Polishing Aluminum Wheels


Polishing Aluminum Wheels

Picture story of what I did today

7 August 2011
11:07 PM
When we bought our Volvo in December of 2009 the aluminum wheels were a dull gray and deeply pitted.

On the advice of a friend that drives for Wal-Mart, I found a guy hanging out at a local truck stop that polished wheels.  I got him to work on mine but they were so badly pitted that he could only clean up the surface.  The front wheels were the worse set.  His suggestion was to start sanding to cut the front wheels so that the pitting was removed then buff them.  Actually, they looked
presentable after he buffed and polished them, so I didn't do anything else to the fronts.  I did wet sand on the rears since it was much easier to sand the inside of the rim and finally got them looking pretty darn good.

When we attended the 2010 East Coast HDT rally at Virginia Beach in 2010 I met Roadfitter (one heck of a nice guy!).  He introduced me to Busch Super Shine Aluminum Polish.  I have since ordered a large bottle of Busch's polish and use it on the rears when they loose their shine.  The stuff makes them look like chrome.  It is an absolutely awesome polish - far better than anything
you can find on the shelf of the local auto supply store.

But, the fronts remained pitted and ugly and over time began to turn gray again.  I do not have an impact wrench powerful enough to remove the lug nuts and the wheel.  Even if I did, I doubt that I could handle the wheel/tire assembly due to its weight, unless I used the loader on my old TO35
tractor with a strap to do the lifting.  Thus, my work must be done with the wheel mounted.  Having the wheel off would really make the job easier and provide better results.

Fast forward to mid-July when I was at the Ashland TA and met a guy with front wheel covers that came well beyond the bolt circle.  I liked them because they would hide the imperfections in the center of the wheel leaving only the outer portion showing and needing polish.  While at the TA I bought a cloth buff wheel and a bar of green compound (all they had).

I found the covers for a decent price online at Big Rig Chrome Shop and ordered.  They arrived a few days later.

I decided to give the fronts a good cleaning and then buff them with the wheel and green compound.  I did not sand them, so the pitting remains.  But, the difference with the chrome full axle covers, buffing and polishing with Busch is impressive (at least to me, Nancy and Oscar).

I intend to go back when it gets cooler and work on the sanding.  Also get some more aggressive buffs and compound.  The Big Rig Chrome Shop carries all that stuff too.  The also have the same type of covers for the rear axles.  I will be ordering soon.

Anyway, here is a picture story of how it turned out and how I did it.

Wheel PolishingThis is a BEFORE and AFTER shot of the front wheels.  I did have lug nut covers and a crummy center cap glued on that are removed in the BEFORE shot.

Wheel PolishingMy tools and materials were a cordless drill with a Mother's polishing ball, a B&D Mouse sander with steel wool pads for cleaning, my 9" Craftsman grinder, a 20 amp Variac autotransformer I use to control the grinder speed so I can use it as a polisher and the green compound, cloth buff, Busch's polish and lacquer thinner.  The small crowbar was used to help remove the stubborn old lug nut covers and center cap.  The blue spray can is stainless steel cleaner - I used it to remove the dirt and grease from the wheel before buffing.

Wheel PolishingHere I am applying the compound to the buff.  You just push the bar into the spinning buff until it is well loaded.  You can see the black residue that builds up on the buff and the bar.

Wheel PolishingWorking the buff across the wheels was hard.  The holes kept grabbing the buff and it was difficult for me to handle. But, I managed to cut the surface pretty good (pits still remain).  Notice the residue on the tire. Lacquer thinner is the only thing I've found to clean it off.

Wheel Polishing Wheel Polishing Wheel PolishingThe next step was to put some Busch's polish in an empty plastic coffee can and dip the Mother's ball into the polish. This reduced waste of expensive polish.

Wheel PolishingThe Mother's ball even allowed me to clean inside the holes in the wheel.  I used the low speed on the drill to do the polishing.

Wheel PolishingThe polished wheel without lug nut covers or axle cover.

Wheel PolishingLots of dark residue from the buffing and polishing compound spilled over onto the tires.

Wheel PolishingSoap and water will NOT remove the polish residue.  But, wiping down the tire with a rag soaked in Lacquer Thinner takes the residue off and leaves a nice low sheen finish on the tire sidewall.

Wheel PolishingThese are the axle covers I bought.  They are chrome plated ABS plastic.  The lug nut covers screw onto the exposed thread and hold the cover in place.  The hubcap in the center pops off for hub inspection without having to remove the entire cover.  The appear to be a pretty good quality.  Of course, plastic cracks and breaks - but it does not rust or dent.

Wheel PolishingThis is what the wheel looks like now with the chrome axle cover in place.  The black pits are still there but you have to get up real close to notice them.  I can live with that until I get motivated again.

Wheel Polishing Wheel PolishingExpect to get really dirty.  The black residue from the aluminum polishing gets all over everything - even the surrounding painted parts of the truck.  It is an oily residue and needs to be cleaned off any painted surface with a strong detergent Naphtha on a rag or a cleaner/polish.  Also be sure to wear safety glasses and clean them often.

Ugly wheels are like wearing a new suit with muddy shoes.  Bright, shiny, clean wheels make a well worn truck look good.  I spent about three hours working on the two front wheels – another hour in the shower trying to get my skin clean.

I'm just sharing what did and did not work if anyone on the thread without any polishing experiences is considering doing their own buffing and polishing.  With the right compound and buffs, more elbow grease, sanding and more time the end result would have been even more impressive.  I need to get the right buffs and compound - also lots and lots of sandpaper starting with 180 grit and ending with 400 grit before polishing with a gray compound. Later.  For now I am happy with the results.

If anyone has any tips or a different approach for a DIY job I would like to know them before my next attempt - especially if they can make the job cleaner and easier.

8 August 2011
2:15 AM
Here is a big tip for you budding aluminum polishers.  To get the black gunk off when you are done - a clean rag and good old dry corn starch.  It almost wipes right off with it.  Works better then any solvent I have tried to include lacquer thinner.  If there is any protective quality to your polish, it doesn't take it off with the gunk either.
Mark S
8 August 2011
9:22 AM
Thanks for sharing.  Good stuff to know for maintaining wheels.  I never had the nerve or knowledge to tackle this job.
8 August 2011
1:26 PM
As far as cleaning the black haze off.  Flour works as well as corn starch.  Sure looks pretty after they're shined !!!
21 August 2011
7:26 PM
Why not just send them off and have them chromed?  That what i did to the ones that i put on my 1 ton dually.  It made a big difference in the looks of the truck.  I know when I get my next motorhome, that's what I'm gonna do.
21 August 2011
9:01 PM
My guess is that you didn't read this part of the original post:

"But, the fronts remained pitted and ugly and over time began to turn gray again. I do not have an impact wrench powerful enough to remove the lug nuts and the wheel. Even if I did, I doubt that I could handle the wheel/tire assembly due to its weight, unless I used the loader on my old TO35 tractor with a strap to do the lifting. Thus, my work must be done with the wheel mounted. Having the wheel off would really make the job easier and provide better results. "

Few of us have the equipment or the ability to remove a wheel and "ship it off" to be chromed when you're dealing with this size equipment.....

21 August 2011
10:09 PM
My tire guy will run out, pull all your wheels & tires, run them an hour north to the VIS polish guy, pick them up when they're done, remount (complete w/ microfiber cloths under his spoon) and put them back on your truck.  It isn't cheap but it sure is easy! ' Course I'm sure you probably don't have the option to put your whole truck on jackstands (actually old wheels) for a week in the RV park either!  Anyways, maybe he's got an easy way for him to make a buck on me his laziest account all figured out, but I imagine that option is available in other parts of the country too.

Looks good!  Did you put that plastic backing ring on with those covers?  I started to get annoyed with that part and was leaving it out but it really does make a difference.  The new wheels don't have that defined of a hub center but you still get a big scratch ring after a year or so without the backing.  I'll have to take a pic of my driver for those nut covers that goes on my cordless impact - No more sore palms!

21 August 2011
11:02 PM
Thanks for the compliment, much appreciated!  You did a great job on those wheels.  Let me know when your all recovered and need/looking for a new challenge, HA.  Bush also has a sealer for that polish that works pretty well.  There have been some independent polishing firms at some of the truck shows that put your wheels on an automatic polishing machine at a going rate of $50.00 per wheel.  There's a company down here in central IL. that will swap out cruddy wheels for ones that are already done, as I recall "METZ, MERTZ , SOMETHING LIKE THAT.  I'm sure someplace in my files I have their card.  There is a place right here in town that does them on the machine.  I have to say, when there done, THEY LOOK GREAT!  I'm to cheep anymore for that kind of service.  You better watch out with knees like that some Scottish Lass will be trying to put you in a kilt, HA.  You should see the people at the "MATS" Show and other shows that do that polishing for a living, they look like there just off the stage from a 1930's musical stage show, YEH MAMMY.  I don't know what looks worse, the condition of there skin or the worn out look on their face.  I have a lot of admiration for those that have to make a living that way, not something I would want to do!  Thank GOD for the road I got to walk!

I do like those nut covers and nut rings great effect.  I have an idea for a "NUT BRUSH" of sorts for cleaning and polishing that area around and between the nuts without taking the wheel or the outs, one two at a time off.  Just another one of my "bright ideas," HA.

Keep up the good work, Your making some of us look bad. LOL!!

In The Faith

22 August 2011
12:32 AM
I just had a thought. I used to use a "SISAL" wheel on my buffer when rejuvenating stainless steel buckles that people sent back to me for upgrading. Sisal is a material like burlap or manila, in a wheel form.  I used to take out some god awful scratches with it using a gray compound stick. I  get a little impatient so I'd bypass the green, and red rough and go right to the white.  I did use 3 different buffs with the white, the last was sometimes a linen buff.  When they went back they were darn near perfect.  On a day when I saved up many reworks I looked like your knees and it was hard to breath.  I used 4" up to 6" wheels on a converted bench grinder.

Anyway, keep up the good work!!!
In The Faith

25 August 2011
4:45 PM
You're right Jess
I was a little tired when i came across the post.  I read it but read through it kind of quick.  I got caught up in the moment looking at the pictures, lol.  Now that you brought it to my attention, I totally understand.
25 August 2011
8:04 PM
Not to be negative, just curious, but would using lacquer thinner on the tires remove the UV protection tire manufacturers put in their tires?  I'd check this out to make sure that I didn't do something that would cause premature cracking of the tires.  (I just spent $3,200 on tires so I'm kind of sensitive!)