Alloy wheels look amazing. They’re shiny and yet classy. They’re sportive and still professional. Best of all, they add a touch of futuristic elegance to even the most mundane models.

Yes, they’re pricey. But so are many other things. And what would life be without a little luxury? If you can afford it, that is …

Still, with regards to the high costs involved, it is all the more painful if your alloy wheels break or get damaged. Replacement costs are high, and so is refurbishment.

In this special, we’ll deal with all aspects of damaged alloy wheels. We’ll investigate when it makes sense to repair your wheels yourself and when to leave it to the experts. We’ll give you an honest opinion on remanufactured wheels. Last but not least, we’ll give you an overview on the kind of repairs a professional garage can provide you with.

But first things first:

What, exactly, are allow wheels?

Very simply, an alloy is a combination of one metal with another substance (which can also be a metal). The idea behind alloys is that the final product will blend different, sometimes opposing, ideally complementary qualities. This can create substances which are both light and strong, hard and flexible, cheap and yet durable.

When it comes to cars, most insiders will typically define an alloy wheel as not being made of steel. Technically, this is a very imprecise definition. After all, steel itself is an alloy of iron and carbon. But it’s by far the most widely used terminology. So, for this article, we’ll stick with it.

What are alloy wheels made of?

Alloy wheels could potentially be made of any two or more materials. In practise, however, a few combinations have proven to be more efficient than others.

Aluminium alloys were the first to be used on cars. Mercedes experimented with them as far back as the 1930s. But they did not catch on straight away. Partly, because steel was a lot cheaper back then in comparison. Partly, because production processes were not quite up to snuff yet. This meant that these wheels would be too brittle and break easily.

Until the mid-1960s, magnesium alloys were quite popular. Once aluminium stability improved, however, they quickly dominated the alloy wheel market. Soon, even steel would be relegated to second position.

Alloy wheels versus steel wheels

In 1989, The Rolling Stones launched a major comeback with their 21st studio album Steel Wheels. By the time they released the work, just like the band, the actual steel wheels were already on the decline.

There are many reasons why alloy wheels are simply irresistible. The most basic and visceral one is that they look amazing. Aluminium alloys have a magical shine to them. Plus, they can be molded into the most fantastical shapes.

Before they hit the scene, wheels were nothing more than a metal support for tyres. Suddenly, they had become fashion items. For many drivers, they were expressions of their personality.

But it’s not just their appearance which makes alloy wheels an interesting proposition.

In fact, they have quite a few benefits over traditional steel wheels:

  • Alloys are usually lighter than steel. This enhances the performance of the car and improves fuel efficiency. You shouldn’t make too much of this, however. You can find several calculations online explaining that even over the entire lifetime of a car, savings are slim at best. It is doubtful you’ll be able to recover the quite extensive premium costs of an alloy wheel through petrol savings this way.
  • Alloy wheels can give you better handling in general and better traction in particular. This is because “lighter wheels can improve handling by reducing unsprung mass, allowing suspension to follow the terrain more closely and thus improve grip.”
    Alloy wheels offer better heat conduction. As a result, breaks don’t overheat. All else being equal, they’ll respond better in potentially dangerous situations.

But alloy wheels have their deficits, too.

That’s not to say that steel wheels are deficient in every single respect. Quite on the contrary, they still hold quite a few advantages.

Although alloys have improved significantly over the past decades, they still tend to break more than steel wheels. This is not necessarily the result of the materials per se. As esteemed car magazine Cars explains:

“Lighter wheels […] typically come with low profile tires that provide little cushion against bumps and potholes. That means that the larger your wheel diameter […], the greater the risk that an alloy wheel could be bent or cracked by impacts. […] Steel wheels are usually shod with higher-profile tires that provide more cushion against injury.”

For the same reason, the thicker, more absorbent steel wheels can potentially offer a more comfortable ride.

What’s more, alloy wheels are a considerably more expensive and popular item with thieves. And although they do not rust, strictly speaking, they can suffer from ugly and potentially harmful discolourations as well.

Different seasons, different tyres

As mentioned, neither steel wheels nor alloy wheels are unbreakable. Most experts seem to agree, though, that when push comes to shove, steel wheels offer just a little more protection.

If you still want to enjoy the pleasure of alloy wheels, there’s a simple solution: Use steel wheels during the Winter season, when the danger of physical damage is more real. Then, starting in Spring, you can replace them by mounting alloy wheels with low-profile tyres.

This way, you can keep enjoying your alloy wheels without having to worry about breaking them too soon. If done correctly, this seasonal approach can save you a lot of money in repair or replacement costs.

What are typical alloy wheel problems?

Let’s now take a closer look at the kinds of problems that you’ll potentially encounter with alloy wheels:

  • Scrapes, Scratches and Scuffs: These are usually caused by wear and tear over the years. They are unlikely to reduce vehicle safety, but are usually not pretty to look at.
  • Fading: This is also more of an aesthetic issue. Just like any other material, the alloy of your wheels can loose its bright sheen over time. As with minor scrapes or scuffs, there is no reason to worry about this – unless you are very concerned about how your car will look to others.
  • Bent, Buckles and Dents: These are the more serious versions of scrapes, scratches and scuffs. Buckles, for example, are a lot more serious than scuffs, because they relate to the very integrity of the wheel. A buckle or a dent can impact the way the car drives and affect handling and stability. For this reason alone, it is advisable to do something about this as soon as you discover the damage.

Can’t I just get refurbished wheels?

The short answer to that is: No. But that wouldn’t be particularly helpful to you now, would it? So here’s a more detailed explanation why refurbished wheels are not ideal to say the least.

The idea behind using refurbished wheels is sort of a compromise: If you need to repair or replace your alloy wheels, the costs may be prohibitively high. Instead, you can opt for a wheel which has been carefully restored into a usable state by a dealer.

At its very best, this will save you a lot of money and provide you with wheels which are safe and look as good as new.

Before we get into the downside of this wonderful theory, we need to first address the terminology. After all, when people use the word ‘refurbished’, they are rarely aware that there are up to three different versions:

Refurbished alloy wheels

The term refurbished is often indiscriminately used for every used wheel which has been repaired in some form.

More specifically, however, it really mostly means that some form of mechanical work has been performed on it. This can range from simple cleaning and sanding to the removal of buckles and dents.

These procedures are very basic and don’t involve any complicated processes or tools.

Reconditioned alloy wheels

But of course, the damages can be more severe. In some cases, merely using mechanical tools will not be enough. In these cases, the dealer/garage will need to use more powerful techniques:

These can include, among others, “re-machining, super-heating, welding, chroming.”

None of these procedures can be performed by a laywoman. And they will all require expert input. Then again, the resulting wheel will have an almost as good as new look to it, if done well.

Remanufactured alloy wheels

Finally, a skilled mechanic can go so far as to essentially produce a new wheel using old materials. You can think of this as an advanced form of recycling.

Using very high heat, old and brittle alloy wheels are hardened by the addition of more solid metals. The wheel that emerges from this process will only faintly resemble the one which entered it. Essentially, you get a new product with entirely different qualities and characteristics.

Whether or not this is a good thing depends entirely on the mechanic carrying out the procedure.

The problem with reconditioning.

A remanufactured wheel can be as good as a new one. In fact, it can be better than most new ones, since a skilled mechanic may be able to achieve an even better material composition than some ‘official’ manufacturers.

That said, you can’t tell a great remanufactured alloy wheel from a badly engineered one just by looking at it. They may both look excellent despite glaring disparities in terms of their qualities.

This is why almost every single car brand strongly advises against mounting  these wheels on your car. In fact, Ford even suggests that they “may change the shape or size of the wheel and cause steering or suspension problems, creating loss of control, leading to rollover and death or injury to those riding in a vehicle.”

Many other major makes have issued similar statements. We, too, do not recommend you use these wheels unless you’re an absolute expert and can tell the good from the bad.

Repairing wheels yourself

Here’s a thought: If buying and fixing alloy wheels is so expensive – why not perform the tasks yourself? You can teach yourself to speak new languages online, you can find tutorials on just about anything on Youtube. So why shouldn’t it be possible to become a pro at alloy wheel refurbishment as well?

Certainly, getting your hands dirty can save you a lot of money. Alloy wheels are highly popular items and as such, even their repair is extremely expensive. In comparison, some of the tasks to bring your wheels up to date again are simple and merely require a bit of patience, a steady hand and decent tools.

Let’s take a closer look at making your wheels shine again.

What you’ll need

Instead of buying many different products from different brands, get a repair kit. These contain everything you’re going to need and collect them in one place. Individual products may not be the very best the market has to offer. But they’ll usually be good enough. And you can always top up or replace some of the lesser quality items with hand-picked ones.

So what’s inside these kits? Usually, you’ll find the following:

  • A filler,
  • paint,
  • sandpaper,
  • brushes and
  • various other tools.

You should also get a professional wheel cleaning fluid. These can help you get the wheel looking as new again. They’re also both softer and more abrasive than your average soap.

If you want to step things up a notch, you can also buy some primer to put the finishing touches to your wheels.

Step 1: Cleaning

Let’s get started. If you’re really serious about fixing your alloy wheels yourself, you’ll need to take them off first. Of course, theoretically speaking, you could leave the wheels mounted on the vehicle while cleaning them. But it’s a lot easier and safer to perform these jobs if they’re detached. Also, if you lay the wheels flat on the ground, this prevents the paint from running down the entire surface of the alloy. And that is something you definitely want to avoid.

Before you can get to the paint, though, cleaning the wheels thoroughly is of vital importance.

There are excellent commercial wheel cleaners out there. These are, write Carbibles, “mild enough that you don’t have to worry about your paint, [and] tough enough on dirt that it rinses right away.”

A very cool feature of some products is that they will react with the dirt once applied and change into a different colour. So, once the cleaning fluid changes back to its original colour (which may simply be translucent), you’ll know the wheel is clean.

Organic alternatives

If you don’t feel like using heavy chemicals on your wheels, you can opt for simple and yet effective home remedies to get the job done.

Vinegar is an obvious choice. What works for the delicate surfaces of your kitchen is going to be pretty good for your wheels as well. Some will advise you to spray vinegar directly on the affected areas and to then rinse and wipe it away using a sponge.

While this should be okay, we usually recommend diluting the vinegar first. It will still be tough enough to get your wheel clean again. But you can make sure it doesn’t damage the materials in any way.

The alternative to vinegar is cream of tartar. What sounds like a really crazy idea actually works pretty well. Use a ratio of 2:1 for cream of tartar to water and add a little vinegar or lemon juice for good measure. The resulting mixture will have lightly abrasive and powerful cleaning properties in line with the best commercial products.

Step 2: Sanding

Let’s now turn to the – pun intended – nitty-gritty. Sanding the wheel will take care of the many different flaws and make it look all fresh and new again.

Before you get tough on your wheel, you should first protect it from catching paint. The only parts that should be visible is the actual alloy.

Begin by masking all parts which you don’t want to sand down. The most obvious way to do this is to use tape. But, as Carbibles point out in an instructive article, you can also use playing cards:

“A pack of playing cards can really come in handy at this stage as you can slot them into the gap between the wheel and the alloy and sort of “fan” them around. You might need to deflate the tire a little so you can easily reach all parts of the wheel.”

After that, get to work using the sanding paper contained in your alloy wheel repair kit.

Chipsaway has a  great tip: Wetting the sandpaper first to soften it, which will make it less likely that you’ll damage the fragile surface and leave scratch marks.

Generally speaking, you should always use sanding paper. Even if the wheel looks fine superficially, this step will prepare it for the next parts of the process: Painting.

Step 3: Filling and Priming

Before you can get to work applying fresh paint to your alloy wheel, you’ll first need to fill and prime it.

This sounds more complicated than it actually is.

Filling may not always be necessary. The idea is simply that if you have deeper dents or damages, then you’ll need to smooth these out. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a wheel that’s perfectly painted but has an uneven surface.

You can use a commercial filler to get this done and it’s not particularly difficult to apply. Do keep in mind is that these products take some time to dry. So if you want to re-paint your alloy wheels on the weekend, you should ideally apply the filler by Wednesday night at the latest.

Next comes priming.

Priming a wheel, as in make-up, lays the foundation for the colour you’re going to apply. It may seem a slightly superfluous step. But believe us, it’s important. Only by priming the surface well and evenly can you expect to get a result that is even and true to the original colour.

Step 4: Painting & Coating

Ironically, the actual task of re-painting the wheel is probably the easiest part of the entire job. It’s getting there that takes time, patience and a bit of talent.

When painting your alloy wheel, simply use a can of spray paint. These are fairly cheap and yield surprisingly professional-looking results. You certainly don’t need to be an expert to do this.

What you do need to pay attention to is the following:

  1. Make 100% sure that the primer has completely dried. If it hasn’t, this could ruin all the hard work you’ve invested so far.
    Apply the paint evenly. Circular swooping motions tend to be best.
  2. Don’t apply too much of it. Most of the contemporary paints will look great and intense even when used sparingly.

Once the paint has dried and everything looks good, put some wheel sealant on top. This will add another protective layer and make sure the alloy wheel looks great for many years to come.

Getting it done by professionals

As we’ve indicated, there will be cases when the damage to your alloy wheel is too substantial for you to deal with it. Ultimately, you will need to take that decision yourself: How deep are those dents? Is the wheel’s integrity in danger?

Of course, if you have a knowledgeable friend who is willing to take a look at the wheels, then do ask her for her opinion. It is great to trust in your own abilities. But it would be foolish to put yourself in danger by attempting a repair beyond your skills.

Even some cosmetic repairs require expert attention. If the damage to your wheel is severe, you may not be able to sand them down yourself, for example. This is simply because deeper dents require extremely high precision work which can only performed by very expensive machines. “Chunks of missing wheel”, as Fixter drastically put it, “can be filled using metall fillers”.

Aftercare

On top of precision sanding and filling, professional mechanics have a few more tricks up their sleeve. One of their main areas of expertise are special colours.

They also offer excellent sealants which you can’t buy in a regular retail store:

  • Powder coating: A very durable and high-quality paint which is available in endless shades. It is, however, no longer truly up to modern standards. As producer Avalon King has explained in an insightful article, powder coating is a complex product with a long history. It can still be helpful for many purposes. But according to them, ceramic coatings offer even better protection.
  • Ceramic coating: At this moment, this is probably the best protection you can get for your alloy wheels. Ceramic coating is applied like regular paint. After it has dried, it has literally become part of the paint’s fabric. So it is almost impossible to remove it, offering unparallelled protection.
  • Clear lacquer: A cheaper solution than powder- or ceramic coating. You can also apply this one yourself if you want to. But a professional mechanic will undeniably get better results.

Diamond cutting

We’ve talked about how remanufacturing an alloy wheel can be dangerous to the wheel’s stability. Absolutely all car manufacturers out there look down upon it.

Diamond cutting is, in many respects, very similar to remanufacturing. The difference is that this is a respected technique with many benefits.

Essentially, what diamond cutting does is recutting the wheel using a laser. This allows the mechanic to level out all pits, dents, marks and scuffs with extremely high precision. The great thing about working with a laser is that you can cut out very fine layers. So you hardly waste any material at all.

What sounds like a device straight out of a science fiction movie is now available from most garages. If it’s done properly, it will produce a wheel which is as good as new and can then be re-painted and sealed to yield perfect results.

The only disadvantage of diamond cutting is that it is still very expensive. You should definitely get a realistic quote before agreeing to this – sometimes, just getting entirely new wheels may not be all that much more expensive.

When it’s too late for a repair

In a few cases, the damages to your wheels may simply be too extreme. In this case, it’s better to bite the bullet and buy a new set of wheels.

Repair centre First Aid Wheels has summed up these cases as follows:

  • Corrosion beyond repair: If you ignore first signs of corrosion, the fabric of the alloy itself can gradually disintegrate. Air will eventually start to leak and the material fragments. It becomes brittle and this is where you need to let go of the idea of repairing it. Even diamond cutting can’t save highly corroded wheels.
  • Severely Cracked Rim: As First Aid Wheels put it: “Small cracks in a wheel rim can be fixed by welding but the stresses on the wheel could cause the cracks to grow causing a blowout. In this case buy new alloys.”
  • Distorted wheels: This is a typical case after an accident. After a severe collision, the wheel’s shape may end up deformed. You will feel the difference while driving: The steering wheel may vibrate and you may find that the car reacts differently. In cases like these, it’s safer to replace the wheel rather than experimenting with expensive repair techniques. The same goes for heavily buckled wheels as a result from hitting the curb.

And there you have it, our comprehensive guide to alloy wheels. Of course, you can trust all wheels to be in perfect shape when buying one of our cars. Just drop by our Manchester showroom to take a look at our collection in person.