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Stock steel rims on a 2014 Ford, bad looking (to me) rust around lug nut holes:

enter image description here

What worries me is the flaking & raw rust right around the lug nut holes. I think some of it is from when I tightened the lug nuts, the friction dislodged some old rust from the wheel surface.

I don't care about visuals, is this just surface rust and safe?

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    Welcome to Motor Vehicle Maintenance & Repair! You have a larger issue here than rust on the rim ... the lug nuts appear to be on backwards. The cone shaped side of the lug nut should be facing the rim, not the way they are. Feb 4, 2023 at 20:18
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    @Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 oops, that's right... I'll swap them and take a look at the contact surfaces as suggested in the answer below. Any damage I should be checking for that could've resulted from the wrong installation?
    – user4520
    Feb 4, 2023 at 22:26

4 Answers 4

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As far as the rust goes, I personally wouldn't like it. Should it cause you any issues? Probably not, as long as you clean up the rust and do something to counteract it. The rust appears to be of the type, if it isn't taken care of, it will cause issues down the road.

This is what I'd do:

  • Take the wheel (or wheels, if it looks like this on more than one rim) off the vehicle.
  • Clean up what rust you can using a wire brush or a rotary wire brush on a drill or some other type of rotary device.
  • Primer and paint the wheel, so as to prevent further rust incursion. I'd use a rust converter like POR-15 (no affiliation) or something like it. If you do go the POR-15 route, put some paint over the top of it, because it doesn't do well in direct sunlight.
  • Reinstall the wheel, correctly torquing the lug nuts.

If you do decide to put rust converter on the rims, be careful not to get it on anything besides where you mean it to go. The stuff will stick to whatever and won't come off without some SERIOUS effort. Say for instance you were to get it onto lug studs. If you then put the nut on it, the stuff will weld the lug nut and stud together and they won't come apart. Just be careful. Oh, and wear your PPE, because it's a PITB to get off your hand and has a tendency to go everywhere.

Note: As I've already stated in comments, the wheel nuts are on backwards.

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  • "As far as the rust goes, I personally wouldn't like it." so would you say getting the rims cleaned & painted as you suggested is a good solution, or would it be preferable to just get new ones at this stage? About the nuts, any damage to worry about from putting them on backwards, or will it be alright as long as it's cleaned & reinstalled the right way?
    – user4520
    Feb 5, 2023 at 14:01
  • @user4520 - You need to clean the rims, then you can make that call. More than likely, there won't be an issue. You might see some minor pitting. If so, clean, paint, torque them back onto the hub. Remember, while paint will help, you'll most likely need to do it again down the road. The only way you get rust looking like that on metal is because of road salt during winter time. It will take paint off after a while. Rust converter will keep it going for a lot longer. Feb 5, 2023 at 15:05
  • @Harper-ReinstateMonica - Sorry you've not had any luck with it. I personally have had excellent results. Might be how it's being used? I can tell you it works a LOT better than doing nothing at all. Just remember, it's not paint, so shouldn't be treated as such. I put paint over the top of it to keep it looking good and pretty much never have to worry about it again. Feb 6, 2023 at 11:13
  • Thanks, I'll be switching back to summer tires in a couple of months, so I'll probably try to clean the rust off with a wire brush and repaint just as a little project. We'll see how that goes
    – user4520
    Feb 8, 2023 at 16:02
  • I missed this earlier.. but this answer seems confused about which rust OP is concerned with. OP is interested in the little rings of lighter color rust around the lugs. These are new. Saying "probably not" a problem is an alarming arm-wave. The focus on aesthetics further downplays the canary in the coal mine. Feb 8, 2023 at 22:05
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While I completely agree that @paulster2's answer is the best practice, right way to go if you want to preserve the car, the do nothing option is also perfectly alright. Wheels are made from thick steel and very few places (if any) on them will retain muck and water which is what will actually lead to serious rust (or being repeatedly dunked in saltwater as referred to in another answer's boat trailer example). For a 2014 car, well it's getting on a bit and likely other stuff will start to go wrong before a bit of surface rust on the wheels causes any issues at all. I restore classic cars and can tell you pretty much everything else will have rotted away before the wheels!

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You can get larger wheel nuts with the same thread .This will mean that you will not lose the wheel .Slogged out rims on small lug nuts have from personal experience caused wheel loss on a boat trailer. I replaced the rims and used the large lugnuts bought from a serious truck and trailer engineering shop.No problems for 12 years.

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From your comment 2:

Any damage I should be checking for that could've resulted from the wrong installation?

Yes, this is a serious safety concern.

Here is how lugs are supposed to work.

enter image description here

(loosened, for clarity). Gray is the hub and bolt. Orange is the wheel rim. Blue is the nut. Notice how the rim is somewhat oversize on the bolt - the bolt is not a locating pin for the rim (at least, not without the nut, it isn't) and there are several millimeters of lateral (on the car, up/down) free play without the nut being involved.

The inside of the holes on the wheel are beveled. They match the bevel on the lug nut when they are installed correctly. These bevels hold the wheel at center to keep it from drifting around when rotating.

Now let's try it with lugs upside down.

enter image description here

By putting the flats of the lug nuts into the bevel of the wheel, look at the surface contact area between nut and rim! It got a lot smaller! So yeah, most likely, if you torqued to spec, that would make the steel deform plastically on the rim somewhat - it would be difficult to avoid. Also, the "locating pin" function of the nuts is now inoperative. So, by rolling the wheels in this state and letting it shift around on the nut flats, it could do more damage.

So yes. The new rust pattern could well be either from distorting the metal due to the high force on small contact area, or due to the wheel "working" round and round.

And yes. That would be reflected in a new rust pattern.

I would look closely at the shape of the wheel where it meets the nuts. If the bevel on the rim seems intact, you can probably put the nuts on properly and forget about it. Otherwise I'd be shopping around used wheel shops and see if you can get an OEM match off another car. This is not too expensive on OEM steel wheels.

The bevel on the lug nuts (blue) is unharmed. Even if their backside is a little chewed up, that's not a critical surface.

You didn't ask, but, aesthetics...

Correcting the telltale rust pattern would be shooting the helpful messenger. However, since some expect an aesthetics answer... If I had spare wheel/tires and a buddy with a sandblast cabinet, I'd blast these down to near white metal. Otherwise I'd go to town with a real drill (not a drill-driver; too slow) and a quality wire-wheel cup or disc (you don't want dollar-store junk for this). Wear safety glasses. Then (before they re-rust) I'd immediately mask the rubber and prime with Rustoleum 7769 from a rattle can. Taking care to do multiple light coats; no runs. Then hit it with gloss or flat Rustoleum topcoat from a rattle can again multiple light coats. I'd do them away from the car, one at a time if necessary. Often, I can't media-blast and the best surface preparation I can manage is SSPC-SP-3 (wire wheel). I've tried a lot of industrial trade-only products, and nothing works as well as plain old hardware store Rustoleum 7769 under a quality topcoat.

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