Summary: A dive into wheel cleaning, explaining both technique and products
Dirty wheels can make even the cleanest car look dull. It doesn’t take long to clean your wheels, but there are some precautions to take.
Types of Wheel Cleaners
Shampoo and Agitation
This is the mild maintenance version, you basically use the same shampoo you use for your car and a good brush and give the wheel a quick scrub. If you do that regularly, that will be all you ever need. It’s mild and it cleans plentiful on well maintained cars.
This is where products like Brake Buster and most all-purpose cleaners come in. Alkaline cleaners provide way more cleaning power but still very often need agitation to break down the dirt and grime. Bonus point: All of these double as tyre cleaners, making that step way easier.
Colour Changing Cleaners
These are mostly either pH neutral or lightly acidic. They clean very well, even without agitation. But these can also be rather problematic if left on for too long or not properly removed. They are quite aggressive chemicals, so the best point to use them is on a wheels-off detail to make sure you can properly remove them. Go for well-reviewed products such as CarPro Iron-X and Sonax Wheel Cleaner.
These come in multiple classes of aggressiveness, from okay to handle to really strong. These are not for any kind of maintenance clean but for absolute extreme cases where you can’t get the wheel clean any other way. Wear proper PPE (respirator, gloves, safety glasses) and stick to the manufacturer instructions at all times. These are good to have a around for when your other methods fail. Also best done with the wheel off the vehicle to avoid contact with paint.
- Super Clean Wheel Acid
If you still have black spots or brown spots that can’t be removed that’s very likely tar and will need a tar remover. It’s recommended to remove the wheel for this so you can reach everything behind the spokes and in the barrel.
- Spray your chosen prewashing product on the car and rims, allowing it to work.
- Rinse off the product.
- If you have hard water, use a rinseless wash to prevent hard water spots and get polymer spots instead, which are easily removable. Fresh water spots can usually be removed in the following contact wash.
- Thoroughly rinse the wheels. A pressure washer will give better results here, but a hose will do just fine.
Read and follow the manufacturer instructions on the cleaner you’re using as the process may vary. Some products such as acid cleaners may not require contact cleaning at all – they’re sprayed on and rinsed off.
- Spray the rims with the cleaner and let it work.
- For alkaline (non-acidic) products, clean the tires too, otherwise, let the cleaner soak on the rims.
- Use a suitable brush or mitt to agitate the cleaner on the rims.
- Rinse the wheels thoroughly.
- Optional Tire Cleaning: If you didn’t use an alkaline product, clean the tires if you plan to apply a fresh dressing. This step may require multiple repetitions. Finish with a final rinse.
- If you rinsed with deionized water (DI), you may be finished. Consider applying a spray-on, rinse-off sealant.
- If you didn’t use DI, dry or blow-dry the wheels to avoid water spots. Drying tires may stain your towel, so use a not-as-new towel to dry them. Using a rinseless wash as a drying aid for hard water can be beneficial.