Cleaning Alloy Wheels:
Cleaning, Polishing, Restoring

Cleaning alloy wheels is a complex subject that is typically over-simplified. The good news is that the wheels of today are far easier to clean and maintain than the wheels of the past. Alloy wheel cleaning is also an area that is generally oversimplified to the point that most people still don't understand the basics of cleaning, maintaining, and polishing.

My goal is to lay out the critical information you need, without putting you into anxiety mode with too much information that is not necessary for your success whether you are cleaning alloy wheels, alloy wheel polishing, or alloy wheel restoration.

cleaning alloy wheels porsche

Alloy Wheels versus Steel Wheels

This is a common question that has so many problems right from the start. Both the terms ALLOY and STEEL are massive generalizations. And in many ways, they are one in the same. Let's dive into a Q. and A. to answer the essentials and get you started to getting what you really want: clean alloy wheels.

Q.What is alloy:

In a simple definition, alloy is any combination of two or more metals.

Q. What is steel:

Steel is an alloy itself; a mixture of two or more metallic elements: one non-metallic, with one metallic element. Steel will generally and most commonly be fused with carbon; thus, making it an alloy.

Q. Why does the difference even matter?

In many ways it doesn't when it comes to modern day cars, as most cars come with what is generally just referred to as alloy wheels. (alloy wheels sound much cooler than just saying wheels.) Alloy wheels are made of an alloy of light metals: namely aluminum, nickel, or magnesium.

Cleaning Alloy Wheels:
The critical facts

alloy wheel of AudiA typical OE painted and clear coated wheel

When it comes to alloy wheel polishing, alloy wheel cleaning, or alloy wheel restoration, there are some key factors that you will need to understand:

  • Virtually every car produced today will either be a painted and clear coated alloy wheel.
  • If you purchased a severely basic, entry level car with very few options, you may have steel wheels with plastic hub caps.
  • Regardless of whether you have clear coated or plastic hub caps, cleaning your wheels can be done using the same cleaners, wheel brushes, and methods.
  • Since virtually every wheel is clear coated with the very same type of clear coating that is on your car paint, you can actually polish your wheels with any traditional car paint polish. (Most people just don't since most wheels that are properly maintained do not need polishing. Polishing is typically reserved for uncoated, bare aluminum wheels that are generally referred to as mag wheels.

Alloy Wheel Polishing

If you are to follow my link on cleaning your car wheels, you will see an extensive write up with many examples of the many types of wheels as wheel as the chemicals, tools, and methods. But when it comes to cars, often you will go in search of the best mag wheel polish, the best wheel polish, or the best chrome polish.

And the good news is that regardless of what you are trying to polish, you don't really have to over-think this part as most metal polishes will provide good results. With that said, there are some variables you will need to know before you get started:

  • Most metal polishes will work about the same. (They all claim to be the best. But the difference seems to be more about the nuances of the metal polish itself, rather than how great the specific polish you have chosen is or isn't at cleaning, restoring, and polishing)
  • Not all mag wheels, aluminum wheels, or chrome wheels are created equal. The quality of the wheel or the chrome will be as big of a determinant to your results, as to the type of metal polish you have chosen.
  • Every metal polish is going to require lots of rubbing on your part. (Despite how great you have heard a p[articular wheel polish is.)

Polishing Mag Wheels

polishing mag wheelsYou can see within this picture the area that has been polished compared to the areas that haven't

Mag wheels are a thing of the past. I am not even sure as to why they were referred to as mag wheels. These are the most important things you need to understand about polishing aluminum wheels, mag wheels, or chrome wheels:

  • Any metal polish, mag wheel polish, or wheel polish in general will work on any wheel or metal polishing you want to do.
  • Not all mag or aluminum wheel s are created equal. This means that just because you have mag wheels that are bare aluminum, does not mean you will be able to polish them so they look like chrome. (see below)
  • There are many "tools" or attachments they sell for polishing mag wheels, aluminum wheels, or chrome. I have found that the majority of them are severely limited and you will still be required to apply plenty of "elbow grease" in the form of much rubbing based on the conditions of your wheels and your expectations of results.

Not all Mag Wheels are Created Equal

Understanding the way in which a wheel is manufactured, the grade of metal/aluminum itself, will have a massive impact as to the results you will be able to achieve.

Cast Aluminum Wheels: These are very common and represent the lowest quality of wheel. They can be polished to be made shiny; but they are never going to look like chrome when you polish them.

Billet Aluminum Wheels: These are wheels that have been machined from a solid piece of aluminum (an oversimplification; but the main point you need to understand)

Cast Aluminum Wheel:
Before polishing

cragar mag wheel

Cast Aluminum Wheel:
During Polishing

cragar aluminum wheel polish

The cast alloy wheels above represent the first offerings into the car world from back in the 60's and 70's. They are easier to manufacture and cheaper to sell. They also will not shine up to the same level of shine as the billet aluminum wheels pictured below.

Billet Aluminum Wheel:
Before Alloy Wheel Cleaning and Polishing

billet aluminum wheel

Billet Aluminum Wheel:
After Alloy Wheel Cleaning and Polishing

billet aluminum wheel after alloy wheel cleaning

Many inexperienced people would actually look at the billet alloy wheels above after I did the alloy wheel cleaning and polishing and think they were actually chromed wheels. But these type of billet aluminum wheels are far more expensive than any of the cast aluminum wheels that you would be able to buy.

Cleaning Alloy Wheels

And just when you thought we had covered all the generalizations of cleaning alloy wheels with the introduction of terms like alloy, metal, and steel. Let's discuss the word "cleaning" in the context of cleaning your alloy wheels. And to keep things a little more simple within a subject that has already become overly complex, I am going to highlight the important factors:

  • If you are willing to take the time and effort to polish, any pre-cleaning will simply be removing superficial dirt from the alloy wheel prior to actually polishing it.
  • There are chemicals you can use to pre-clean or etch the aluminum prior to polishing them, but in most cases I do not recommend this for beginners due to certain risks.

Polishing Alloy Wheels

based on my personal and professional experience, it seems that everyone is forever looking for the Holy Grail of alloy wheel polish, aluminum polish, or chrome polish. It is almost as prolific of a question as the endless what is the best wax for my car question! It would appear that nobody will ever be happy until science finally develops a self-polishing chrome or mag wheel polish. SO far I have not seen one yet.

So with that said, you need to accept that getting your aluminum wheels as clean and polished as can be, is going to require some healthy amounts of this thing called work; At least in the form of much rubbing! Most beginners will not be able to fully appreciate the nuances between the many polishes. The good news is that today's polishes in most cases, can handle all of your metal polishing needs:

  • Chrome
  • Aluminum
  • Brass
  • Copper

Flitz BU 03515 Metal, Plastic and Fiberglass Polish Paste - 5.29 oz.

  • As versatile as a metal polish as you can get. (polishes any metals as well as paint and fiberglass)
  • Top rated metal polish on Amazon.
  • The actual metal polish I carry with me in my professional world.

Simichrome 390050 All Metal Polish Tube - 1.76 oz.

  • Suitable for all types of metal polishing.
  • Top rated metal polish on Amazon.
  • Works as well as any of the others.

Mothers 05101 Mag & Aluminum Polish - 10 oz.

  • Best seller on Amazon.
  • The actual mag wheel polish I grew up with.
  • Works as well as any others.

Cleaning Alloy Wheels Summary:

Perhaps some day we will all have the fortune of an advanced wheel polish that will come with a little genie that pops out and does all the endless rubbing for us. We simply sit back and watch that litle guy go to town and we get highly polished mag, chrome, or aluminum wheels.

But that day has not arrived. In the meantime, choose any of the following metal polishes from above based on my recommendations and that within  Amazon and get that you really came for: clean and polished alloy wheels.


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