One of the key components of detailing a vehicle is attending to the wheels and tires. In addition to making your vehicle look dirty, brake dust and street grime can build up on wheels and cause damage over time. Wheels take a beating with temperature changes on the road, exposure to salt in the winter, frequent splashes through puddles, and constant dusting with brake material. If you do not clean your wheels regularly, the coating will suffer and you may find yourself unable to get them looking fresh at all. In this case, you may end up needing to replace your wheels if you want them to look new and shiny. Aesthetics aside, wheels constantly spray grime over the rest of the car, so when you let corrosive material build up on them, it will start to affect paint, plastics, and more.
A General Overview of How to Approach Cleaning Wheels
As a general rule of thumb, you should start with a gentle form of cleaning and then escalate to get the results you want. If you wash your vehicle regularly, a simple cleaner like a car shampoo is often enough to get the metal on your tires clean. Virtually all quality car shampoos are fine to use on wheels provided you do not let it dry. You should always wash wheels when they are cool, as hot wheels will dry cleaners faster, which could result in spotting or cause damage to the coating. Also, you should clean one wheel at a time to avoid drying in between.
Make sure to purchase dedicated washing equipment for your wheels. The grit found on your wheels can be very abrasive, and you do not want to introduce it to the rest of your car by washing with the same equipment. Brushes are a great tool as they help you get inside lug nut holes that may be exposed, as well as the wheel barrel. This part is the inside of the wheel, which should be cleaned as much as possible.
However, not all wheels are created equal. You should know the type of coating your wheels have as that will dictate the best approach to cleaning the surface and maintaining it so that it looks good for years down the line.
Washing Painted Wheels and Hub Caps
The majority of wheels that come from the factory are painted or have hub caps. Even polished factory wheels or chromed wheels tend to have a clear coat on them, which means they should be treated as painted ones. These wheels can usually be cleaned with the same shampoo you use on the rest of the car, but if you need something a little stronger, you can opt for a dedicated wheel cleaner. Find an option that does not contain any acid and ideally one that specifically says it is safe for clear coat and painted wheels. With these cleaners, you generally want to spray them, let them soak for the recommended amount of time, and then spray them off with clean water. Some gentle scrubbing may be necessary.
If the wheels still do not come clean, you may want to use a tar remover or an iron solvent, which can help with embedded brake dust. Be sure to rinse these cleaners thoroughly from all areas of the wheel, including the interior. These cleaners can cause discoloration if left on surfaces. Once you deep clean these wheels, you should be able to maintain them with soap and water alone provided that you regularly wipe them down before they get too bad.
Cleaning Polished Aluminum, Billet, and Magnesium Wheels
Wheels that are polished and do not have any coating will need to be washed with care. Neither cleaner nor water should be allowed to dry on these wheels, which means you will need to have a microfiber cloth on hand to remove any excess moisture. Again, start with regular shampoo to get them clean. If this does not work effectively, opt for specific magnesium or aluminum cleaner. Importantly, these cleaners use corrosive acids to effectively remove the oxidation on your wheel’s metal components, so you should never use your bare hands to manipulate the cleaner and you should never use them on other types of wheels.
Like other cleaners, corrosive cleaners are also designed to be sprayed on, set, and rinsed off with water. The main difference is that you will need to be very careful not to get any overspray on other parts of the car. If this happens, immediately rinse the area and dry with a separate cloth to keep the surface protected. Also, these sorts of wheels frequently look dull after cleaning. Should this happen, you can use a polish to bring the shine back.
Getting Chrome Plated Wheels Looking Like New
Chrome-plated wheels may need cleaning power above what you would use for painted or polished wheels. Of course, you should try regular shampoo first. Your next line would be chrome wheel cleaner, which is a mid-strength acid. Make sure you read the instructions on the bottle thoroughly and follow them completely to avoid any sort of problem. Again, it is important to keep other surfaces safe by being careful with overspray. After you clean the wheels, be sure to use a chrome polish to get them looking bright and shiny again.