The next time you are walking around a parking lot or passing by cars on the street, take a quick glance at their wheels. Almost all of them will look the same: dusty, lackluster, and boring. The tires will look pale and feel like they’ve been baking in the desert sun. Severely dehydrated; barely clinging to life.
Deep down I think we all know we don’t pay enough attention to our wheels. At least not on a regular basis. Sure we give them a spray with the wand every car wash. We might even go a little further, bending down to hit the rims from different angles. On occasion, we’ll consider spraying those wheel wells too.
Cleaning and protecting your wheels doesn’t have to be a tedious afterthought. Like all other aspects of DIY car detailing, it’s important to understand why you need to do it and make it routine. I will make it as simple as possible with 5 easy steps anyone can follow.
A Guide To Wheel Finishes
Painted and Lacquered Wheels
Wheel materials vary greatly but the most common I will discuss are aluminum alloy and steel. If your vehicle is less than 15 years old, chances are it came with aluminum alloy wheels from the factory. They are lighter, offer better fuel efficiency, and cause less damage to your car’s suspension. Older vehicles were much heavier themselves, thus requiring sturdier wheel compounds.
Alloy wheels can be washed and maintained with the same products used to wash the bodywork. Avoid extremes of PH levels. Acidic or alkaline products will cause blistering and peeling over time. Good wheel cleaners should be paired with ferrous contamination removers. These small particles are made up of hot shards of brake disc which bond to the surface of your wheels. If not removed they will cause pitting and wheel damage.
Chrome Plated Wheels
Bend down and take a good close look at your wheels. If you can see yourself in them, you have chrome wheels. I’m sure you already knew this by the price tag but any doubts should be put to rest by the mirror-like finish.
Chrome’s highly reflective appearance is achieved by layering copper, nickel, and chromium. This traditional method provides a bright and classic showroom finish.
Just like your bathroom mirror, chrome needs regular cleaning with a chrome wheel cleaner to look presentable. Maintain chrome using water, mild soap and microfiber towels only. Never use abrasive brushes or pads.
Although rust isn’t a problem with this type of finish, you should take extra precautions where road salt and magnesium chloride are extensively used. Cleaning them often will eliminate problems such as pitting, corrosion, and brake dust.
This coating comes in a variety of colors but the process is the same. As the name implies, a powder is applied electrostatically and is then cured under heat. The process allows it to flow and form a durable “skin”. This results in a much tougher finish than OEM paint and lacquer.
Powder-coated wheels are extremely resistant to corrosion, rust, rock chips and scratches. They can be cleaned with a mild, PH-neutral soap, and water. Stick to using microfiber towels or terry cloth and never use tarnish, rust removal, or bleach on it.
Machined, Clear-Coated Wheels
Machined wheels require a very closeup look. From afar they generally have a similar appearance to painted and lacquered wheels. Up close the surface should resemble the face of a CD. You should see tiny straight lines and a clear-coat for protection against corrosion.
The 5-Step Cleaning Process
If you didn’t skip straight to this part, you are now familiar with the different contaminants and harmful particles your wheels are affected by on a regular basis. If you did skip ahead, you’re clearly eager to get going and take action.
Rinse the wheels using water to remove loose dust and road particles. You want to soften abrasive contaminants and allow gravity to do its part. Now you will be able to see what is left behind embedded in the wheel surface.
Remove Ferrous Contaminants
Road contaminants are a combination of oils which when mixed with rainwater end up on your wheels. These include transmission oil, motor oil, brake fluid, and power steering fluid to name a few. A good wash soap will take care of this problem for you.
Superheated brake pad slivers and brake dust can fuse right into the surface of your wheels. They are far more concerning in my opinion. To remove them and any other ferrous materials you might pick up along the way I recommend an iron remover. This solution immediately turns red when it comes into contact with iron particles. I enjoy the instant gratification and satisfaction I get from using it.
Wash The Wheels
Washing the wheels is pretty straight forward for the most part. There are a couple of important steps that will give you the best result for your efforts, however.
You’ve committed up to this point and equipped yourself with the best products for the job. To achieve a high-quality finish for your wheels you must clean the inside of the rim. That loose dust and dirt will immediately find itself on the outside of your wheels. Get yourself an easy brush and start working top to bottom. You’ll be amazed by the amount of grime you’ll remove.
I will leave it up to you to read the top part of this post and figure out the best product for cleaning the wheel surface. Be careful with the finish and never scrub too hard. For stubborn dirt continue soaking with wash soap and iron remover a couple of times. As always, you can’t go wrong with a microfiber towel.
The only brush I would personally use on the face of the wheel is a lug nut brush. Dirt loves to accumulate in those little crevices. If you’re on a tight budget, a simple Q-Tip will also get the job done. I always have a bunch stocked in my cleaning kit.
The last step is to grab a wheel well brush and give that a good scrub as well. This step is more or less important depending on the surfaces you drive on. Driving on asphalt in moderate climates will accumulate less debris than dirt roads, muddy areas, or extreme snow and ice environments. Driving around the West Coast, I’m always conscious of saltwater and its effects on the undercarriage of my car. To me, brushing the wheel wells is a small effort that can save me money in repairs down the road.
Now grab a hose and spray everything off from top to bottom. Repeat several times until you are satisfied.
Drying the Wheels
Since you followed all the steps up to this point, drying will be a very quick and easy process. Grab a clean microfiber towel and gently wipe away the wheel and tire. For a truly professional experience, you can use a blower. It’s a great tool to have in your arsenal that can be used to dry the rest of the vehicle as well. I certainly wouldn’t recommend purchasing one just for wheels.
Apply Tire Dressing
I savagely applied too much tire dressing for years. As much as I could fit on the applicator pad in search of the shiniest tires in North America. Then at some point, I started to really cherish the natural look of tires and stopped using it altogether. I cleaned my tires really well and left them alone. I still prefer this look. Although science has taught me to be wiser about it.
Which of these camps you fall under is not important. Getting a finish that makes you happy and fits your style is what you should aim for. Above all, you should understand that tire dressing is not just for looks. It protects your tires from UV rays, road contaminants, and prevents discoloration.