Cleaning Your Wheels
The first step of the detailing process is to clean the wheels since they are usually the dirtiest part of the car. They must be cleaned often because the heated dust particles from brake pads bombard the wheels and bake into the finish. If left on the wheel, a phenomenon known as "galvanic corrosion" sets in, which will eventually pit and destroy the wheel's appearance. Just remember that a dirty wheel attracts dirt. So the best time to take care of your wheels is when they are new. I always recommend taking off new wheels and protecting them with a paint sealant to our detailing customers.
First and foremost, you must know what type of wheels you have. They could be OEM or aftermarket wheels with a painted (or just clear-coated), chromed, polished, anodized, powder coated or plastic covers (let's hope not!) finish. Pretty much most of today's OEM wheels are clear-coated with polyurethane enamel. The coating is very similar to the clear-coat on your paint except it is usually thicker. Its purpose is to protect the wheel and to make brake dust removal easier.
The next step is to choose an appropriate cleaner to do the job for your specific wheels. Unfortunately, in most cases car wash soaps and general-purpose cleaners are not strong enough to dissolve the bond between brake dust and wheel. There are two types of wheel cleaners: acid and non-acid (alkaline). Although we will use our own proprietary blends of cleaners in our DyNA Wheel Shampoo™, you can pick out an acceptable one at your local auto store or through a mail order house. A safe all-purpose wheel cleaner will have a pH of 8.5-9.5 (7.0 is neutral, while < 7.0 is acidic). Always read the instruction label to make sure the product is compatible with your wheel finish. I strongly recommend avoiding acid or caustic (high pH) cleaners; they pose health risks as well as possible wheel damage. Also, do not use acid cleaners on older wheels where the finish (clear coat) is pitted or flaking. It tends to migrate under the clear coat and lift it. And by the way, in all my years of detailing and trying dozens of cleaners, I realized that there is no such thing as a "no-touch" wheel cleaner. If there were, they would not be making wheel brushes anymore.
The final step is to choose the right tools - wheel brushes, spoke brushes and toothbrushes. I prefer to use brushes with the soft tampico natural bristles and wood/plastic handles. I do not use any steel wool and recommend you don't either, although you may see many car washes and detailers use it. The reason they use it is simple; to save time - but at the risk of sacrificing the integrity of the clear-coat.
Now that we have the chemicals, tools and basic knowledge, let's go through the steps you will be taking to clean your wheels:
1. Hose off the wheels and the wheel wells with a strong stream of cool water to wash off as much dirt and dust as possible (a pressure washer is useful, but with no more than 1200 psi), and more importantly, to cool off the wheel. Never apply the cleaner to a hot or dry wheel. (Note: If you have just returned from finding out how much horse-power that chip or supercharger added to your car and your brake discs are glowing from the braking, let them air cool first before hosing them off or you will risk cracking the wheel's clear-coat).
2. Apply the wheel cleaner to one wheel at a time. Allow the cleaner to dwell, per the instructions, but do not let it dry.
3. Scrub the flat surface of the wheel using your wheel brush wet with water and get the bristles into as many recessed areas as possible.
4. Use the spoke brush wet with water to clean the deeply recessed areas of the wheel. Do not use a brush with an exposed metal tip; one sudden slip could permanently gouge the delicate clear-coat or polished metal. Rinse the wheel with clean water. If there is still brake dust in the recessed areas, it's time to whip out that toothbrush.
5. If some road tar still remains, use a liquid bug and tar solvent. Allow it to dwell and then wipe off and buff with a soft clean towel or microfiber. Re-wash area with the wheel cleaner.
6. Now rotate the wheels 180 degrees and repeat the procedure.
7. Follow up with a light coat of synthetic paint sealant which will provide a sacrificial protective layer against the brake dust and make it easier to clean the wheels in the future. Similar to your car's paint, you don't need this step on every wheel wash but a mist of DyNA Liquid Gloss™ (or equivalent instant detailer with sealant in it) will prolong the protection in between waxing. Carnauba wax isn't preferable since it will not last as long and will melt at high heat.
Congratulations! You now have clean wheels. I recommend you clean your wheels at least weekly and stay away from automatic car washes. Most have hard silicon carbide rotating brushes to clean tires and white walls. These brushes, the accompanying corrosive chemicals and the tracks used to guide the vehicle can instantly cause permanent wheel damage. A high-quality car wash should always offer hand washing (that's without the tracks). If this service is not available, locate a reliable detailer or do it yourself if you are comfortable with the procedure.