I hate black wheels. They are, in fact, bad. They’re a dying remnant of the “murdered out” (all-black everything) era that just needs to croak already. You can have a great wheel design completely shaded out by some black paint. Unfortunately, my BMW E46 ZHP came with black wheels and other accents that I wasn’t a fan of, so I set out to correct this wrong by painting my own wheels. It turned out to be a little tougher than I expected.
I’ve heard the classic painting adage ad nauseam: “It’s all in the prep.” That old saying is completely right, the problem is that preparing a surface for paint is one of the most tedious, draining, annoying, and time-consuming things anybody can do, ever. This is because of the variety of techniques you use in prep and most of them are extremely dependent on feel and experience because what you’re looking for is intangible; it should feel right to experienced hands.
When it comes to painting, my hands are not experienced. I have seen friends take the time to do this sort of thing right, but I lose patience quickly. Strange, because I have all the patience in the world for a stubborn bolt or part install, but that’s a different sort of patience. This is artisan patience, the patience to achieve perfection, something that I can possess when it comes to anything but paint preparation. Getting lost in a track session chasing the ideal lap is one thing, and it’s exciting. Sorry but, paint prep is goddamn dull!
Still, I wasn’t keen on paying a pro so I set off to my local auto parts store and got what I needed. The first thing to find is a suitable primer. I bought a high-temperature primer specifically for engines which seemed to make sense because of the wheel’s proximity to hot brakes. From there, we can build our kit. Most primers will tell you the grit of sandpaper to use, in my case it was 400 grit which is fairly coarse.
A quick sidebar on sandpaper: It’s the single most important bit of the prep because it will smooth your working surface out when used correctly, and allow primer or paint to dig into every tiny crevice created with it. As you may have noticed, sandpaper is organized by grit from low numbers to high numbers, with low numbers being more coarse and higher numbers having a finer grit.
Anyways, I then picked some generic silver wheel paint from the shelf (allegedly “Ford Argent Silver”) and some clear coat of the same brand designed for wheels. Painting wheels without tires on them is ideal, but if you can’t (I wasn’t about to unmount my rubber just for this) you’ll want some masking materials and wax/grease remover, too.
I got home and jacked the car up, removed the wheels, and made a disappointing discovery: my “BBS CH” wheels are, in fact, fakes. That was a bit of a bummer but it made me concerned about painting them. They also had some decent weight to them, so I trust them to be sturdy enough for the mild summer tires I have, but new wheels are on the future list for the ZHP. For now, the fake CHs will look great, once they’re silver, in photos.
So, fair warning, I’m not the best at this and I’m learning with you. I got my 400 grit sandpaper and sanded every nook of the wheel I could. It gets to be a mild to major pain in the ass, but persevere and make sure you get an even sanded finish everywhere. You’ll feel how smooth the surface is when it’s correct. Once it’s sanded up, get your wax and grease remover and clean the sanded surface well, and you’re ready to apply primer. Make sure to feel for consistency on the entire surface of the wheel, feeling for high and low points, and make sure to sand until it’s nice and even. This is that trained hand I’m talking about. Looking for imperfections takes time, and recognizing them means making plenty of mistakes of your own.
I certainly did. But that’s for later.
Spray the primer onto the wheel in even sweeps, not spraying too close or too heavy. Runs in the primer are the biggest pain to fix, and it is best to err on the side of caution by spraying lighter and from father away versus going too heavy and too close. Primer is somewhat forgiving, and it can be abused much more than paint or clear coat, but it has its limitations. Mine went on nice and clean and once it dried for 30 minutes, I moved onto spraying the silver onto my fakies.
This is where my first challenge presented itself. I’ve painted gloss colors, but never metallic. Metallic colors take a lot more effort and finesse to get right because of how obvious imperfections are in metallic paint. That metallic factor adds an extra layer underneath the paint that is much more sensitive to coat thickness. If you spray metallic on too heavy on small spots, it will show up in the finish. Ask me how I know.
My first wheel came out with some obvious imperfections, and I got some dreaded runs. I decided to let it dry for a good while, sanded it back smooth, and reapplied the paint. I didn’t do it quite right, but it was better than the initial imperfection so I took it and made sure to not repeat the mistake.
Once the paint is on, dry, and clean, it’s time to fossilize it with clear coat. Clear is a bit tougher than paint and isn’t as sensitive to thickness but it will run fairly easily. I sprayed it like the primer: Lightly, letting it dry, then applying more coats. Let it dry, and marvel at your work.
Uh, well my first wheel isn’t so great. There are two obvious imperfections, but it’s a viable five-footer. Make sure to do the first wheel in the back so you won’t see your mistakes as much. The most important thing about the entire process is observing and remembering: observe how your prep affects the finish, and remember it for the next wheel so you can improve the next wheel. By the fourth wheel, you’ll basically be painting lowriders.
If anyone feels inclined to paint their wheels, I hope this helped a bit. Comment your results down below. If you’re scared to do it, don’t be! Dive in, and be open to making mistakes. Now, go and destroy all black wheels, and bring brightwork back into vogue.