Beginner’s Guide to Wheel Cleaning

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How to clean your wheels the right way.

If I had to pick one thing that disturbs me the most that I see all too often it would be cars with trashed wheels.

I don’t mean trashed as in curbed up. I mean caked in brake dust and other road grime.

I’m sure you’ve seen it. The car is decently clean but the front wheels are black as coal, obviously never washed.

It’s not the fact that it’s dirty that drives me nuts, it’s the carnage going on underneith that dirt.

You may not realize it but your wheels take a much worse beating than your paint on a day to day basis.

They go through rapid heat cycles, they get coated in repeated mists of corrosive brake dust, they collect rust from wet brake rotors, they get rammed through puddles, take repeated salt baths in the winter, the list goes on.

All of these things litterally eat away your wheels. It doesn’t take long for brake dust and rust to permanently pit your wheels and any coating they may have.

If you wait for this damage to happen before taking action you may find that you can never make your wheels looks nice again without going through the expense of having them repaired and refinished.

On top of all that, anything that your wheels collect over time will end up flinging onto the rest of your car. This means that same corrosive brake dust and rust is now eating away at your paint, plastics, seals, and everything else near by. Yikes!

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, lets dive into how to properly care for your wheels (its easier than think)!

Basic Wheel Cleaning Tips

  • Use the least aggressive means of cleaning first. It’s entirely possible your car shampoo may be enough to clean your wheels without resorting to wheel specific cleaners. Any reputable car shampoo will be safe for all wheels provided you don’t let it dry on the wheels.
  • Always clean wheels when they are cool to the touch. This prevents cleaners from drying to the wheel and prevents water spotting.
  • Always clean one wheel at a time to prevent premature drying of product.
  • Use a dedicated wash mit for wheels. The dirt that wheels collect is much more abrasive than the dirt you’ll find on most of the rest of your car. You don’t want to rub wheel dirt into your paint.
  • Don’t forget to clean the wheel barrel. This is inside of the wheel. Same goes for the lug nut holes if they are exposed. There are plenty of cheap brushes like these on the market that will allow you do both of these in seconds.
  • Never let wheel cleaners dry on your tires. They can cause permanent discoloration.
  • Always perform a spot test of a new wheel cleaner to make sure it won’t damage your wheel.
  • Not all wheels are created equal. Some are rough cast aluminum, some are raw polished aluminum, some are steel, some are clearcoated, painted, powdercoated, and even plated a variety of types of chrome and other metals. As you can imagine, each of these takes a special approach to cleaning.

Cleaning OEM Painted Wheels and Hub Caps

Most factory wheels are of the painted variety. Even highly polished factory wheels will at least have a clear coat on them to keep them from oxidizing and tarnishing. As a matter of fact, many factory chromed wheels are now clear coated as well. This is because OEMs often use a tech called PVD Chrome which is different from the old school dipped chrome wheels.

Painted/coated wheels that are in good to new condition can be cleaned using the same shampoo you use on the rest of your car (just don’t share the wash bucket from your wheels with the rest of your car).

If washing with soap and water doesn’t clean all of the grime off you may need to resort to a wheel cleaner. You’ll want to find one that does not contain an acid and specifically mentions being safe for clear coat and painted wheels such as this one from Mother’s.

With these cleaners the task is simple: Spray the wheel down with the cleaner, let it dwell (sit and soak) for the time listed on the bottle (It may be necessary to gently scrub the wheel after it has dwelled), and spray off with clean water.

If a regular wheel cleaner does not clean them then you may be looking at embedded brake dust or tar. For the tar you can use a tar remover. For the embedded brake dust you can use an iron solvent cleaner like Britemax Iron-X.

Any time you use a cleaner on your wheels make sure to rinse it really well. This includes the the inside areas of the wheel and the brakes and tire. Many cleaners will discolor other surfaces if left to dry.

You should really only need to deep clean your wheels once. If you then maintain them soap and water on a routine basis you won’t have use to expensive cleaners down the road (hur hur) to whip them back into shape!

Cleaning Non-coated Polished Aluminum, Billet, and Magnesium Wheels

Highly polished non-coated wheels require special care during and after washing. Never let water or cleaners dry to bare polished wheels. They are extremely susceptible to spotting. Always work one wheel at a time and dry them with a soft microfiber towel.

When regular shampoo doesn’t cut it for cleaning bare aluminum and mag wheels you may need to resort to a Mag and Aluminum specific cleaner such as this one from Mother’s. These cleaners are usually corrosive (to eat away the oxidation that’s dulling your metal) so never use them on other wheels. Also do not agitate them with your bare hands.

Like other wheel cleaners these are a spray on, dwell, and rinse off deal. You just have to be extra careful not get any overspray on other areas of the car and if you do make sure to rinse it and not let it dry.

If your wheel is dull after cleaning you use a reputable mag and aluminum polish to brighten them back up.

Cleaning Chrome Plated Wheels

True chrome plated wheels often require extra cleaning power compared to painted or polished wheels. As with the painted wheels, try cleaning with regular shampoo first. If the regular shampoo isn’t cutting it you can turn to Chrome Wheel Cleaners.

Chrome Wheel Cleaners often contain a medium strength acid. Follow the instructions on the bottle for use. Typically you’ll spray it on, wait a short dwell period, and rinse it off.

Just like the polished alumimum wheels, you can use a chrome specific polish to brighten your wheels back up after cleaning them.

Maintaining Your Wheels

Maintaining your wheels is super easy these days. In the case of painted and coated wheels, you can use the same methods you would with your paint. You can wash and wax them using your favorite products.

You may consider a high temp synthetic wax or sealant though if you drive aggressively as constant hard braking can heat up your wheels.

Another consideration is to use a protective coating. These are sometimes referred to as nano, ceramic, or quartz coatings. These are coatings that you apply which harden to the wheel. They repel water, dirt, and brake dust and act as a sacrificial second clear coat. Above all else, they last for a really long time; anywhere from a year to 3 years or more depending on which one you use.

I’ve personally had great luck using the same paint protection coatings sold for the rest of the car, but there are brands out now that have wheel specific coatings worth using such as McKee’s 37 Wheel Coating which is safe for all wheel and hubcap finishes.

In the case of bare polished wheels, there are coatings out there for that too. These coatings will also help keep your polished wheels from spotting should you get caught out in the rain.

That’s pretty much it. Nothing too scary. Wash them when you wash the rest of the car. If possible, use a good wax or coating to ensure they never require more than a regular washing.

Your wheels (and the rest of your car) will thank you!

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