In this section we discuss wheel detailing (tire detailing is treated separately in another section). This is one area of detailing where knowing what products and methods/techniques to use can mean the difference between a perfectly detailed wheel and simply a clean wheel. One of the things you will learn, if you haven’t already, is that the detailing world is awash with products and wheel detailing products are no exception. Learning what products to use takes both experience and careful examination of product information. To begin, let’s first understand the types of wheels on the market. We will then discuss wheel contamination, wheel washing, and finally, wheel protection.
Types of Wheels
There are many different types of wheels and wheel finishes on the market with the most common being:
- Chrome Wheels: These wheels are chrome plated with a clear coat finish for extreme shine and reflectivity.
- Polished (Alloy) Wheels: Bare aluminum polished wheels that (normally) do not have a clear coat. The finish of aluminum wheels is duller than chrome.
- Painted Wheels: Wheels with a basecoat/color coat/clear coat finish. Typical colors are Silver, Black, Anthracite, and White.
- Machined Wheels: Painted wheels with portions of the aluminum wheel machined down to bare aluminum. These wheels have a clear coat.
- Hypercoated Wheels: Painted wheels that are polished and have a metallic clear coat.
- Alloy Wheels: Aluminum alloy wheels with a duller finish than polished wheels. These often do not have a clear coat.
- Steel Wheels: Painted black or silver wheels that do not have a clear coat.
In addition to these, there are chrome-clad wheels (typically alloy wheels with a chrome plastic cover), and steel wheels with either metal or plastic hubcaps. Different types of wheels require slightly different washing techniques/methods. It’s necessary, therefore, to classify the type of wheel you are detailing so that you can assess what procedure is best. Recall: detailer’s always use the least aggressive method first. The least aggressive method refers to both the choice of product and the application method/technique. For alloy wheels, the least aggressive method will NOT be the same as for chrome-clad wheels. Some alloy wheels have a clear coat of paint over the alloy – this adds protection and gives a nice shine. Chrome-clad wheels, however, are alloy wheels with a delicate chrome-painted plastic cover placed over the alloy. A scratch on a clearcoated alloy wheel has hopes of being polished out while a scratch on a chrome-clad wheel is permanent. A clearcoated alloy wheel is also more durable than a chrome-clad wheel. Therefore, the method you use to wash different types of wheels is of paramount importance, as we will see below.
Wheel Contamination: Brake Dust
As for the case of tires, wheels are also subjected to road tar, grime, salt, rain, UV radiation, etc. But, above all, the biggest enemy of a wheel is brake dust. Modern brake pads consist of a variety of materials from steel to carbon fiber to chopped glass to ceramics. Irrespective of the brake pad material, all pads create some level of dust. Typically, brake dust adheres to wheels due to extremely high operating temperatures generated (~200C) during braking action (even under normal driving conditions). There is an inevitable ‘stickiness’ that occurs between the brake dust and the wheel surface and, over time, this dust will form a difficult-to-remove film. If left on wheels for extended periods of time, brake dust will eventually contaminate and form little pits in the wheel material. Wheels with excessive brake dust accumulation are often black in appearance and will require a lot of effort to restore to a new finish.
Wheel Washing/Cleaning Products
Before actually washing your wheels you need to first determine if you are washing them to maintain them or if you are washing them to perform a complete detail. If you are washing them as part of routine maintenance (i.e. weekly) then you can simply use quality car wash soap and wash them as you would wash your car. Here, however, we are addressing the issue of washing a wheel as to perform a complete detail and, as such, will spend a moment addressing choice of product.
The wheel shown below has some brake dust contamination even though it was was recently washed in an automatic car wash. As you can see in the picture, the brake dust was unaffected by the car wash (by the way, automatic car washes are a detailer’s nightmare – avoid them if you can!) and this will often be the case.
You may think that the easiest thing to do at this point is buy a dedicated wheel cleaning product and spray it on. A trip to your local auto parts will yield an overwhelming array of such products! Which one should you use? My opinion: none. Keep in mind that most wheel detailing products promise not to damage your wheels. The majority of these products, however, contain strong acids and, hence, are simply too strong for repeated use on wheels. Sure, these products will clean your wheels (sort of), but they will also damage the wheel surface over time. In addition, most of these products are dangerous to your health if not used properly. (The MSDS for a very popular wheel cleaning product has a NFPA Health Rating of 3 on a scale of 4! This rating means the product contains a material that, on short exposure, could cause serious temporary or residual injury). For wheel washing, the best product that I have found is Dawn Dishwashing Soap – yup, the same soap you use to wash dishes!
Dawn is actually a great product and should be in every detailer’s arsenal. You must, however, know when to use it. Dawn contains surfactants (surface active agents) and detergents that allow the soap to effectively clean contaminated surfaces. Often you will hear people say that you should never use any type of dishwashing soap to wash a car. Well, this is partly true. The simple fact is that dishwashing soap will not only remove dirt, but will also remove whatever sacrificial protection product you might have on the surface of your car or wheels. In other words, dishwashing soap will effectively remove a sealant or wax (such as carnauba) as well as dirt/grime/dust. If your intent is to wash and then protect your wheel (or paint) then using a product like Dawn is perfectly permissible. If you are washing your car as part of routine maintenance (i.e. weekly) then Dawn is NOT recommended and will, over extended use, dry out rubber and plastic trim. (If you would rather not use Dawn…P21S Total Auto Wash is also great for cleaning wheels).
Wheel Washing Procedure
Now that you now what product to use and you have determined the type of wheel, the procedure of washing the wheel is quite straightforward. Warning: you will need to have both patience and perseverance! I say this because washing a neglected wheel will take time and effort. With that said, let’s begin:
- Get yourself a bucket – for wheels, a 2-gallon bucket is sufficient (using two buckets, one for your water/soap mixture and one for clean rinse water, is highly recommended [see Two-Bucket Wash Method in ‘Washing’]). Put warm water in the bucket and add Dawn as per the product’s instructions.
- Get a nice brush. A brush that is too soft will not aid you in washing wheels…and a brush that is too stiff will scratch them. The EZ Detail Brush is perfect for washing wheels. Every feature of this brush has been designed with the detailer in mind. You may be able to find a suitable brush in your local department store but you need to be careful that it doesn’t contain any features that might scratch your wheel.
- Spray the wheel down with water to remove as many loose contaminants as possible.
- Dip the brush in the soap/water mixture and start washing. I suggest that you ‘grossly’ wash the wheel at first, lightly brushing every aspect of the wheel. Then, water it down again to measure your progress. Continue until the majority of the dirt/dust/grime is removed.
- Assess the condition of the wheel. Our example wheel depicted to below needs a more aggressive method as the brush was not successful at removing the stubborn sections of grime. For this particular wheel, a medium bristle toothbrush does the trick nicely…this particular wheel (see below) now looks like it just came out of the showroom…yet, has over 8 years of exposure to the elements!
- You may now be in a position to proceed to protecting the wheel. This depends, however, on the condition of the wheel after Step 5. If you are not convinced that the wheel surface is perfect, read on…if it is perfect, then you are now ready to protect it.
Wheel detailing takes a lot of patience and care. The wheel shown above has undergone two levels of cleaning – first with Dawn and a large brush and second with Dawn and a tooth brush. Depending on the condition of your wheel, you may be able to get away with a single cleaning OR may have to try a more aggressive method. Automotive clay may be necessary.
Should you polish your wheels?
Once the wheel is washed according to the above procedures, it will most likely look brand new. At this point you must ascertain, however, if any further cleaning/preparation and/or polishing are necessary prior to protecting them. For most wheels, these two steps are not necessary and you can move directly to ‘protection’. However, there is a possibility that either the Dawn/brush/toothbrush procedure was not aggressive enough and/or your wheels have light scratches. If you just can’t get wheels clean using the above procedure, then you may have to clean them using automotive clay. In addition, if you have scratches then you will have to ascertain whether it is worth trying to remove them via polishing. This strongly depends on whether the wheel has a clear coat – if it doesn’t, then you are out of luck. The wheel in our example doesn’t have a clear coat and is perfectly prepared for a protection coat.
Protecting your wheels
At this point, your wheels should look pristine. After all your hard work and dedication, you now need to provide a sacrificial protective coating. Should you use a sealant or a wax? Given the heat generated in the vicinity of the wheel due to the brakes, a wax is NOT recommended – it will simply melt. A high-quality sealant is your best option. This wheel was topped with a coat of Optimum Opti-Seal – a very good sealant that offers a great shine. A wheel with a high-quality sealant that undergoes regular washing will last a few months in a new-like state. After 2-3 months, however, you will need to apply another coat of sealant to avoid additional brake dust contamination.
- Irrespective of your wheel type, treat the wheel as you would the finish of your car. Once detailed, the absolute best way to care for them is to frequently (weekly) wash them with a quality car wash soap.
- Always use the least aggressive method first! Abrasive cleaners such as steel wool, harsh polishing compounds, hard bristle brushes, etc., are NOT recommended, ever!
- Avoid automatic car washes if possible. Automatic car washes typically use strong acidic cleaners to enhance the removal of dirt and grime from you car and, thus, are actually very aggressive. In addition, most automatic car washed use stiff brushes that, over time, will harm both the finish of your car and the finish of your wheels.
- Try to avoid washing wheels when they are hot (wheels that have been in use for extended periods of time). First, using cold water on hot wheels may get on the brake rotor and cause it to warp. Second, water on hot wheels evaporates quickly causing water spots and soap residue to remain on the wheel surface.
- Wheels (and tires) are easily the dirtiest parts of a car. It is usual practice to wash wheels (and tires) first as to avoid over spray of dirt/grime/dust as you initially rinse them. It is also a good idea to have a separate wash mitt for wheels and tires as to avoid contamination of your car wash mitt with dirt particles (that will scratch your paint).
- Wash wheels on a regular basis. Remember, they’re often the dirtiest part of your vehicle because they are constantly exposed to the elements (corrosive brake dust, salt, tar, etc.). It is my strong opinion that wheels, once detailed properly, will need to be maintained more than any other part of a car simply due to the amazing abuse they take.
- Recognize the point of diminishing returns. Detailers are very meticulous individuals and are stubborn enough to do all that is possible to make a car look perfect. But there is always a point where, now matter how much you work to perfect part of a car, it just won’t get better – this is most likely due to the fact that it is beyond the ability of a detailer and may need to be replaced/repainted.