Auto Laundry News - April 2013

IDA Certification — Study Guide: Wheels and Tires

By Prentice St. Clair

Last month, I took a break from the study guide series to provide a summary of the events at January’s Mobile Tech Expo. This month, let’s get right back into the series and talk about the care of wheels and tires.

The International Detailing Association offers its Certified Detailer program to both members of the Association as well as non-members. The program currently consists of 10 tests that assess the taker’s background knowledge of detailing. This month’s column is one in an on-again, off-again series that is designed to present a study guide for those who are interested in taking the tests. Get more information or sign up for the tests at

I believe that many of us will agree that the appearance of the wheels and tires can go a long way to make or break the overall appearance of the vehicle. Excessively dirty wheels can definitely make a car look unkempt. Normal accumulation of dirt on wheels that might occur between car washes may not necessarily make a car look bad; but freshly-detailed sparkling wheels and well-dressed tires can really help to make a car stand out as clean.


To make sure we are all speaking the same language, here are some generally accepted definitions of tires and wheels. I realize there may be some regional differences, and that some of you may think this is a bit silly, but it’s a necessary evil to cover this material. With apologies to those folks, here goes:

The “wheel” is the metal hub that is bolted onto the axle. The “tire” is the hollow ring of rubber placed on the wheel to provide traction and ride comfort. A “wheel cover” is a decorative plastic (usually) disk that snaps or bolts onto and covers the entire face of the wheel. Wheel covers are typically used over plain steel wheels. A hubcap is technically the small cover that pops onto the center of the wheel and covers the greasy end of the axle; some folks interchange the words “hubcap” and “wheel.”

A “rim” is more of a colloquial term that often refers to expensive aftermarket replacement wheels. A “trim ring” is a 1”- to 2”-wide decorative aluminum or polished steel ring that clips on the outermost part of a wheel. “White walls” are tires with the white stripe-ring on the face of the tire. “Raised white lettered” tires have just that on the face of the tire.


Most exposed factory-installed wheels are a magnesium alloy coated with a base-coat/clear-coat paint system — typically silver in color. Very few original equipment manufacturer (OEM) wheels are aluminum or chrome. The aluminum ones are typically coated with clear paint. Most OEM wheels that come with wheel covers are made of plain steel, hence the need to cover them with something more appealing. Often these wheel covers are plastic and painted with single-stage silver or two-stage base coat and clear. I have also seen some chrome-plated plastic wheel covers that give the wheels the appearance of more expensive chrome rims.

So, hopefully you can see from the above paragraph that the surface of the vast majority of wheels that you might be dealing with is quite simply paint. In fact, this paint is very similar to the paint that is on the body panels of the car. The other kind of wheel surface that you might have to deal with is bare metal, like chrome or aluminum.

Bare aluminum wheels are becoming less common, because coating them with clear paint is a popular treatment that eliminates the regular polishing that is required to keep bare aluminum wheels shiny. So, how do you tell if an aluminum wheel is coated or not? Rub it gently with a towel and a dollop of your favorite aluminum polish. If the polish turns black, you are dealing with bare aluminum. If the polish stays its original color, you are likely dealing with an aluminum wheel that is coated with some kind of clear paint.


Cleaning wheels is part of the detail and wash process. If the wheels are hot, it is recommended that they be cooled off with a mist of water before cleaning or applying any type of cleaning chemical. This will help avoid etching that could occur when the chemical hits the hot wheel surface.

Normal wheel cleaning, like weekly washing, can be accomplished with car wash soap and a soft-bristled brush or a dedicated wash mitt. If there is a heavier concentration of brake dust, spraying on a mild solution of all-purpose cleaner may help before scrubbing with that brush.

The best way to avoid caked-on brake dust or etching of brake particles into the wheel surface is by removing the brake dust with regular washing. Applying standard wax to painted wheels will also help to keep the brake dust from sticking. I include, at a minimum, with all my detail and wash jobs, a spray-and-wipe of the wheels with my favorite spray wax. You can also use regular wax or sealant that you might use on the painted panels of the car. Additionally, there are “wheel wax” products designed especially for use on painted wheels.

Bare aluminum wheels can be shined up using aluminum polish (or your favorite one-step cleaner-wax in a pinch). Likewise, chrome wheels can be polished using chrome polish. Either of these types of wheels can be spiffed up between polishings with spray wax.


We’ve all had that car that comes in that is several years old and it is obvious that the wheels have never been properly cleaned. Or there are those makes of vehicles that are just notorious for excessive brake dust. In these cases, it is likely that the normal cleaning mentioned above will not be sufficient to remove the caked-on and, in some cases, etched-in brake dust.

Start by trying your favorite all-purpose cleaner on the wheels. If this doesn’t work completely, you can try compound or polish that you normally use on the painted panels of the vehicle. This will require lots of agitation, however, with small brushes or scrub sponges. This is a safer method, both for the wheel and the person, but it takes a lot of time and energy. Some time can be saved by using a small polishing wheel attached to an electric drill or similar appliance, but it is still likely to be necessary to scrub the corners of the wheel “spokes” by hand.

A faster way to deal with heavy brake dust is to use a wheel cleaner containing hydrofluoric acid. This acid loosens
the brake dust on contact with no dwell time needed. Certainly don’t let the acid dry on the wheel. Safe use of this type of cleaner requires that the wheel be cool. More importantly, the technician using this chemical should be trained on its proper use. The technician must also be outfitted in proper protective gear — safety glasses, gloves, and apron.

The wheel acid should be properly diluted according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. It can then be spray-ed onto the wheel. Sometimes a quick follow with a pressure washer is all that’s needed, but some initial agitation might be necessary first.

An important part of the procedure in using wheel acid is to follow-up the acid treatment with a chemical that will neutralize any remaining acid. Simply rinsing off the acid is not enough. So, after the acid has been rinsed off, spray the wheel with an alkaline all-purpose cleaner (which most of them are), let it sit for a minute or two, then rinse it off.


Like all surfaces on the vehicle, the rubber tires need cleaning and protection. Clean the tires by spraying all-purpose cleaner on them and allowing it to dwell for a moment, without drying. Then scrub the tire with a stiff or soft brush, whichever you prefer. Whitewalls or raised white lettering might need an extra cleaning step by spraying them again with all-purpose cleaner and scrubbing with a scrub sponge or bug sponge. Tires that have been properly cleaned look better and tend to hold tire dressing better, thus reducing sling.

Tires that have been properly cleaned will have an even black, but dull appearance. To make them look “new,” most technicians like to dress the tire with an appropriate dressing made for use on rubber. The dressing can be sprayed, wiped, or brushed on. However, keep in mind that using too much dressing can also cause sling, which is the spitting of excess tire dressing onto the sides of the vehicle as it drives away.

Wiping or brushing the tire dressing onto the tire seems to use less than spraying, thus reducing sling. Another way to reduce sling is to wipe the tire with a utility towel after the dressing has had some time to soak in. This final wipe will take off the excess dressing that might remain, leaving the tire with a natural satin sheen (instead of a fake shiny sheen).


I imagine there are a few of you reading this article who might be thinking, “Gee, I didn’t think that care of tires and wheels was all that complicated until I read this.” If that’s true, then I have accomplished my goal. More “study guides” to follow in future months — keep reading.

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail or call (619) 701-1100.


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