Spare Me the Details: Cleaning Your Wheels, Rims, Shoes, Dubs…

Matt Fink
by Matt Fink
spare me the details cleaning your wheels rims shoes dubs
Whatever you call them, everyone can agree that wheels need to be clean in order to look good. Whether they are the 14″ wheels that came with your new Mitsubishi Mirage, of the monster 22s that come on a Escalade, keeping your wheels clean can make or break your vehicle’s appearance.

Am I the only one who judges people that drive nice cars with really dirty wheels? I don’t mean to. Inside I know the cleanliness of your wheels doesn’t really say anything about you as a person… but I can’t help it. I think to myself, “So you can afford your lease on that M5, but somehow you don’t have 3 minutes every few weeks to wipe off the wheels? Does that mean you also don’t have time to check the tire pressure, change the oil, water your plants, feed your dog…? What’s wrong with you man! Feed your dog and give that car to someone who would appreciate it.” Never does it dawn on me that perhaps not everyone values clean wheels as much as I do. Call me shallow if you want, but when my car’s wheels are real clean it makes me happy. I swear I enjoy driving my car more when the wheels are clean, even though I obviously can’t seen them from the driver’s seat.

Nothing beats the shine of some finely polished automotive wheels. Like a new engagement ring being shown off, nice car wheels seem to accentuate every angle of light hitting the surrounding metal. Sitting still or moving on the highway, you can’t but notice them.

There are a variety of materials that wheels can come in. As with all my detailing articles, this is for the average car owner using tools that most people have at home. Since most cars come with clear coated alloy wheels today, that is what I’ll look at. If you are confident you know the material of your wheels, there are specific tools and chemicals that can be purchased for it. Just be careful, some chemicals can damage wheels when used on the wrong material. Roughcast aluminum and chrome can withstand stronger cleaners than coated, painted, or anodized wheels. The cleaner will say what it is suited for on the label. For example, Mother’s All Purpose Wheel Mist can be used on any type of wheel, but their Chrome/Wire Wheel Cleaner is not safe for coated wheels, so read carefully. If you are not sure what kind of wheels you have, use a cleaner that is safe for all wheels. I use a water based wheel cleaner from Meguiars that is safe for all wheels and also loosens dirt on tires. In general always use the least aggressive cleaners first, and preferably no chemicals at all.
So how do you know if you need to clean them? Let’s just say that when your wheels are turning the color of your tires, its time to take action. I understand we are all busy but the thing is, cleaning your wheels doesn’t have to take long at all. Once you have them clean, it is easy to wipe them off every couple weeks with a dry towel. Brake dust is from the devil, this I’m sure of. Not only does it look bad, but it is corrosive as well. This means that not only am I silently judging you when I see your dirty wheels, but you are also potentially damaging the finish on your rims. If left for too long, it can eat into the coating (if there is one) and pit the metal.
We will start by assuming you are looking at a pretty dirty set of wheels that haven’t been cleaned a while, like this set from a Boxster. In this case, I’d say just go to the nearest automatic car wash and make sure to pay extra for the wheel cleaner. Just kidding that’s a terrible idea, I just wanted to just see who was paying attention. Automatic car washes don’t do crap for your wheels. There I said it. Plus they have been known to use acid based cleaners and abrasive brushes. I recommend a first step of using an all purpose water based wheel cleaning product. Most of the major brands offer a product like this. I like to use a cleaner that works on the tires, too. Whenever you are cleaning wheels, I think you should also clean the tires and wheel wells at the same time so begin by spraying just a little water on the wheel, tire, and up into the wheel well. It is very important that you have a specific wheel cleaning sponge. The sponge can be used to clean wheels, tires, and wheel wells only. It is not worth the risk to have brake dust stuck in a sponge scratch your paint. If you don’t want to read any further I’d understand, but at least promise me you’ll get a sponge you designate as your “wheel” sponge. Thanks, it means a lot to me.

After wetting the wheel go ahead and spray the wheel, tire, and wheel well liberally with your mild cleaning product. It is important to never let the wheel cleaner dry on the wheel. Follow the instructions on the bottle, but it’s usually less than 1 minute of soaking time needed, which means you should always work on one wheel at a time.
Then scrub the wheel with your sponge. Dipping your sponge in a bucket of car wash doesn’t hurt. Make sure to get all the difference angles of the spokes. In my opinion it is not necessary to reach inside the face of the rim and clean on all wheels designs. If the spokes are far enough apart that you can easily see behind them, then it makes a big difference to clean that area though. On this Boxster example, I got my whole arm in there to clean the entire thing.

If your wheels haven’t been cleaned recently, this step may not get all the dirt/dust in the corners, but that’s ok. Leave it for now. After scrubbing the wheel, I run the sponge over the tire, then also wipe down the wheel well. This is important because you shouldn’t be cleaning any of those things with the same sponge you use on that paint later. Now spray off the wheel using the strongest setting you have on your nozzle. After each wheel, spray off the sponge to remove all the junk you just got off your wheels, especially if there was some dirt and mud in the wheel wells. Repeat for each wheel, but you’re not finished yet.Once the wheel is dry it is time to get serious. That is when I recommend using a product called Nevr-Dull. Basically it cleans and polishes metal automotive surfaces while removing brake dust, rust, and corrosion. But that doesn’t really do it justice. Lots of products make similar claims, but let me tell you that this product actually does what it says it will do. Of all the wheel polishes out there, this is the only one I have seen consistent results with. This stuff has been around since Roosevelt was in office, so it is a time tested product you can trust.

The product is cotton wadding soaked in solvents that can be used on any metal surface. Rip off a wad about the size of a cherry tomato and begin rubbing it all over the wheels. Really scrub spots where there is pitting from brake dust. With enough elbow grease, most brake dust and corrosion will come clean.
With no harmful abrasives, it’s safe too. Cover the entire face of the wheel and all the little crevices. Even parts that were already clean will be need to be wiped with the cotton. Once you do this process to each wheel, make sure you hit the exhaust pipe if you have a finished tip that can be shined. Then you wait. Depending on the weather it usually takes about 30 minutes for the product to dry to a haze.
Grab a towel and begin wiping off the haze. You may want to wear some sunglasses for this part because your wheels are going to be crazy shiny! Don’t worry about using too much Never-Dull. The can says the shelf life is about 2 years, meaning it’s really difficult to ever use up the whole can before it begins to dry out (though I have some that is older than that and still works great).
Once your wheels are clean, it is MUCH easier to maintain them. If you have 3 minutes to wipe them down with a dry towel once a week you’d be amazed at how great they will continue to look. It doesn’t always have to be this long cleaning process. Keeping wheels relatively clean on a more regular basis is much easier than trying to restore them once the brake dust has set in and the road salts and acids have taken their toll.

Nevr-Dull even adds a layer of protection for the future and can safety be used on chrome and other wheel finishes. I’ve heard of people using it clean to everything from drum cymbals to chrome valve covers.

There are lots of wheel brushes on the market, but I’ve yet to find one that I like. The ones I have tried all have metal components to them that can easily scratch wheels when you scrub hard. Other than a towel and elbow grease, the only other tool I will consider using is a soft tooth brush to get around lug nuts. I’ve heard of all kinds of crazy things used to clean wheels like aluminum foil soaked in Coke, vinegar, and lemon juice. The only real out of the box product I’ve seen work was actually oven cleaner, though I wouldn’t really recommend it (it was used as a last ditch effort to save some 25+ year old wheels that had no clear coat and years of oxidation). I’ve tried the Mother’s Polish Power Ball and similar products, and they work great, but I’ve never seen them do anything I couldn’t do myself with elbow grease. Let us know what tools you have used that work well for you. Of course there is the other option of installing brake dust shields, but I’ve never seen any that look good. Next time we’ll take a look at tire dressing.

Additional Tips:

-To do a thorough job you really need to take the wheels off the car to get to the back, but obviously that can be quite a hassle. Twice a year when I’m switching from summer to winter wheels/tires I clean them when they are off the car. This is also a good time to apply a good coat of wax.

-Despite what you have heard, don’t use steel wool on your wheels.

-You can clay bar a wheel as well, but never use the same piece of clay on a wheel as the paint.How often I do it:My car – Every 2 monthsMy wife’s car – Every 4 monthsAnother before and after to encourage you to try this on your wheels:
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2 of 61 comments
  • JMII JMII on Jul 29, 2014

    Thanks for the info, love these types of articles. Anyway here is my routine - instead of a separate sponge I got a wash glove (yes they sell them at the autoparts store), this saves your hands from getting all cut up by the darn caliper clips on your brakes, plus it allows you to reach all those tough little spots using your fingers. For cleaner I use Simple Green - spray the wheels with high pressure water to remove the lose dirt, then mist on the Simple Green, let it soak in for a bit then wipe off using the glove. When the Simple Green combines with water it should foam up a bit on it own, that is when the magic happens. If the rims are really dirty you might have to scrub a bit with the glove or mix some Simple Green in bucket and use those foamy suds to really work the dust off. Its not bad if you do it twice a month (every 2 weeks). I've tried various "wheel cleaners" and Simple Green cuts thru brake dust better then all of them. I also use Bar Keeper's friend on my exhaust tips. However my rims are aluminum, not polished, so I just wipe them down with Turtle Wax "Ice". This Ice stuff is pretty amazing, it works great on black plastic as well, its about the easiest and most flexible car "polish" I have ever used. Its not wax and will not make the car super shiny, but does add a smoothness quality to the paint that makes your car look really clean. Sorry for the infomerical but these are the products that work for me. After a day at the track your wheel really need some love! The insides of the rims will have little balls of melted rotor bits all over them due to the heat. I often wondered why people bough ugly matte gray rims (looked like primer paint too me)... then I started tracking my car and it made perfect sense - as a dark matte gray is pretty much the color your wheels become after a day of hard braking around a track.

  • Alex Mackinnon Alex Mackinnon on Jul 30, 2014

    Quite possibly the best thing I hadn't expected on my Chevy Volt is that there's almost no brake dust ever. Keeping the white rims on my old GTI is a constant pain in the ass.

  • Sayahh Is it 1974 or 1794? The article is inconsistent.
  • Laura I just buy a Hyndai Elantra SEL, and My car started to have issues with the AC dont work the air sometimes is really hot and later cold and also I heard a noice in the engine so I went to the dealer for the first service and explain what was hapenning to the AC they told me that the car was getting hot because the vent is not working I didnt know that the car was getting hot because it doesnt show nothing no sign no beep nothing I was surprise and also I notice that it needed engine oil, I think that something is wrong with this car because is a model 23 and I just got it on April only 5 months use. is this normal ? Also my daughter bought the same model and she went for a trip and the car also got hot and it didnt show up in the system she called them and they said to take the car to the dealer for a check up I think that if the cars are new they shouldnt be having this problems.
  • JamesGarfield What charging network does the Polestar use?
  • JamesGarfield Re: Getting away from union plantsAbout a dozen years or so ago, Caterpillar built a huge new engine plant, just down the road here in Seguin TX. Story has it, Caterpillar came to Seguin City council in advance, and told them their plans. Then they asked for no advanced publicity from Seguin, until announcement day. This new plant was gonna be a non-union replacement for a couple of union plants in IL and SC, and Cat didn't want to stir up union problems until the plan was set. They told Seguin, If you about blab this in advance, we'll walk. Well, Seguin kept quiet as instructed, and the plan went through, with all the usual expected tax abatements given.Plant construction began, but the Caterpillar name was conspicuously absent from anywhere on the site. Instead, the plant was described as being a collective of various contractors and suppliers for Caterpillar. Which in fact, it was. Then comes the day, with the big new plant fully operationa!, that Caterpillar comes in and announces, Hey, Yeah it's our plant, and the Caterpillar name boldly goes up on the front. All you contractor folks, welcome aboard, you're now Caterpillar employees. Then, Cat turns and announces they are closing those two union plants immediately, and will be transporting all the heavy manufacturing equipment to Seguin. None of the union workers, just the equipment. And today, the Caterpillar plant sits out there, humming away happily, making engines for the industry and good paying jobs for us. I'd call that a winner.
  • Stuki Moi What Subaru taketh away in costs, dealers will no doubt add right back in adjustments.... Fat chance Subaru will offer a sufficient supply of them.