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Refinishing and painting your wheels

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  • Refinishing and painting your wheels

    I got a deal on a set of OEM teardrop alloys that a friend wasn't using - 4 wheels with mounted, used, Kumho Ecsta 712 tires, for $100.

    Unfortunately, they didn't look nearly that good. They've been around the block a few times. They had the usual issue with Saturn wheels where the clear finish they put on top begins to tarnish and/or peel off with time. And they'd been scratched a bit on curbs. But hey, the price was right, so I wasn't complaining.

    But I got to thinking, it wouldn't take much work to make them look a whole lot better. I'd seen wheel paint for sale in auto parts stores, so with a little work I could restore their former glory. No, actually - I could paint them something other than bright silver, making an OEM wheel look aftermarket. As Jack Burton says, "What the hell."

    First, you get to take that crappy looking old wheel and sand the hell out of it. The best way is if you have an orbital sander. Use the finest grit sandpaper you can. This isn't wood, and rough sandpaper will scratch the hell out of it even more (just trust me on this one). I used 220 grit, the finest I could find for my sander. Go over the entire front surface of the wheel as best you can. With all the curves and swirls, you won't get into every nook and cranny. But you can smooth out the surface, including scratches, and remove the outer varnish that tends to peel. Don't worry about getting all the discolorations and tarnish out. The paint will cover it up, and as long as the surface is smooth it won't be visible.

    When you're done, wipe off all the dust. A dry rag will work fine. You just don't want to paint the dust into the wheel permanently.

    The prep work for painting is far more work than the actual painting itself. But if you do it right, the end result is well worth it.

    The best scenario is if you don't have any tires mounted on your wheels. If that's the case, you can basically skip this part. Just remove the valve stems and wheel weights and paint away.

    My wheels came with tires on them, and I didn't want to remove them and remount them. So I used a lot of masking tape and some old newspapers to cover everything I didn't want painted. I stuck masking tape on the tire all around the area near the rim, then used newspaper to cover the larger areas. The more attention to detail you pay here, the less chance you'll end up painting your tires by accident.

    If you're painting with the tires still on, don't forget to wrap up the valve stem. If possible, remove your wheel weights, but mark on the tire exactly where they were, and reattach them after you paint. (I didn't have the right tools to remove mine, so I was lazy and painted over them. I'll have to go touch up those areas when I get these tires replaced.)

    There were several colors of spray paint made specifically for wheels at the parts store. To restore the original look of your stock wheels, get silver. I decided to be a little different, and got a darker graphite color instead.

    Stand the wheel up vertically (or hang it on a wall or whatever). This way the paint can will be vertical and it will spray properly. KEEP THE CAN MOVING AS YOU SPRAY. This prevents too much paint from building up in one area and running. Spray in circles around the wheel. Do multiple coats. I did two light coats, followed by one medium coat. The first coat was just enough to change the color of the wheel. The paint dries quickly. Ten minutes after each coat, you can spray on the next one. One can of paint did all 4 wheels with some left over (handy for touch-ups).

    I bought and tried some clearcoat, but its consistency was different than the paint, and I had trouble with it spraying on too thick and running. I ended up sanding down and repainting the first wheel I tried because of it. In the end I chose not to clearcoat it. If your painting skills are better than mine, then go for it.

    You're done
    Once the last coat dries, you can remove the tape and newspaper (if you had to do any masking as I did). I put the wheels on my car almost immediately with no issues, but if you want to be particularly careful you can put them away for 24 hours so the paint completely cures.

    Here's the final product on my car. An OEM wheel style that wasn't available from the factory on that particular car, plus a color change, and it looks like I have aftermarket wheels on the car - for a bargain basement budget.

    (My friend couldn't find the centercaps for these wheels at the time I bought them. He's since found them, and when I get them I'll paint them to match and put them on.)


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