Tire & Wheel Detailing
by Paul Gasparola and Angela Brown
Professional Detailers Association


Tire and wheel styles have changed so much over the years. They were a basic necessity years ago, but are now considered an integral part of an automobiles overall appearance. Plan to spend time washing wheels and all of their nooks and crannies to bring out the most brilliance. Likewise, apply tire dressings sparingly and be sure to buff away all excess to leave tires looking balanced and evenly finished.

Painted clear-coated and aluminum wheels can be permanently pitted from residue, or brake dust created by high performance brake pads. This sticky residue will etch a heated wheel if it remains on the surface for extended periods of time. Brake dust should be removed as soon as it becomes a visible black film. Because using the wrong cleaner can cause additional damage, do a little research first before you jump into cleaning. Harsh chemicals that worked well on chrome rims can cause major problems with the newer finishes.

Safer wheel cleaning also requires special brushes. Rims require a brush that is softer than you might think (if the bristles hurt your skin, then they are to stiff for a painted wheel). Do not use a brush with exposed metal. An accidental slip can permanently gouge paint or polished metal rims. You can though, clean tires and wheels wells with a slightly stiffer brush.

Even with regular washing, highly polished wheels all require a specialized product to restore lost luster. Choose a polish designed for the type of finish you are working on. Never use an abrasive chrome polish on aluminum, or a caustic aluminum polish on clear coated wheels. A clear coat is simply a non-pigmented paint. It should be cleaned with the same approach and with the same products designed for an automobiles body.

There's more to cleaning tires than you might think. Exterior rubber fades, cracks and eventually loses its mechanical properties from exposure to ultra violet (UV) light. This process is called photo-degradation. Chemicals and road pollution present another danger to synthetic and natural rubber products.

The first step to recovering the original tire luster is proper cleaning. Choose a tire cleaner, along with a white wall cleaner ( if applicable) that will remove buildup of road pollution and old dressings without damaging the tire surface in the process. BE AWARE that some tire cleaners will destroy wheels and rims. Do your homework first. Avoid brushes with a very stiff bristle. They can scratch rubber as well as the wheel.

The second step to rejuvenating natural luster is the application of a high quality rubber dressing. Choose one that's not too stick or not apt to sling off on the car when driving down the road. The key is make sure it is long lasting and will not rapidly attract road grime. Properly maintained rubber should have a rich, dark sheen and be smooth to the touch.

To the folks that remove their rims from their cars for cleaning:

Here is a tip for caring for the lug nuts. Chrome and painted lug nuts may scratch during removal and installation. To prevent this, place a piece of a heavy duty plastic freezer bag over the lug nut before applying the wrench. Start with a fresh section of plastic for each lug. The plastic will stretch but will not tear for metal to metal contact. When using a rag for protection ---- a rag will tear and thus damage the lug nut.

If you are seeing discoloring spots and staining on the lower portion of the body of the car, the most likely cause of these stains is tire dressing. Not all tire dressings, but one particular type - High petroleum solvent containing dimethyl silicones and an emulsifier. This is the type which provides a "wet", greasy finish to the tire. The components of these tire dressings break down the rubber components of the tire. The turning of the wheel will sling or deposit these residues on the body of the car. The silicone and other residual components then enter the pores of the paint and cause permanent stains, which normally can not be removed. A good body shop is the only corrective measure. To eliminate a future staining, switch to a water based polymer or poly-dimethysiloxane dressing. Some of these may contain a small percentage of petroleum distillate, but not enough to effect the composition of the tire.

Cleaned and dressed tires and wheels make a clean car look well maintained, highly detailed, and sharp. Studies show that tires are among the first things people look at after a detail job. There is an art to cleaning tires and wheels. Follow these instructions for the "can't miss" detailing job.

There's more to cleaning tires and wheels then one might think. Exposure to ultra-violet (UV) light causes exterior rubber to fade, crack and eventually lose its mechanical properties. This process is called photo-degradation. Road pollution and brake dust present another danger to tires and wheels. Tires should be cleaned occasionally to prevent photo-degradation and to remove brake dust, road oils, grime and other contaminants, which will cause decay or a browning effect on the tire surface.

Modern tire sidewalls have a coating that help protect them from normal wear and tear. Problems arise when caustic wheel cleaners and other harsh chemicals remove this protective coating. Modern wheels on the other hand also have problems. Manufactures now apply protective coatings to wheels. This protective coating provides some measure of protection but is susceptible to abrasion, acids, and the metal residue (brake dust) created by modern high-performance brake pads. Brake dust etching, brush scratches, chemical erosion from road salts and corrosive cleaners are common culprits of wheel destruction. Since ignorance of these hazards can cause irreparable damage, learning a few simple facts may eliminate some very expensive mistakes.

Therefore, the first step to reclaiming the original tire luster is a proper cleaning with an appropriate rubber cleaner. Use a cleaner that is biodegradable, phosphate-free, non-abrasive and nonflammable. Never use wheel cleaners containing strong acids, bleach, alcohol, or solvents. You cannot remove wheel grime with a spray-on and hose-off product and not risk serious damage to anodized, clearcoated, chrome-plated, or aluminum wheels.

Most tire cleaners contains chemicals that whitens whitewalls and white letting. This type of cleaner tends to turn black walls an ugly gray or gray cast to the black part of the tire. The bleach used in a lot of products can also damage the finish on the wheels. The rougher the cleaning application, the more chance you take damaging the tire or wheel. Powdered cleaners also contain a bleaching agent. Non-bleach cleaners are preferred and are compatible with alloy rims. It is much better overall to clean tires and wheels with a product which states "no lye" or bleach and clean them 2 times than clean once with a harsh damaging cleaner.

There are wheel and tire cleaners that guarantee and preserve wheel surfaces and surrounding rubber. These types of cleaners may be sprayed directly onto the wheel and agitated with a soft scrub brush to insure even distribution and thorough cleaning. Wheels with narrow slots and spokes can similarly be cleaned by using a super-soft, specialty brush. Avoid brushes with very stiff brushes. They can scratch rubber as well as wheels. Use paint brushes to reach those areas around lug nuts and valve stems. Use them in the crevices and slots on special wheels. Toothbrushes work well on wire wheels and on those parts of the wheels, which attract dirt build-up.

Always clean one wheel at a time. This prevents the cleaner from drying on the wheel. Never clean a wheel when it is warm or hot from driving. High temperatures increase the activity of chemicals and can cause damage to the wheels, warp brake rotors or prevent the cleaners from working normally. Streaking and staining can result if some cleaners are applied to hot wheels.

The second step to restoring natural luster on the rubber tire is the application of a high-quality rubber dressing containing UV stabilizers, which supplement the UV protective action of the carbon black. Choose a dressing that's not too sticky or apt to sling off on the car. Always clean tire before each application of dressing. Unfortunately, some folks never clean the tires. The consequence? Brown blackwalls or yellow whitewalls.

All rubber should have a rich, dark sheen and be smooth to the touch. Properly maintained, it will enhance the overall appearance of the automobile. With wheels, even with regular attention, highly polished wheels will require a specialized product to restore lost luster. Choose a polish/wax designed for a particular finish. Never use a chrome polish on aluminum or an aluminum polish on clearcoated wheels. Damage will occur. Lacquer clearcoats should be cleaned with the same products designed for automotive paints.

Proper tire and wheel cleaning only requires some common sense, a little effort, and an educated choice of products. Protect and care for your tires and wheels; they are vulnerable and expensive part of your automobile.

1999 Angela Brown and Paul Gasparola