Car Wash & Auto Detailing

How to Clean Aluminum Wheels

In the process of cleaning cars, people tend to focus on the body and windows of the vehicle, since these are the closest to eye level. Frequently, certain parts of the car get overlooked in the washing process. And one of those often-overlooked areas is the car’s wheels.

Perhaps people think because they’re so close to the ground, no one’s going to look at them, and there’s no point bothering in cleaning them since they’ll get dirty again so soon. But have you ever seen a car fresh off the lot, with new wheels? Clean aluminum wheels make all the difference, and cleaning them could even make you feel like you’ve got a new car all over again. It’s not a terribly difficult task, either, as this article will describe—just a straightforward, step-by-step process that virtually anyone can do.

With this in mind, are you looking to take your car’s aluminum wheels from grimy and blah back to gleaming perfection? Keep reading to learn more about how to do so.

I. Why Should You Clean your Car’s Wheels?

If you’re still skeptical that this is a necessary part of auto maintenance, here are a few key reasons.

First off: cleaning your car’s wheels is the only real way to deal with the notable issue of brake dust. This is the dust created when a mixture of adhesive and carbon fibers come off of the brake pad and metal shavings are ground off of the rotor. Particularly because it’s coming off hot, it’s a highly corrosive material that can lead to pitting and corrosion on your wheels. Brake dust is generated every time you drive, so it’s a constant problem that necessitates regular cleaning. Generalized road grime is similarly an issue.

Why should you clean your car's aluminum wheels?

Also, if you’re planning on washing the rest of your vehicle as usual, it’s a good idea to clean your car’s wheels first. Otherwise, both brake dust and dirty water might end up spattering back onto the car, undoing much of your hard work.

And that’s not to mention the fact that aluminum wheels look incredible when they’ve been cleaned and polished. Because aluminum is fairly soft (as metals go), when it’s been polished it can actually look a great deal like chrome. You’ll feel a great deal of satisfaction when you thoroughly clean and polish your wheels.

II. What’s the Difference between Aluminum and Steel Wheels?

Wheels are made with different metal blends (alloys)—the two most common materials are aluminum and steel. They have different pros and cons, and create varying effects on the driving experience, as well as requiring different methods of upkeep.

What’s the difference between aluminum and steel wheels?

Aluminum wheels, also known as “alloy wheels,” are made up of an alloy of aluminum and nickel. Typically, these will be cast—created by putting liquid aluminum in a mold. They’re usually nicer-looking than steel wheels, and they are fairly strong while still being lightweight (so that they help with fuel efficiency). Since they’re molded, they’re able to come in a variety of designs. Both chrome-plated and bare polished aluminum wheels tend to be vulnerable to scratches and the negative effects of oxidation.

Steel wheels are made up of a mixture of carbon and iron. A con is that they’re heavier, so they may reduce acceleration and fuel efficiency. However, they’re also stronger: they are less likely to be cracked by impact, and won’t be as easily damaged by gravel, de-icers, and brake dust (thus they’re more common in winter driving situations). They’re also often easier to repair. Rather than being molded, they’re generally cut out on a press, then welded together. They offer fewer design choices, so they’re less about the aesthetics of the car’s wheel, and more about the function.

III. Step-by-Step Guide to Cleaning your Car’s Aluminum Wheels

1. Rinse the wheels

Rinse the wheels in order to remove as much grime and dust as possible as a first step. Use as high a water pressure as you can and be sure to get in every nook and cranny that you can reach—this step will save you time and effort later on, so it’s worth being extremely thorough.

2. Apply wheel cleaner

Spray wheel cleaner product to each wheel one at a time. See the list below for advice on which product to choose.

Apply wheel cleaner

3. Add elbow grease

Using a soft brush, scrub gently to remove any stuck-on grime. As you’re doing this, make sure to keep the whole area coated with water so that the wheel doesn’t get scratched, and make sure wheel cleaner doesn’t dry on the wheel (it could leave unattractive spots).

Get in between the spokes with the brush and clean the barrel, and use a lug nut brush to clean in and around the lug nut holes. It’s important not to use an overly stiff brush, because if you scratch the wheel now it will take more time to polish those scratches away.

4. Clean the wheel wells

Use an all-purpose cleaner and a stiffer brush with a long handle to clean the wheel wells, which tend especially to accumulate dirt.

5. Rinse again and dry them off

Rinse everything you’ve cleaned so far, and dry everything using a soft towel such as a microfiber towel. If you don’t dry the wheel, you’ll end up getting water spots.

6. Clay the wheels

Detailing clay is a good tool to use to clean your car’s wheels very thoroughly, so if you’d like, use detailing clay at this point in the process, although it’s not a requirement.

Clay the wheels

7. Polish the wheels

Apply aluminum polish with a clean rag in small sections (this will keep the polish from drying before you’re able to rub it in). Start with the wheel surface and then move to the lug nuts, and rub along the grain of the wheel. You can use a toothbrush wrapped in a cloth for any crevices you can’t otherwise reach. When you’re done, wipe it clean with a clean, soft towel.

8. Seal with wax

Put wax onto a clean cloth and rub it onto the surface of the wheel. You can also use a metal sealant rather than a standard wax; whatever you use, make sure it’s OK to use on aluminum wheels specifically.

Then let the wax dry for roughly 10-15 minutes. Once you’ve let it dry, wipe it off with a clean cloth.

Your wheels should look shiny and be perfectly protected.

IV. The 3 Best Wheel Cleaners & Polishes on the Market

best wheel cleaners & polishes on the market

1. Sonax Wheel Cleaner Full Effect

This pH-balanced wheel cleaner has an interesting, user-friendly feature—the formulation turns red as it attacks dirt and grime. It’s acid-free, and is designed to be safe for use on painted, anodized and clear coated wheels. Reviewers report that it has an ideal effect on high-quality aluminum wheels.

2. Meguiar’s Hot Rims Wheel Cleaner

One of the most annoying things about cleaning wheels is that the surface is vertical, meaning that many cleaners slide or drip off before they can penetrate the many nooks and crannies that make cleaning wheels such a challenge at times. That’s why it’s so useful that this cleaner’s Xtreme Cling foam holds it in place long enough to truly dissolve any dirt and grime that’s present.

3. Mothers Mag & Aluminum Polish

We can’t forget the polish on this list—once you’ve cleaned your car’s wheels you’ll definitely want to make sure they’re shining as much as possible. This is a high-quality, easy-to-use aluminum polish that gets great reviews and is also completely affordable.

V. How Often to Clean your Wheels

It’s generally recommended that you wash your wheels with soap, water and a wash mitt every time you wash your car (perhaps twice a month).

More thorough cleanings, plus adding a layer of protective substances, can happen with less frequency—something like 4-6 times per year.

However, these are just very general guidelines. It’s up to you to look at your wheels and decide whether they’re dirty.

If, say, you’ve been driving on muddy dirt roads, you’ll have more need to wash your wheels than when you’ve been driving on regular old pavement. It’s up to you to use your judgment and decide when you feel the wheels need to be cleaned (and if aesthetics is a concern for you, it’ll of course be every time they start looking less attractive due to dirt and grime accumulation).

Conclusion

Want to make sure your wheels are maintained in good condition, and your car looks as clean and attractive as possible?

Be sure to clean your wheels on a regular basis. As you now know, it’s not an overwhelmingly challenging task by any means.

Simply use the right products and follow the steps above and you’ll be able to keep your vehicle in top condition, potentially for years to come.

A little effort now means your car will have greater longevity (you may even save money in the long run), and in the meantime it will be a pleasure to drive.

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