Ask-A-Pro: How-to Clean and Care for Billet AKA Mag Wheels?by Marc Harris & Jacob Bunyan
This write-up comes in response to a question recently asked to our Ask A Pro staff.
I love reading all the articles on your website. One thing I was looking for, but didn’t see, is a detailed write-up on how to clean and protect billet wheels. The billet is so soft and the wheels are so big that they are one of my biggest problem areas and I hate doing them because I have to be so careful and because they take so much time. Any chance you can do a write up on billet wheels?
Thanks for your time and thanks for the great website.
First and foremost thanks for your continued interest and support! It’s great to be part of something made to help fellow car enthusiasts as a big car enthusiast myself. Hopefully I can give you a few tips to get your wheels looking better than ever while maintaining that look for as long as possible.
As you and other readers have likely noticed; very few vehicles today have “Mag” wheels. This wheel type was popular in the muscle car era due to their increased strength, reduced weight, and affordable pricing. Magnesium (hence the “Mag” name) wheels usually came uncoated, and required constant polishing to keep looking great. Fast forward to today, and most, if not all, wheels are alloys and coated with some type of plating, plastic/urethane, or paint/powdercoat (even the Magnesium ones). Even if you or other readers believe the art of polishing bare metal has been lost, don’t worry: special polishes for these wheels are still easily available. With a little elbow grease and decent polishes, your old school wheels will look as good as new.
The disclaimer: polish at your own risk. Any polish, ANY, can impart damage to a painted area of a wheel if not used properly. The same goes for cleaners. If your wheels are unique or valuable, take them to a professional. Don’t ruin wheels worth thousands of dollars to try to save a few hundred bucks.
AutoLavish Presents: How to Clean and Care for Billet AKA Mag Wheels
As with cleaning or detailing any surface, start by determining the type and material you’ll be working on. When you’re shopping online to purchase your polish and cleaners you will find an array of options. Break them down by wheel material and choose from the ones that will be safe for your wheel type and style. You will need wheel cleaner, a metal cleaner and a metal polish: wheel cleaner to remove grease, soil, and brake dust, metal cleaner to further rid the surface of contamination, and a polish to remove the oxidation while finessing the finish.
It is MUCH easier to clean and polish the entire wheel if the wheels are dismounted from the vehicle. Make sure the wheel surface does not touch the ground. Use some thick blankets or towels to cushion the wheels and protect them from the hard surface they’ll be laying on, and to protect the surface from your metal wheels as well. If you only need to polish the wheel face, it might be easier to do with the wheels mounted on the vehicle (assuming your lower back is strong enough!).
Step 1: Removing loose soil and brake dust
Use a cleaner specific to your wheel type if possible. Of course, P21S Wheel Cleaner Gel is safe to use on any wheel, as is Chemical Guy’s Diablo Gel (one of the reasons these are popular products). Do not use an All Purpose Cleaner for uncoated wheels as this may chemically etch the surface. Although one or two uses may not damage the wheel right away, it may do long-term damage you will only see after time to this type of wheel. We always play it safe, and would encourage you to do the same. In the place of an All Purpose type of cleaner, get the best wheel cleaner in your budget and use it sparingly. Better directions on this step can be seen in Todd Cooperider’s article on cleaning wheels.
Step 2: Removing stubborn grime
Once the normal brake dust and general grime have been flushed from the wheel, you’ll likely find the wheel surface to still look dull, and may have some more stubborn marks you’ll need to deal with. P21S Metal Polishing Soap is an excellent choice. It is aggressive enough to thoroughly clean, but gentle enough to not cause irreversible damage.
Step 3: Polish to a high shine
To polish, take a foam, terry, or microfiber applicator and dab the polish, similar to dabbing the applicator when waxing your finish. Now, take the applicator and start to rub the polish into the wheel material. Work on a small portion, one at a time. As with other expensive things relating to your car: take your time. Do it right and you’ll only have to do it once. Hand polishing will require some force behind the applicator as well as speed: polishing is a mechanical process, not a chemical one. The polish needs a work input to function, whereas a chemical (like wheel cleaners) need just time to make a dramatic difference.
Start with the least aggressive polish first, and see if it is enough to clear up your defects. If the results are not good enough, progress to more aggressive polishes as required. Do a test section on the backside of a spoke (least visible part of the wheel) if need be. P21S Finish Restorer can yield very nice results for this purpose as can Optimum Metal Polish.
The polish does not have to dwell or dry on the surface. It should be wiped off immediately and before applying more polish. Use an all-purpose microfiber (or another old one that you don’t mind using) to wipe off the excess and used polish. Many polishes tarnish or turn dark as they pick up contaminants and oxidation from the surface. This is normal and a sign that the polish is working. However, if you are working around a painted area, make sure the change in color is not due to paint coming off.
Here we see the difference made between the metal cleaning step on the right, against the metal polished side on the left:
Step 4: Seal
Once you are satisfied with the polishing, you will want to seal up the wheels with either a wheel wax or a sealant to protect the hard work you just put in. Wheels are not only close to the road and thus constantly being bombarded by dirt and grime; they’re also subject to high volumes of heat and brake dust which have an effect on the durability of any protective product.
Step 5: Sit back and enjoy your shine while enjoying a nice cold beverage.
This process can easily take an hour per wheel and isn’t always easy going. Just as an enthusiasts treats their own car, we at AutoLavish work to a standard – not time. There are times you may need to do each step twice to get the result you’re looking for. Mag wheels are much like black cars: the highest level of upkeep needed, but the most amazing results as well.
One down, three to go!
Thanks, and please let us know if you have any additional questions or comments.
I followed these sames steps basically on my moms HHR factory chrome wheels, it was amazing how well they turned out!
That is great to hear! This process can be used for most wheels that are not “painted”, either colored or clear-coated. Chrome is (usually) a metal deposit process, making it a perfect candidate for metal polishing. Be careful, though, as modern chrome wheels are in many cases “Chrome Clad”, meaning the chrome coating is applied on a plastic cover that is placed on the wheel, similar to a non-removeable hubcap. In these instances, the chrome coating is very thin, and there is a risk of going through the chrome with intensive polishing or repeated use.
Remember to use some wheel sealant on the wheels after polishing to keep them looking great as long as possible. Poorboy’s Wheel Sealant or Chemical Guys Metal Wax are both great products and easy to use.
Great blog! Your post can be really useful for those who want to learn more about cleaning mag wheels