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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.

Most popular types of wheel finishes

Chrome-plated finish

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.

Powder-coated 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 finish

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.

Painted 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.

Wheel shine options: matte, gloss, satin, mirror]

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.

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