How to clean your paint in preparation for polishing or protection

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How to clean your paint in preparation for polishing or protection

Post  Calibra-Keith on Mon Aug 11, 2008 8:05 pm

Cleaning is the process of exfoliating firmly bonded surface contaminants, such as tar spots, bug remains, and old wax or sealant residues, which cannot be removed from your paint by normal washing. By far the most common types of bonded surface contaminants are tar spots and baked on bug remains. However, brake dust and industrial fallout can also become bonded to exterior surfaces over time. It is important to remove such contaminants periodically, because if they are allowed to remain in place for a long period of time they can etch and discolour underlying surfaces.



Removing such contaminants requires a special technique. Normal washing doesn't remove them. All purpose cleaners may partially remove them when used full strength, but are often unable to fully dissolve larger particles. Aggressive polishing would almost certainly remove such contamination, but isn't the best solution for two reasons. Firstly, such contaminants often need to be removed 2-3 times a year, and aggressive polishing shouldn't be done as often as this, as it results in the removal of some of the clear coat covering the paint, and this can only be done a certain number of times before the clear coat becomes worn through. What is really required is a product capable of removing such contaminants without damaging the underlying or surrounding surfaces. Such a product exists, and is known as a clay bar.

The clay used in a clay bar isn't really clay at all, but a mixture of a soft plastic resin (polybutene) and various grades of abrasive particles. Think of it in this way - the soft plastic resin is effectively an applicator pad, which enables you to move abrasive particles over your paint using consistent force and pressure. Because bonded surface contaminants sit above the surface of the paint, they are subject to greater abrasive forces than the surrounding surfaces when a clay bar is rubbed over them. As a result, they are exfoliated and removed by the clay bar. You may be questioning at this point why the abrasives in the clay don't affect the surrounding paint? The answer is they would, if they were allowed to. You have to stop them from doing so, by using a suitable lubricant.



Clay lubricants come in a variety of guises, but most are effectively quick detailing products. These spray on wipe off products contain lubricating oils (which enable dust and grime to be wiped off exterior surfaces safely without inflicting damage to the underlying surfaces) and are well suited to use with a clay bar. In addition, heavier duty waterless wash products are also ideal in this respect, as they contain an even greater concentration of lubricating oils. If you do not have any of these products, a very rich suds mixture made up using a normal shampoo can suffice, but extra care should be taken to keep the work area well lubricated.

To determine whether your paint has firmly bonded surface contaminants, and thus requires claying, you should wash and dry your car thoroughly, and then run your fingertips over the major panels. Clean paint should feel as smooth as glass. If you're fingertips aren't very sensitive you can magnify your sense of touch by putting you hand inside a plastic sandwich bag first. If you can feel rough spots or a gritty texture, you need to clay your paint. If you have a light coloured car, you may also be able to see such contaminants, particularly tar spots.

When it actually comes to claying your paint, the first thing you should do is check that the clay bar you intend to use is soft enough to work with. This is a bit of a judgement call, but ideally you should be able to mould the clay into a ball and roll it into a sausage shape with only a little effort. If it feels harder than this, you should place it in a tub of warm water for 5 minutes and then try it again (it is okay to get clay wet). In the summer months, clay bars are usually okay to use straight out of the wrapper, but in the winter months they nearly always need to go into warm water for 5 minutes first. Using a clay bar that is too hard is the number one reason why many people have a bad experience with clay and end up damaging their paint.

Once soft enough to work with, the next thing you should do is give the clay bar a quick spray with the lubricant you have chosen, in order to help prevent it sticking to your hands. The next step is to work from the top of your car down, panel by panel. Working on an area of no more than 2 ft x 2 ft at a time, spray the work area thoroughly with the lubricant and then using moderate pressure and pace rub the clay backwards and forwards across the surface of the panel, following the lines of the car. Using insufficient lubricant is the second reason why many people have a bad experience with clay and end up damaging their paint - be generous with it, it doesn't matter if it runs everywhere, it won't do anything any harm.



If the paint is relatively clean the clay will glide across very easily; if it is heavily contaminated the clay will be much harder to move around. Usually, between 10-20 passes will be enough to clean the work area, but in time you will become able to judge whether all of the contaminants have been removed by the way the clay moves over the surface. Another way to tell is to run your fingertips over the panel when you think you are done - it should be as smooth as glass. If it isn't, repeat the process. Once the work area is clean, wipe up any residual lubricant using a heavyweight waffle weave microfibre towel, and then move on to the next area or panel.



As you progress, remould the clay bar into a new bar shape after every panel. This helps to keep the face of the bar in contact with the paint relatively clean. If after doing the first area you realise you are working on a heavily contaminated surface, remould the clay more frequently. Some people prefer to mould the clay into a round shape to work with. We say do whatever feels most natural to you, just ensure that it is an even thickness (in order to ensure you apply even force and pressure). As your confidence grows, you will find that it is often easier to work on really stubborn tar spots using a thinner piece of clay and more pressure, but don't rush this - get some experience first. The final golden rule for using clay safely and effectively is always throw it away if you accidentally drop it on the floor. Continuing to use it after doing so is a recipe for disaster and major damage.

According to clay bar manufacturers, claying should completely strip existing wax or sealant protection. However, in our experience, some of the latest sealants on the market seem to be able to withstand claying. Thus, if your intention was to completely remove your existing wax or sealant protection in order to apply a different last step product, you may need to conduct another removal step. To do this, you have two choices. The first is to apply a full strength all purpose cleaner to the exterior surfaces of your car, leave it to work for 10-15 minutes, then rinse and dry off thoroughly before applying an alternative last step product. The second option is to polish your paint by hand or machine - this will also remove all traces of existing wax or sealant protection.

The final step in the cleaning process is to pack away all of the tools you have used, making sure everything is clean and ready for the next use. Check the condition of the clay bar - if it is totally soiled discard it, if it is only partially soiled place it in a zip lock freezer bag and save it for future use on your wheels or your windows (we recommend that you always use a brand new clay bar on your paint). Finally, wash any towels you have used in a washing machine at a low temperature using a gentle non-biological liquid detergent (avoid soap powders and detergents containing bleach or fabric softeners), before allowing them to dry out naturally.

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