Detailing - September 2006

Wheel Detailing, Part II—Follow Proper
Techniques for Perfect Wheels
By Kevin Farrell

In Part I of this article (Auto Laundry News, August 2006), we discussed in detail the choices detailers have in wheel cleaning products. We paid particular attention to the dangerous chemicals that many of these products contain and explained the hazards they present to both the wheel being cleaned and the detailer doing the cleaning. A discussion of the pH scale and two excerpts from actual Manufacturer’s Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) served to underscore the need to pay close attention to the content of wheel cleaning products, to know their effects, and to use them in strict accordance with manufacturers’ directions. That set the stage for actually getting some work done!


Selecting a wheel cleaner is just the first step in the process. Once you’ve made your choice, you still have to work efficiently — yet effectively — to get the wheels clean and move on. There are, however, right ways and wrong ways to clean wheels.

Cool and Wet
I have seen various methods detailers try in cleaning wheels, and some are not good at all. A major reason for damaged wheels is the need for “instant gratification.” Many detailers just want to spray a product on and rinse it off — and they expect to have wheels that look like new. This is one of the main reasons detailers choose extremely harsh wheel cleaners and then barely dilute them. They figure the stronger the chemical, the better the wheels will come out.

They also spray wheel cleaners on a very hot wheel. We all know that heated cleaning is better than cold cleaning, but in the case of wheels, a cool, wet wheel is what you need to begin with. The heat and dryness of a wheel will make the cleaner react far quicker and do its damage much faster. Also, because some detailers want to rush through the job, they spray all four wheels at once and let the product sit on them. This will also quickly lead to etched and damaged wheels.

Some degree of agitation is needed to release all of the brake dust on a wheel. There are many great wheel brushes available to help get into very tight areas and give the wheel a “like new” appearance. You can also choose from a selection of toothbrushes, Christmas tree brushes, wide-head wheel and tire brushes, and other brushes that will agitate the dirt and grime and help the wheel cleaner do its job. Most of these brushes have bristles that are stiff enough to remove brake dust, but soft enough not to scratch the wheel. You never want to use a brass-bristle brush or a stiff nylon brush on any wheel, regardless of how dirty it is.

To start, make sure you are wearing eye protection and gloves. This is mandatory. No matter how safe a product is said to be, you never want to run the risk of it splashing in your eyes or soaking into your skin. Allow the wheel to cool and make sure it is wet. If steam is still being emitted from the wheel, then the wheel is still too hot to spray cleaner on it.

Once the wheel has cooled enough, spray plenty of cleaner on it. Don’t be stingy. At this point you should have a very safe cleaner at a very safe dilution, so spraying more cleaner on the wheel now is actually better. It is okay to let the product dwell for about 30 seconds — but don’t let it dry. You should already have your assortment of brushes with you at this stage. Do not walk away to find the brush you need, answer the phone, or get distracted in any other way. Even a safe cleaner can eventually do damage to the wheel if you let it sit there too long.


Some wheels and some cars will pose more of a challenge than others will. Wheels with many nooks and crannies and those on cars that throw off tremendous amounts of brake dust are the hardest to clean. Many wheels these days have exposed lug nuts and the brake dust seems to embed itself inside the hole where the lug nut sits, making it very difficult to remove. Also, some wheels have a major portion of the inside of the wheel visible. If this portion is not sufficiently cleaned, the entire wheel will still look rather poor even if the outside is cleaned very well.

This is where a bit of patience is called for — along with some very specific brushes, continuous agitation, and a generous amount of wheel cleaner. Sometimes — if the customer is willing to pay for it — you can remove the wheel and really give it a thorough cleaning. By removing the wheel, you will be able to get to the back of the wheel and also deep into the lug nut cavities to remove all the brake dust. When this is done and the wheel is re-installed on the vehicle, its appearance is generally like new.

With some of the newer specific brushes available, you can make the wheel look almost as good as if you removed it and did all the extra work. For example, the small toothbrush with the tiny bristles on one end can reach deep into the lug nut cavities and brush away the brake dust. The Christmas tree brushes come in various sizes and the eyelet brush will reach deep into the back sections of the wheels. Then, use a wider brush to clean the outer surfaces and the tires.

Sometimes wheel cleaning is about choreography. It’s a constant ballet of spraying cleaner, switching brushes, keeping the wheel wet with water, and checking to see if it’s getting clean. It’s okay to spend 2, 3, or possibly even 4 minutes per wheel. However, when a wheel starts eating up 7 or 8 minutes of your time or more, additional charges have to be levied. It’s this time consumption that leads detailers to purchase the strong and dangerous wheel cleaners.


Some customers will request that you wax or polish their wheels. This should require an additional charge because of the extra labor required. While most customers are thrilled with clean wheels and all of the brake dust removed, there will be a few who want this extra step. Because most wheels are clear coated, you really don’t need special wheel polishes or waxes. You can use the polishes that you currently use to buff the cars. Unless you’re dealing with an alloy wheel, there’s no need to spend the extra money on a specific wheel-polishing product.

It’s going to be very awkward to use your buffer and large pads to polish a wheel. Some companies have produced pads specifically for this job — to better get into a wheel. Some pads are very small in diameter. Some look like big mushrooms but crush and conform to slots or holes in the wheel to get deep inside. Many can be placed on the end of a regular drill or die grinder. You can also wax the wheels in this fashion.


Wheel cleaning does not have to be such a chore if you have the correct tools. The tools just have to work safely but effectively. Wheel cleaner is the most important because it’s the most dangerous. There are wheel acids that are safe if the directions are followed and they are used with care. Accidents and expensive wheel replacements can always be avoided if you do some research first and are smart about your choices.

Treat any cleaner with extreme care regardless of its chemical makeup. Always protect yourself, read and follow directions precisely, have the right brushes available, and every wheel can look showroom new when you are done. Wheels are some of the first things customers notice on their car after a detail. It’s really not that hard to make each and every one look perfect!

Kevin Farrell owns and operates Kleen Car (, a full-service auto-detailing business located in New Milford, NJ. Kevin is also an instructor for a detailing program he developed for, and in conjunction with, BMW of North America. His background includes auto dealership experience and training through DuPont, General Motors, and I-Car.

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