(Author’s Note:  This is Part I of a three-part series on Wheel and Tire Care.)

There’s no doubt that clean wheels can make the difference in the appearance of a vehicle, regardless of age.  Dirty, dull tires or brown wheels with caked-on brake dust just look old and worn, often bringing down the overall appearance of the vehicle.  One could have a perfectly detailed, shiny car, but with dirty wheels and tires, it ruins the entire effect.  So, let’s spend some time going over proper wheel care.  On the other side of the same coin, a vehicle whose condition is—shall we say—less than mint, will instantly look better with clean, shiny wheels and tires.

What Makes Wheels Dirty?

The main culprit of dirty wheels is the fine dust that abrades off of the brake pads every time the vehicle braking system is engaged, during which the brake pad is forced up against the brake rotor, thus slowing the vehicle.  Hence the need for the occasional “brake job” during the life of the vehicle--when brakes must be replaced after so many months or years of use because they have worn down too much to be safe and effective.

Brake dust typically appears on the wheel and tire as a brownish-red coating that builds up between washes.  Because the friction braking system contains ferrous components, the minute iron particles will oxidize (rust) as they rest on the wheel surface.  In more extreme cases, these rusting particles actually etch into the surface of the wheel.  Left untreated, this etching can lead to permanent damage that can only be removed by sanding and re-coating the wheels.

Other causes of dirty wheels and tires is general road grime, especially during wet driving conditions.  Additionally, driving on roads bearing ice-melting chemicals can also be hard on wheels.

Preventing Dirty Wheels

It is impossible to prevent your wheels from becoming dirty, but there are steps that can be taken to reduce the build- of brake dust and general grime.  The simplest way to this goal is to wash the wheels often.  And that means much more than simply driving through a carwash that limits wheel cleaning to the spritzing on of wheel cleaning chemical followed by blasting it off with high-pressure rinse.

Instead, effective regular wheel cleaning means actually agitating the surfaces of the wheels and tires while cleaning.  Let’s talk about how to do that.

What do I Need?

Cleaning wheels and tires at home is performed most commonly during the do-it-yourself full-vehicle wash.  Make sure the wheels are cool to the touch before spraying any chemicals on them.  Thus, if you just pulled off the road, you may want to let the wheels cool for 15 minutes or so.  If in a hurry, you can cool them by rinsing them with water.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Garden hose with shut-off nozzle
  • Bucket with grit guard
  • Rim Cleaning Brush
  • Inner Barrell Rim Brush
  • Redline Wheel Cleaner
  • Vital Car Wash Soap, and
  • Optional: a scrub sponge that is safe on non-stick cookware.

Setting up the Wheel and Tire Bucket.  To wash like a pro, your wheel bucket should be dedicated only for wheels, and separate from the one you use on the main body of the vehicle.  In this bucket, make a solution of Vital Wash Soap, which will become “rinse water” for your wheel washing equipment.  Such equipment includes the Proje Rim Cleaning Brush, Inner Barrel Rim Brush, and a dedicated (not used inside the car) Easy Reach Crevice Brush for lug nuts.  Then hang a bottle of Red Line Wheel Cleaner on the rim of the bucket and your “wheel and tire bucket” is ready to go!

The Process

Cleaning the wheels before or after washing the main body of the car is mostly a matter of personal preference.  However, there are some factors that can suggest a specific order.  For example, if the wheels are still hot from driving, you could wash the main body first to give them time to cool down.  On the other hand, if it’s a warm day, you may want to wash the wheels first to prevent water spots forming on the main body as it waits after the final rinse for you to finish the wheels.

Prepare your “wheel cleaning bucket” as mentioned above.  Rinse off all four wheels, then mist each one with wheel cleaner.  Scrub the wheels and tires with the wheel brush, dipping the brush in the wash bucket each time to rinse the excess dirt out of the brush.  You can also use this brush to clean the lower parts of the car, like the rocker panel.

Mist the wheels and tires with Proje’s Redline Wheel Cleaner.  If it’s not a hot day and the sun is not shining on the wheels, you can mist all four before scrubbing.  Be sure to mist the inner barrel of the wheel as well.  If your wheels are in great condition and you wash your car weekly, you may not even have to touch them with a brush.  Instead, simply allow the Redline Wheel Cleaner to dwell as it loosens dirt and brake dust, then rinse thoroughly.

For thoroughness, however, it’s recommended to at least give the wheels a once-over with the Proje Rim Cleaning Brush, Inner Barrel Rim Brush and an Easy Reach Crevice Brush for lug nuts.  Scrub and rinse one wheel at a time.  Never let the wheel cleaner or scrubbing residue dry, as it will not rinse off.  If the chemical starts to dry as you are working on the wheels, re-mist the area with Wheel Cleaner.

Scrub the tire last, as they may have greasy dressing residue that you would not want to spread onto the wheel with the brush.  Once all the scrubbing is complete, thoroughly rinse off the wheel barrel, wheel face, and tire.  When you are done with the wheel bucket, dump its leftover contents into the bushes or on the lawn (NOT in the storm drain!).


Using the ingredients and procedures described in this article will help make your wheels stay free of build-up of brake dust.  We will discuss keeping your wheels free of brake dust build up, as well as dressing the tire, in Part II.  In Part II, we will discuss restoring neglected wheels.