Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Wheel and tire care

October 11, 2010
We’ve all seen them: specialty wheels and low profile tires. They’re showing up on sports cars, family sedans, and let’s not forget SUV’s; ranging in size from 15-inch, all the way up to 21-, and even 22-inch wheels. It’s a continued obsession the American motoring public began in the 1950’s with those shiny chrome hubcaps — and a major revenue source for your detail business.

Getting started
Before cleaning a car’s wheels and tires, it is important to note the general condition of the vehicle in question. In order to properly determine how to clean wheels, you should take a few notes:
  • Has special attention been given to keep the brake dust build-up and other contaminants to a minimum?
  • Does it look like the wheels and tires have been cleaned and maintained on a regular basis?
Cleaning specialty wheels
When working with specialty wheels, it is always a good idea to use a non-abrasive scrubbing cloth, much the same that you would use to wash the vehicle. A sheepskin mitt works well for this purpose. Using something that is soft and non-abrasive is one of the best ways to reduce any chance of scratching the surface.

It is equally important never to use anything abrasive when working with painted wheels. Just like when you are working with the painted surface of a car, the best advice is to never use anything that could either dull or scratch the painted surface of a wheel. This also applies to both chrome-plated and polished aluminum wheels.

If the wheels are in relatively good condition, clean and wash them in the same manner you would for a basic carwash. This goes for chrome, polished aluminum or painted wheels, hubcaps and beauty rims.

Many specialty wheels come in all types of shapes and sizes. It may be necessary to use small detailing brushes in order to clean some of the more involved surfaces. Just keep in mind that any detailing brushes being used should be specifically designed for cleaning wheels. Using a variety of pastry brushes will usually be all that is necessary to clean the in-between areas of most specialty wheels.

For wheels that have a bit more brake dust, you can use an all-purpose cleaner in conjunction with carwash soap. Rather than spray the wheels directly, it is much safer to apply any additional cleaners directly to your scrubbing mitt or detailing brush. This method will further reduce even the slightest chance of staining or discoloring the surface of the wheels.

Unless the wheels are in need of total reconditioning, you should stay away from using an acid-based wheel cleaner. In many cases, they can do more harm than good, especially on wheels that are in relatively good condition. It is much better to use a process where you wash, rinse and then re-wash and re-rinse as necessary, rather than get overly aggressive with the use of harsh chemicals.

By using this process you will be able to safely control the quality of the work being performed. By inspecting the work as you go, you will notice any areas missed that need re-cleaning.

In order to avoid spotting, it is equally important to thoroughly dry all surfaces of each wheel after cleaning. You will find this process to be one of the safest ways to thoroughly clean all types of automobile wheels.

At this point, a coat of carnauba wax can be applied. For anyone concerned about the melting point of the carnauba wax, choose a polymer sealant.

Tire care
Tires can usually be cleaned at the same time the wheels are cleaned. It is equally important to only work on tires when they are relatively cool. For white walls and white-lettered tires, it will be necessary to spray a bleach-type cleaner directly onto dry tires. It is very important to make sure the white wall cleaner only reaches the designated areas of the tire and no parts of the wheel.

Keep in mind that any bleach overspray getting onto the surface of the dry wheels could be damaging. A dwell time of a few minutes for the bleach cleaner to work properly is usually necessary when the white walls or white lettering is extremely soiled.

For white walls and white-lettered tires that are in relatively good condition and only need a small amount of brightening, the tires and wheels can actually be wet prior to applying the white wall cleaner. This helps to dilute any overspray that may inadvertently get onto the wheels. After a few minutes, all tires and wheels should be thoroughly rinsed.

Using a hard bristle nylon brush and tire cleaner, the white walls and raised letters can be scrubbed in order to make the surface of the sidewalls thoroughly clean. An all-purpose cleaner can be used with a brush during this scrubbing process.

Always rinse thoroughly and re-clean when necessary. It is just as important to also clean and scrub black sidewall tires. That will go a long way in removing the build-up of road dirt and excessive brake dust. The result will be a consistent, cleaner look.

Thoroughly rinse all tires and wheels after washing and don’t forget to towel dry specialty wheels.

Tire shine
Use a foam or liquid tire shine treatment to give the tires a brand new look. In most cases, rather than spraying the tire directly, it is much better to apply the tire treatment onto an applicator, using the applicator to wipe the product onto the sidewall of the tires. This keeps unwanted over-spray from reaching the surface of finished wheels, wheel-wells and polished paint.

Use an applicator instead of spraying the tires directly. The extremely small sidewall height of many of today’s low profile tires makes spraying a messier project. For added shine, apply a second coat.



Frank Canna has been in the detailing business for more than 20 years and is the owner of Mirror Finish Detailing, Williamstown, NJ. He can be reached at canna@verizon.net.