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The Best Way to Clean your Car Rims

Updated on January 19, 2014
There are a variety of tools and chemical available for cleaning your rims, but what is the most simple and cost-effective option?
There are a variety of tools and chemical available for cleaning your rims, but what is the most simple and cost-effective option?

Nothing makes a clean car or truck look better than a sparkling set of rims and tires. But getting your rims clean can be more difficult than it sounds. In addition to the regular grit and grime from the road, rims also collect brake dust. Most brake pads are made of carbon fibers held together by an adhesive. And brake dust is a combination of those carbon fibers, metal shavings from the rotor and the adhesive. The intense friction and heat generated by application of the brakes causes the mixture to become highly corrosive and sticky.

Depending on the design of the rims, removing the brake dust and road grime safely can be a difficult and time consuming process. Using the right techniques and tool(s) for the job can make a big difference in how much time and effort are required to get your rims to shine, and keep them from getting scratched or marred in the process.

Rim and Tire Cleaning Techniques

In order to prevent over-spray and dirt from splashing onto your already clean paint, always wash your wheels and tires first. Although there are lots of harsh chemical products available for cleaning rims and tires, using a two bucket method, a soap bucket and separate rinse bucket with a grit guard in the bottom, with any brand “car wash” soap can work just as well, provided you use the right tools. Rinse all 4 rims down first to give the water a few minutes to soak in and loosen whatever dirt or grime it can. Then soap up the rims and give the soap a few minutes to break up any remaining dirt it can. Only then should the rims be “scrubbed” with a tool. It is important to use a tool that has a lot of nap (or pores), so that the metal shavings in the brake dust is pulled away from the surface where it can’t scratch the finish. This method will minimize the amount of effort needed and prevent the rims from being scratched in the process.

Wheel Cleaning Tools

There are a variety of rags, mitts, brushes and sponges available for cleaning your rims. And the design of the rims will determine the type of tool that will work best for you, for the most part at least. As a general rule, more complex rim designs will require more tools to get the grime out of all the nooks and crannies.

Cotton and microfiber rags, which are the cheapest solution, don’t do a very good job removing grime from tight places. Brake dust is very difficult to get out of most types of rags, even when laundered, and usually need to be thrown away after one or two uses; or they become saturated and abrasive and will eventually scratch your rims. The same is true of cotton and microfiber mitts.

Brushes are a popular solution and are much better at removing brake dust and grime without absorbing it. Several sizes of brush may be needed to get into all of the nooks and crannies of more detailed rim designs. However, brushes usually cost a bit more and are yet another tool that needs to be cleaned and stored as part of a car care kit. And, still don’t work as well as a sponge.

Natural Sea Wool Sponge Dirty After Cleaning Rim
Natural Sea Wool Sponge Dirty After Cleaning Rim
Natural Sea Wool Sponge Clean After a Quick Rinse
Natural Sea Wool Sponge Clean After a Quick Rinse

For the purposes of auto detailing, there are essentially two types of sponges, synthetic and natural sea sponges. Synthetic sponges are typically cut or formed into blocks and have less nap then natural sea sponges. Although they are much cheaper, they are also a lot more likely to scratch your paint or rims. Although sea sponges are often used by high-end detailers, they are not as well-known as some of the other car cleaning products. However, they work surprisingly well at removing brake dust and grime from wheels and rims, and don’t require harsh chemicals. The natural nap, softness and their ability to be compressed and pushed into all shapes of tight spaces makes them an extremely versatile tool for cleaning rims. And because the brake dust and grime from the rims can be completely rinsed out of the sponge, not only can it be reused indefinitely, but it can also be used to wash the rest of the vehicle. So only one tool is needed for washing the paint and rims, rather than the standard car cleaning kit filled with mitts, rags, brushes, etc…, so less storage space is required and it costs considerable less to buy or replace.

Rim Clean Chemicals and Soaps

There is are many different types of chemicals and soaps available for cleaning your rims ranging from harsh chemicals that left on your paint can actually damage the finish to mild soaps that are also used to clean your paint or clear coat. Harsh chemical may speed up the process somewhat, but have a greater chance of damaging the finish and any paint around the wheel you may accidentally get it on. Not only are specialized “wheel” cleaning chemicals, typically more harsh, they are also considerably more expensive. Using a mild soap, especially in combination with a natural sea sponge, removes the risk of damaging the surrounding finish and doesn’t require that you buy an additional product to clean your rims; which is much less expensive.

The Cheap and Easy Way to Clean Your Rims

Using a two bucket system with a grit guard is essential to any car wash process and cleaning your rims first eliminates the need to rewash the panels around the wheels that may get dirty while washing the wheels. And of all of the products available the natural sea sponge, used by many high end car detailers, would appear to be the most versatile and cost effective product. Using a natural sea sponge also eliminates the need for harsh chemical cleaners that can damage the finish and paint.

So cleaning the rims before the rest of the car, using a two bucket system with a grit guard, a natural sea sponge and regular car wash soap, seems to be the easiest and cheapest way to clean your rims and protect the finish of both the rims and the surrounding paint.


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      Victor Gonzalez 11 months ago

      Excelent review. I will do just that! Thanks!