A Beginners Guide to Cleaning and Polishing Aluminum Wheels

Posted: October 15, 2020 By: MattM

Aside from shiny paint, a set of polished wheels on your car can make a big difference in its appearance. Even taking a set of dull, factory aluminum mags and cleaning and polishing them will drastically improve the appearance of your ride. We decided to put together a crash course on cleaning and polishing aluminum wheels for beginners. Read below on our simple steps!

  1. Prep Wheel For Polishing- The first thing you need to do for the best results is to remove or have your tires removed from the wheels. You can polish aluminum wheels with the tires on but it’s very difficult to get the lips of the wheels without damaging the tires. Any local tire shop can remove and install the tires for you. After you make that decision you need to clean the wheels thoroughly as you want to have all dirt, road grime, etc. off of the wheel.
  2. Smoothing- Getting the wheel smooth is the first step in polishing. The better the quality of the polish will depend on how smooth/flat the wheel is and inconsistencies. Most OEM wheels have a clear coat or paint on them that protects the aluminum from corroding so you will need to remove that with a sander and a stripping disc kit or chemically strip the factory coating off the wheel. With the wheels free of coatings you can begin to repair or blend imperfections in. Using a file or sander you can knock down any rough spots in a wheel and blend an imperfection into the wheel. Extreme gouges or imperfections require welding new material into the low spot but most minor imperfections can be blended and won’t show much when the wheel is done. Just remember that you want to use aggressive methods like low grit sandpaper or files in small areas and not the entire wheel as it causes more steps to get that area polished.
  3. Rough Polish- Once the surface is smooth and clear of any coatings you can begin polishing the wheels. The first step would be to get rid of any scratches from removing coatings or smoothing imperfections. A combination of a spiral sewn buffing wheel and greaseless compound are good for cutting and smoothing out sanding scratches from the previous steps. This may take a few steps and passes of each compound to get all of the sanding scratches out. Once they’re all out you can clean the wheel with PRE and wipe it down to remove any of the compound before the next steps.
  4. Buff To A High Luster- At this point the wheel will have a satin finish that is about equivalent to a 320 grit finish and can be clear coated and sealed this way if you desire less than a mirror finish or you can continue on perfecting the finish. If that is desired you will want to swap to a fresh spiral sewn buff wheel and a tripoli compound made for aluminum. Use light force on the wheel in numerous passes watching the surface as you go. You should slowly see the satin finish disappear and a more reflective surface appear. Continue to clean and repolish with the tripoli until the satin look is completely gone. Again clean the wheel with PRE and a Microfiber to remove all compound residue.
  5. Mirror Polish Finish- To Get a Perfect Finish you will need to swap to a new Loose Sewn Buff Wheel and a Rogue Compound. The rogue compound has a very little abrasive in it and the loose sewn wheel has more “give” when polishing and won’t cut or abrade the metal. Using the two of these together takes out any of the microscopic highs and lows in the metal surface and brings that mirror polish that just pops when on the car! Continue this process until the wheel has the desired finish. Be sure to clean the buff wheel with a buff rake and the aluminum wheel occasionally with PRE to keep from dirty compound residue abrading the surface.

With the wheels all shined up you can choose to clearcoat them, use Exo-Armour, or apply a light wax or sealer to the surface to keep the mirror finish intact. Do realize that polished wheels do take upkeep and will need to be repolished from time to time (at the very least by hand).

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