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Published on November 18, 2020

How To: Save Money On Your Car By Refinishing Old Wheels

Piggy bank

I bought an older Jeep Cherokee as a daily driver and recently ran into an unexpected problem. The non-stock wheels the previous owner put on the vehicle didn’t fit properly, and I learned that other aftermarket wheels have the same problem! Finding old wheels designed for this model isn’t a problem, but they’re usually in terrible condition. I needed to refinish some wheels, and I didn’t want to pay through the nose to do it.

Here’s what I did.

Step 1: Find some used wheels

There are a bunch of ways to find old car parts these days. Junkyards are usually great, but they sometimes charge high rates for in-demand parts like wheels. I had better luck finding what I needed at a reasonable price on Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist.

It took only a few days of searching to find a set of five wheels that were of decent quality. All it cost me was my drive time, $100, and some more time listening to a few old stories from the (old) seller. When I got home, I had a set of forty year old wheels that looked like this:

Used Wheels

Not awful, but not great. I’m not a fan of white wheels for this Jeep, but this wasn’t an issue for me since I had plans to refinish them. Because of that the existing color, chips in the paint, surface rust, and broken valve stems didn’t matter.

I knew I was going to buy the tires from Discount Tire when they had a good sale. Any time you buy tires from them, they replace the valve stems, so I cut out the old stems. That let me get deeper into the wheels for cleaning and paint stripping.

Step 2: Get rid of rust (and maybe the paint)

It’s important to get rid of surface rust. It’s also important to smooth and clean the surfaces you’re going to paint. You can do that with time, a rust remover like Naval Jelly, and sandpaper... but I opted for power tools.

First grinding attempt

This is how a wheel looked a few minutes into the process. I highly recommend the use of an angle grinder with a wire brush attachment (see photo above). The ones that look like a cup with the wires pointed down stripped even more paint, but these usually tear themselves apart midway through one wheel. A single braided wire wheel worked really well and lasted through all five wheels.

Disclosure: This article contains Amazon affiliate links to products. Purchasing via these links supports our writing at no extra cost to you!

Here are some links to the products I used. These products are fairly generic and I’ll tell you what to look for when buying something similar.

I used a Makita angle grinder and a durable wire wheel and was pleased with the results.

Finished grinding one wheel

My main goal was to get rid of the surface rust and smooth out any bumps in the painted surface . I couldn’t get deep into the crevices of wheels shaped like this, but even with a first pass the wheels were looking a lot cleaner. This prepares the surface for the primer which comes next.

Eventually, I finished all five wheels:

All wheels cleaned

I could have gone further, but again, the main goal is rust removal and smoothing. If you want perfection, you’ll pay for it with more tools, chemicals, time, or money.

Step 3: Paint and paint equipment

I don’t have a paint bay at my house, but you want to set something up that will prevent the wind from dropping dust and other particles into your fresh paint. An old box gets the job done.

Primer and paint 'bay'

All you need is something big enough to hit the wheels from various angles with your spray paint. You can lay more cardboard over the top to prevent dust settling while the wheels dry.

Speaking of paint, here are the two products I used:

Rustoleum Automotive Filler and Sandable Primer

Rustoleum Matte Black Automotive Paint

I chose Rustoleum for this project because they’re a well-known brand with a reputation for quality while not being the most expensive. A solid middle ground. The paint choice is entirely subjective. Pick any color and any amount of “shine” you want and you’ll be pretty happy as long as the prep work was done well.

A few general notes on the choice of primer and how to use spray paint.For these wheels, knowing they had a few scratches and small dings, I wanted a primer that would fill in some defects. “Filler” primers are not miracle workers, but they’ll hide a lot of the basic imperfections. The downside is that you have to sand between coats. I didn’t do a perfect job sanding, and I ended up with some rough patches in my paint (you’ll see later). Where I did a good job sanding, the paint came out looking great. So pay attention. If your wheels are in better shape than mine were, you can go with a straight automotive metal primer or an “etching” primer. This primer has the advantage of not requiring sanding in between coats, so you’ll finish the job faster.

Step 4: Apply Primer and Paint

I cannot stress this enough … read the paint can. Every brand and even some types of spray paint are different. The can will tell you how far away to hold it, what temperatures are good for the paint to stick, and how long to wait between coats. Follow those directions… the manufacturer knows what they’re talking about!

The second thing people mess up is in their spray technique. Never start spraying with the nozzle pointed at your project. Start with it off to the side and drag the spray across your project, only releasing the nozzle when you’re past the wheel. Starting or stopping the spray on the wheel will give you too much or too little coverage in areas and lead to runs or unbalanced patches of paint.

The third major thing to keep in mind is the angle of your spray. You want to cover every angle of the project, but you don’t do that by spraying zig zags or rolling your wrists around and aiming the spray can like a water hose. Instead, do light coats from each corner of your paint booth and at different angles. Glide across it at ninety degrees from four sides, then at 45 degrees from four sides. You’ll have hit almost every surface possible.

The picture above is after a first pass with the primer. You can see it’s a fairly light coat. That’s perfect.

After each (light) coat, let the wheel dry the amount of time recommended on your spray can. Then go back and do another. I did three coats of primer on each wheel. After the third coat, I pulled the wheel out of my paint booth and set it under another box to dry.

Fully primed

Now for the paint, and the approach is the same as with the primer. Three coats, smoothly applied from different angles and directions.

Let them dry, and go get your tires mounted.

Wheels painted

They came out nicely.

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