How to Detail Your Wheels, Tires and Wheel Wellsby Todd Cooperider
Wheels, tires and wheel well cleaning is one of the most popular detailing processes that I get asked about. Most people understand that clean wheels and properly dressed tires and wheel wells make a huge impact on the overall looks of the vehicle, but they don’t know how to get them looking that good, or how to keep them maintained after they do. I’ve spent 12-14 hours detailing vehicles and polishing the paint to perfection, only to have the owner of the car first notice how good the wheels look. “Oh my, look how nice the wheels are! How do I keep them looking that way?”
If your wheels have been neglected and they look almost black from the build up of break dust and grime all over them, you’ll need to put in a bit of work in order to bring them back to life, but after that it will just be a matter of simple maintenance during your normal washing process to keep them looking in top shape.
The majority of the build up on your wheels (especially on the inside) is from brake dust. This is a by-product of the braking process, and if left un-treated over a period of time, the corrosive qualities of it can permanently damage the finish of the wheels. You will also notice that your front wheels look worse than the back because most of your braking power is at the front, and typically you have larger brakes up there which will also generate more dust.
So regular cleaning and maintenance of your wheels not only makes them look much better, but it will prevent damage and keep them in great shape for many years to come.
Here are a few examples of wheels that have gone too long between proper cleaning (if any!).
First let’s tackle those wheels that have been neglected for a while. The process isn’t much different from regular maintenance cleaning, and most of the tools required are the same.
One thing to keep in mind for wheel cleaning is that you always want to start the car washing process with the wheels first. The reason we do this is because the wheels are typically the dirtiest parts of the car, and we don’t want to risk overspray from the wheels getting all over a clean painted surface.
Make sure that you have a dedicated bucket and wash media strictly for wheels! Never use your wheel washing materials on painted surfaces. Ever! There are too many abrasive contaminants on the wheels, and if you were to use it on the paint afterwards, you’ll most likely damage the finish (that’s one way swirls are caused, but we’ll get to that in another article).
Tools and products you’ll need:
- A dedicated bucket, ideally with a Grit Guard Insert
- Automotive shampoo (you can use the same brand as you use for the rest of the vehicle)
- E-Z Detail Large brush (a must have!)
- E-Z Detail Mini brush for calipers and hard to reach areas (not a necessity, but it will make your life easier, especially if you have large brakes and a tight clearance between your calipers and rims)
- A dedicated wheel wash mitt
- A mild wheel cleaner like P21S Wheel Gel or Chemical Guys Sticky Gel Citrus Wheel Cleaner
- A tar remover such as Stoner Tarminator. Chances are good that you have tar and rubber built up on your rims (inside and out) that is hiding underneath all of the brake dust.
- A cleaner for your tires and wheel wells. You can use a milder cleaner like P21S Total Auto Wash or a more aggressive one like Optimum Power Clean.
- If you really want to kick it up a notch, then you could also polish your wheels as well. Most wheels are clearcoated just like painted surfaces, so I’d recommend a product like Klasse All-In-One (multi-purpose product for many uses on the car and in the home) or Optimum Poli-Seal. If you have bare metal wheels, then you could use a product like Optimum Metal Polish or Chemical Guys MetalWax.
- For long lasting protection, you could apply a durable sealant to the wheels to make maintenance cleanings much easier. I would recommend either Optimum Opti-Seal or Poorboy’s Wheel Sealant.
- Tire dressing. Using a water based dressing will nourish the rubber, and it won’t sling or feel tacky like most silicone based dressings. For a nice matte finish I prefer Optimum Opti-Bond tire gel, or for a shinier finish I like Blackfire’s Long Lasting Tire Gel
- Wheel well dressing. The plastic in the wheel well area usually looks bad, so you should dress them up with the appropriate product. I haven’t found a product I like better for this application than Chemical Guys Fade 2 Black. It’s easy to use, it looks great, and it also works great in the engine bay.
How-To Detail Your Wheels, Tires and Wheel Wells
Now that you have all of your supplies together, it’s time to get to work!
First put all of your brushes and wash mitt in a bucket, add your auto shampoo, and fill it up.
Now you want to use a strong stream of water to rinse off the wheels, wheel wells, and tires to get as much dirt and debris off as possible. In order to help with time management, I always work on one side of the car (two wheels) at a time. After rinsing, take your P21S Wheel Gel and coat the wheels inside and out (remember, we’re doing a front and a back right now on one side). Let that dwell for a while to allow it to loosen the grime and brake dust. While it is dwelling, take your tire/wheel well cleaner and spray onto the appropriate areas. You can usually clean these areas right away using your brush (or sponge, or whatever fits in best with the area).
Here you can see that I’ve sprayed the P21S Wheel Gel onto the wheels, and I am letting it dwell to break down all of the grime, brake dust, and other contaminants.
Now you’re ready to clean the inside of the wheels. Here’s a helpful hint: Take your E-Z Detail brush, and bend it at a 90 degree angle so you can access the back of the spokes.
Use the brush to scrub the entire inner area of the wheel including the back of the spokes.
Here’s another important safety tip: After you have cleaned the wheel, always rinse out the brush (or sponge or rag) with the hose before putting it back into the bucket. You do not want to introduce dirt into your clean bucket. When you’re finished with all of your wheels, your wash bucket should be as clean inside as when you started.
If you have tighter areas to get to, use your Mini E-Z Detail brush to clean them. This is a great tool for cleaning the brake calipers too.
Now that the insides of the wheels are clean, use your wash mitt to thoroughly clean the face of the rims. Be sure to get the lug nuts and valve stem as well.
Once you’ve rinsed everything off, take a closer look at the wheels to see if they require additional steps. If you’ve got tar and rubber, use the Stoner’s Tarminator to remove it. If you’ve got other heavy deposits on the wheels, you may need to use detailer’s clay and a proper lubricant to remove them from the surfaces.
Next you will want to wash and dry your vehicle. Once you’ve finished cleaning and drying the vehicle, you can now do your finishing touches. If you’ve got water spots or a dull finish, now would be the time to polish the wheels (by hand is fine if you don’t have a machine for the job). Just be sure not to use a metal polish if you have clearcoated wheels. If you’re not sure, then just use a regular clearcoat-safe polish and you can’t go wrong. It’s nice to use products like Klasse All-In-One or Optimum Poli-Seal at this time because you can also use it on other metal trim or badges on the vehicle at the same time.
If you have a sealant like Optimum Opti-Seal or Poorboy’s Wheel Sealant, apply it now as directed to give your wheels a finished look, and to provide months of protection.
Dress your wheel wells with Chemical Guys Fade 2 Black. It’s a very simple aerosol spray, and a little goes a long way. Just be careful not to get overspray on the painted surfaces to avoid any residue on your freshly cleaned paint.
Finally you can apply your tire dressing of choice. Use a thin application and spread it evenly. If it’s been a while, you may need to apply multiple coats. Don’t forget to move the car a bit afterwards and apply dressing to the edge of the tires that were on the ground that you couldn’t reach before. If you don’t do this, you’ll have about a 3″ strip of non-treated tire!
Now your wheels, tires, and wheel wells are clean, protected, and dressed professionally. As a part of your regular car washing routine you can use the same basic methods as above, but you won’t necessarily need to use the wheel gel, polish, or sealant. Your regular car shampoo (in your wheel cleaning bucket) along with your E-Z Detail brush should clean it right up.
Wheel cleaning is easy (although a bit messy at times), but with a little practice you’ll be able to do it relatively quickly. Your vehicle will also have a much nicer and more professional appearance.
Finished Wheel Photos
Check out the Esoteric Wheel Care Kit to tackle your wheels, tires and wheel wells like a top pro detailer too!
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Very Nice information Todd!
Lately i did receive some samples from Croftgate and they did impress me very well
and gave me at first glance about the same results as the products you did use in your review.
I am looking forward to warmer weather to get some of the products you use to give them a try
on my vehicle. As for the rims, I am using Rejex with a great degree of satisfaction and I am
still in love with it, the Rejex I did use on the CC as well and it really did shine up my car and
for a white car it is not as easy to achieve that kind of gloss, however, the “Secret” is all
in the preparation as it is with all color cars.
Thanks for the great review!
I have been reading a lot of your articles, and I first want to thank you for sharing all your detailed processes.
One idea that crossed my mind when reading this article is the use of only one bucket. As you state, the wheels/tires are usually the dirtiest part of the vehicle. I would think it would make the most sense to use a 2 bucket method here. Even then, I believe the 2×4 would be optimal at this step. You obviously have more experience then I, but would think that the wheels/tires attract more debris than the car. Even though the car has more surface area, the tires directly touch the road. From this day on, I will personally use the two bucket method when cleaning/detailing wheels and tires.
Also, are the grit guards interchangeable between “wheel/tire” and “paint” buckets. Would a cleaning with automotive shampoo be adequate to thoroughly clean them?
Thank you in advance.
You’re thinking about preventing the contamination of the water…very good!
For one, I use a Grit Guard in my wheel bucket also. And I thoroughly rinse out each wheel cleaning tool (brush, sponge, other) with the hose after each wheel, and before placing them back into the wheel cleaning bucket so I’m keeping the water as clean as possible. Some people also use the two bucket method with Grit Guards on the wheels, which is completely acceptable.
I have dedicated Grit Guards and buckets specifically for the wheels, but you could use the same Grit Guards as long as you clean them thoroughly between uses. If I were to do that, I’d probably use my APC to make sure it was completely clean.
Thanks for reading!
I’m seeking some advise from the master (a.k.a you)
If you were to use a polish (Optimum Poli-Seal and Poor Boy’s wheel sealant), so you apply these by hand or with a buffer (and if so, which type of pad)?
I don’t know about “master”, but I’ll try…
When working with wheels, I pretty much always do it by hand simply because most wheels are very difficult to do by machine. I’d just use a Lake Country Red Foam Applicator Pad for these…
this stuff works great on wheels! unfortunately it ate the clear coat off of my red brakes. i have an aftermarket big brake kit of a reputable brand and by the time i was done washing, my wash mitt was stained red. the calipers are now very dull. stay well clear of this stuff if you have aftermarket brakes.
Any suggestion on removing water stains from volk gts wheels with anodized finished lips
If they’re water spots, you can try using a 50/50 mix of vinegar and distilled water. If that doesn’t work, you may need to try a fine polish by hand. Also check out this article on removing water spots.
I have Mercedes AMG wheels . On the lug nuts their is rust . (orange color) that will not seem to come off. Anything I can use on them to remove th rust.
Chances are that any rust removed on lug nuts will come back right away. After they’ve been removed a few times, particularly when using impact wrenches, they’ll get beat up enough to allow rust to start. If you really want to solve the problem, get new lug nuts and make sure that when they’re installed / removed in the future, they do not use impact drivers as most are set too high and slightly damage the surface of the lugs…thus causing rust in the future.
In your article, you sprayed Fade 2 Black on the wheel wells. Did you clean them first? Or did you only use Fade to Black? Thanks for your time 🙂
I too would like to know if/how you cleaned the wheel-wells?
I bought my daughters a pretty nice 97 RAV4. Trouble is the wheels (stock issue) have been neglected. I’ve had some success cleaning the black off using an Eagle product but the are clearly not yet anywheres near where I want them. I noticed you mention examples of such wheels in your article saying some are damaged. So a few questions. I can only assume P21S is better (maybe much better) than Eagle or Mothers or anything I can buy at Auto Zone. Yet you refer to it as a mild cleaner. If it doesn’t work, is there something stronger.? Which leads to the question at what point will I not be able to clean them – and then what do I do short of buying new wheels?
Also, most tire dressing I’ve used leave a shiny finish to the tire. I like the dark rubber look but not the shine. What product(s) would you recommend?
Thanks in advance.
You may want to look into Sonax Full Effect Wheel Cleaner as it is stronger for neglected wheels like you’re dealing with. And for the most part, you’re not going to get the “good stuff” at your local auto parts stores. If after several cleanings they still seem to have a lot of etching and staining, then you can look into wheel refinishing…most larger cities have at least one local company specializing in this. For tire care, you could look into something like Tuf Shine Tire Shine.
When using your Microfiber Mop Tool on windows
When you spray windex or whatever does using this tool do the entire cleaning process by rubbing it till dry
I am a big P21s Wheel Cleaner fan myself but I am thinking about using the SONAX Full Effect Wheel cleaner and following it up with the Chemical Guys JetSeal 109. It looks like SONAX is the right choice to have the cleanest wheel possible before applying sealant. After I apply the sealant, will SONAX remove the JetSeal 109 on the next use, or should I use P21s for regular maintenance?
I’m no longer sure the place you are getting your information, but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or figuring out more. Thanks for wonderful information I was searching for this information for my mission.
It’s the best time to make a few plans for the longer term and it’s time to be happy. I have read this publish and if I may just I wish to counsel you few interesting issues or advice. Maybe you can write next articles referring to this article. I desire to learn more things about it!
Hi Todd, So I have a problem with my wheels and fear that the solution may be to buy new wheels. I got my car used with aftermarket wheels, and the previous owner didn’t take very good care of them. The chrome finish on the inside of the wheel has started to lift up in places and as I clean them has pulled off almost to the face (i am much more careful now that I have noticed it). Haven’t been able to find any info on this, but thought I might try your knowledge before I go out and buy a new set. Thanks!
Hi, good information and thanks for providing it. A wheel well question for you. My 2012 Mercedes E-class wheel wells are not the typical plastic but a carpet like, fibrous type material. They are great at holding dirt. Will the Fade-to-Black work on that type of wheel well material?
Great informative blog which will help a lot in order to maintain my wheels. i was searching for some relevant information regarding the same matter and then i find my path here. Great work and now i will read more blogs in this circle.
Great article! I really appreciate how detailed you were with the instructions. I have a 2012 Dodge Challenger on 22’s and I can’t get the wheels clean like I want. I will definitely use this information thanks.
Todd, when you apply your wheel dressing, do you use a rag? I hate spending the time to clean my wheels, only to get tire dressing all over the outside edges of the wheel by spraying. I did find that a flap from a cardboard box works well if I’m spraying. Cut off the flap, then pull it over the edge of a table to break down the “spine” inside corrugated flaps. You can then hold it so the edge of the flap fits between the rim and sidewall where the wheel meets the tire. Eagle One or Meguiars USED to have protectors that you held in place, but the last time I checked they only had them for 14 and 15 inch wheels.
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