Updated: May 29, 2022
Written by our fellow member, Thomas Powers.
This article is about dressing, but it’s not about the season’s hottest trends. Today, we’re after a timeless, classy, and well-put-together look that is often overdone with sloppy results. Don’t worry, “The Details” hasn’t become a style consulting blog. I’m talking about tires.
Tire dressing is hilariously over-complicated in the world of car care. It’s like the pocket square of detailing: a finishing touch that can be any number of patterns folded in any number of ways with any number of random do’s and don'ts associated with it. At the end of the day, its optional and, unless it’s really messed up, everyone looking at you doesn’t really care whether it’s there or not.
Hundreds of “extra shine,” “extra black,” “long-lasting” products can be applied with one of a hundred different “specialty applicators.” Every product is “low sling” or “no sling” and every applicator promises to make your life easier and, again, to mitigate the saucy sling that soils your car’s sides. While some chemicals and application tools are certainly better than others, we can simplify tire dressing altogether by recognizing two truths.
Firstly, the product you use doesn’t matter that much when it comes to sling. 99% of sling is avoidable with proper prep and application. Secondly, brushes are your friend.
Prep is the most important and most ignored aspect of tire dressing. Dealerships love using high-shine, solvent-based, silicone and oil-rich dressings to keep their inventory clean. Dealerships prefer these products because they are more resistant to water. When cars are rinsed on the lot (sometimes multiple times per week), this resistance saves time, product, and therefore money.
Such dressings, however, create problems for consumers. If they are not removed, consumer-oriented, water-based dressings won’t stick to the tire (remember, oil and water don’t mix). Consequently, they “sling” and fly off the tire soon after application. Additionally, consumers apply dressing much more frequently than many dealers. Applying a dealer-grade product as part of your weekly or bi-monthly maintenance wash will create a thick, grease-like layer of browning mess on your tires.
For these reasons, it is important to prep your tires if your car is ever cleaned in a dealership environment (which you should avoid at all costs) or with solvent-based, silicone-rich dressings. Prep involves deep cleaning of your tires with a dedicated rubber cleaner, tar remover, and/or “mineral spirits” (aka paint thinner).
A combination of these products can be used depending on how gross your tires are. My rule of thumb is to clean and re-clean until the lather from my tire cleaner is white (the picture with the orange bottle above is Adam’s Tire & Rubber Cleaner, but the suds are from normal car soap). Dressings look less streaky and adhere better when applied to clean tires. Mineral spirits cut through really heavy grease and leave the rubber completely naked. It’s a great technique to use once or twice, but I advise using it as infrequently as possible. Paint thinner is harsh stuff.
Once your tires are cleaned, you can and should (to protect your tires and make them easier to clean) apply some kind of water-based dressing to them. I don’t specify a “natural shine” or “high shine” product here because level of shine is subject to preference. Additionally, water-based products can simply be diluted to reduce their shine. In other words, if you don’t mind messing with a funnel, consider buying a high-shine product like Carpro Perl (undiluted application result pictured below) or Meguiar’s D170 Hyper Dressing. Cut the product with distilled water to get more for your money. Be warned, however, that, as one of my favorite detailing resources says, “one gallon of D170 is enough to last seven humans several lifetimes.” It’s very economical.
Now you’re ready to apply a quality, water-based dressing diluted to your desired level of shine. What do you apply it with? The $6 foam applicator that will skip over the tread blocks on anything that isn’t a racing slick? No! Use a soft brush of appropriate size to apply the dressing and a microfiber towel to remove excess. Purpose-built detailing brushes are great, but most things from the painting aisle at your local hardware store will work well too. Brushes are cheaper than many tire-specific applicators, more durable, and they get dressing into intricate sidewall details better than any $6 foam thing you’ll find. “Load” the brush by spraying your dressing directly into the bristles (you’ll end up dressing many other things if you spray directly on the tire). Once the brush is adequately saturated, apply and let dry for a few minutes.
Brushes are my favorite dressing application tool, but it’s fine if you prefer block-type applicators for flatter sidewalls. Use what works for you. Ultimately, it’s most important to remove excess dressing with a quick towel wipe before calling the job done. Recall; I said, “product doesn’t matter that much when it comes to sling. 99% of sling is avoidable with proper prep and application.” This quick towel wipe is the step that eliminates sling for 99% of products.
When applied properly, all dressings, even the dealer slop-shines, don’t sling. The 1% of non-avoidable sling I’m accounting for comes from auto-parts-store spray-foam garbage you shouldn’t be using anyways. In addition to being solvent, oil, and/or silicone rich, these products are impossible to control. They drip, hit the wheel and brakes, and leave WAY TOO MUCH stuff on the tire. Throw them away and paint your dressing on instead.
Pictured below is a tire protected with Meguiar’s D170 Hyper Dressing diluted 4:1, applied with a brush, and “leveled” with a wheels-only microfiber towel. If undiluted, this stuff would look like the Carpro Perl we saw earlier. Instead, the 4:1 cut and towel wipe dials the shine back from Bellagio-bling to a more healthy, satin black look (almost identical to that of the P&S Beadmaker-protected wheels).
Armed with this article, the confusing world of dressings should be less like pocket squares and more like bow-ties. Not everyone knows how to tie a bow-tie and pairing one with the right jacket, pants, and shoes can significantly improve an outfit. Used properly, a bow-tie is a simple stylistic add-on that serves the functional purpose of keeping your collar tidy. Likewise, not everyone knows how to apply dressings. However, used properly, dressings improve the appearance of your vehicle’s vinyl, plastic, and rubber surfaces, and serve the functional purpose of adding protection and increasing cleanability. Applying this level of detailing care should not only be limited to personal vehicles, but also your next personal car rental or picture car rental in Los Angeles to ensure they look perfect where ever you may take them.
Bonus: heavily diluted dressings (4:1 or greater) are excellent for spray applications on under-hood plastics and other intricate vinyl/rubber/plastic items. See engine and other pretty wheel pics below.