Reconditioned Wheels

The Right Way, the Wrong Way and the Third Way.

Spinning wheel
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Let's face it, you don't generally think about your car's wheels unless you have to. People think about tires more often, but wheels are mostly just there to keep the tires attached to the car, right? Unless you're putting on some sweet aftermarkets, the only time you tend to think about your wheels is when they get damaged, or even worse when they get damaged by someone else, and at that point what you're thinking is usually unprintable.

Then it gets even more unprintable when you find out what it will cost to replace your damaged wheel. $500 per wheel is pretty average, and prices can easily go north from there. So knowing something about reconditioned wheels before you end up cursing at the guy behind the wheel counter can be a big help.

In the context of auto parts, “reconditioning” is the act of taking a used part and restoring it to a like-new condition. For used wheels, this involves repairing any structural damage and refinishing the wheel's cosmetics. There are three ways of doing this – the right way, the wrong way and the third way - and it's important for you to know the difference to be an informed consumer.

On a side note: We'll be discussing the refinishing process for clearcoated wheels, that is wheels with a cosmetic finish that includes a clear sealant over the face that protects the finish from air and water corrosion.

This includes the vast majority of wheels that are painted, polished or machined, but does not include wheels that are chromeplated. Rechromeplating wheels is a different and extremely complex process that involves dipping the wheel into liquid metal while running an electrical charge through it. Reconditioned chrome wheels are relatively rare, because that process is extremely expensive and so it's not at all cost-effective except with incredibly expensive aftermarket chromies.

The Right Way

The right way to recondition a wheel begins with the used or damaged wheel, what the industry calls a “core.” Proper reconditioners will only use what we call, “Class-A cores” that is, cores that are not so badly damaged that they cannot be safely welded. Wheels that have been cracked on the front face, along the spokes or inside the barrel, for example, are not safely repairable.

The core is then, “de-finished” that is, the existing cosmetic finish is removed down to the bare metal to provide a blank canvas for the new finish to go on. Usually this is done on a Computer Numeric Control (CNC) lathe, which will also smooth out any scrapes, or “curb rash” on the face of the wheel, and take off a miniscule layer of metal to provide a brand-new surface to work with. The wheel must then receive a coat of primer very quickly, as air and water will begin to corrode the metal surface almost immediately, and even a microscopic layer of corrosion will interfere with how the finish sticks to the metal.

After priming, the wheel gets a coat of paint or powdercoat. If the wheel is going to have a “machined” finish, it then goes back to the CNC lathe, which will lathe the paint and primer right back off the high spots of the face to leave a shiny metal finish with a painted finish staying in the low spots, a finish we call, “paint in the pockets.” Whichever the exact finish, the refinishing is completed with a clearcoat sealant applied across the entire face of the wheel.

The Wrong Way

That's the right way to do things. There's also a wrong way, practiced by a horde of so-called “mobile refinishers” who essentially practice their trade from the back of a van. This process involves only refinishing any damaged areas of the wheel. Scrapes and curb rash are smoothed out or patched up with epoxy, and primer, paint and clearcoat are applied only to the damaged areas. In many cases the tire is not even removed from the wheel. Doing things this way sounds great on paper. It's very inexpensive and usually takes only a few hours, while a complete refinish can take days. But there are a lot of reasons why this is a bad idea.

First of all, the whole idea of using clearcoat as a sealant is that it has to be all one coat. If you just sand the clearcoat off one damaged area and then replace it, what you have at the end are two clearcoated areas that butt up against each other instead of one complete coat.

Between the two areas is a microscopic break, which will allow water to seep in and eventually destroy the repair. As well, there is a reason that proper refinishing takes several days, which is that the primer, paint and clearcoat all require some time to cure and harden before the next layer can be applied. Not allowing for curing time means a substandard finish that will not last very long. Between those two factors, what you get is a refinishing job that is guaranteed to last only as long as it takes for the refinisher to finish counting your money. After that, you're on your own.

The Third Way

But who wants to go without a wheel for days while your damaged wheel gets repaired? Even if you're lucky enough to have a spare, it's a major inconvenience. The middle ground practiced by many shops and online retailers is to sell wheels that have already been refinished. This way, you can buy a wheel that has been repaired, usually for less than half the cost of a new one, have it installed, and be on your way in no time. Some retailers will even give you a discount on a refurbished wheel if they can take your damaged wheel and send it off to be refinished. We call that a “core swap” and while it is practiced less and less in the industry nowadays, you can still find some shops who do it.

Safety Issues

As with any reconditioned auto parts, there are always safety issues that you should b e aware of. With many auto parts, those safety issues will involve moving parts, friction parts or wear issues, which are simply not a concern when it comes to wheels. What is a concern is the structural safety of the wheel, which is why reputable refinishers will only use Class-A cores, as I mentioned. The trick is in knowing that the refinisher you're buying from is reputable.

This can sometimes be difficult, since many of the bigger and better refinishers are business-to-business only. You can ask your shop who they use, but most will be reluctant to give out that information; because it inevitably gives customers the idea that they can try to get around the middleman, and the refinishers hate having to deal with the customers who inevitably try.

Sometimes the best you can do is ask the shop about Class-A cores, and what standards they have if they send wheels out to be refinished.

There are, of course a number of intelligent people who hold very dim views of the safety of reconditioned wheels. Many automakers strongly discourage the practice, although it should be pointed out that said automakers make a significant profit selling replacement wheels. Crashrepairinfo.com provides links to several automaker statements on the issue, as well as a very legal-centric analysis of some of the perceived dangers.

My own opinion comes from having managed a wheel repair shop for 10 years. In that time I sold thousands upon thousands of reconditioned wheels from reputable sources. I personally never had even one incidence of a reconditioned wheel failing in any way because it had been repaired. To be absolutely honest, I cannot with complete certainty say that no customer ever had a recon wheel fail and didn't tell us, but I find it rather unlikely, and it certainly could not have happened very often if at all.

In the end, the decision of whether or not to go with reconditioning is a matter of balancing risks versus costs. That's a personal decision, but it's one that should be made by a consumer who is as informed as possible. And that's my job – to inform you as best I can.