Alloy Wheel Refinishing & Restoration

By Jeremy Goodspeed

Jewelry for cars! That’s how I have always viewed automotive wheels. It is a well known fact that rims are the most often changed and modified item on a vehicle. The reason is simple; they are easily changed, thousands of choices to suit every taste and they make a large impact to the overall look of any vehicle. However, not everyone wants a custom wheel on their vehicle. So, after several years even stock wheels when neglected can make a vehicle look poor at best. The following article will cover the basics of wheel refinishing for home enthusiast.

First things first: Determine what you want to do with your wheels. Is a restoration your goal? Or do you want to touch them up for a better overall appearance? It is always best to determine what you want to achieve before you start a project. So for the purpose of this article, we are going to restore a Volvo 240 Turbo wheel that has some cosmetic issues such as damaged paint, light curb marks and some corrosion from the aluminum being exposed to many years of outdoor elements.

With the tire and wheel assembly removed from the vehicle. We will start by removing the center cap and dismounting the tire from the wheel. We achieve this by using our European tire machine and remove the tire from the back side because of the wheels reverse drop center design. Most wheels are removed from the front side however. If you are only doing a freshening up of your wheels, you can mask the tire using duct tape followed with 12”paper as this will stick to the tire and not come off until you are done with your project. Just tuck small lengths of duct tape under the bead and work yourself completely around the tire. Also mask the valve stem with masking tape as it cannot be reinstalled without tire removal.

For a wheel that has been dismounted, remove the valve stem. Next clean the wheel using a wheel cleaner to remove any excess brake dust. It is a good idea to clean both the front and back side of the wheel so it can either be sanded or media blasted without contamination. If you are only refinishing the front of the wheel, cleaning both sides will allow masking tape to adhere to the back side of the wheel and prevent overspray.

Once cleaned and dried, isolate any wheel damage and determine the proper repair. For curb damage use a metal file and remove any heavy marks. Follow with various grades of sand paper, starting with 80-grit and moving upward to 320 grit to restore the wheel lip to pre impact condition. The repair process only works for wheels that have dismounted from its tire as some access to the back-side of the mounting bead might be necessary. Also sand any miscellaneous nicks in the aluminum by sanding and smoothing them out.

Once the wheel damage has been repaired and what I like to call roughed in, the next step is to prepare the wheel for paint. For the purpose of our wheel, we used our media blasting cabinet to completely strip the paint for refinishing. If your goal is to just freshen-up your wheel, wet sanding problem areas with 240 or 320-grit followed by 400-grit would work fine.

Once the wheel has been either sanded or media blasted to remove old paint, the wheel needs to be primed with a Self Etching Primer to seal the bare aluminum and properly add the proper adhesion between the aluminum and our finishing paint. The self etching primer should be allowed to dry for a couple of hours before any further work. On this particular wheel, we had a few light nicks that did not sand out completely. We mixed a small amount of light finishing putty to fill these marks. We recommend a catalyzed putty to guarantee good quality results.

Once the finishing putty has been sanded, these repaired areas should be re-primed with Wurth Hi-Build Primer Surfacer. Allow a few hours or more to cure. Primer will continue to cure, so the longer it dries the better it will sand. After a proper cure time has been established, you are ready for final preparation for paint. If you are only sanding the wheel you only need to spot prime the areas that have bare aluminum. An excellent product to prime these areas is Wurth Self Etch Primer. It is fast drying and has excellent sanding properties. Wurth Self Etch Primer has strong adhesion to all bare metals and other substrates.

Now we are ready for paint! On this particular wheel the Wurth White Alloy Wheel Paint is a great match. It closely matches the OEM satin gloss finish on many 70 and 80’s European vehicles. Although this paint can be clear coated for a higher gloss, it can be used as a single-stage paint. Apply several light coats to obtain coverage.

For later model vehicles it is recommended to use the Wurth German Alloy Silver Wheel Lacquer. Wurth German Alloy Silver Wheel Lacquer is a fast-drying lacquer that matches the standard alloy wheel paint use by late model Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, VW, Audi, Volvo and most other European OEMs. Use several very light coats and allow 30 minutes drying time between coats. As the coats build, a slight texture in the finish will result. This is correct and will closely match the OEM finish when the clear coat is added.

After the final base coat of silver is applied, wait about a full hour or more before applying your first coat of Wurth Clear Laquer Wheel Paint. This will allow the clear to bond without pulling the color from the base silver coat and causing the wheel to have an uneven finish. Apply two full coats of clear allowing 30 minutes between coats. Once the final coat of clear has been applied, allow the wheels to cure at least 24-48 hours before handling the wheel or mounting the tire.