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Cleaning and preening is what the Mothers® Detail Guide is all about. From the simplest tasks to the most technically challenging, our Guide covers it all.
Posted on May 7, 2021
You can try cleaning wheels by washing them in league with the rest of your car (top to bottom means do them last). This will give you a baseline – car soap may be enough to clean them. Use a wheel-specific sponge or wash-mitt so you don’t traffic brake dust and other nasty ground-level substances with the rest of your car. Many coatings like paints and clear coats only need (and can only handle) this gentle approach. Unfortunately, some types of wheels, such as roughcast aluminum, hold on to discoloration and dirt, so more effective cleaners are necessary.
We can’t say it enough – wheel-care chemicals are powerful stuff. If the product description, instructions or warnings do not address your specific situation, then find a different wheel cleaner that does. Seek experience – what have other folks done to clean this type of wheel?
If a wheel is soiled with super-sticky brake dust or road grime that car soap won’t remove, the appropriate wheel cleaners probably can. Although the process of cleaning wheels is not complicated, the chemical requirements for cleaning wheels are, and different finishes are prescribed specific chemicals. Because there are so many options, we have outlined which Mothers® wheel cleaner will work with specific wheels, and identifiers for each coating. If you don’t recognize your wheels on this list, do more research before proceeding.
Foaming Wheel & Tire Cleaner
Chrome Wheel Cleaner
Aluminum Wheel Cleaner
After consulting the instructions on the wheel-cleaning product that suits your wheels, approach the process gradually. Use small amounts to see how the cleaner works. Most wheels will benefit from agitation with a brush designed for wheels; one with soft, scratch-free bristles that match your wheel type. A dedicated wash-mitt that’s free of scratchy elements is probably the most delicate way to go, but don’t use a mitt or sponge that’s cleaning wheels anywhere else on the vehicle. Wheel cleaners lose their strength on wet surfaces, so work on dry wheels (ditto for tire cleaners). Do not clean hot or warm wheels – it could dull their finish.
As with any spray on wheel cleaner, make sure the surface is cool to the touch. Coat the wheel’s surface.
Let the Foaming Wheel & Tire Cleaner work for no more than 30 seconds – it’s that fast.
Hose-off thoroughly with a strong, steady stream of water. When it’s time to rinse off a wheel cleaner, don’t skimp. Make that fancy nozzle earn its keep, because a powerful cleaner left sitting can mess up shiny surfaces. Be thorough, making sure to rinse outside and inside areas, including brake calipers and wheel wells.
The simplest to-do order when washing your vehicle would be top to bottom. If you’re doing any specialized cleaning to the wheels or tires (beyond a soap and water job), do it before washing the entire car. You’ll rinse those particular surfaces again after cleaning them, then again while washing the whole rig. Once your car/truck/van/wagon is dried, then you can polish and protect.
Whenever cleaning a wheel, your constant attention is necessary: don’t walk away, and don’t let wheel cleaner or polish dry. Wipe it off while it’s still wipeable. If it does dry, reapply the product immediately and wipe it off. As with all wheel cleaners, apply them with a hose nearby so you can rinse off the cleaner quickly and thoroughly.
Automotive wheels are exposed to substances like brake dust and axle grease that are powerfully good at staining things. When you encounter stains that regular cleaners can’t remove on painted and clear coated wheels, a gentle polish like Mothers® Plastic Polish, Brazilian Carnauba Cleaner Wax or Synthetic Wax might be able. Wheels that aren’t clear coated can be cleaned with a metal polish, such as Mothers® Mag & Aluminum Polish or Chrome Polish. We’ll have more on cleaning wheels in the following sections.
If you’re not sure whether your wheels are coated, or if they’re an open metal like aluminum, do a spot test. Rub a small amount of Mothers® Mag & Aluminum Polish in an inconspicuous area. If the contact patch on the applicator doesn’t turn black, stop immediately and rinse the polish off the wheel. No black smudge means there’s a clear paint on that surface, and you should use car soap (mixed as strong as necessary) or a mild wheel cleaner. Also, modern wheels sometimes mix materials, so be careful to test all surfaces before continuing.
When cleaning polished aluminum wheels that don’t have a coating, or smooth-surfaced open metals like magnesium, begin with a polished aluminum/billet-specific cleaner, like Mothers® Aluminum Wheel Cleaner. These cleaners are slightly corrosive, so don’t agitate them with your hands – use a soft, plastic-bristled brush, and be sure not to splatter other surfaces. Rinse all surfaces with a firm flow of water one minute after application. Do not let the cleaner stand any longer and do not let it dry – several short applications are preferred to one long soak. Also, avoid using Mothers® Foaming Wheel & Tire Cleaner on these wheels – it’ll stain them. Like we said, wheel-cleaning chemicals are strong and they’re picky.
Following your chosen cleaner, use Mothers® Mag & Aluminum Polish (one of Mothers®’ most popular products) or liquid Metal Polish to bring out the luster in this type of wheel. These polishes will also work on stainless parts and diamond plate. Rub a dab of polish on a small portion of the wheel until a black residue appears (rubbing back and forth – don’t use a circular pattern on metal). Add more polish as you move to another section, and monitor the already-rubbed portions of the wheel. You don’t want the polish to dry, but don’t be in a hurry to remove the dark residue because it acts as a secondary polishing agent. Before the polish dries, wipe it off with a clean, dry cotton or microfiber towel, turning it frequently. Repeat the process as many times as you like – you’re not going to rub through the clear coat because there isn’t one.
To polish wheels fast, nothing beats a Mothers® PowerBall II®, PowerBall® Mini or PowerCone® 360. It’s a simple device – a precision, foam-fingered polishing head is fixed to a freewheeling shaft, designed to spin on a household drill. You can watch PowerBall® technology at work in this Mothers® video. These polishing tools work best at the relatively low speeds of your average cordless power drill. Combined with Mothers® metal polishes, your wheels can be done in minutes, instead of hours.
Attach the PowerCone® 360 to any standard drill and put a dollop-sized amount of metal polish on the foam head. The PowerCone® 360 can be used with Mothers® Metal Polish or Mag & Aluminum Polish. When using a liquid polish, apply a dollop-sized amount of product to the foam. When using a thicker paste polish, knead the product into its foam fingers with your fingers. A spritz (not a spray, mind you) of water on the foam will ensure even application.
Start at low drill speeds and increase rotating speed as you become comfortable with the polishing tool. Slower drill speeds will also reduce splatter. Use mild pressure and let the foam do the work, and be careful not to let the drill overpower the process. Mothers®’ specialized closed-cell foam allows it to compress into nooks, crannies and hard-to-reach areas. Use a clean microfiber cloth to buff it away. Important: metal polish is much easier to remove while wet, than when dried. If you do accidentally allow the polish to fully dry, simply rewet the surface with more polish, then remove while wet.
Some wheel types need extra cleaning power, such as chrome and roughcast metal. In these cases, strong cleaners like Mothers® Pro-Strength Chrome Wheel Cleaner can be employed. Make sure your wheels are chrome or roughcast (this sort of cleaner can damage clear coated and painted wheels), and be prepared to rinse it off less than a minute after application. Repeat the process as necessary – once again, small attacks are better than a prolonged battle. It would also be advisable to avoid letting a chrome/roughcast wheel cleaner sit on your skin – wash up immediately after its use.
As a rule, polish chrome by hand. Because of the weakness of some chrome finishes (just like Coca-Cola, old chrome is much better than new chrome), Mothers® suggests you avoid using power tools for polishing chrome, including the PowerBall II®, PowerBall® Mini and PowerCone®.
Once you’ve cleaned chrome wheels and they’re dry, reach for a bottle of good old Mothers® California Gold® Chrome Polish and begin rubbing. The process is similar to that for Mag & Aluminum Polish, but don’t expect a black smudge on the rag – watch for the polish to completely dry to a haze, then buff off. Repeat as necessary. Meanwhile, roughcast aluminum isn’t polishable – just clean it and dig it.
Some modern wheels – particularly original-equipment wheels (OEM) – use a process called physical vapor deposition (PVD) that looks like chrome but isn’t. The PVD process provides the illusion of chrome (a shade or two lighter than actual chrome plating), but is more durable when exposed to winter-state road salts like magnesium chloride. PVD can handle spray-on, hose-off cleaners like Mothers® Foaming Wheel & Tire, as well as Aluminum Wheel Cleaner. When hose-based cleaning is not an option, the best approach is to use a purpose-built cleaner like Mothers® All-Chrome® Quick-Polish Cleaner. It’s specially designed to work on all types of chrome and chrome-like surface, including PVD and chrome cladding. Just spray directly on the chrome, and wipe off with a clean microfiber towel. Simple and easy.
There's more than one case where a “chrome” wheel isn’t exactly chrome, such as “chrome-clad,” which is an aluminum wheel with a thin, chrome-plated plastic facing permanently bonded to the outside of the wheel. Chrome clad wheels are usually indicated on a vehicle’s window sticker. They can also be identified by a very slight air gap between the base aluminum surface and the “chrome-cladding.” However, as wheel design and quality improve, they're getting harder to tell apart from regular chrome. One way to check is to tap the wheel’s surface, which will sound plasticky if it’s chrome-clad. The best option with these wheels is to use All-Chrome® Cleaner. It is incredibly mild and will not damage cladding. You could also use a mild spray-on, hose-off like Mothers® Aluminum Wheel Cleaner, but you need to be very thorough with rising, because chemicals can get lodged in the spaces between the cladding and the wheel.
If you have traditional chrome-plated wheels, use a traditional chrome products like spray on, hose-off Mothers® Chrome Wheel Cleaner. For deep cleaning, use liquid Chrome Polish. And for fast and easy detailing, use a spray product like All-Chrome® Cleaner. Always avoid using aluminum polish on chrome – it is too aggressive.
Some wheel coatings, such as anodizing, are not meant to be polished, so stick to soap and water with a spray wax or detailer chaser. Certain brands of show-friendly gold-plated spoked wheels are only supposed to be cleaned with a chemical distributed by the wheel manufacturer. Powdercoat is a lot like anodized– soap, water, light wax or detailer. And of course, when in doubt, consult the wheel’s manufacturer.
You may encounter a wheel with a mystery coating. This is where knowing the provenance of the wheel is essential. Are you cleaning a vintage three-piece wheel with a stainless lip? How about an old-fashioned laced wheel with platinum-plated spokes? Did the previous owner apply a clear coat? Ask, ask, ask, because one shot of the wrong wheel cleaner could permanently damage the wheel’s coating. If you can’t find out, try a strong batch of car wash – it might be enough to get those mystery wheels clean, and elbow grease is wayyyy cheaper than new wheels.
Like St. Ambrose said, when in Rome, do as the Romans do, and for painted, clear coated and physical vapor deposition (PVD) wheels, treat ‘em like they’re painted and/or clear coated – this means washing the wheels like you do the paint. Car manufacturers are using these coatings more and more because they’re easy to clean, and harder for owners to screw up. Soapy water, a sponge or wash-mitt (using the not-for-the-rest-of-the-car mitt) and some elbow grease should clean most painted or clear coat wheels. Wheel cleaners like Mothers® Foaming Tire & Wheel Cleaner and Aluminum Wheel Cleaner makes cleaning a painted or clear coated wheel effortless (click here to view a short Mothers® video about using Foaming Wheel & Tire Cleaner).
The Mag & Aluminum Polish spot test used to double-check wheel coatings works for cleared or painted wheels. If a dab and rub (a drub?) of Mag & Aluminum on an inconspicuous part of the wheel doesn’t create a black spot on the applicator, then quickly clean the polish off, because that’s a painted or clear coat wheel.
The coating on a painted or clear coated wheel is similar to the paint on your car, so you’re going to use similar methods to protect it. Your favorite car wax, such as Mothers® Brazilian Carnauba Cleaner Wax or Synthetic Wax, can be applied to these wheels in the same fashion as it would to the rest of the car. Now, the formulation of paints and clear coats used on most wheels is not the exact same as the body paint – there is a plasticity to it which renders it a little more resistant to road-level impacts – so if you’ve got distinct scratches, abrasions or oxidation on those wheels, reach for Mothers® Plastic Polish or PowerPlastic 4Lights® and use it like you would any polish. The durable clear coat on a wheel means you have an additional application option: try using Mothers®’ PowerBall II®, PowerBall® Mini or PowerCone® to apply the polish (and chase any polish with a proper wax).