Custom Wheels: The Magic Behind Powder Coating

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Kingsport Grey powder coated wheels

Kingsport Grey powder coated wheels | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Contrary to common belief, my ass is not made of pure gold. Even though I desperately want one, I can’t afford an NSX, or the forthcoming Civic Type-R. Instead I am stuck making due with what I’ve got, which means my 1991 Accord SE restomod build gets all the attention. Over the past year, I’ve fixed OEM issues, conducted some much needed suspension upgrades, and stockpiled a slew of slick one-off parts for my little sedan, and now it’s time to tackle the wheel side of the equation.

After scoring a set of super rare, period-correct Work Termist wheels, I realized that there was no way in hell that my “new” wheels were show-worthy. In search of a solution, I reached out to local powder coating specialists Killer Koatings, a shop that came recommended by multiple people and has a reputation for taking on the toughest jobs imaginable. While these wheels weren’t the worst they’d ever seen, a good amount of corrosion had formed over time, and since they were discontinued years ago, we had to be careful to preserve all the hardware and handle them appropriately.

Parts of the powder coat process

Parts of the powder coat process | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

For two days, the guys at the shop walked me through the ins and outs of properly powder coating a set of wheels, answering questions I had about the process, and granting unlimited access to a method few people ever get to witness. It’s a tedious, time consuming, demanding, and dangerous affair, but once finished, you’re rewarded with something that’s far more durable than traditional paint.

Applied with a special kind of mist emitting gun that sprays dry pigments, powder coat doesn’t rely on solvents in order to keep everything in liquid suspension, meaning it’s applied electrostatically before being clear coated and cured under high heat. The powder itself is typically a thermoplastic or a thermoset polymer, and is used on metals that can withstand the heat within the oven. The process has the benefit of being better for the environment than traditional paint too, as it emits fewer volatile organic compounds (VOC) during the coating process.

If you’re of the opinion that extreme heat weakens the integrity of a wheel, and you’re rolling on alloys that would crack after powder coating, then you probably shouldn’t be using them in the first place. You should also do your research before committing to a certain shop, and always look for a business with excellent reviews, a proven portfolio, and insurance (in case something happens while your wheels are waiting to be coated).

Turnaround time will vary depending on how big the project is, your color selections, and how many people are in front of you. This is also true for materials and service cost, and if you need to have tires installed. On average, a set of freshly coated wheels will run you somewhere in the $350 to $1,000 range, depending on how time consuming and complex the job is. But when all is said and done, you’ll have a set of rollers that will outlast even the strongest OEM coatings, and the best part is that you chose how they turned out. Here’s how it all happens.

Step 1: Remove tires, valve stems, and any reusable hardware

Old tire removal and wheel corrosion

Old tire removal and wheel corrosion | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

In the case of my vintage, reverse-staggered Work Termist wheels, everything needed to come off. While the tires were beyond saving, the branded Work hardware and metal valve stems were salvageable since the bolts are discontinued and the stems were recently purchased.

Work Wheels valve stems and hardware

Work Wheels valve stems and hardware | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Note that these wheels utilize a reverse mount configuration; a lot of top-end alloy manufacturers use this design to better protect the face of the wheel. This set was professionally welded into a one-piece configuration a long time ago back in Japan, making the removal of the face impossible, a topic that I’ll cover in a future article.

Step 2: Chemical stripping

Chemical bath used for stripping

Chemical bath used for stripping | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Once everything gets removed from the wheel, it goes into a chemical solution anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours to remove any old chrome, paint, powder coat, or Plasti Dip. This is the “don’t try this at home” portion of the process, and before you commit to a shop, always ask if they’ll strip your wheels down to the bare metal — it’s a deal-breaker if they don’t. Killer Koatings strips every item they coat down to the very core, even if it’s a brand new OEM wheel, because starting with a clean canvas negates any blame down the line.

Step 3: Bake and blast

Giant oven for baking and blasting the wheels

Giant oven for baking and blasting the wheels | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Once my 17-by-7.5-inch wheels were stripped, they were rinsed off and tossed upright in an oven to dry. This step is crucial, as it boosts drying times and brings any leftover impurities to the surface. After that, it’s off to sandblasting in order to remove any corrosion still present.

All contact areas that touch the tire get special treatment to ensure that the tire seats properly on the wheel, and Killer Koatings always uses an aluminum oxide media for blasting. This abrasive media is used instead of silica/glass beads since it won’t embed in aluminum and then pop out during the baking process.

Step 4: Grind and shine

Grinding wheel in action and taping

Grinding wheel in action and taping | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

After some serious blasting, my rollers were buffed up with a resurfacing wheel to remove any imperfections. This is a tedious but mandatory step; every square inch of the wheel gets touched to guarantee everything is silky smooth when it’s time for fresh powder. For every step after the chemical dip, gloves are used to prevent contamination. It’s a decision that may seem overkill to some, but it’s a mandatory precaution at this shop.

Step 5: Torch, spray, and bake

Blow torch removing lint, powder coat booth, and baking process

Removing lint with a blow torch, inside the powder coat booth, and the baking process begins | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Now that my wheels were all cleaned up and ready to roll, it was time to coat them with a layer of Kingsport Grey powder, which turned out to be one of Killer Koatings’ most popular colors. The guys used an air hose to blast any remaining residue away, and then took a torch to all four wheels in order to burn off any lint that might be hanging around.

Once sprayed with what looks like a fine mist of powder, the wheels were baked for about 30 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, before being removed for a 10-minute cool down period. After that they went back into the spray booth for a clear coat, followed by a full hour in the oven. Baking time varies depending upon size, weight, material used, and coat gloss levels.

Step 6: Reassemble, mount, and balance

Powder coated wheels

Powder coated wheels | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Once removed from the oven, my wheels were hung on racks to cool, then after reaching room temperature, all the polished and resprayed hardware was reinstalled along with the valve stems. After that, it was time to install my Hankook Evo2 V12 tires.

Since the last thing you want to do is mar a freshly coated wheel, a special tire mounting machine must be used. Killer Koatings uses a Corghi “Master J” tire mounting machine, designed to never come into contact with powder coated surfaces. To protect your investment, you should always ask what kind of mounting machine a shop uses before hiring them, and never take your finished wheel to a shop that doesn’t use a “touch-less tire machine.” From there it was off to balancing, where you should always make sure the shop installs your valve caps first, to guarantee ideal weight displacement.

New Hankook tires mounted and balanced

New Hankook tires mounted and balanced | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Fully stripped, powder coated, reassembled, mounted, and balanced, my tired-looking wheel/tire combo now looked like a billion bucks, and with a fresh set of Termist center caps on order, our Killer Koatings crash course came to a close.

But this old-school Accord restomod build isn’t over by a long shot. With a laundry list of upgrades, fixes, and refreshes set for this summer, I’ve got quite a few behind-the-scenes “Auto Academy” pieces lined up for you as I continue to take an obscure chassis and turn it into something spectacular.

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