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The rims on my 92 Civic are really ugly (discolored/rusted) and I'm wondering how to best make them look nicer without a lot of work or replacing them, especially since I'm about to get the tires replaced. Is painting the best option or can I clean them with rust remover of some sort? If painting, can I do it while the old tires are still on the rims, and is there any special paint I should use?

Here's a picture:

enter image description here

Update: And the same wheel after applying oxalic acid and some light scrubbing:

enter image description here

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Post a picture of the rims –  Larry Mar 25 '13 at 2:03
    
Will do, once the sun's up. :-) –  R.. Mar 25 '13 at 2:12
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3 Answers

Try to remove as much rust as possible with either a die grinder or other rotary device with a wire wheel. Then just use some rust paint to spray over them. You don't even have to take them off the car if you don't want to. Honestly you could even skip the wire wheel if you are feeling really lazy but you may have to respray them every 6 months depending on your weather conditions.

You can find rust paint at any generic hardware store.

This is what I did to my girlfriend's rusted up steel winter rims and it has held up this winter pretty well. This isn't a long term solution by any means though the rust will still eventually eat through the paint and you will have to re spray them unless you get it done professionally. Or get aluminum rims.

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I added a picture. Would just spraying some oxalic acid (aka wood bleach) on them be a bad idea? –  R.. Mar 25 '13 at 19:11
    
It wouldn't be a bad idea to use it to remove the rust if you have a strong enough concentration. I would try to avoid getting it on the tires though If you do get some on the tires rinse it off with plenty of water as soon as possible to avoid damaging or discoloring the tire. But seeing as you are getting new tires you might not care about your old ones. The acid may not be enough by itself though which is why I recommend a wire wheel or similar device to remove as much rust and loose paint as possible. –  Mike Saull Mar 25 '13 at 20:07
    
The old tires are completely flat, no tread. :-) So I don't care about ruining them. And the oxalic acid is crystals, so I can make it as strong as needed. –  R.. Mar 25 '13 at 20:13
    
Yeah go ahead with the OA then researching it myself it looks like it would be handy to have some around. –  Mike Saull Mar 25 '13 at 20:20
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If your lazy, get black rustolium and just spray over everything. Then follow up with a black gloss wheel paint.

It will look perfectly fine.

EDIT: Try Plastidip! Just get a can and remove the wheel, spray a few good coats, let it dry.

There are many, many tutorials on YouTube.

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I have had strange results spraying regular paint ontop of rust paint. In my experience regular paint does not like to adhere to rust paint and will crinkle up in a strange pattern. Maybe it was just the brand of rust paint I used. –  Mike Saull Mar 25 '13 at 20:19
    
Very possible, actually. You know, you could always use Plastidip on the wheels. Its cheap, easy, and REMOVABLE. You dont even have to tape off the tire. Just peal the overspray off. I did my Hood, Roof, and Trunk with good results. If the plastidip starts to look bad because of rust... just remove it and try again. –  Applehat Mar 25 '13 at 20:23
    
If you're going to paint over it, you'd probably want to use a rust primer (which RustOleum also makes) rather than rust paint. –  Compro01 Mar 27 '13 at 17:55
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If you have a well ventilated area and you have a little time on your hands (a day total with waiting for paint to dry). Then you should just do it right so you're not upset with how they wheels look in a week. Pick yourself up some of my favorite product for stripping painted / rusted parts back down to bare metal.

Aircraft Paint Removal (APR)

enter image description here

This stuff is pretty dangerous stuff so be sure to wear thick, elbow high, rubber gloves and a face mask (it burns when it gets on your skin).

Now, lets get to work.

  • Pour half of what you think you'll need it into a suitable metal container.

    - Once poured put the cap back on and put the APR in a safe location until you have used what has been poured.

  • With a paint brush apply to the wheels and let it sit for about 10 minutes. - Don't let this sit overnight. (in case you somehow get that idea)

    - You will notice the paint will start to bubble.

  • Once bubbled, allow it another five minutes to set in then if you have a garden hose accessible this will remove most (possibly even all if you applied the product correctly)

  • Using a scraper and/or sand paper take off anything that was left over.

NOTE: Once the wheel is stripped down it will rust if you let it sit overnight or even for an hour or so (depending on moister in the air). You must apply at least get a layer of primer on them before stopping.

  • Grab yourself a package of 3x5 index cards. Place these between the rim and the tire rim. (refer to the photo below) enter image description here
  • Apply your primer, paint, and clear.

It's a rather inexpensive process and I'm 100% positive you'll be thrilled with the results as well as the learning experience. I've used this product on some really nasty projects (wheel, restorations, machinery) and I've never been disappointed.

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Thanks for the detailed answer. Is the original coating paint, or a metal coating/plating of some sort? I've seen some spray-on products that claim to be 97% zinc after drying, and I wonder if that wouldn't be the best to use, but also what kind of prep is needed for using them. –  R.. Mar 29 '13 at 6:01
    
I've taken that stuff to a 32 Ford fresh out of the junk yard. Cleaned off the dirt with my hand and applied APR. Let it sit about 15 minutes total, and washed away ~80 years of paint and primer. I did the entire front clip of the vehicle including inside fenders and firewall with no issues. I've also used it on frames for rat rod builds. I refuse to use/try anything else. –  cinelli Mar 29 '13 at 6:09
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