The harsh winter weather with all that road salt and extremes of hot and cold can take its toll on alloys. However, scruffy or damaged rims can easily be sorted if you take them to a VW wheel specialist for refurbishment.
As wheel designs and finishes have evolved, so has the scope and sophistication of the wheel refurbishing process. We’re sorry to say the days of simply grabbing a roll of masking tape, a sheet of wet ‘n dry and letting loose with an aerosol or tin of silver paint are long gone. Sure, mobile repair services can offer a temporary touch-up job, but they can’t prepare the wheel properly, produce a durable, long-lasting finish or offer the range of services of an experienced and properly equipped wheel refurbishing outfit. Here’s some of the most common wheel issues and the tricks of the trade used to get wheels looking factory fresh again.
Common VW wheel problems
So why take wheels to a specialist? Well, chances are it will be because of one of the following issues…
- Feeling flaky? – Most alloys have a clear lacquer applied to give a smart, mirror-like finish. However, if the covering of lacquer is damaged by salt, stone chips or kerbing then it will flake and allow the alloy below to corrode which will soon look ugly. The flaky lacquer needs to be stripped off before the wheel can be re-sprayed and re-lacquered.
- Kerb kissing – We’ve all experienced that sinking feeling when you accidentally nudge a kerb while parallel parking. It’s not nice and the impact can instantly ruin the looks of an otherwise mint rim. The good news is that kerbing scars can be either carefully ground out or, if it’s too deep, built up again with alloy weld which can then be ground to the original profile. Once sprayed, it will look as good as new again without a trace of the former damage. Badly pitted alloy wheels can also be made good again with a primer filler.
- Air we go – Often wrongly diagnosed as a puncture or leaking valve, corrosion around the rim will spoil the airtight seal between the wheel and the tyre, causing a gradual loss of pressure. Such corrosion is often caused by wheel weights being applied to the rim lip (as below). These damage the paint or lacquer coating, allowing water to penetrate the metal beneath. The remedy is to gently remove the surface corrosion with a grinder or wire wheel then fit surface mounted weights to the inner face of the wheel instead.
- Split rim resurrection – Those now iconic BBS split rims were a factory option on VWs from the 1980s and still look great today. However, they’re a nightmare to refurbish properly as the rims have to be broken down into their individual components before they can be worked on. Many use titanium bolts which snap and consequently require drilling out (see below). Still, if you’re after that real period ‘80s look, then getting them properly repaired is likely to be well worth the effort. You can also get one-piece rims that are made to look like genuine split rims with dummy bolts around the edge just for effect. However, they’re no easier to work on as the bolts still have to be removed during the stripping process and because the majority are made from plastic they often snap off.
- Lacking a bit of polish? – Shiny, polished alloy finishes look fabulous on later VW wheels like the ‘Detroit’ design but aren’t durable because the lacquer is applied to the bare alloy and doesn’t tend to stick very well. When the lacquer begins to flake off, the alloy underneath quickly corrodes making the wheel look scruffy. Re-machining the wheel would cost a fortune, so the best solution here is to have the wheels finished in a combination of wet paint and powder or chrome powder to give a long-lasting finish that looks very similar to the original polished effect.
So what’s actually involved? Well, once the tyres have been removed your old wheels are either chemically stripped then washed in a neutral solution or placed in a blasting cabinet to remove all the old paint, lacquer and brake dust. The wheels are then inspected and any pitting or damage to the rim caused by kerbing is carefully repaired at this point.
The wheels are then usually etch primed then pre-heated in an oven to de-gas the casting, expel any moisture and prepare the surface to accept the first coating of powder which is applied electrostatically. This is where the wheel is negatively charged and the gun positively charged to create a better bond. The heat of the wheel makes the powder melt then cure almost immediately, which is especially important with spoked wheels, to get the coating even without generating runs.
The wheel is then put back in the oven to cure again before being given a coloured powder top coat. At this point a wet coat finish might be introduced to give depth to the wheel. The wheel is then sprayed with a clear lacquer before being given a further stint in the oven to truly bake on the paint for a totally durable finish. And that’s it, job done!
In truth, there’s little that a skilled wheel refurbisher with the right workshop equipment can’t do to restore a rim to its original condition. The only damage that can’t be fixed are wheel buckles from the wheel centre which are often caused by a sliding collision where the wheels have hit a kerb sideways. If you buy a secondhand wheel with a bad wobble that refuses to run true, then we’re afraid it’s likely to be destined for the local skip.
If you’re into the stock look, then you’ll want to get your wheels refurbished to their original spec. On an early air-cooled Beetle this might mean doing a bit of historical detective work to determine the precise factory colour code for the inner and outer sections of the steel rim.
Don’t be fooled into assuming that all silver alloy finishes are the same. Some silvers are brighter than others and some have different sized metallic particles – so if you’re a real stickler for detail, you’ll need to find the exact swatch to match the original factory finish.
While there’s nothing wrong with opting for a factory OE finish, there’s lots of scope for choosing something a bit more unique. As for popular choices at the moment, silver over black (silver with black on the inside edges) is good because it doesn’t show brake dust. Meanwhile, white wheels look good on blue cars, but are tricky to keep clean, and black or anthracite tends to suit performance cars. Most specialists can recreate a carbon effect, which might look nice on sporty VWs such as the GTi’s, Sciroccos and Corrados. It’s a good idea to visit a specialist to see what finishes they offer to get a bit of inspiration.
Here’s the crunch. The price of carrying out a 17in VW wheel refurb is around £65, though you’ll pay more for a custom finish or more intricate restoration. Not cheap, but if you’ve got a rare set of rims or some nice period split rims, it will definitely be worth doing. The cost of rim repairs will depend on their severity, so it is wise to get a quote first. Don’t always go for the cheapest option, though, it’s best to go by recommendation – and get them to agree a deadline when it comes to getting them finished. The best wheel specialists always have a bit of a backlog!
A wheel alternative
The only one real snag with having your existing wheels refurbed is that you’ll need to get your car up on axle stands, fit an alternative set of wheels or find a specialist that’s able to do the entire refurb process in the same day.
None of that applies, of course, if you simply go out and get a spanking new set of rims instead – there’s lots to choose from here. After all, there’s little point having your old VW wheel refurbished if you fancy a bit of a change anyway…
The opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of VW Heritage.