Chrome wheels are among the most popular aftermarket additions people make to their vehicles. It’s easy to see why. Clean, polished chrome wheels have a mirror finish that attracts attention. To keep chrome wheels looking good, a little regular maintenance is in order.
First of all, it helps to know what you’re cleaning and polishing. Chrome is a very soft metal. It’s used to coat other metals because of its beautiful finish. But you’ll never see anything made entirely of chromium because it just wouldn’t hold up well. However, because chrome is relatively soft, it responds very well to polishing. Your elbow grease will be rewarded with incredibly shiny, reflective chrome wheels (or exhaust tips, trim, and any other chrome surface).
Wheels’ worst enemy
Brake dust is made of an adhesive and carbon fibers that come off the brake pad and tiny metal shavings from the rotor. The intense heat and friction generated by the wheels makes this mixture highly corrosive. Because you probably drive every day, more brake dust is constantly being made. Frequent cleaning is the only way to keep your wheels safe. Again, chrome is soft. Brake dust can penetrate and pit chrome wheels in no time. You have to keep them clean and protected in order to maintain their shine.
Step by Step
Use a Speed Master Wheel Brush to clean wheels without scratching.
Towel dry each wheel after cleaning to prevent water spots.
We recommend cleaning the wheels before washing your vehicle. Cleaning wheels first will prevent brake dust and dirty water from splashing onto a clean car.
- Rinse wheels to remove loose dirt and brake dust. Use a Fire Hose Nozzle to deliver a strong stream of water.
- Spray one wheel at a time with a chrome wheel cleaner. A few examples are McKee's 37 Foaming Wheel Cleaner Gel, Mothers Wheel Mist Chrome/Wire Pro Strength Wheel Cleaner, and Wolfgang Tire & Wheel Cleaner. These cleaners are non-acidic in order to protect the wheels' finish. Whether you have clear coated or polished chrome wheels, these wheel cleaners are safe choices.
- Use a soft bristled wheel brush to agitate the wheel surface. The Speed Master Wheel Brush is a great choice because it can fit narrow or wide spaces and has a flexible stem. The soft, synthetic bristles loosen grime and brake dust without scratching the chrome. This is essential since scratches are noticeable on chrome. Reach through spokes to clean each wheel front to back.
- Don’t forget the lug nuts. Brake dust hides wherever it can. Use a lug nut brush to clean around the lug nuts and inside the lug nut holes. While you’re working with the brushes, the wheel should remain wet. The water and wheel cleaner help loosen grime, but they also lubricate the wheel surface to prevent scratching. You never want to let a wheel cleaner dry on the wheel because it will spot the finish.
- While you’re down there, clean the wheel wells, a.k.a. fender wells. A lot of dirt and mud is kicked up in the wheel wells as the tires roll. You might need something a bit stronger than what you used on the wheels. Spray the wheel well generously with an all purpose cleaner, like McKee's 37 Cleanse-All Exterior Surface Cleaner. Use a long handled brush with sturdy bristles to agitate the wheel well. Note: Do not use your soft wheel brush on the wheel wells. Likewise, do not use the wheel well brush on the wheel itself. Think soft and gentle for wheels, strong and sturdy for wheel wells. Do not use McKee's 37 Cleanse-All full strength on chrome.
- Rinse the wheel and wheel well, including the lug nut holes and between the spokes.
- Always dry wheels. Water spots are unattractive wherever they appear, even on the wheels. Chrome wheels, in particular, will show water spots and they will detract from the mirror finish. Our Wheel & All Purpose Microfiber Towel is exceptionally gentle on the wheel finish and grabs any residual brake dust. Because the towel is black, you can you use it on wheels without ruining it. To avoid cross-contamination, use this towel only on wheels and wash it separately from your other microfiber towels. Brake dust is the last thing you want on your paint!
Use a medium grade detailing clay bar to remove embedded brake dust from wheels.
Clay Chrome Wheels
All the tiny contaminants that stick to your vehicle’s body also stick to the wheels. Add brake dust on top of that. Detailing clay is a fantastic tool for removing embedded contamination from wheels. BLACKFIRE Poly Clay Bar - Aggressive Grade works especially well for claying wheels. The good thing about this product is that you have a clearly labeled jar so it’s less likely you’ll confuse the wheel clay with the regular detail clay you use on the paint. You should not mix them up once you've used the clay bar on wheels! Always avoid cross-contamination between wheels and paint.
Always use wheel detailing clay after cleaning the wheel but before polishing or waxing.
- Spray the wheel generously with Griot’s Garage Speed Shine or another slippery clay lubricant.
- Take a quarter of the clay bar and flatten it into a patty over your fingers. Then rub the clay over the wheel. Take care to get between spokes and wherever you can see pitting or black spots.
- Fold the clay to reveal a clean side as it becomes soiled.
- When you’re done with each wheel, use the clay lubricant or quick detailer to remove any clay residue and wipe the wheel clean.
- Do the same on all four wheels.
Use a Mothers PowerBall MD to polish between spokes. Avoid wool polishing balls on chrome wheels.
Choosing a metal polish for chrome is interesting. Chrome wheels technically are coated but they’re coated with metal. It’s not quite the same as being coated with clear coat or paint. Chrome is tougher than that. Many metal polishes that can be used on aluminum or steel can also be used on chrome. It’s just a matter of reading the label to determine if a product is safe on chrome.
*Note: Plastic chrome wheels or plastic chrome trim is not real chrome! The same rules do not apply. Plastic with a chrome finish should be treated like plastic, not metal.
Optimum Metal Polish, 3M Chrome and Metal Polish, and Wenol Blue are all excellent choices for polishing chrome. Chrome can tarnish and rust, unlike clear coated alloy, so these polishes are equipped to remove oxidation.
For the best results, apply metal polishes to the wheels with a polishing tool, such as Mothers PowerBall Mini MD or the Flitz Polishing Ball. Both will give you the consistent speed and power needed to effectively polish wheels.
- First, wipe the chrome polish of your choice onto the wheel. Apply it to one wheel at a time.
- With your Mothers PowerBall MD attached to your electric drill, start slowly and spread the polish over the wheel. Gradually increase the speed. Keep the PowerBall moving over the wheel until the polish starts to dry or diminish.
- Use a soft, clean microfiber towel to wipe the wheel clean.
- Repeat on all four wheels.
Apply a coat of McKee's 37 Wheel Glaze to protect wheels from brake dust.
Wax chrome wheels
Once your chrome wheels are clean and dry, apply a quality wheel protectant like McKee's 37 Wheel Glaze or Wheel Wax to seal the wheel surface. These products work just like car wax. Apply them with an applicator pad and then buff the wheel. They keep your wheels looking shiny, and they prevent brake dust adhesion. These products dry clear, like a wax, so they will not diminish the shine of chrome wheels. Your wheels look cleaner longer. You have to reapply these products weekly, but it’s better than scrubbing your wheels every two days. The good news is, if you use a wheel wax as recommended, water is the only thing you need to clean your wheels between waxings.
Tire dressing – the finishing touch
Choose your tire dressing carefully. Old-fashioned tire dressings contain silicone, which produces a glossy shine but they turn brown over time. In fact, shiny silicone tire dressings can attract dirt. These dressings deplete the rubber’s plasticizers faster, causing it to age prematurely. Newer formulas, like Pinnacle Black Onyx Tire Gel or Optimum Opti-Bond Tire Gel, are water-based and less shiny, but less shiny is the concours look you want. These dressings create the look of new tires with a semi-gloss sheen that doesn’t turn brown. Pinnacle Black Onyx Tire Gel also nourishes the rubber to recreate the look of new tires. You can often layer water-based dressings to get a glossier shine. Follow the directions on the label carefully. Always apply thin coats and allow drying time before you drive your vehicle. Even the best dressing will sling off if it’s on too thick or it doesn’t have time to dry. Avoid pooling of the dressing around raised letters and white walls.