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By Jeff Zurschmeide

Wheels are relatively easy compared to some aspects of classic car restoration. Most restorable cars used steel wheels of some kind, generally covered with hubcaps. Steel is a tough, forgiving metal that can be welded, straightened, and refinished many times and still come out structurally sound and looking good.

Rust is the big enemy of steel wheels. Many restorable classics have sat on flat tires for years, and so the edge of the wheels that happened to be pointed down when the car was parked are especially susceptible to rust. But the good news is that you can cut away a rusty section and replace it, or in the most extreme case, vintage and reproduction steel wheels are available for the vast majority of likely restorations.

Most tire shops can handle some level of straightening. They’ll mount the wheel up on a spin balancer and measure the wheel’s runout - or the amount that it wobbles away from truly straight (also called “true”). With a steel wheel, dents in the lip and a bit of runout can be fixed with a hammer and dolly. If the wheel is cracked, it can be welded and come back good as new. Remember that chrome or other plating surfaces hide cracks! Many racers use nickel plating for critical applications, because nickel does not hide cracks.

The situation is more complex with alloy, wooden spoke, or wire spoke wheels.

Alloy wheels are more prone to cracks and can become brittle with age. Many of the alloys include magnesium or other elements that are difficult to weld and impossible to hammer if they’ve been dented or damaged. If you’re planning to ride around in an expensive restoration, it pays to have your alloy wheels carefully examined for cracks and weak locations before you paint them, because paint will hide small cracks. All-aluminum and some alloy wheels can be welded if they are cracked, but should then be re-tempered.

Stripping and prepping an alloy wheel is a tricky business. Most chemical strippers dissolve aluminum, and abrasive blasts remove metal from the wheel. Restorers use the lightest possible solution of solvent and strip the wheel quickly, then neutralize the solvent immediately. If you choose to strip your alloy wheels, insist on lightweight abrasives such as walnut shell, plastic beads, or light chemical strippers. Most importantly, send your wheels to an expert to apply these stripping techniques.

Wooden spoke wheels simply must be sent to a specialist for proper restoration. Repairing and replacing wooden parts in a wheel is a job for expert artisans, as it has always been. No one else can do it. Getting the finish done to restoration quality also requires a delicate touch. Most wooden wheels were originally finished in marine spar varnish, so boat restoration supplies and techniques work well here.

Wire wheels are a little more forgiving, but also benefit from a trip to the wire wheel specialist. A good wire wheel shop will test the wheel for runout, test each spoke, replace any spokes that are weak or broken, inspect and repair the mounting splines, and re-seal the wheel. Then, most importantly, the shop will tune the wheel - that is, make sure the tension on each spoke is correct to hold the wheel in true and in balance. All of these factors combine to help your wire wheels balance, and it can be dangerous if your wire wheels have not been maintained properly.

When your wheels are known to be sound and true, you can paint them. Most steel wheels take a single color, and powder coating is popular as a way to put a durable, easy to clean finish on them. Do not powder coat an aluminum or alloy wheel, however, as the baking process destroys the temper of the alloy, and results in a brittle wheel. Spoke wheels can be powder coated, but the heat can throw them out of tune, and the coating must be broken to re-tune them later.

Most original factory wheel paints have been reproduced, so it’s easy to find your correct color and formulation in a spray can, and with attention to detail, you can do a good job with a basic single-color paint.

If your wheels require a special two-tone paint job, you may be able to find stencils to help you paint. Here’s a tip - place the stencil on the base-painted wheel and apply a second coat of the wheel’s base color over the stencil and the wheel - this will seal the edges of the stencil and help combat paint bleeding when you then overlay the contrasting color. Take your time and pay attention to detail for best results.

When your wheels are done, pay special attention to the equipment used to mount tires on your restored wheels. A modern tire shop should have “no-touch” equipment that will not scratch or dent your wheels. The time spent on the mounting and balancing equipment is the most dangerous time for your wheels. If you are using wire wheels or other wheels that require an inner tube, be sure your tire shop is experienced working with tubes.

Finally, modern balancing weights can ruin the look of a well-restored vintage wheel. No one will ever notice that a wheel has no visible balancing weights, but everyone notices an ugly weight. Spend a few extra dollars and ask the tire shop to install the weights on the inside of the wheel, or use stick-on weights behind the arms of the wheel, where they will be invisible to general inspection. If you plan to trailer your car and do not plan to drive it at roadway or highway speeds, you can omit balancing the wheels entirely.

Dos and Don'ts
Thumb up  DO
  • Have your wheels checked for cracks and true before you paint or otherwise refinish them
  • Send your wire or wood-spoke wheels to a specialty shop for restoration
  • Make sure that the tire shop knows how to work with inner tubes

Thumb down  DON’T
  • Don’t powder coat an aluminum or magnesium alloy wheel - you’ll pull the temper out of the wheel
  • Don’t chemically strip a non-steel wheel unless you know what you’re doing
  • Don’t sandblast an alloy wheel under any circumstances
The Popular Restorations Feature Car
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1946 Packard: Restoring the wheels



Packard went with 16 by 5.50 inch wheels and 7.50 tires for their 1946 Extended Wheelbase line, which included the Seven Passenger and Limousine models. These larger sedans were 800 pounds heavier than their standard-wheelbase counterparts, all of which rode on 15-inch wheels. But using larger wheels and tires presented a problem in that the vehicles appeared to be riding up in the air. To compensate, Henney Motor Company, the coachbuilder, lowered the front bumper and also the trim on the rocker panels so everything would look in proportion.

Rather than trying to remove the Popular Restorations feature car’s wheel paint and rust by hand, I took them to the powder coater who does the sandblasting for a nominal fee. As with many other restoration tasks, you’d think that would be the end of it: powder coat the wheels and put them on the car.

The problem was that the chrome trim rings I purchased would go on the wheels but they didn’t want to stay. You could easily grab a ring and pull it off. I knew it was a real problem when one of my neighbors handed me one of the rings that had fallen off the car earlier that day. The company that sold me the trim rings said they should work fine and my car club friends hadn’t encountered the problem before. Finally it occurred to me that the powder coated surface might be too tough to provide any grip for the trim ring clips. I brush-coated a one inch strip of paint on the wheels, right where the ring grips, and the problem was solved.



Skip's Wheel Werks

By Jeff Zurschmeide

Skip Mc Connell, Owner
4560 SW 96th Ave.
Beaverton, Oregon

PR: How should someone approach wheel restoration?

SM: I do a lot of wire wheels and aluminum/magnesium alloy wheels. Over the years, we’ve perfected the process for those wheels. Magnesium is a an amazing metal, but nobody wants to mess with it anymore. It’s a ‘dirty’ alloy, and it will burn! We’ve got a set of 1960s Porsche magnesium wheels right now that are in process. To be honest with you, the older stuff is the most fun. Most of the time, it’s not so much knowing what to do as knowing what not to do. How to keep from wrecking the wheels.

PR: What should people do and not do?

SM: On the older wheels, you want to chemically strip them rather than blasting them. I strip everything down to raw aluminum. Then the biggest point is the right products. My primer, for example, is $250 a gallon. Anything less than that is not going to work, and you shouldn’t powder coat aluminum wheels - it just looks horrible. The heat involved in powder coating can damage the temper of aluminum or magnesium. It’s important to get the wheel refinished right the first time because if you have to put the wheel back in the stripper, you’ve probably just ruined the wheel. You’ve only got so many chances to do this.

PR: Won’t chemical stripping dissolve aluminum wheels?

SM: My stripper is methyl chloride and hydrochloric acid. If you left the wheel in it overnight, there’d be nothing left. I actually submerge the wheels. You have to know what you’re doing. It’s different on a hot day than a cold day, for example.

PR: Can you TIG weld or straighten a magnesium wheel?

SM: It’s much harder to fix a magnesium wheel. It’s brittle and hard to deal with. Alfa and Ferrari are the two main brands that used magnesium wheels.

PR: What about steel wheels?

SM: Mostly we recommend powder coating for steel wheels. Where I come into play is the old Rally wheels on domestic muscle cars. Something trick with difficult paint application. I’m happy to do it, but for basic steel wheels, it generally costs less to replace them or have a tire shop straighten them than to have me fix them.

PR: How do you approach wire wheels?

SM: I can burn out the sealant and reseal them if they’re leaking. Mostly on the older wheels, they used inner tubes and tape to prevent the spoke heads from coming into the tube, but on modern wheels, they’ll use a sealant. I can do mounting and balancing and clean them up, but I don’t do spoke replacement. There are specialty shops that do that level of restoration on spokes. A lot of times we’ll have spoke wheels powder coated, which is easier than trying to get paint on all sides of every spoke.

PR: How much should someone expect to get a set of wheels restored to concours condition?

SM: About $200 per wheel for normal sizes used on vintage wheels. For a concours restoration, I’ll insist on doing the tire mounting and balancing myself when I restore the wheels. I just bought a $10,000 tire machine to do this stuff without damaging the wheels. A lot of places don’t know how to work with tubes any more.

Click on any item below for more details at Amazon.com

Don Taylor
Automotive Detailing: A Complete Car Guide for Auto Enthusiasts and Detailing Professionals
HP Trade, Paperback, 1998-06-01

This is a good basic book that covers all the bases of automotive detailing. With several chapters on paint care, the rest of the book looks at each functional area of a car and offers instructions for detailing. Also covers detailing as a business.

Greg Donahue
How to Restore Your Muscle Car
Motorbooks, Paperback, 2005-11-07

This book covers all aspects of restoration in detail, with a focus on the special issues found in 1960s and 70s muscle cars. From car selection through engine and interior restoration, this book is full of photos, illustrations, and step by step procedures. Examples are given from all domestic automakers. Reviews have been generally positive, for example (from AutoWeek): “With clean vintage muscle cars skyrocketing in price, this second edition has good timing, providing updates on parts sources and restoration techniques. We didn’t use the book to restore a muscle car, but we found it clear and concise, with user-friendly disassembly diagrams and 1,300-plus step-by-step photos, from choosing tools and which muscle car to restore, to completing the restoration.”

External Links

Here are some links to wheel restorers and vendors:

Coker Tire - Reproduction vintage wheels

Calimer’s Wheel Shop - wooden wheel restoration and manufacturing

Stockton Wheel - vintage wheel restoration and manufacturing - including wooden spoke wheels

British Wire Wheel - for all wire wheels

Vintage Wheel Works - Muscle car alloys

Wheel Vintiques - Reproduction vintage wheels

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