Clay Towel vs Clay Bar: What is The Difference?
Posted by MIKE PHILLIPS
First… Why clay your car?
Over time the contaminants in the air land on your car and if not removed in a timely manner they bond so tightly to the exterior surfaces that washing will not remover them. These contaminants create surface texture, which reduces gloss because gloss comes from a smooth surface. Because normal washing with car wash soap and a wash mitt won’t remove bonded contaminants - the most effective way to remove these contaminants is via a mechanical means called mechanical decontamination.
Mechanical decontamination is done to a car after first washing and drying the car and then performing the Baggie Test to inspect the surface of the paint to determine if in fact the car has above surface bonded contaminants. If the paint, glass or any smooth surface on the outside of your car fails the baggie test - this means you need to clay the exterior.
What kind of contaminants get on my car?
Pretty much anything floating in the air or blowing in the wind can land on your car and bond to it with a strong enough bond that washing will not work. Things like,
- Overspray paint
- Industrial fallout
- Traffic pollution
- Tree sap mist
- Dried bugs
- Rail dust
- Environmental pollutants
Two kinds of decontamination
Besides mechanical decontamination there’s also chemical decontamination. Chemical decontamination unlike mechanical decontamination usually takes place before or during the washing step. Chemical decontamination includes using iron removers, traffic film removers and other chemicals used to chemically clean and strip the surface of contamination and also old waxes and sealants when doing a Prep Wash.
What is a clay towel?
One of the coolest inventions since the introduction of conventional detailing clay is the detailing clay towel. The detailing clay towel has 2 different sides to it, one is the cloth backing the other side has a polymerized rubber material. It is the rubber side you use to mechanically decontaminate paint.
How does the clay towel work?
The polymerized rubber material has embodied into it a pulverized abrasive, the same way normal detailing clay, (polybutene plastic), has a pulverized abrasive in it. The way this polymerized rubber surface works is when rubbed over the surface of a car’s finish with a spray detailer as the lubricant, the abrasives in the polymerized rubber surface abrade-off the contaminants to leave the paint smooth and contaminant-free.
What is a clay bar?
Conventional bars of detailing clay are made from a synthetic material called polybutene plastic. LIke the polymerized rubber surface on a clay detailing towel, the polybutene plastic that makes up the clay bar has a pulverized abrasive in it.
How does the clay bar work?
The way a conventional clay bar works is the same way you use a detailing clay towel. That is, you spray a clay lubrication onto the surface and then rub the clay patty over this section of paint. The abrasives in the detailing clay abrade-off the contaminants to leave the paint smooth and contaminant-free.
NOTE: To use a bar of detailing clay you would first knead the clay to soften it and then form it between your hands to create a patty of clay that looks like a small pancake. When I’m starting with a brand new clay bar I like to twist the bar like taffy, this makes it easy to soften it up and make it easier to knead into a patty.
What makes the detailing clay towel better than a clay bar?
Because the rubber side of the detailing clay towel is a solid material, if you drop it on the ground, you can pick it up, wash it off and continue to use it.
A bar of conventional detailing clay on the other hand is pliable and although it is a solid material it can be worked by kneading it to fold itself into itself and formed into a usable clay disc or clay patty. For this reason, if you drop conventional clay onto the ground chances are very high the class will get dirt, rocks and other contaminants stuck onto and embedded into the clay itself.
You can’t realistically wash the dirt off the clay because there’s no real hard way to know you have removed 100% of any dirt, abrasive particles or other contaminants like tiny rocks out of the clay. This creates a huge risk because if you go ahead and re-use the clay you risk putting swirls and scratches into the car’s paint.
And here’s the deal,
It takes HOURS to buff out a car to remove scratches out of the paint. It only takes seconds to put scratches into the paint (rubbing a contaminated clay patty against the paint).
Once you fully understand how much time, labor and perspiration goes into paint correction to remove all the swirls and scratches via a machine orbital polisher - you understand why it’s not worth the risk and the better option is to throw the clay away. Ouch.
At close to $30.00 for a simple clay kit and upwards of $40.00 and $50.00 for more complicated clay kits, it’s a tick expensive to throw away a perfectly good bar of detailing clay simply because you dropped it onto the ground one time.
The detailing clay towel on the other hand is priced in-between this range and is safer to use because you can wash it off if it’s accidentally dropped onto the ground and you’ll be able to decontaminate a lot more cars.
What are some other differences between a detailing clay towel and a clay bar?
Conventional clay bars don’t last long and the longer you use them the more unsafe they become to use. As you use a bar of detailing clay, all the contamination on the exterior of the car you're detailing comes off the car and goes INTO the bar of detailing clay. At some point the clay becomes so full of contamination that it is unsafe to use. The contamination in the clay bar can actually inflict swirls and scratches into your car’s clearcoat finish.
Detailing clay towels safer to use
Because the contamination does NOT go into the polymerized rubber surface of a detailing clay towel - it can never become loaded-up with contaminants. This means you never have to worry about rubbing contaminants removed off of one car into the next car.
Detailing clay towels last longer
The detailing clay towel can easily be used to mechanically decontaminated 50 full size cars and more, depending upon how severely cars are contaminated. A conventional bar of clay can be used to mechanically decontaminate 2-3 cars at the most before they are so full of contamination, they become a risk factor for instilling swirls and scratches into the paint.
Detailing clay towels are easy to clean and store
After using the detailing clay towel you simply wash the rubberized surface with some gentle soap, hand soap or car wash soap works find, then rinse the surface. After washing and rinsing, find a safe place to lay it or hang it and let it drip dry or dry via evaporation. Then store the detailing clay towel in a safe place until you need it again.
Pro Technique Tip
To get the maximum usage out of your detailing clay towel, here’s a technique I use and share in my detailing classes. Take a black permanent marker and draw two lines making the + sign on the back of the towel. This divides the towel into 4 sections or 4 quadrants.
Next, place the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 into one of the 4 different sections.
By doing this you now have a way to visually recognize which section is which. Without the lines and the numbers there’s no way of knowing which section is which.
Here’s WHY to do this?
When you use a detailing clay towel you fold it 4-ways and then hold the towel between your thumb and four fingers. This way you have a good grip on the towel, and this is helpful when using the detailing clay towel on vertical panels like the doors and fenders.
You can also choose which section of the towel to use and continue to use this side of the towel until you see this section is used up and no longer working to remove contaminants. Then you simply switch and start using a new section of the towel.
By dividing the towel into four distinct sections and marking these sections, you will always know which section you’re using and thus get the most use out of the towel.
How to use the detailing clay towelSupplies needed
- Detailing Clay Towel
- Spray lubricant - This can be a waterless wash or a spray detailer
- Lots of clean, microfiber towels.
- Clean 5-gallon bucket to hold dirty towel
Step 1: Mark the back of a new dry detailing clay towel.
When starting out with a brand new detailing clay towel, take a moment to mark the back of the towel before you start while the cloth side is still dry like shown above.
Step 2: Break-in the towel by rubbing it over clean glass.
For brand new detailing clay towels, you want to break them in by rubbing them over clean glass like your car’s windshield or side window. What this does is breaks-in or wears-in the outer surface of the towel to make it more uniform and ready to use on clearcoat paint. It smooths over any factory imperfections to make a brand new detailing clay towel more efficient.
Step 3: Fold the towel 4-ways to use it.
Fold the towel 4-ways and then lift the corners of the towel until you find the #1 section and start using your towel by using this section. Then as you find this section is wearing out, (takes a lot of cars to wear out just a section), then next time you use the detailing clay towel you can use the #2 section, followed by the #3 section and so on. By using this technique you’ll easily get way more than 50 cars out of a single towel.
Step 4: Use a spray detailer to lubricate the paint.
Spray an ample amount of spray detailer onto a section of paint to lubricate the paint when rubbing the clay towel over it. Also spray a mist or two onto the polymerized rubber face for the section you’re going to use.
Step 5: Rub the detailing clay towel over the paint.
To remove bonded contaminantes, rub the detailing clay towel over the paint in a back-n-forth motion, it’s always preferred to mechanically decontaminate the paint using straight-line motions and avoid rubbing in circles.
When you first start out, rubbing the towel over the paint you can usually feel the paint surface through the towel and it will feel rough or textured. As you continue to rub the detailing clay towel over the paint you will feel the paint surface become smooth and you’ll also notice the detailing clay towel now moves effortlessly over this section of the paint.
This is the tactical feel sensation telling you the contaminants have been removed off this section and it’s time to move on to a new section of paint that still needs decontaminating.
Step 6: Remove spray detailer residues
After claying a section, before moving onto a new section, use a clean microfiber towel to wipe the residues off the section you just mechanically decontaminated.
Repeat to the rest of the car working section by section
Repeat this process over the entire car including any surface that is smooth and hard like the glass windows and wipe off the residues with a clean microfiber towel as you go.
Protect your detailing towels from becoming contaminated
Place used towels in a clean bucket as you work around the car to keep them off the ground to prevent your towels from becoming contaminated.
That’s all there is to using a detailing clay towel to mechanically decontaminate your car’s finish. The detailing clay towel works just like conventional clay except the towel lasts much much longer and if you drop one on the ground - instead of throwing it away you can simply wash it off and continue using it.
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