alternatives: Before reaching for a clay bar, take a look at the other chemicals available for removing road debris from your vehicle. Lacquer thinner removes most contaminants, while citrus-based formulas work best for tree sap. If you’ve got bugs splattered across your grill, there are many products for removing them as well. Clay barring should be one of your last resorts when it comes to removing paint contaminants.
Best Clay Bar Reviews & Recommendations 2020
- Stumped as to which strength of clay bar you should buy? Go with a medium-strength bar, or two, if possible. That way you are able to remove stubborn contaminants that would take more effort with a fine-grade clay bar without the higher risk of damaging the paint that comes with a heavy-duty clay bar.
- If you’re someone who waxes their vehicle often, or even just every six months, consider clay barring before you wax. It’s a great way to prep the paint before you seal it and could improve your final results as well.
- Break your clay bar in two pieces if you’re worried about dropping it. Smaller pieces may even be easier for you to hold as you work, and having an extra piece on hand may help to ease the stress of clay barring. You can also buy two clay bars instead of one if you prefer.
- It’s nearly impossible to re-package your clay bar in the original packing after its first use. Properly store your clay bar for next time by putting it in a plastic bag or sealed jar. Spray some lubricant in the container/bag as well for added moisture.
- For vehicles ranging in size from large three-row SUVs to lifted trucks, you may want to invest in multiple clay bars to cover all that paint. It’s good to have an extra on-hand, but you certainly don’t want to be in the middle of clay barring and realize you need another one to finish the job.
- To prep, your vehicle for clay barring, first washes it as you normally would. Rinse the vehicle down well and then wash it thoroughly. Prepare your clay bar and lubricant and clay bar the car. Then, rinse your vehicle and wash it again. That should remove any leftover clay bits and any suspended contaminants still on the paint.
- Clay bars only require light pressure to work properly. You should only press the clay bar against the paint with enough pressure to keep it secure against the surface. If the clay bar begins to stick, apply more lubricant to both the clay bar and the painted surface.
- Clay bar only painted surfaces. Avoid rubber trim pieces, plastics, and chrome accents. While you can clay bar windows, headlights, and taillights, use lighter pressure than normal. You should also avoid clay barring any clear bra applied to your vehicle.
- If you own a white vehicle, buy stock in clay bars. You’ll need to clay bar your white car at least once a year if not two or three times. Harsh road chemicals are much more noticeable on white paint, especially on the rear half of the vehicle. To keep your whites white, clay bar often.
Q: How can I practice using a clay bar if I’ve never used one before?
A: The easiest way to try out clay barring is to pick a trim piece lower to the ground or to use a painted piece you don’t care about. A visit to the local junkyard may provide you with such a piece. Spray both the painted piece and clay bar liberally with lubricant. Begin with light pressure and measured movements.
Q: How can I tell if the clay bar is actually working?
A: Pick a spot on the paint that you want to remove, first making sure it is a contaminant and not a scratch or paint chip. After spraying the clay bar and small area around this spot, move the clay bar across the clean surface of the spot, making a few passes. Lift the clay bar and inspect the paint. If the spot is still there, use a bit more pressure on the next few passes.
Q: Can I use a clay bar on my oxidized paint?
A: No, it’s not a good idea to clay bar oxidized paint. The clay bar is meant to remove surface contaminants sitting on top of the clear coat, a layer which oxidized paints do not have (hence the oxidation). We’re afraid clay barring is not the right solution for you in this case.
Q: How hard should I press down on the clay bar?
A: If you clay bar more than a handful of times, you’ll begin to get a feel for the right pressure. However, the amount of pressure is similar to what you’d exert when swiping across a phone screen or laptop mousepad, or the pressure necessary to move an actual computer mouse around. The key is directing that pressure through the tips of your pointer, middle, and ring fingers.
Q: Will clay bars scratch my paint?
A: Fresh clay bars, straight from the package, should not scratch your paint. However, if you end up picking up a sharp object—even on a minuscule scale—it can scratch your paint. Watch the path of your clay bar as you move across the paint. Pause every so often to inspect the clay bar itself. Dig out any contaminants you can see and discard.
Q: Can I clay bar over touch-up paint?
A: We don’t advise it. Depending on the application and age of the touch-up paint, the clay bar could end up removing it, leaving you with the original paint chip. If you happen to move across the touch-up paint as you go, you likely won’t cause any damage, but note these spots as you go in order to avoid them.
Q: How do I prep my clay bar after storing it for its next use?
A: You’ve used your clay bar for the first time and then placed it in a jar or bag with lubricant inside. Now you want to use it again for the second time. Remove it from the storage container and lubricate it once more. Massage the clay bar until it becomes elastic. Lubricate your painted surface and you’re all set to clay bar.
Mother’s California Gold Clay Kit Express won our pick for best clay bar overall based on the package deal it offers DIY-detailers of any experience level.
The Chemical Guys Medium Clay Bar took home the best value prize for a no-brainer when it comes to picking out the strength of your new clay bar.