There’s an entire auto subculture dedicated to custom rim design and care, so it’s no wonder folks want to show them off. Even if you’ve got factory standards on, knowing how to polish your rims can make a strong statement as you cruise along. And while it’s a nice lazy afternoon project, there is a right and wrong way to go about it.
Here’s a primer on how to polish your rims.
The very first thing you want to do is double-check what kind of rims you’re working with and determine whether there is a clear coat on them. Rims must be treated differently according to their coating (if any) and metal type. Using the wrong products, processes or chemicals can damage a clear coat and cause aging and corrosion to aluminum. In addition, before you begin, gather plenty of rags and sponges — you’ll need to use a new one for each step.
Use water and a soap, that is approved as safe for cars, to remove as much gunk as possible from the rims. You’ll be up against regular road grime and a layer of corrosive brake dust that forms naturally over time as brake pads wear. You can use a high-powered hose for a first pass, then a terrycloth rag or non-abrasive sponge.
If there’s still remaining grime and your rims don’t have a clear coat, use a non-acidic aluminum wheel cleaner on a new rag. If you do have clear coat, use a soft bristled brush to work the surface over. Rinse thoroughly and dry with a new rag before continuing.
After soap and water, you can use wheel detailing clay for deeply embedded grime. Spray the wheel with a lubricant and rub clay over the surface, removing any resulting residue with the lubricant and a new rag after.
Check out the surface of the rims. If they are pitted and don’t have a clear coat, use 400-600 grit sandpaper to lightly smooth the surface and eliminate scratches using even strokes, always moving in the same direction. If starting with a more abrasive paper, follow up with a finer grit to even out the surface. Clear-coated rims should skip this step altogether. Rinse and dry and apply a pass of aluminum brightener to help prevent oxidization and then wipe off with a new cloth.
Choose your polish based on the surface— specified safe for clear-coats if you have one, otherwise use a polish compatible with aluminum. You should polish by hand with a rag in even, circular strokes (changing the rag after each pass), or you can pop on a non-abrasive buffer to a polishing tool and work it through that way. Use a toothbrush to get into hard to reach areas. Go over once more with an ultra-fine finishing polish to really get that mirror shine. Buff off all polish with a clean towel. Apply a coat of wax, again paying attention to the finish in order to pick the proper one. This will lock in the shine and keep it for longer.
As you can see, getting your rims gleaming is a multi-step but basically straightforward project, so long as you’re paying attention to using the proper chemicals, choosing your process wisely and taking your time. It’s worth it for that eye-catching detail and the silent nod from fellow rim-aficionados who understand all the love and care that goes into your shine.
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Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter. In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.