For anyone who likes to keep their car looking shiny and clean, there is no greater annoyance than brake dust. For one thing it is simply impossible to prevent. For another, because it is so dark in color, it really shows up on surfaces like alloys.
Since it is such a pain in the backside we’ve put together this guide to help you tackle it. We’ll go through the absolute best way to clean your wheels and keep them looking great. But first, to defeat the enemy we need to know the enemy.
What is Brake Dust?
It really depends on what your brake pads are made off, but broadly speaking the dust on your wheels is probably mainly made up of iron. That is because irrespective of what your pads are made of, your brake disk is almost certainly made of iron.
As much as 90% of the dust is iron, because the disk throws out more debris than the pad. The rest of the dust is mainly carbon, and this comes from the pad.
What Causes Brake Dust?
When you push down on the pedal to apply your brakes, calipers squeeze the pads against the surface of the brake disc. This in turn causes friction, which in turn makes the car slow down (hooray!) and also erodes the surface of the brake pads and disc (boo!) It is this friction that breaks down the various materials involved in your braking system and causes tiny bits and pieces to fly off.
Those tiny bits and pieces, as you may have guessed already, are brake dust. That horrible black material that makes your wheels look like crap.
But wait, there’s more! Have you ever noticed how sticky brake dust can be and how it literally seems to cling to the wheel? That is because a weird side effect of the braking action is that the particles of iron, metal and carbon receive a static charge as they are heated up. This then gives them a magnetically powered bond to the wheel surface, which is why brake dust is such a pain to clean off.
Should I Be Concerned About Brake Dust?
Yes and no. From a mechanical point of view, there is noting to worry about. In fact, as we pointed out above brake dust is thrown out from the braking system as a byproduct of the brakes doing their job. So brake dust just means that the brakes are working fine.
The one concern you should have is in how you handle the brake dust itself. You see, unlike in many other countries around the world, in the US it remains legal for brake pads to contain asbestos. This material is potentially extremely harmful, especially in dust form. We at Car Bibles highly recommend you that you only purchase pads that are asbestos free and that you take all possible precautions whilst cleaning and handling brake dust. You should wear a face mask, gloves and overalls that can be cleaned easily and you should clean you wheels in a well ventilated area.
Can Brake Dust be Prevented?
We’re afraid to say that the answer to this is a big fat no, as it’s just not possible to prevent brake dust. In fact, as we pointed out above brake dust is a by-product of a braking system that it is working properly. So in one sense, it would actually be kind of worrying if you didn’t see any dust at all.
About the closest you can come to stopping brake dust is to try to cut back on how much is produced. One way you could do that is with a high-grade “organic” brake pad. Organic pads are made from stuff like Twaron (a heat resistant synthetic fiber) or Kevlar. As they are fibers they will be kicking out far less debris when you brake. They are also kinder on the brake rotor disks too, which can cut back on deposits on the wheel from that source too. Be warned though, those pads are crazy expensive. Depending on your vehicle model, they may not even be available too as they are usually found only on high performance cars, not mini vans.
If you can’t prevent the brake dust forming, then perhaps you could hide it a little too. The one good thing about the dust is that it is a pretty uniform black/dark grey color. That means you could fit darker wheel trim or alloys and try to hide the dust a little bit.
How to Remove & Clean Brake Dust
Ok, so you know what brake dust is made off, you know where it comes from and you know the precautions you need to take. Awesome!
So now we can move onto what you need to clean it up. Lets start with an ingredient list.
To clean brake dust from your wheels you will need:
- A High Quality Wheel Cleaner
- Clean Sponges, Towels and Microfiber Towels
- A Hose or, even better, a Pressure Washer
- A Wheel Cleaning Brush (or Two)
- A Bucket
- A Vehicle Detailing Clay Bar
- Some Vehicle Wax
Yeah, that may look like a lot but really it’s just the basic gear you’ll need to clean and detail any part of the car. You should have most if it already and if you don’t almost all of those products have been reviewed here at Car Bibles already, so you know where to get them. Stay tuned for our exciting bucket review series coming soon!
You’re also going to need an Ipod hooked up to a speaker playing Bruce Springsteen (or the car wash song) on loop, a warm sunny day, about an hours free time to do the job properly and a cold beer or two on ice somewhere for when you’re done.
- The first thing you’ve got to do it to get your hose or your pressure washer hooked up and spray those wheels down. A pressure washer is best because it’s going to do the job faster and more efficiently – but work with what you’ve got. The point with stage one is to get as much of the dust off as possible with the water, to both save you time and also to prevent the dirt from scratching the wheel.
- Plain water is great and it will remove a whole chunk of the dust build up. But water alone is not going to be enough, so you need to call in some heavy-duty reinforcements next. Car wheel cleaner is formulated to break down and lift off tough and stubborn stains and debris. Spray it all over the wheel and let it soak in to lift off as much dirt as possible. Just make sure that the cleaner you use is safe for the material finish you have on the wheels.
- The next stage requires you to get down and dirty and take on the brake dust in hand-to-hand combat. Your weapon will be your wheel brush. There are plenty of wheel brush deigns out there and if you can afford it, it does pay to either pick up a set or at least a couple of different designs. Ideally you want a cone shaped brush with coarse bristles to get into the arches and dislodge brake dust found there. A softer brush can then be used on the surface areas of the wheel including the wheel spokes.
- Get the hose or the pressure washer out again, because now it’s time to rinse off all the soapsuds and grimy water that will now be covering the wheel. Once all that stuff is removed and washed away take the opportunity to inspect the wheel. If there is any brake dust or other dirt left, now is the time to rinse to repeat.
- Whilst the wheel is still wet, grab your clay bar. This the secret weapon of pro car detailers across the world, and you’re going to deploy it now yourself. Break off a piece of clay and gently mold it between your fingers into a small bar shape. You can now use it to clean away any last stubborn patches of dust or dirt that the brushes and wheel cleaner couldn’t lift. A clay bar, you see, lifts and removes the very toughest of stains and dust to ensure your wheel is as clean as possible.
- Your wheel should now be as clean as when it rolled out the factory. It may even be cleaner. What you want to do now is make sure it stays that way. Start by cleaning the wheel thoroughly with your towels. Once you’ve got it as dry as you can, the final stage is to break out the old car wax. Following the manufacturers instructions, apply the wax to the wheel surface with a towel, a dry rag, or one of the microfiber towels. The wax is going to help the tire to look awesome, and will also help limit the build up of brake dust.
- Job done! Remember those beers you put on ice? Now would be a good time to crack one of them open…
That’s All, Folks.
That’s about everything you need to know about removing brake dust. At the end of the day it really just comes down to having the right equipment and being willing to put in a little bit of work and elbow grease. Combine all those things and you can enjoy shiny clean wheels all year round.