Fire up car’s finish with a clay bar

Bob Weber
Chicago Tribune

After a few years, your car’s finish can get damaged by everyday crud. Airborne metallic particles, road tar, insect residue, bird droppings, honeydew (often mistakenly called tree sap), road salt damage and all kinds of other junk builds up on the surface.

At some point, no amount of washing will remove this buildup and restore the car’s finish to showroom shine. That is when it is time to reach out for a clay bar. Rubbing and polishing compounds will also do the job but run the risk of scratching the finish. You can’t go wrong with clay.

You will find clay bars and quick detailing sprays in the auto care aisle of your favorite parts store. Meguiar’s and Mothers are two popular brands offering kits with everything you need for under $25. We discovered a new Eagle-1 product that replaces the clay with a surface prep mitt that costs about $25, but you have to buy a bottle of detailer separately. We tried both clay and mitt.

This simple job takes no advanced training. Just follow a few basic steps to restore that long-lost luster to your Lexus.

The first step is to wash and thoroughly dry your car. This is the only time we would allow using dishwashing detergent since it removes wax.

Remove the clay bar from its wrapper and knead it for a minute of two to soften it. Then, form it back into the shape of a bar or make a disc that looks like a hamburger.

Starting with an area about 1 or 2 feet square, spray the car’s surface with a detailing product to provide lubrication for the clay. Then, gently rub the clay bar or patty back and forth over the painted surface. If it gets a bit sticky, use a little more detailer.

After a few strokes, wipe the surface with a microfiber towel. Check the finish with your fingers. It should feel smoother than the surrounding, untreated area. A professional trick is to drag a piece of thin cellophane across the area. It will glide, not grab, when the finish is clean.

Inspect your clay frequently to see if any hard particles have become embedded. Although you may be able to brush them off, we prefer to pinch off a bit of the contaminated clay. Knead and reform the bar from time to time to expose a clean, fresh surface.

Both products worked well, as expected. However, the Eagle-1 mitt let us do the job in about half the time as with clay.

To store, put the clay in a plastic zip bag and squeeze the air out. Keep the detailer handy for quick, between-washing, cleanups.

Protect the finish with a coat of quality automobile wax. Step back. Have a beer.