Wheels that catch your eye because they really set off a vehicle do so because they are clean and sparkling, not dirty. If turning back to gaze at your own rims brings disappointment, the time is now to clean them up, get them looking their best with a shine, and develop a routine for keeping them that way. A car with clean, good-looking rims also commands a higher sale price, so preventing your wheels from getting tarnished just makes economic sense. In this article, we'll cover the types of wheel finishes and the cleaning methods best suited to them.
Whether you've spent big money on custom rims or just want to maintain the beauty of your original factory wheels, the three major steps to follow are:
1) Washing the wheels, using a mild detergent and water;
2) Cleaning them, using specific wheel-cleaning products;
3) Polishing or waxing the wheels with a protective coating.
Here are two important cautions to share with you:
1. Some custom wheel manufacturers have a warranty provision which states that the only product acceptable to use when cleaning their wheels is water, or perhaps water with a very mild soap. Use of any aftermarket cleaners, degreasers, etc. may not only harm certain finishes, it may void the manufacturer's warranty on that finish. Be certain to check with your wheel manufacturer should such an exclusion apply.
2. There are high-end custom wheels using exotic finishes, including but not limited to carbon fiber, liquid transfer, and similar. These wheel manufacturers typically provide very specific cleaning instructions for their wheels. Adherence to such instructions is paramount in order for the warranty to remain in effect. Be sure to check with your wheel manufacturer regarding their cleaning recommendations to remain in warranty compliance.
Before we get into the cleaning of specific wheel finishes, here are some general guidelines. When washing your wheels, it's best to go with the basics. Use mild soap and water only, avoiding harsh detergents. Never apply cold water to wheels that are hot from either driving or sitting in the sun. Let them cool down naturally first, otherwise the rapid temperature change can "shock" the wheel, no matter what its finish, resulting in hairline cracks and pits forming in it. As dirt and moisture work their way into the wheel and become trapped there, premature stains form along with peeling that looks terrible.
After the wheels have been washed, caked-on grime can be removed along with stains and pitting on the top surface using wheel cleaners designed for the finish on your wheels. There are wheel-specific polishing compounds which can be applied by hand or with a simple high-speed buffer. If you don't own a buffer or find it awkward to use on wheels, a large rotating foam ball, small rotating foam ball, or foam cone attached to an electric drill will net equally effective results.
Wash the wheels every two weeks during warmer months with a soft scrubbing brush - weekly if they come in contact with road salt or high levels of oil-based contaminants. Apply a layer of car wax or wheel-specific protectant every few months with a soft cloth then buff it off. This will allow brake dust and gunk to slide off wheel surfaces instead of building up into a gooey layer which, if left unchecked, bakes into a hard coating that's difficult to remove.
If you work on your wheels after cleaning the rest of your vehicle, keep a bottle of automotive paint cleaner handy to wipe up any overspray from wheel cleaners or polishes that gets on your paint. We'll now cover specific cleaning instructions for different wheel finishes.
Cleaning OEM Painted, Clear Coated, And Chromed Wheels:
Most factory-equipped "OEM" alloy wheels are either painted and/or clear coated for maximum protection. The clear coat layer consists of a urethane film with an adhesive backing and hardens to a thickness typically less than 1/100th of an inch. It has no color, and is designed to be scratch resistant to prevent dulling of colored paint layers underneath it.
Clear-coated wheels are generally safe to use in the winter as well as summer.
OEM wheels which have been painted or clear-coated can be cleaned in a traditional fashion using a safe, recommended wheel cleaner to lift and separate brake dust and grease during washing.
Cleaning Chrome Finish Wheels:
Chrome is a plating which is applied to the wheel surface. Should the slightest imperfection occur in the finish, you run the risk of contaminants getting between the chrome and the wheel, eventually causing the chrome finish to lift and peel away. So chrome-plated wheels need to be kept extremely clean to minimize this possibility. Wheel industry experts highly recommend NOT using chromed wheels in winter when roads are salty and slushy.
Using a specially formulated chrome wheel cleaner will lift dirt and grime off the surface without harming the chrome finish. In some cases the wheel can simply be rinsed clean; for more stubborn areas, a gentle scrub with a soft brush will loosen the last vestiges of dirt, and you're done.
Cleaning Wheels With A Machined Finish:
Machined is the term used to describe what happens to an aluminum wheel during manufacturing after its last shaping procedure on a lathe. The wheel is passed through successively finer cutting and polishing processes until very fine circular ridges are etched in the wheel face and the aluminum glows with a subtle sheen. Machined wheels are frequently left unfinished, but a clear coat layer is sometimes applied on top of the machined surface. These wheels are safe and durable enough to use throughout all the seasons.
Using steel wool pads or anything overly abrasive can literally sand down the etched texture on these wheels, so it's recommended to clean these wheels using a more gentle wheel-cleaning product. Frequent cleaning will keep this kind of wheel looking its best.
Cleaning Wheels With A Polished Aluminum Finish:
Aluminum wheels with a polished finish are not painted, and machine polishing during the manufacturing process brings out the natural beauty of the aluminum underneath. Their high shine is not unlike the dazzling effect of chrome. Since clear coat is not typically used, this type of wheel will need frequent cleaning and polishing to maintain its high shine. They are more time-consuming to maintain, but surface scratches and stains can be removed with high-speed buffing/polishing tools. In some cases, professional polishing may be needed to treat severe stains or scratches. Properly cared for, they'll remain durable through all seasons including winter.
Chrome cleaners or polish should never be used on polished wheels, because these chemical agents can leave permanent stains on the aluminum which cannot be removed. Instead, use a specialized polished aluminum wheel cleaner. A good cleaning solution of this type will soften and lift caked-on brake dust, hardened road tar, and other grime within minutes to be rinsed away.
Cleaning Wheels With Matte Finish:
A matte finish is generated by using paint that dries with a rough surface full of imperfections and dimples that diffuse light rays, making the wheel surface appear non-reflective to the eye. Traditional wheel polishing and wax compounds should never be used with matte wheels, because they will literally fill those imperfections and create a shine - reversing the matte effect.
Clean any brake dust or road grime off wheel surfaces as soon as possible with a wheel cleaner specially formulated for matte finish wheels and a microfiber towel. Then use a matte paint sealant. This sealant can be used right after washing the surface (without drying) and will provide months of protection.
Providing The Final Layer Of Protection To Your Wheels
Once the wheels have been washed and cleaned, you want to protect the finish. Doing this gives you two advantages: first, the protective polish or sealant minimizes the likelihood of dirt, tar, brake dust and other contaminants from sticking to the newly-cleaned surface. Two, the top coat you put on will allow you to keep the wheels looking good for a longer period of time.
Mother's and Dr. Beasley's are two well-known brands which offer a variety of products to keep your wheels shiny and clean. Whether you have factory OEM wheels or the latest in custom rims, keeping them clean will keep your ride looking its best. Following our washing and cleaning guidelines will help ensure that your wheels will look great for years to come!