How To Clean Aluminum Wheels

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So, you’ve got yourself a nice set of aluminum wheels. God knows those are worth all the extra dollars, but the joy of your investment may be short-lived if you don’t take proper care of them.

Wheels are exposed to much harsher working conditions than the paint of the car. During a casual drive down the highway, each wheel experiences hurricane-force winds, propelling dirt, mud, salt, gravel, sticks, brake dust, and rotor shavings at them.

It’s easy to neglect steel wheels, as these will corrode no matter what you do to them. Just paint them black, throw a cheap set of plastic caps, and forget about them.

However, aluminum alloys can stay fresh and shiny forever if you properly care for your wheels. It’s a real pity not to.

In this article, we’ll talk about all the tricks and tips you need for cleaning aluminum wheels like a pro.

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Table of Contents

What You'll Need

Here’s your list of equipment for a start-to-finish aluminum wheel detailing job.

Pressure washer / garden hose - a pressure washer is best, but a standard garden water hose with a good attachment will also do just fine.

Buckets - to mix your cleaning solutions, if not in spray form.

Soft bristle brush - This wheel brush won’t scratch the clear coat or the machined surfaces. Aluminum scratches fairly easily.

Small narrow brush - there are spaces and crevices in the wheels that you can’t reach with a regular brush.

Hard brush with long handle - the most overlooked place to clean is the fender liners. They accumulate as much if not more dirt and grime than your wheels, which goes right back on them if not removed.

Aluminum Wheel cleaner - make sure it’s not acidic and is suitable for clear-coated aluminum wheels. If your alloys are not clear-coated, you can pick a more aggressive agent, but don’t go acid dipping.

Wheel detailing clay - if your wheels have badly stuck grime and deposits, a clay bar will help you remove them without scratching your them.

Polishing compound and applicator - distressed bare aluminum will likely have an oxidation layer on top and be in need of polishing with a more aggressive compound. Scratched clear coats will also need light polishing with a mild product.

Mirror Shine - Sealing or waxing the wheels will go a long way in protecting them while also making them cleaner, shinier, and easier to maintain. Mirroy Shine is perfect for that!

Microfiber cloths - you will need a couple of those for drying and buffing the wheels as you go.

Tire Shine by Torque Detail - the cherry on the top. You should clean your tires separately from your wheels. Use separate brushes and buckets so as not to cross-contaminate.

Alright, let’s get to work. For best results, consider removing the wheels from the car so you can easily reach inside.

What You'll Need

Here’s your list of equipment for a start-to-finish aluminum wheel detailing job.

Pressure washer / garden hose - a pressure washer is best, but a standard garden water hose with a good attachment will also do just fine.

Buckets - to mix your cleaning solutions, if not in spray form.

Soft bristle brush - This wheel brush won’t scratch the clear coat or the machined surfaces. Aluminum scratches fairly easily.

Small narrow brush - there are spaces and crevices in the wheels that you can’t reach with a regular brush.

Hard brush with long handle - the most overlooked place to clean is the fender liners. They accumulate as much if not more dirt and grime than your wheels, which goes right back on them if not removed.

Aluminum Wheel cleaner - make sure it’s not acidic and is suitable for clear-coated aluminum wheels. If your alloys are not clear-coated, you can pick a more aggressive agent, but don’t go acid dipping.

Wheel detailing clay - if your wheels have badly stuck grime and deposits, a clay bar will help you remove them without scratching your them.

Polishing compound and applicator - distressed bare aluminum will likely have an oxidation layer on top and be in need of polishing with a more aggressive compound. Scratched clear coats will also need light polishing with a mild product.

Wheel sealant or wax - sealing or waxing the wheels will go a long way in protecting them while also making them cleaner, shinier, and easier to maintain.

Microfiber cloths - you will need a couple of those for drying and buffing the wheels as you go.

Tire dressing - the cherry on the top. You should clean your tires separately from your wheels. Use separate brushes and buckets so as not to cross-contaminate.

Washing Off Wheels

You want to wash your wheels before the rest of your car.

Pressure wash your wheels and wheel wells thoroughly to remove as much of the mud, loose dirt, brake dust, and other deposits as possible.

Double-check if your wheel cleaning solution is appropriate for the type of surface you’re working on. Wheels without a clear coat protection (such as anodized chrome) can react badly with acid. Also avoid using acidic cleaners on wheels with peeling clear coat.

Generously spray the wheel with cleaner both inside and out, making sure you get the interior of the barrels. Use your soft bristle brush to scrub all the surfaces you can reach. Use the small brush for the narrow crevices.

Rinse thoroughly and dry off with a clean microfiber towel.

Is there still some hard dirt stuck to the surface? Can you feel any roughness when going over the surface with your finger?

If so, you have some more work cut out for you.

Removing Additional Grease, Grime, And Wax coatings

You can’t scrub too hard on clear-coated wheels, even with soft brushes. If you’re fighting some tough contamination and embedded particles, you need to use detailing clay.

Wheel detailing clay usually comes bundled with a detailing solution, but if you don’t have any, a regular wheel cleaner will do.

You need to keep the wheel wet as you work, then work the clay into the correct shape and rub it onto the wheels with light to medium pressure.

The clay will do an awesome job of pulling any stuck debris, dirt, and brake dust without hurting the surface. When it gets tarnished, just fold it over and continue until you can no longer feel or see dirt on your wheels.

The clay is reusable to a certain point. Just remember to never use your wheel clay for your car paint and vice versa. Keep them in separate, labeled containers, or you will inevitably forget and cross-contaminate.

To remove grease and any traces of old/bad wax coating, use a car soap product. If you don’t have any available, you can use regular dish soap. However, make sure this contains no bleach, chlorine, perfumes, or other additives that may react to the clear coat.

Mix your soap in a bucket of water and clean your wheels with a microfiber mitt or just a clean rag. The grease and extra wax should wash off in a couple of passes. Rinse quickly after to protect the clear coat from any harsh detergents.

How To Polish Aluminum Alloy Wheels

Alright, now we have a clean slate to make our alloy wheels beautiful and shiny once more by polishing them.

Polishing products for bare aluminum wheels and clear-coated aluminum are very different.

Bare aluminum will pick up a white layer of oxidation. It doesn’t rust like steel does, but it will still corrode slightly. You’ll recognize the white matte finish of oxidized aluminum. Polishing bare aluminum will require a compound with a bit more bite to remove the oxide layer and reveal the smooth, reflective aluminum surface.

Clear-coated wheels will need a more delicate polishing compound and a softer touch. The good news is, you shouldn’t have any oxidation on the wheel, so it should take less work to polish.

Pay special attention to what products you’re buying and if they match the surface you polish. Similarly, double-check your pads and applicators before you make a frustrating mistake.

After you’re done, wipe the wheels with a clean microfiber towel and inspect the results. When properly polished, aluminum will reveal a very reflective, mirror-like finish similar to chrome.

We’re almost finished!

Applying Wax For Long-Lasting Protection

You’ve just gone through a laborious process of cleaning and polishing. You definitely don’t want to do that again anytime soon.

To seal the beautiful finish, you need to apply wax or sealant to your aluminum wheels. This will keep dirt, grime, and brake dust from accumulating, and make the surface hydrophobic and easy to wash.

The application process is practically the same as if you were waxing your paint, although the results will be different.

Wheels are exposed to much harsher conditions than the car body is, which means the wax or sealant will wear off much more quickly. Depending on the product, you may need to reapply wax or sealant weekly or twice every month.

However, if you’re consistent with your application, the only cleaning your wheels need is pressure washing.

Just keep in mind that wheel cleaners, especially stronger ones, will also take off the wax, so you’ll need to reapply it once you’re done washing.

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Tips For Cleaning Off Brake Dust

The black residue on your aluminum wheels is brake dust.

Don’t worry, your brakes are fine. Intense rubbing and heat are what stops your car. The brake pads and cast iron rotors literally eat each other away, and the shed material is the dust you see.

Brake dust is actually mostly iron shavings from your rotors. Mixed in there are also metallic fibers, carbon, and resins from your brake pad, as well as road debris, dirt, and grime.

Brake dust is propelled red hot at high velocity directly at the wheel - mostly the inner barrel. The iron makes it highly corrosive to both the clear coat and aluminum underneath.

If you regularly clean your wheels, most of the brake dust should go away with just regular wheel cleaner, light scrubbing, and sufficient water pressure.

However, if you’ve never taken your wheels off, chances are the inner barrels are loaded with a thick layer of brake dust. In this case, you may want to look for a special iron remover product, which has the proper chemistry to pull the iron out of the surface and into the soap.

Degreaser can also help, but make sure you keep the wheel wet, do quick work with the brush, and rinse off immediately. Degreasers will eat away at the clear coat if left for too long.

Tips For Removing Tough Mud

If you’ve been off-roading and there’s a bunch of dried hard mud on your wheels and fenders, your first instinct will probably tell you to pressure wash it and knock the dirt off.

However, be wary! In doing this, you might accidentally scratch your clear coat.

Depending on the strength of your water spray, it could actually send chunks of dry hard mud flying toward your clear coat and paint.

Instead, you want to soak the wheel and paint with a soapy solution or a foam cannon. Let the car sit for a couple of minutes and allow the water and cleaner to penetrate the mud and loosen it up.

Then, you can pressure wash it and proceed with the rest of your cleaning.

Tips For Cleaning And Polishing Lug Nuts

There’s nothing special about cleaning and polishing lug nuts and recessed bolts - they’re just a pain in the butt to reach without removing the wheel.

Soak or spray a generous amount of wheel cleaner and use a thin brush or an old soft toothbrush to reach in and scrub away the residue and grime.

The above video shows off a lug nut brush that makes it easier to get at your lug nuts with them still attached to your car!

Tips For Removing Water Spots And Stains From Aluminum Wheels

Water spots are caused by improper drying of the wheel in particular. When you leave a wet surface to dry under evaporation, the mineral deposits naturally contained in the water remain behind.

The white spots that you see as a result are mostly limestone/calcium carbonate, which is found in hard water.

The best solution to remove it is actually white vinegar. The vinegar acid does quick work to dissolve the limestone deposit, but it’s mild enough that it doesn’t hurt the clear coat.

After rinsing, remember to wipe down your wheel with a clean microfiber cloth to prevent water stains from reappearing.

Fix Peeling Clear Coat / Pitted / Corroded / Oxidized / Aluminum Wheels

Above: A video from the YouTube Channel, 4DIYers. He goes over a common way to fix peeling clear coat on aluminium wheels.

Depending on the condition, you may be able to remedy slight pitting by polishing the clear coat. If it hasn’t penetrated through to the aluminum, you might be able to save it.

If you see signs of corrosion or oxidation on the aluminum, it’s a sign the clear coat has failed, at least locally.

If your clear coat is peeling, it’s done. You cannot save it. The best thing you can do is remove it, polish the wheel, and reapply the clear coat.

To remove a clear coat, you need a paint stripper product. Sprays work best for wheels, since the awkward shapes of some spokes make it a nightmare to get a brush in.

After you clean the wheel thoroughly, polish the aluminum and reapply the clear coat. Apply three coats of this 10 minutes apart. Keep the spray can 10 inches away from the surface and try to move it smoothly and get full coverage. Leave the wheel to dry and cure for at least one day.

Then, you want to polish the clear coat again with the proper compound and seal the surface with a wax or sealant.

Bonus: 3 DIY Aluminum Polish Recipes Using Household Products

Don’t have any special auto detailing products? No worries, there’s tons of stuff at home that can do a fair job.

Baking soda and lemon juice wheel cleaner

Mix a cup of warm water with half a cup of baking soda. Add two tablespoons of lemon juice and put it in a spray bottle. Spray the wheel generously and scrub with a soft bristle brush.

  • Baking soda is an alkali (a base), which helps dissolve grease and dirt into the water.
  • Lemon juice contains citric acid, which further helps break down grease and deposits.
  • Finally, mixing a base with acid causes them to neutralize, releasing high amounts of carbon dioxide. This fizzing actually agitates deposits mechanically and loosens them up.

Vinegar and water all-purpose cleaner

Vinegar contains a mild acid that will break down most mineral deposits, oils and grease stains, mud, and so on.

Mix equal parts warm water and white vinegar in a spray bottle. Spray generously on the wheel and let it sit for a couple of minutes. Use a soft bristle brush to scrub the wheel and rinse off thoroughly.

Coca-Cola rust buster

If you have any corrosion spots, rusted lug nuts, or embedded brake dust, Coke can save the day - or at least your wheel.

Spray or pour some cola on the troubled spot and rub it in with a soft brush. Properly wash the wheel with a vinegar solution to remove the syrup deposits and sticky stains.

Coca-Cola contains phosphoric acid, which reacts with the iron and dissolves rust. There’s also citric acid, which helps break down any dirt and grime. Finally, the drink is carbonated. Carbon dioxide loves to react with iron oxide (rust), making Coca-Cola the perfect home rust-busting solution.

If your brake calipers are visible through your wheel, it would be a good idea to detail those as well.

HEY! Your Tires Deserve Some Love Too!
High-Gloss Tire Shine Spray by Torque Detail

"As with the Mirror Shine and Ceramic Shine, this Tire Shine completes making your car or truck look unbelievable. Bottom line, one stop shopping for all your detailing needs. I’m also impressed with customer service staying in touch with your complete satisfaction about all their products."
Great job Guys." Paul M. of Pasadena

Summary

There we go! 

A complete guide to cleaning, polishing, and waxing your aluminum alloy wheels. It’s an arduous job, but if you do it right, your wheels will look brand new every day with very little maintenance.

Visit the equipment list at the top and make sure you buy the right products for your aluminum wheels. Follow the instructions and approach each step methodically.