Powdercoating Aluminum Wheels: The Ultimate Paint Alternative?

Appearance-wise, my forged wheels were looking pretty damn rough. While thrashing through the snow may sound like a ton of fun in a turbocharged, torque-vectoring, all-wheel-drive Acura RDX, all that salt and grime sure do some damage. So instead of ditching my WedsSport SA-60M rollers for a fresh set, I reached out to Cincinnati’s premier powdercoating specialists, Killer Koatings, in order to have all four alloys stripped and coated. While my wheels are an aluminum alloy, the process works just the same if you’re looking to restore or update steel wheels as well.

Meet Killer Koatings

Based right across the river from me in northern Kentucky, Killer Koatings has become a powerhouse over the course of the past decade. With a stellar reputation for quality craftsmanship and customer service alike, the decision to retain and recoat my Weds wheels was looking like quite the wise decision. Sealing the deal was a VIP treatment option, which allowed me to leave my RDX on one of several lifts while various parts came off for coating.

After meeting with shop foreman and chief bottle-washer, Mike Karwath, as well as co-owner and lead powdercoat specialist, Kenny Meade, I returned home with a bevy of information. Being that my wheels were of one-piece construction, the entire process was going to set me back a surprisingly palatable $400 prior to tire installation. This would include stripping, blasting, sanding, powdering, and clearcoating all four wheels in the color and finish of my choosing. After penciling in a powdercoat session for the following week, with the shop agreeing to allow me to document the process, I cleaned my camera equipment and jotted down a list of key questions.

How Powdercoating Works

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the process, powdercoating is a heat-treated alternative to traditional paint, meaning you can only use certain alloys in the process. Since the powder itself can only be activated by extreme heat, things like plastics, fiberglass, carbon fiber, and various other temperature-sensitive man-made materials cannot be coated. Despite its unavoidable limitations, many of those in the automotive game revere powdercoating as one of the most revolutionary advancements in the color-changing game. Next to vinyl wrap, it has quickly become a staple of the aftermarket automotive community, and for damn good reason.

Highly revered for its resiliency, powdercoated objects are able to withstand the abuse that would oftentimes mar paint. This fortitude makes it an ideal coating for objects regularly subjected to extreme abuse. From industrial-grade scaffolding and housing handrails to metal bar stools and the occasional tubular-framed race chassis, powdercoat really is the way to go.

Once broken down to its four core stages, the “black magic” behind powdercoating becomes incredibly simple. Strip, blast, coat, bake. It’s that simple. But, what is it like to run an operation that tackles all things powdercoat, and more importantly, what does a daily wheel coating routine look like?

A look at my forged WedsSport SA-60M wheels, before and after their stripping bath. Note, all of the pitting and corrosion along the inner parts of the machined spokes, some of which would require removal during the next phase of the preparatory process.

The Process

After, securing a lift and peeling away my old rubber, along with any necessary hardware, all four wheels were dropped in a stripping tank. As the alloys soaked in a green, low-toxicity solution courtesy of a Greensolv system, Mike explained the significance of this practice. Killer Koatings has a mandatory policy, where every item that comes through its doors gets stripped down to the bare metal. Regardless of whether it’s a brand-new boxed wheel, an uninstalled turbine housing, or a rusty curtain rod, it’s getting a complete cleaning.

For something like my 18 x 9-inch Weds one-piece rollers, this translated to about an hour or so in the tank, whereas a more heavily corroded or complex component may have required a longer soak. Stripped of their original blue coating, along with a ton of grime and some cancerous lesions, my wheels received a quick rinse and were tossed in the oven to dry. This stage apparently boosts the drying time while also bringing any leftover impurities to the surface.

Inside the Killer Koatings blasting box, my Weds wheels received an atomized-aluminum-oxide pressure "wash" that removed the majority of any corrosion or impurities left behind from the stripping bath.

Stripped and Naked

Locked within a blasting box that once served as a shipping container, each wheel was then shot-peened with an aluminum-oxide media mixture for a refined finish, with areas that touch the tire receiving additional attention in order to encourage proper seating. KK tells us that it only uses aluminum oxide, due primarily to the fact that things like silica beads, walnut shells, and sand are prone to embedding in alloys like aluminum. Blasting also exposes any imperfections that the stripping process might have missed, with things like heavily caked-on corrosion, minor lip rash, and random rock chips immediately coming to mind.

On the left, Kenny Meade of Killer Koatings uses a sanding disc to clean-up any stubborn corrosion spots or mars left behind after the blasting stage. (right) High temp tape placed and ready for trimming, an additional step used on the back of each wheel in order to guarantee a flush fit on the vehicle's hub once finished.

Blasted down to their aluminum undies, my Weds were examined and hit with a resurfacing wheel, thus removing any stubborn imperfections. From there, a specialized thermal tape was laid on any portion not deemed coat-worthy. The guys from KK informed me they always mask the hub contact patch on a wheel in order to help facilitate a snug fit. It is also worth mentioning that from the chemical dip onward, gloves need to be used as a quality-control precaution. 

Inside the "powder room" at Killer Koatings, where specialist Kenny Meade can hang, inspect, torch, and then powdercoat each item.

Spraying the Wheels

Cleaned-up and moving on to powder, each wheel received a plug in its center cap hole and a hook through its valve stem slot. Blasting all four rollers with an air hose, followed by the torching of any stray lint, dust, or hair that might be hanging around. Then, ready for a fresh coating, Kenny reached for his powder gun, a specialized tool that emits a fine mist of pigmented media. Since powdercoat is a silty substance free from liquid solvents, this gun (and the station it comes affixed to) is basically an electrostatically-charged pigment spraying station. With vacuum-fed lines sucking up bronze-chrome media from the bags below, I hastily snapped photos, as Kenny adjusted flow via a series of control knobs.

Flow controls for monitoring and adjusting media usage, as the master of all things powdercoat gets into a Zen-like trance while coating my wheels.

With a favorable flow-rate selected, each wheel was slowly coated with even amounts of media. Carefully rotating one roller at a time by the hook it hung upon in order to avoid contact, Kenny carefully inspected and coated, paying close attention to areas like crevices between spokes and lips. Devoid of any notable fumes and virtually silent in its application, witnessing a powdercoating professional like Kenny work, is akin to watching a Zen master conduct his morning Tai Chi routine. Fluid and focused, the artist focuses on slowly coating every square inch of exposed aluminum in rich powder, two wheels at a time.

The temp-controlled oven that Killer Koatings uses to bake powdercoated products truly is monolithic, allowing them to coat almost anything imaginable.

From there, my Weds were pushed into an oven to bake at 400° Fahrenheit for a 15-20 minute stint. While oven sizes and designs vary based upon a shop’s needs and budget, Killer Koatings opted to go big and went with something the size of a shipping container. This hardcore hot-box has allowed the guys to coat almost every metal item imaginable. May it be a three-piece Forgeline wheels for a Bengals ballplayer, or structural components for the new FC Cincinnati soccer arena, Killer Koatings coats it.

From a tubular-framed race car chassis, to various motorcycle components and metal lawn furniture, you never know what you'll find down at Killer Koatings.

Around this point, Mike came back into the shop shouting about it being lunchtime, and how he needed more fried chicken in his life. So with Nashville hot chicken in hand, I fired some questions Kenny’s direction, hoping to learn a little bit more about the entire process and the products used. 

Powder coating color options are virtually endless, with Killer Koatings primarily utilizing products from Prismatic Powders and Tiger-Drylac.

When asked which brands make the best powder, Kenny tells me he prefers media from Prismatic Powders and Tiger-Drylac, based purely upon color options, price, and overall quality. He goes on to explain both companies make powders that are thermoset polymer in nature, which once charged, will adhere to almost anything it touches.

This unique powder is also impervious to extreme heat (hence the “thermo” in thermoset) and is more environmentally friendly than traditional paint due to low volatile-organic-compound (VOC) content. Another perk Kenny tells me is that overspray within the coating booth is infinitesimal, and being that there is zero liquid, clean-up does not require solvents. Just break out the air gun, blast away any residue lying around, and prep for the next job.

Wagner powder coating machine

Kenny also says that contrary to common belief, powdercoating adds very little weight; far less than, say, a set of lug nuts or valve stems. He prefers not to shoot satin clear coats, as it tends to come out looking like brake dust build-up when applied to a wheel. This means Killer Koatings prefers to do either flat or gloss clearcoats, both of which go on white and turn transparent once baked

With a preliminary round of bronze chrome applied and baked into the aluminum, my Wed SA-60M wheels were left to air-cool and were then coated with a protective layer of gloss clear before going back in the oven.

Lunch complete and lips burning, we returned to my rare Japanese wheels, which upon removal from the oven received a quick cool-down period prior to being coated with a glossy clear finish. After being hit with a milky-rich coating of powder, my Weds were hung once more on a rolling rack and pushed back into the oven, where they would receive a secondary 35-45 minute baking session. Kenny explains that both time and temp often need to be adjusted at this point, dependent upon project proportions, weight, underlying alloy, and coat levels.

The choice to go with a bronze chrome finish was a wise one indeed.

Once pulled from the heat, my wheels were left to cool. After reaching room temp, they were inspected and whisked off for tire installation. While I recently went into detail as to how I was left so impressed with Yokohama’s ADVAN Sport A/S tires, there were a few things that occurred during their installation that warrant mentioning.

First of all, we were flabbergasted to find that nary a warp nor ding could be seen on any of these SA-60M alloys. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Cincinnati and its hulking potholes, it’s astounding to come across wheels unscathed by 100,000 miles of speed tables, sinkholes, and every other imaginable road hazard. To keep my immaculate alloys looking their best, Killer Koatings recommended I wash them with high-grade car soap and avoid using overly abrasive sponges and brushes.

For those of you who like to hit the track, damage to freshly powdercoated wheels can be a bit more involved than a few superficial surface scratches. So to shine some light on the topic of powdercoated wheel inspection and repair, I reached out to Steve Schardt at Forgeline Wheels, to see how one of the world’s premier wheel manufacturers tackles an alloy that gets sent in for a fix.

“We use an eyeball inspection,” Steve says, “On a real track wheel, enough brake dust will accumulate in a crack to make it easily visible to the eye. We support a customer doing dye penetration tests [as well], but most people don’t ask for it. While powdercoat typically remains unaffected by the dye, we advise the full stripping of a wheel that has seen contact for inspection.”

Aluminum Alloys, Reborn

Suffice to say, I’m glad I did not abandon my Weds SA-60M wheels. Coated in bronze chrome and topped with a glossy clear finish, my split-spoke forged alloys look brand new, breathing new life into something I once considered to be an eyesore.

To keep my immaculate alloys looking their best, Killer Koatings recommended I wash them with a high-grade car soap, and avoid using overly abrasive sponges and brushes.

It’s impressive to see how something so corroded can have years of road grime, salt, snow, ice, and everything in-between courtesy of the other three seasons stripped away in a day and covered-up the next.

So if you happen to be in the same boat as yours truly, I would strongly suggest contacting your local powdercoat shop in order to refresh what you’ve already got. Hell, maybe I’ll pick-up a skinnier set of wheels for slicing through the snow next season and have Killer Koatings give them a fresh “winter coat” every few years.

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About the author

Micah Wright

Raised on LEGOs by grandfathers who insisted on fixing everything themselves, Micah has been a petrolhead in training since age four. His favorite past times include craft beer, strong cigars, fast cars, and culinary creativity in all of its forms.
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