As a soft metal, aluminum can impressively respond to polishing. Matter of fact, aluminum have the tendency to shine like chrome when cleaned and polished.
Cleaning and polishing aluminum wheels is a fulfilling task as you will feel the great reward of having a set of wheels that really looks new.
So in this article, we will tackle about how to polish aluminum wheels.
OEM vs Bare
OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) aluminum wheels prevent aluminum oxide with a protective coating on top. On the other hand, bare aluminum tend to be more prone to oxidation.
For coated aluminum wheels, you will have to utilize polishes and cleaners that are safe on coatings. While stronger aluminum polish is ideal for aluminum wheels.
Note: This article focuses only in polishing bare aluminums.
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Step 1 - Cleaning Wheels Properly
1. Get rid of brake dust and loose dirt by rinsing your aluminum wheels. You can use one of the best pressure washers to deliver a resilient stream of water.
Brake dust are small enough to infiltrate every little gaps and spaces. So make sure to rinse even behind the wheels, the brake calipers, and between spokes.
2. One wheel at a time, spray any aluminum wheel cleaner. Great examples include P21S Gel Wheel Cleaner and SONAX Wheel Cleaner Full Effect.
You can prevent spotting your wheels without sacrificing effective cleaning with these non-acidic cleaners.
3. Agitate the wheels using a SOFT-bristled wheel brush. Also, clean the barrel front to back by reaching through spokes.
Note: This step may go a little in contrary with the idea of ‘polishing’ your wheel; so you may as well as be tempted to use a stiff-bristle brush right away.
However, it’s not the right thing to do. An aggressive brush can actually scratch the aluminum resulting to a harder work in removing them with a mere polish.
You can try a brush that can fit both wide and narrow crevices and features a flexible stem.
It is ideal use soft bristles to avoid scratching the wheel finish while effectively loosing grime and brake dust.
4. Keep the wheel wet while you are working with the brush. The water can keep the wheel lubricated so as to avoid scratches while cleaning.
At the same time, consistent water flow can help in loosing grime. Further, you can expect spots in the finish if you let a wheel cleaner dry on the wheel.
5. Brake dust can hide almost everywhere, even in the lug nuts. So spend time cleaning the lug nuts. You can use any lug nut brush to access around and inside the lug nut holes.
6. Clean the fender wells, popularly known as the wheel wells. Large volume of mud and dirt are evident in the wheel wells as the tires roll.
Remember, agitating the wheels will also need something sturdy. So this time, use a stiff-bristled brush with a long handle and tackle the fender wells.
Note: Stiff-bristles for wheel wells. Soft-bristles for the wheels.
7. After cleaning the entirety of a single wheel, start rinsing it. Make sure the water goes every part of the wheel, the wheel well, between the spokes, and the lug nut holes.
8. Let the wheels dry. You can use a microfiber towel to gently get rid of residual brake dust.
Use the same towel to remove water spots around the aluminum part of your wheels. Water sports are unattractive and deprive your wheels of the right shine.
Note: Do not use the towel in other applications. Use it exclusively for your wheels to avoid cross-contamination.
9. Make sure no more brake dust are left settling in any part of your wheels.
It’s highly advisable to wash your wheels first before cleaning the rest of your car. That way you can inhibit the brake dust from splashing onto a clean car body.
Step 2 - Claying Aluminum Wheels
Clay is the best way to remove embedded contamination on your wheels.
Although aluminum is typically more durable than painted or clear coated wheels, there could still be miniscule contaminants that can pierce the metallic surface.
Not even your vehicle’s body is spared from the tiny impurities that could stick to the surface.
This is what makes claying an important step in polishing your wheels. Here are the steps in claying aluminum wheels.
1. Spray your wheels with a slippery clay lubricant.
2. Get a clay bar and take only a quarter portion of it. Flatten the clay using your fingers into a patty-like shape.
It is ideal to use a quarter per wheel so you have the whole bar for your whole wheel set.
3. Start rubbing the clay over the wheel. Make sure you tackle between the spokes and all the area having black or pitting spots.
4. When the clay starts to get soiled from rubbing, fold the portion to reveal a clean, unused side, then rub the remaining part of the wheel.
5. Proceed with another quarter for another wheel, and so on, until all wheels are clayed.
6. Now use a quick detailer or a clay lubricant to take away clay residues on all four wheels. Use the same material to wipe the wheels clean.
7. Make sure to take care of a wheel equally as you did on the others. This is to achieve the same results for the set.
Note: The Griot’s Garage Wheel Cleaning Clay is the ideal material for claying your wheels.
It has a clearly labeled jar that keeps you from confusing it with a regular detail clay used on paint. It is important to avoid cross-contamination so avoid mixing them up.
Step 3 - Wheel Polishing
For aluminum wheels, you need something stronger to effectively remove aluminum oxide.
Coated aluminum alloy have protections against rust and tarnish, while bare aluminums do not.
This is the reason why it’s important to use polishes formulated to remove oxidation. So here’s how you can polish your aluminum wheels
1. Get the right materials for the job.
- Lightweight rotary polisher
- 5/8" thread quick-release adaptor (to connect the pads to the polisher)
- Wolfgang Finger Pocket
- Aluminum Compound
- Fine Aluminum Polish
- Ultra-fine Aluminum Polish
- Wool Pads
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Note: If thick oxidation is present, use a metal cleaner that is highly effective even on heavily oxidized wheels.
However, this one is not a replacement for the actual polishing material you will use later. You can have it prepared along with other needed tools.
2. Spray the wheel with the metal cleaner and let it sit for about 10 minutes. When necessary, agitate the wheel surface with a brush.
3. Rinse the wheel with water and let it dry.
4. Apply the aluminum compound on the first wheel.
5. Now use your polisher attached with the medium cut wool pad. Begin with a slow RPM as you spread the polish throughout the wheel.
Progressively increase the polisher speed up to 3000 RPM and maintain contact with all possible surface areas until the polish begins to lessen.
6. Grab another microfiber towel, not the one you used previously, and wipe the wheel all throughout.
7. Use the fine aluminum polish. Spread the polish using microfiber applicator pad or a foam.
Note: Just like the process of painting, polishing also starts with an aggressive polish before you can apply a lighter polish. This is to ensure maximum shine refinement.
8. Attach the finishing wool pad on the drill. Now polish the wheel starting with a slow RPM.
Progressively increase the speed up to 3000 RPM and make sure to keep contact to all possible areas.
9. Now grab a microfiber towel and wipe the wheel clean. At this point, your wheel should now shine greatly.
10. If not entirely satisfied, polish the wheel again with the fine aluminum polish.
11. You can skip step 12 and 13 if you are already pleased with the shine, and head straight to step 14. However, there are still more optional things to do.
If you want to go for the extra mile and wants to aim for a mirror shine, you can use the ultra-fine polish.
12. Wipe the ultra-fine polish using a microfiber applicator or a foam.
13. Attach a clean wool on your drill and start polishing. Just like the previous polishing techniques, start with slow RPM and progressively attain 3000 RPM.
Make sure to polish all areas until no trace of polish can be seen.
14. Now it’s time to buff the wheel. Use another piece of microfiber towel.
Note: Polish residue can get stuck in the microfiber towel. Wiping the same towel onto the surface can potentially put some polish back on the wheel.
That is why you would have to “buff” off with a new towel to prevent that from happening. You can consider this the perfectionist’s way of cleaning the wheels.
15. Do the same thing for the rest of the wheels. Your wheels should now shine bright like they never used to!
Step 4 - Waxing Aluminum Wheels
You’re not done yet. After all the hard work you’ve done to achieve that diamond shine, it would be too painful to put it all in a waste if you skip this process.
Applying wax in your aluminum wheels prevents oxidation.
Apart from that, waxing can preserve the pristine look of your wheels. They will look clean for longer and they will retain their shine more.
You can use a metal sealant to serve as a protective layer against oxidation. Works just like a car wax, it can also be used as wax sealants for your wheels.
These are wheel-specific and quite ideal for your aluminum wheels.
Simply use an applicator pad to apply the wax. After tackling all wheel areas, buff the wheel then that’s it.
Instead of scrubbing your wheels every two days, an easier approach is to reapply these products in a weekly basis. However, when you apply wax, you will only need to clean your wheels with water!
You can simply rinse your wheels with water, wipe them clean, then apply the wax. Just follow the instructions on the packaging.
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The Wheel’s Enemy
After cleaning and polishing wheels, you can expect it to get dirty again after some periods of driving. The worst enemy of your wheels is the brake dust.
The brake pad produces carbon and adhesive fibers while the rotor can also generate tiny metal shavings.
The mixture of this tiny substances become highly corrosive due to the powerful friction and heat generated by the wheels.
The more you drive, the more brake dust is released, putting your wheels at risk of corrosion, stealing its shine and luster in the process.
To keep your wheels from corrosion and pitting, make it a habit to clean your wheels as regularly as possible.
Knowing how to polish aluminum wheels is yet another great knowledge you can incorporate to further enhance your do-it-yourself skills.