What Kind of Paint to Use on Car Rims?

I’m a wheels guy. In my opinion, any car, no matter its age or condition, looks better with a great set of wheels. You can take any basic economy car, bolt on a set of nice rims, tint the glass, and transform it into a respectable ride.

what kind of paint to use on car rims

Lately, black wheels are the trending look. Honestly, I don’t get it, but I’m among the grayer and more wrinkled of Gen X’ers, so what do I know? Perhaps you just inherited Grandma’s decade-old Toyota Avalon, and you’re desperate to find a way to make it look better. “Black rims are the answer!” you proclaim.

This decision, however, is likely followed by a quick internet search: “What kind of paint to use on car rims?” After all, if you’re trying to figure out how to make a hand-me-down Avalon look swag, you’re likely planning a do-it-yourself project.

Before you embark on this well-crafted plan, you should first determine a few things. For example, does the Avalon have rims suitable for painting? How can you best prepare the rims for paint? Only then you can answer the question of what kind of paint to use on car rims.

Can You Paint Car Rims?

Yes, you can paint car rims. But don’t just walk outside with a rattle can and go to work or you’re going to make a mess that’s going to look just as terrible as those blue-tinted fake Xenon headlights some people install. 

Before you can paint your car’s rims, you need to procure the proper materials to prepare the rims for painting. You’ll want to have the following items on hand before you start the process:

  • Wheel cleaner
  • Wire brush
  • Sandpaper (extra-fine and super-fine grit)
  • Steel wool
  • Rubbing alcohol (paint thinner or mineral spirits work, too)
  • Painter’s tape
  • Something to cover the tire (plastic or newspaper is best)
  • A drop cloth
  • Clean rags to clean up the mess
  • Paint respirator mask

Whoa. Sounds complicated already. Are you sure you want to tackle this project? If so, read on.

How to Prepare Rims for Paint

Before you can paint your rims, you must remove them from the car and prepare them for a new finish. Sure, you could just spray them as they sit, but the result will look awful and you’ll probably get overspray on your car’s paint in the process.

Obviously, you’re going to need to find a way to support the car after you remove the wheels and while the painted rims are drying. So, make sure you’ve got that part of the plan figured out before you buy any materials.

Once you know how you will safety support your car while you’re painting the wheels, unbolt them and remove them from the car. Degrease and clean the rims thoroughly on both sides, and with a level of detail that you’ve never used before. Every speck of grime must be off of the wheels before you take the next step in the process.

If the wheels have rust, or the existing finish is damaged or chipped, you’ll need to scrub them with a wire brush, sand them with the extra-fine and then the super-fine sandpaper, and then rub them with steel wool to create a smooth, blemish-free surface.

Next, wash the wheels again, dry them, and apply the rubbing alcohol, paint thinner, or mineral spirits. Inspect the surface. It should be completely clean and smooth. If not, you’ll need to repeat the wire brushing, sanding, and steel wooling process.

When the wheels are ready for a new finish, grab the painter’s tape and whatever material you’ve decided to use to cover your tire to protect the rubber from paint overspray. Tape the material around the entire circumference of the wheel rim, applying the tape under the lip of the rim. Be sure to cover the valve stem with painter’s tape, too, so that it doesn’t get clogged up during the paint application process.

Now you’re ready to paint your rims. Choose a dust- and pollen-free area to ensure the best results, and lay out the drop cloth on your painting location’s surface. Also, make sure your painting location offers good ventilation, and make sure you wear your paint respirator mask. The last thing you want to happen after all of this prep work is to get dizzy and pass out, falling onto the new paint on the wheels. 

Oh, and paint fumes are also hazardous to your health.

The Best Kind of Paint to Use on Car Rims

You’re going to use three different types of coating on your wheels. You need a primer. You need spray paint designed specifically for automotive wheels. And you need a clear coat finish. It matters what the wheel is made of, too. Choose the right paint for steel, aluminum, or magnesium wheels.

To prime the wheel for paint, use three light coats of self-etching spray primer, allowing each coat to dry between applications. Be sure to apply the primer between all of the wheel spokes.

Next, apply the paint. Follow the directions on the can with regard to spray distance, method, and number of recommended coats, otherwise the paint may run, which won’t look good. Be sure to get the paint between all of the wheel spokes, and also allow the paint to fully dry between coats.

The last step is to apply a couple of applications of clearcoat to protect the finish. Use a light coat each time, and yes, allow each coat to dry completely.

After the final clearcoat application, remove the protective materials, bolt the wheels back onto the car, and hope that you like the resulting look. Be careful with the bolts and wrench, or you’ll mar the new finish before any of your newly painted rims hits the road.

What About Painting the Inner Side of the Rims?

If you really want to replicate a professionally applied finish, you’ll want to paint the inner side of your rims, too. This is an important step for a pro look, especially for wheels with thin spokes that provide a clear view of the braking components and the inner part of the rim.

You’ll follow all of the same steps above, but before you paint the outside surface, first mask off the inner part of the tire and paint the inside of the wheel. Then apply the finish to the outer side.

How Much Does Painting Rims Cost?

Painting your own wheels is affordable in terms of the materials, but costly in terms of time. Also, the process is rife with opportunity for error. Professional wheel finishing, however, can cost from $150 to $200 per wheel. Using the 10-year-old Avalon referenced above as an example, you can visit Tire Rack and order a set of brand-new wheels for that kind of money.

The choice is yours. You can even just walk outside and spray ‘em as they sit. Just don’t expect them to look good when you’re done.