How to Repaint Car or Truck Wheels

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Facelift Time: Should You Repaint or Replace Your Wheels?

Painted BBS wheels
Repainting your wheels makes a big impact. photo by Matt Wright, 2014

Wheels to a car are like shoes to people. They are often the things you notice first, and when you do notice them, they say a lot about the wearer. Some people buy them because they will be comfortable and perform well. Or at least that’s what they tell you when they spend an exorbitant amount of money on shoes, or wheels. The fact is most wheel purchases are based on aesthetics. If you’ve been thinking of buying new wheels for your car or truck but aren’t sure you’re ready to drop the necessary wad of cash on the project, you might consider repainting your existing wheels. Save big!

There are a few real benefits to repainting your wheels. First, since they are already on the car and in use, you know that there will be no surprises concerning fitment or drivability. There’s nothing worse than gazing at your car sitting on beautiful new wheels only to discover there is a clearance issue or something else that will keep you from enjoying the ride. Second, if you repaint the wheels you are already using, you can definitely keep your tires. Often with new wheels you will need a different size tire to match. Or common sense will tell you that if you’re paying to have tires mounted and balanced it may be a good time to replace the tires, even if they have some life left in them. 

Ready to paint your wheels? The procedure is the same whether you are going to use a professional grade wheel paint or you want to go with a more temporary solution like Plasti-Kote. 

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Preparing Your Wheels for Paint

wheel painting
This wheel was masked, prepped and painted with pro quality wheel paint. photo by Matt Wright, 2014

The first step is to get your wheels very, very clean. If you are just painting the outside of the wheels, you can get away with leaving them installed on the vehicle through the whole process. Your wheels get very dirty with use. Road grime, grease, paint, tar — all of these things can coat your wheels. You’ll need to clean them first with soap and water, then again with something sure to cut through the goop like mineral spirits.

Once you have the wheels clean you need to prepare the surface to hold paint. If something is too smooth and shiny, paint won’t stick to it well. You’ll get a great paint job that starts to fall apart within a few weeks or months. No thanks! The glossy finish needs to be removed or at least compromised before you respray the wheels. The easiest way to do this is using steel wool. Steel wool allows you to break the surface of the old paint without the risk of adding any deep scratches or grooves that will show up through your new paint job. Scuff the entire area that you plan to paint. When you're done, clean the wheels again. 

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Masking and Painting Your Wheels

lug nut paint trick
Spare lug nuts will mask your lug holes and keep them clean during painting. photo by Matt Wright, 2014

With everything ready to go, you'll need to protect your tires from the flying paint. Use masking tape to cover the entire tire. Be sure to get it as close to or underneath the lip of the metal rim so you don't get any spray on your tires. With masking tape, small strips -- 6 inches or less --  overlapping each other seems to work well. 

TIP: You never want to paint the area where the lug nut contacts the wheel (known as the seat). To keep paint out, sit a set of lug nuts in the seat while you're painting. 

You're ready to actually spray the paint on the wheels! The trick to painting is to spray many, many light coats rather than a soaking. You'll know that you're applying the right amount of paint because it will look like it's going on smoothly, not pebbly or gloppy. Experiment with the speed of your strokes to control how much paint is going on. Put at least three coats on your wheels to be sure you get a lasting finish. When they're dry, pull off the tape and enjoy!