A Simple Guide to Wheel Finishes
Custom wheels and rims come in a dizzying number of designs to suit just about any style or performance you're jonesing for. There are thousands of combinations of metal finishes, spokes, colors, polishes and sizes.
A good start to narrowing down your choices is to understand the types of wheel finishes, how the wheel surface is treated to achieve the color and polish type that suits your style. Each has its own attributes and different degrees of maintenance. Here are the six most common types.
This is the classic, mirror-reflective wheel style. Chrome plating has been the traditional method for creating that bling look many drivers want for their ride. Wheels are coated with several layers of copper, nickel and chromium for a highly reflective appearance. This provides the brightest, showiest look of all finishes, nearly as reflective as a mirror.
This finish doesn't need a protective topcoat to prevent rust. Chrome wheels can also be treated with translucent paints for a variety of color choices.
Care: Chrome wheels require regular cleaning with mild soap and water and soft rags (never an abrasive like steel wool, which will scratch the finish). Maintain the finish with Mothers® Chrome Polish or Instant Detailer. If you are running chrome wheels in wintery locations where deicers like salt and magnesium chloride are used, you should clean them frequently. This will head off finish problems like pitting and corrosion. Clean brake dust off regularly to prevent damage to the finish.
A dry paint and heat technique is used for a durable, attractive wheel that resists rust, heat, chips and scratches. Fine ground particles of color and resin are electrically charged and sprayed onto the surface. Then the wheel is heated in a curing oven which bakes on the finish.
There are loads of color choices for powder-coated wheels. However, this finish is "one and done." Recoating in a new color later isn't recommended.
Care: Use soap and water or a mild, non-acidic wheel cleaner and a microfiber or terry cloth. Never use tarnish or rust removal products or bleach. Clean brake dust off regularly to prevent damage to the finish.
Machined, clear-coated finish
Clear coating is used as an additional touch for many wheel finishes. It can be used on raw aluminum wheels or painted wheels.
Some bare metal wheels are machined and then clear coated: A thin layer of metal is shaved off the wheel face for a bright shine, leaving small lines like what you see on a CD. Then the wheel is coated with a clear sealant for protection from corrosion. The clear-coated finish can be appealing for those who like a combination of a machined look with painted accents, while providing a protective topcoat. It also assures the wheel paintwork will stay as good as new for years, as long as it's not nicked or scraped.
Care: Use only mild soap and water or water-based wheel cleaners, not metal polish or any acidic wheel cleaner. Clean brake dust off regularly to prevent damage to the finish. Use Mothers® Foaming Wheel and Tire Cleaner.
PVD (physical vapor deposition) wheels come with a shine that rivals conventional chrome plating. First the wheel is coated with primer. Then a very thin metallic coating is applied to the wheel in a vacuum chamber using an advanced electrical bonding method. Last, a clear acrylic powder coating is sprayed on to seal and protect the finish.
There are some benefits to a PVD finish. These wheels are much lighter than chrome-plated wheels, which may get you more nimble driving responsiveness and better fuel economy. They're available in lots of color tones. The clear coat helps to seal out winter deicing road chemicals, so with proper maintenance these wheels are a good year-round choice.
And they offer meaningful environmental benefits. The process doesn't use hexavalent chromium, contains 100 percent of emissions and consumes less energy.
Care: Drive-through car washes, high-pressure washing and chrome cleaners, which contain very harsh acids, could damage the topcoat - and void your wheel warranty. Wash with mild soap and water only and a soft cloth, sponge or microfiber towel. Follow with Mothers® All-Chrome Quick Polish Detailer and Protectant. Clean brake dust off regularly to prevent damage to the finish.
Bare-polished finish, with or without top coating
Raw aluminum wheels can be hand-polished with a buffer so the surface is completely smooth, then clear coated for a rich shine. Wheels can also be machine-polished to a near-mirror shine with no top coat applied. These are popular finishes for street rod and car enthusiasts who like to show off their ride.
These finishes offer some advantages over chrome-plated wheels since they don't add weight to the wheel, which could improve fuel efficiency and handling. Polished wheels can also easily be repolished to restore their like-new condition if they lose their luster over time.
Care: If they have no protective top coating, these wheels require regular cleaning, polishing and waxing to keep them from oxidation and pitting. Wash with Mothers® Wheel and Tire Cleaner and polish with Mothers® Polish. Clean brake dust off regularly to prevent damage to the finish.
Wet paint is used for this finish, followed by a clear topcoat to protect the paintwork. The color tones and polishes available in painted wheels are pretty much endless, from silver tints to matte black to hot pink, or matched to your vehicle's body paint color.
Care: Use mild soap and water and a microfiber or terry cloth. Follow up with Mothers® Foaming Wheel and Tire Cleaner. Clean brake dust off regularly to prevent damage to the finish.
Wheel Shine Options
Finally, in case these aren't enough options for you, you can customize the type of shine you like. Wheels can be made with matte (a flatter shine), gloss (high shine), satin (in between matte and gloss) and mirror (reflective) options. You can mix and match these on different parts of the wheel face.
Excited by all these wheel options? Overwhelmed? Learn more about how to shop for custom wheels in our blog, or just come on in with your questions.
Choosing Custom Wheels is About More Than Good Looks
Putting custom wheels on your vehicle can spice up your ride to bring back some of that new-car excitement. New wheels can also improve driving performance.
But choosing tires and wheels for today's automobiles is a lot more complex than it used to be, given all the smart technology built into modern vehicles and the huge variety of tire types now available.
Before you buy, it's good to know about the tradeoffs that come with changing your wheel and tire size. Your choices may affect handling. In some vehicles there could be a sacrifice in all-season traction, in others it may enhance it. You'll likely get more responsiveness, with your ride more sensitive to road conditions than what you felt with OE (original equipment wheel and tire package). Your tire tread life could be improved or shortened.
It's also good to have a basic understanding of fitment, meaning what wheel-tire sizes can be properly mounted on your vehicle. Without knowing, you risk a setup that could affect vehicle clearance, cause vibration issues and alter your ride quality. The wrong package can cause contact with fenders, inner fenders, struts, shocks, tie rods, brake calipers and other suspension parts.
Here's what to know about choosing wheel-tire packages that will meet your driving goals and correctly fit your vehicle.
First, some terminology: are wheels and rims the same?
People often refer to wheels and rims as the same thing. The rim is actually part of the full wheel. It's the outermost part of the wheel. It supports the tire and creates an airtight seal.
The wheel refers to the whole shebang. It's a metal disc with spokes and a specific bolt pattern (the pattern of holes) where fasteners called lug nuts or lug bolts attach the wheel to the vehicle's hub.
The rim and wheel can either be manufactured as one unit or a multi-piece assembly. For this article, we'll assume the wheel and rim are one unit, and call it the wheel.
Know Your Fitment to Choose Custom Wheels
Any vehicle will have a range of wheel/tire diameter sizes of several inches that will fit properly. This gives you some flexibility when you want to tailor wheel size for looks and performance.
Wheels are measured in inches, by diameter and rim width. The wheel diameter is how wide the wheel is across the center in inches. Rim width is the measurement from bead seat to bead seat (how wide the wheel is looking at it head on). For example, here's a graphic showing sizing for a 17" x 8.5" wheel:
To find wheel and tire packages that will work for your vehicle, start by collecting wheel diameter, tire width and tire aspect ratio.
1. Find your wheel diameter.
This is the distance between the two bead seats, the flat spots where the edges of the tire get hugged securely onto the wheel. This measurement will be stamped on the wheel, item E in the graphic below.
2. Find the width of your existing tires.
Tire width is the measurement in millimeters (mm) from side to side looking at the tire head on. It's marked on the tire sidewall, item B in the graphic below.
You'll note that this measurement is often offered in millimeters. If so, use this Tire Size Calculator to convert it to inches.
3. Find your tire's aspect ratio.
This number is branded on your tire sidewall, item C in the graphic. The aspect ratio is a percentage. It's the sidewall height divided by tire width. More specifically, it's the height of the sidewall measured from wheel rim to top of the tread, expressed as a percentage of tire width. Our example tire has an aspect ratio of 65.
A change in the aspect ratio usually means the tire sidewall height changes. This will result in driving performance differences.
Wheel Size and Driving Goals
With these three measurements, you have a baseline of what tire-wheel package sizing works on your vehicle. Now consider your driving goals and style preferences.
"I'm just after chill looks."
Say you just want to personalize a vehicle to make it your own. If you're all about the aesthetics but don't want to change your current ride performance, it's easy: You can keep the same sizing but swap out your wheels for something showier.
"I want better acceleration and cornering."
If you love driving and are looking for performance enhancements, aftermarket wheels can play a role. Choosing a larger-diameter wheel will decrease the tire's sidewall height. This adds responsiveness. You'll notice higher stability and better cornering. You'll achieve that low-profile style you're after. Done correctly, larger wheels can improve acceleration and reduce braking distance. You'll feel more road feedback.
Bigger diameter wheels can also mean shorter tire life and higher price points than conventional sizes. You may feel bumps in the pavement a bit more. On full-sized pickup trucks, a larger tire and wheel package can mean you may not get as tight a turning radius as before.
Another consideration for truck owners could be weight. The maximum plus size wheel-tire package for light trucks and SUVs may make the setup heavier than OE, depending on the type of wheel you pick. A heavier setup could mean longer stopping distances along with increased suspension and brake wear.
"I want something sporty looking but I still want the smoothest ride."
Smaller wheels are mounted with tires that have a higher aspect ratio, resulting in a more comfortable ride with less road feedback. With taller sidewall tires, you'll feel more flex when you turn corners, and you may notice a difference in handling. This sort of package manages impacts like potholes, speed bumps and debris better, protecting the wheels from damage.
Getting into smaller wheels isn't possible with every vehicle due to fitment. If you do have some room to go smaller, you'll have lots of tire tread design possibilities.
"I'm planning to run my wheel-tire package year-round."
Some wheel finishes require more maintenance in climates where winter deicing chemicals on the road are a factor. Be sure to ask about care before you buy.
Wheel Plus Sizing Explained
When you're shopping for wheels you'll come across some standard sizing terms. OE (original equipment) is the base wheel size. It's what came standard on the vehicle from the factory.
Plus sizing is when you boost wheel diameter. Minus sizing means you're getting into a smaller wheel. Plus 1 sizing is increasing wheel diameter by an inch. Minus 2 sizing is downsizing wheels by two inches.
You can also keep the wheel diameter the same but mount a lower-profile tire (the tread gets wider, the aspect ratio changes, but the height of the sidewall remains the same). This is called Plus 0 sizing.
Here's a comparison of how two wheel-tire packages of different sizes look on the same vehicle.
Don't Overlook Wheel Offset and Backspacing
Offset and backspacing are two more considerations likely to come up during your search for the perfect wheel-tire package. They're critical for proper fit.
Without getting into lots of detail, offset and backspacing make sure there's enough room for the new package to sit properly in your wheel well, so nothing interferes with your braking components and suspension, there's no rubbing against bodywork and your car doesn't become unstable around corners or when braking.
One More Wheel Sizing Issue: Bolt Patterns
Don't buy those wheels yet. You need to verify that the bolt pattern will work.
The bolt pattern is how many lug holes are on the wheels you're buying and how far apart they are. It has to be compatible with your vehicle, so the lugs mate up with the studs on your suspension.
You can look for bolt patterns in wheel descriptions, but just because your vehicle may have five lugs it doesn't mean that all five-lug wheels will fit. There are multiple bolt pattern possibilities on today's vehicles, generally with four to eight lugs. And there are different ways of measuring between lugs, depending on the number.
Even if the wheels you like have the right bolt pattern there's a possibility they might not fit, so get answers on this before you buy.
Test Fit New Wheels Before You Buy
The easy way to find out what wheel sizes, bolt patterns and styles are right for your driving and vehicle is to talk to a pro and try wheels on before you buy.
A good tire store will consider your preferences then factor in all the issues:
- Proper clearance, so wheels or tires don't rub against bodywork, brakes or parts of the suspension
- Compatibility with tire pressure monitoring
- Proper traction control and stability
- Maintaining accurate speedometer and odometer readings
- Keeping tires within speed and load capacities
Once this is nailed down, you can pick some options you find attractive and try them on for size virtually. Some tire retailers have computer tools that show how a wheel-tire package will look on your specific make, model and color vehicle. You can look at different spoke styles, lift or lower the vehicle and see what plus and minus wheel size options look like.
When you've narrowed down your choices, tire stores with large inventories and knowledgeable staff can then put your vehicle on a lift and show you how the wheel and tire assembly you like really looks, to be sure it's what you want. It often helps to see two combinations of wheels mounted at the same time for comparison.
When you decide which you're happy with, you can be on your way with a new wheel and tire package that day.
Top 3 Custom Wheel Buying Tips
Choosing an aftermarket wheel-tire setup is about more than just picking a style you like. Issues like proper clearance for brake system components, potential rubbing on body parts like fenders and mud flaps, offset spacing and bolt patterns can be overlooked.
Your driving goals are just as important. Do you want enhanced handling? Are you willing to sacrifice some driving qualities for others?
Remember these three tips as you're shopping around.
- For most SUVs, CUVs and cars the overall diameter of the aftermarket package (wheel and tire combined) should be within 3 to 8 percent of the overall diameter of your OE setup.
- Bumping up to a larger wheel for a low-profile look? A plus-sizing rule of thumb is to increase tire width by 10 mm and decrease sidewall height by 5 to 10 percent for each one-inch increase in wheel diameter.
- Buying new wheels should be fun. The easiest way to make sure you get what you bargained for is to talk with a good tire dealer.
Learn more about how to shop for custom wheels in our blog posts on wheel finishes, aluminum versus steel, and more.
What’s the Difference Between Aluminum and Steel Wheels?
Wheels and rims are made with several types of alloys, or blends of metals, with different handling characteristics, maintenance needs and upsides. Here's a short guide to the two main types of automotive wheel materials and how they differ, for those shopping for aftermarket wheels.
Aluminum Alloy Wheels
Aluminum wheels (sometimes called alloy wheels) are built with a blend of aluminum and nickel. The majority of wheels today are cast aluminum alloy, meaning they're made by pouring molten aluminum into a mold. They are lightweight but strong, withstand heat well and are generally more attractive than steel wheels. They come in a very wide variety of finishes and sizes. Aluminum wheels are a good choice for a balance of performance, cost, aesthetics and gas mileage.
Steel wheels are made with an alloy of iron and carbon. They are heavier but they're more durable and can be easier to repair and refinish. Because of the way they're made?cut out on a press and welded together?they don't offer all the aesthetic spoke choices of other wheel types.
Though their heavier weight may dampen acceleration, agility and fuel efficiency, steel wheels can offer more resistance to impact cracks. They can also be more resistant to damage from deicers, gravel and brake dust, making them more popular for winter driving. Steel wheels are generally less expensive than aluminums.
Here's a breakdown comparing the characteristics of the two wheel material choices.
Wheel material is only one factor of many in selecting custom wheels and rims. Learn about wheel finishes and other tips on shopping for wheels in our blog.
Or just stop by any Les Schwab to talk to an expert.
Wheel Alignment FAQ
What's a Wheel Alignment?
Though it's sometimes so subtle you won't notice, the alignment of your wheels can get out of whack from the jolts and mishaps of everyday driving. This reduces your vehicle's drivability, lowers gas mileage and causes early tire wear. An alignment is the process of adjusting the angles of your vehicle's wheels back to original specifications
Are Alignments Necessary?
An alignment improves driving safety by keeping the right amount of the tire in contact with the road and preventing your vehicle from pulling to the left or right. A properly aligned vehicle has a smoother ride and optimal gas mileage. Keeping the wheels aligned also extends tire life.
What Affects Wheel Alignment?
Over time, normal settling of the suspension – plus fatigue of springs and bushings (rubber cushions that dampen the amount of movement and noise) – will gradually change alignment. Impacts like hitting a pothole, going over big bumps, rubbing up against a curb or rolling over debris can push the wheels out of alignment. Aggressive driving, carrying heavy loads, bent or worn suspension parts (tie rods, ball joints, strut mounts and bearing plates) or a slight fender-bender can trigger misalignment.
How Can I Tell If My Wheels Are Misaligned?
Diagnosing misalignment isn't always clear-cut. Because the measurements can be very fine, you may not see it with a quick look at the tires and wheels. You may notice the steering wheel is off-center, feel a pull or drift or notice your handling isn't up to par. The only way to know for sure is to have a trained technician run a check on an alignment machine.
Will it Affect My Tires?
Yes. If they show moderate-to-severe edge wear or feathered wear, it likely means they're being dragged along rather than rolling smoothly. This is often an indicator that the toe or the camber angle is off.
How Are Alignments Done?
They're done using an alignment machine to measure the wheel angles. These are calculated and compared against your vehicle's original specs. Then the technician makes adjustments as needed. A real-time computer readout shows when the target angles are met. A report will show the incoming and corrected alignment measurements.
What Are the Types of Alignment?
Your technician will advise what kind of alignment is best for your vehicle type:
Known as a front-end alignment, the front wheels are adjusted so they are parallel to the centerline of your vehicle. This is the simplest and most basic alignment BUT it's not recommended for any current model vehicle. It's less accurate. You may not get a centered steering wheel, because front-end alignment doesn't account for rear wheel angles.
A thrust alignment is the most accurate alignment for vehicles without adjustable rear suspension. Only the front wheels are adjusted. Here's how: There's no guarantee both rear wheels are pointed straight ahead as they should be. One may be pointed exactly forward and the other slightly off. Or both their angles could be off. Since this can't be adjusted, the front wheels are aligned as closely as possible to the thrust line, which is the average of where the two rear wheels point. This compensates enough to get a centered steering wheel.
This is done on vehicles with adjustable rear suspension, to bring all four corners of your vehicle back in spec. All four wheels are aligned to the center of the vehicle. First, the rear axle angles are measured and adjusted, then the front. This is the best, most accurate, manufacturer-recommended alignment for vehicles with adjustable rear suspension.
Should I Get an Alignment When I Get New Tires?
Yes. Getting an alignment when you replace tires is one of the best ways to get the most mileage out of them. Be sure to ask for an alignment, since it's not generally part of the purchase price.
What Other Times Should Alignment Be Checked?
- After you hit a curb, collide with an animal, or run over a pothole, bump or debris.
- When tires are wearing unevenly.
- You lower or lift your vehicle.
- Steering or suspension parts that affect the tire angles are replaced.
- You notice your vehicle drifts or pulls to one side.
- The steering wheel is off-center when you're pointing straight.
- Following a fender-bender.
- At least once a year.
- Twice annually, if you regularly drive rough roads.
(Les Schwab does free visual alignment inspections. If we recommend an alignment but find during the course of the work that your alignment is good and can't be improved, there's no charge.)
How Often is it Needed?
Regular alignments are part of basic auto maintenance. Catching misalignment early means you can correct your wheel's positions before you have premature tire wear. Cars usually go out of alignment gradually, so it's important to check it at least annually, or twice a year if you travel roads that are washboard, rutted or have lots of potholes.
Is Four-Wheel Alignment Only for 4-Wheel-Drive Vehicles?
Regardless of whether they're 4WD, front-wheel-drive or rear-wheel-drive, most cars and many SUVs today are four-wheel alignable. These vehicles should get a four-wheel alignment because the rear is just as likely to be out of alignment and cause uneven tire wear as the front.
Does Misalignment Affect Gas Mileage?
Yes. When your wheels are properly aligned, there's less rolling resistance. Tires roll with less friction so your vehicle is more fuel efficient. When wheels are misaligned, tires will drag slightly, causing a loss in fuel efficiency. If the situation continues, the tires will wear unevenly and lead to worse gas mileage.
Can Misalignment Cause Steering Wheel Vibration?
Vibration in the steering wheel, the floorboard or the seat that gets worse at faster speeds is often a sign of out-of-balance tires, not bad alignment.
Is Alignment the Same as Balancing?
They are two different repairs. Rebalancing tires is a process of attaching small weights, just fractions of ounces, to the wheel so that weight is even around the entire unit. Although they're round, tires have manufacturing imperfections and wear that create lighter and heavier areas. The weights compensate for this.
Rebalancing is done in a tire shop by putting the wheel-tire unit on a tire-balancing machine that takes weight measurements and shows where to make adjustments for any differences. It's most often done during tire rotations and isn't part of an alignment.
What's Included with an Alignment?
Here's what's included with an alignment at Les Schwab Tires: tire inspection, test drive before, steering and suspension inspection, tire pressure check and adjustment, alignment angles measured and adjusted, test drive after, and a printed report showing before and after measurements. (Alignments done at Les Schwab Tires are covered by a 30-day guarantee, which includes labor cost.)
Can Misalignment Cause Noise?
Generally, any noise from misalignment is caused by abnormal tire wear. If tires are the source of road noise, an alignment correction may be needed but won't solve the noise problem.
Will an Alignment Fix a Crooked Steering Wheel? Loose Steering?
An off-center steering wheel is one sign of misalignment. Alignment will restore the steering wheel to a centered position if there aren't other undiagnosed problems.
When alignment angles are out of spec, steering can feel slightly loose. This condition can be corrected by an alignment. But if you're noticing you need a lot more steering wheel movement than normal, there may be worn steering or suspension parts that are allowing way too much play. In this case, the loose parts should be identified in the pre-alignment inspection and repairs should be recommended before aligning. Some parts to suspect are ball joints, tie rods, idler arm, Pitman arm, rack, and pinion or steering box.
Is It Covered Under Warranty?
Check your vehicle's owner manual for the original warranty.
How Much Does a Wheel Alignment Cost?
It varies according to vehicle type, shop, region and type of alignment. A quality shop will advise in advance what type is best and what it will cost before performing the work. A great shop only charges for work that is actually needed once the job is underway.
Who Does Alignments?
Tire stores and any good mechanic. Les Schwab Tires offers full wheel alignment services - including adjustments and free inspections - usually without an appointment.