How to fix scratched rims

Karl Daum

Rim scratch repair

We’ve all been there. You’re parallel parking on a narrow and crowded city street. It’s a tight squeeze, and someone’s honking because you’re holding up traffic. That’s when you hear the dreaded scrape of metal against the concrete curb. You just got a case of wheel rash.

Whether it’s a brand-new set of aftermarket wheels or the original manufacturer set you’ve kept pristine for a decade, wheel rash can be a real day ruiner. Not only are the scuffs unsightly, but they can lower the resale value of your car. It can cost a pretty penny to get a professional-grade repair, and it can cost even more to replace your wheels outright. Luckily, repairing scratched rims is an easy DIY bit of maintenance that can be done over a weekend at the price of a few basic and accessible materials. 

What is wheel rash?

Wheel rash, or what some call curb rash, is when your wheel’s exterior finish gets scuffed, scratched or lightly gouged. Usually, this comes from scraping up against a curb while parking, hitting a pothole or colliding with other road hazards. For the most part, this damage is superficial and cosmetic. But if the gouge is deep or a spoke is snapped or cracked, you might have to replace the wheel. This would indicate structural damage, which is too dangerous to continue driving with. So make sure you inspect your wheel after a collision so you’re not driving on wheels that could break apart at any minute. Likewise, examine your tires. Any damage to the sidewalls in the form of gashes, divots or bubbles could lead to a blowout when traveling at high speeds.

How easy is it to repair wheel rash?

Repairing wheel rash only takes a couple of hours. At most, you’ll need to set aside an afternoon. Just prepare in advance to have the car sit for another 12 hours so that the paint can fully dry. The job doesn’t require any fancy tools or mechanical skills either — just some basics you can pick up on Amazon or at Home Depot and a little elbow grease. 

How to repair scratched rims

Before you get started, make sure you have the proper safety equipment. This means nitrile gloves, safety glasses and a dust mask. Lastly, if you’re doing this in a garage, open the door or bring your car out onto the street or into your driveway. You’ll need proper ventilation for aerosols and solvents.

Clean off your wheels

The first step to repairing your wheels involves removing any grit and grime that could gum up your sandpaper and hinder adhesion. It might be helpful to remove each wheel entirely from the car, including its bolts so that you can get at its hard-to-reach areas easier, but this isn’t strictly necessary. If you’re going to remove your wheels, you’ll need a properly weight-rated jack and a set of jack stands to lift the car. 

Begin by applying wheel cleaner to the wheel and let it sit and soak for the amount of time recommended on the bottle. Then, using a wheel brush, scrub away the dirty cleaner and rinse with water. You should only wash one wheel at a time this way, as letting the cleaner sit for too long without rinsing can lead to spotting on certain wheel finishes. 

Sand down the damaged areas

Now that your wheels are clean and free of grime, you’ll want to sand the damaged areas down to create as uniform a surface as possible. This is primarily to level any raised abrasions, as automotive spot putty will later fill in the divots and gashes. You can start with coarse 80-grit sandpaper and move up to 120-grit to smooth the scratches. Then, with 400-grit sandpaper, feather the damaged areas into the surrounding finish to ensure a seamless repair when applying the putty and blending the fresh paint. If any cuts are particularly deep — but not deep enough to constitute structural damage — a Dremel can help break down those tough chunks of curled-up metal. Make sure to wipe away the dust frequently with a clean, soft microfiber cloth or shop rag so that you’re not scratching the finish. Clean the wheel entirely of dust.

Fill in the gouges and abrasions 

Just like repairing a wall with spackling paste, you’re going to use some automotive spot putty or epoxy next to fill in the scratches on your wheel. Start by taping off your tires with masking tape all the way around so you’re not getting putty on the rubber. Put a small amount of whichever filler you choose onto a putty knife and apply a thin layer over the damaged regions. Let the putty dry for 30 minutes, or however long the tube’s instructions dictate. Once the putty has dried, take some 220-grit sandpaper and level off the filler while removing any excess. 

Prep the surface for painting

The next step is to repaint the surface of the wheel to create a uniform finish that masks the repaired areas. At this point, there are two separate approaches you can take to prepare your wheel for paint depending on how confident you are in your abilities and how much time you have. Both will require you to mask off your entire car and tire if you haven’t removed the wheel entirely. You can use drop cloths and masking tape for this, cutting holes for the wheels. 

  1. Spot Repair: If you’re trying to save time or if you consider yourself fairly adept at wielding a spray can, then you can get a pretty clean-looking finish with just a spot repair. Begin by taking your 400-grit sandpaper and sanding around the repair lightly so your primer has an uncoated surface to adhere to. You’ve already done this but revisit some of those areas now that you’ve applied filler. Next, with a lint-free cloth, wipe down the repaired surface and surrounding regions with paint thinner to degrease them so the paint will stick. 
  2. Refinish the entire wheel: If you don’t think you’ll be able to feather the spray can to get a smooth transition between the previous finish and the repaired region, or if you’re struggling to find paint that perfectly matches the color of your wheel’s original finish, then just redoing the entire wheel makes the most sense here. Take your 400-grit sandpaper, or a scouring pad, and remove the glossy clear coat by working the surface of the entire wheel, including the insides of the spokes and lug holes, all the way down to a matte finish. 

Prime and paint the wheel 

With your wheels prepped for spraying, you’re going to start by applying aerosolized etching primer to the spot-repaired areas or the entire wheel, depending on which approach you took. This will ensure that your primer sticks and will prevent any newly exposed metal from rusting. Once your etching primer has dried, apply two thin coats of primer, waiting about 10-15 minutes between coats. You’ll want to spray from about 6 inches back, working side to side in short motions going from the top to the bottom of the rim. Once you wait another 15 minutes or so, you can then apply the top coat of paint in the same fashion, waiting 30 minutes between the first and second coats.

Allow the paint to dry for anywhere between 2-12 hours, knowing that the longer you wait, the better the results will be. Next up is the clearcoat. Clearcoat gives you that glossy finish while protecting the paint beneath. Once the paint has thoroughly dried, apply your first layer of clear coat just as you did the primer and top coat. Make sure the layer is very thin. Wait 30 minutes and apply the second coat. With the clear coat on, let it sit for 12-24 hours. This is essential for a smooth finish. Driving or removing the masking tape too early could mean you have to start the prep and painting all over again if you want everything to look professional. 

Finish with a nice polish

With your rims repaired and looking right out of the factory, it’s time to give them a polish. Apply polish to the surface with a clean microfibre cloth, working the polish by following the grain rather than using a circular motion. Then, with a fresh cloth, apply some wheel wax to protect the wheel’s paint. Wheel wax works by changing the surface polarity of your wheel to repel brake dust shed by your brake pads. All you need to clean your wheels once the wax is on is a soft, damp cotton towel, which you can use weekly to shine them up. 

How to care for your wheels 

You can continue to use your wheel cleaner, polish and wax to touch up your wheels to remove dirt and grime. If you’re parking often against curbs and are worried about wheel rash in the future, you can always put a rim protector on each wheel. Lastly, when you park, if your mirrors have a motor, tilt the curb-side mirror down so you can see how close you’re getting to the curb to prevent any future grating collisions.

Karl Daum is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money.

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