SHOP LIFE: LAX Wheel Refinishing

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In a nondescript warehouse on the edge of Boyle Heights is one of the best kept secrets for a crucial part of Los Angeles life: the rim. The aftermarket wheel is an inalienable part of SoCal culture, more important than the wristwatch or necktie to the official LA wardrobe, and yet the region’s cratered roads are a hellscape for alloy circles. For years, LAX Wheel Refinishing has quietly kept the wheels of LA turning, so to speak, to the tune of 2,000 a day. We recently got a rare peek behind the scenes of this impressive operation.

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It all started with a set of well-worn Enkei 92 wheels rescued from a junked SR5 AE86. Though Enkei recently re-released several of their classic styles, owners of vintage Japanese wheels often don’t have the option of going out and buying a new set.

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These particular Enkeis had endured decades of curb rash, pitting and bending. They’d also been repainted once or twice by the previous owner, but we wanted to restore them to the shining gold faces that made the 92s so distinctive.

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We loaded them up into the ol’ JNC wagon and rolled down to the industrial edge of LA. The area sits just on the “good” side of a little-known, lawless expanse right outside the city limits, an area so seedy that it inspired the nihilistic underworld of True Detective.

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The main entrance, where wheels are dropped off, has a barely visible sign and is easy to miss. Just look for the open garage door filled with stacks upon stacks of rims (lead photo), or follow one of the dozen or so stray cats that LAX has lovingly adopted and neutered.

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For restorations like ours, the first step is stripping off the existing finish. If a rush job is required, aircraft paint remover is brushed onto the surface. It removes paint within a few minutes, but requires a vigilant eye to make sure every crevice has been reached.

For standard jobs, the wheels are simply submerged into a chemical bath for a couple of hours. After that, the wheels are sandblasted to remove any stubborn remnants.

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The wheels are then cleaned and hand-buffed and polished. Dozens of workstations process rims of various shapes and sizes nonstop throughout the day. Because of each wheel’s different designs, they have to be done by hand to make sure every surface has been touched.

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Often, damage and microscopic cracks are revealed only once the wheel is bare. The wheels are put on a machine to test the balance and integrity of the rim, and if any imperfections are detected they are cut out and new material welded in.

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Once the barrels are fixed, they’re machined for maximum shine and smoothness.

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Then the faces are buffed.

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Next, the wheels are sent down a conveyer belt to the quality control department. If the inspection goes well, the next step is to pre-prep for paint.

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The final step before paint prep is a thorough cleaning in an ultrasonic tank to remove all dirt and tiny flakes of debris created during the previous steps. Each wheel is then meticulously dried with a combination of good old-fashioned compressed air and a stack of microfiber towels.

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Next, the arduous task of paint prep can begin. Any sections that will not be painted are carefully masked off with green painters’ tape.

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Several large paint booths are located throughout the property, each devoted to a variety of different painting processes. Though wheels are the main business, LAX also paintssmall car parts. We noticed some grilles and trim pieces hanging about.

Available finishes range from soft-touch matte to high polish to chrome. Special colors like the mirror bronze or gold are possible as well, as are multiple-color designs.

Details such as the the bolts on multi-piece wheels are not overlooked. Here, they’re painted on a special holder known by its highly technical name of “piece of cardboard,” but you have to admire the evenness of the grid.

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An industrial oven is used for drying and powdercoating.

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LAX also re-barrels wheels, stretching the width to up to 14 inches wide, which should be more than adequate for all your bosozoku needs.

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Lastly, the wheels are wrapped for shipping, and they do ship a lot. In addition to the rollers on your 40-year-old Corolla, LAX finishes brand new wheels for giant automakers such as Chrysler.

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This is the owner, Jesus Sanchez, one of the kindest and hard working men you’ll ever meet. Sitting in front of his ancient PC, he oversees the massive operation and is constantly shuffling both paperwork and cats. If you stop by, please say hi to him for us and tell him Japanese Nostalgic Car sent you.

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It takes about four weeks from beginning to end, depending on the condition of your wheels. Prices too will vary depending on the condition and finish, but are more than reasonable considering the amount of work involved. We couldn’t be happier with how the Enkeis turned out. They look brand new and like a completely different set than what we brought in.

Owners of discontinued wheels often feel they have no way of bringing them back to their original glory. Hopefully, this tour shows just what is possible and inspires JNC owners to get them restored. LAX Wheel Refinishing can be found at 1520 Spence Street, Los Angeles, CA 90023, or call them at (323) 269-1484.

Special thanks to Jesus Sanchez, Ivan Zalapa, and the rest of the LAX Wheel Refinishing staff.

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19 Responses to SHOP LIFE: LAX Wheel Refinishing

  1. atx said:

    Those came out great looking. Always love behind the scenes stuff, i bet those cats keep the pests at bay.

  2. Brett said:

    A really interesting article; thanks. And kudos to LAX for caring for the stray animals.

  3. Sleepin said:

    Very cool to see behind the scenes! Makes me want to send them a set!

  4. Bart said:

    Holy carp! That is an impressive operation!

  5. zKars said:

    You can tell they care by the protective gear and equipment guards for all workers. This is no sweat shop. Just good old fashioned hard honest work. Great to see.

  6. John M said:

    So, Jesus takes the wheels? (Rimshot) and rimshot for “rimshot.” Ok, that was a bit of a stretch. (Rimshot) Anyway, always enjoy the unexpected articles. Also great pics – the image with the conveyor really stood out for me. Nice job! What are the Enkeis going on?

  7. Louis Fong said:

    Wow, it’s like spa treatment for rims lol

  8. Dave Yuan said:

    There’s a cardboard box in the first photo that says JNC on it!

  9. _John said:

    “LAX also small paints car parts.”

    I always wondered what went into refinishing wheels. Neat article!

  10. DJ Steeko said:

    I just spent 170 hours restoring a set of MA61 wheels myself (look on youtube).
    I can appreciate the time and effort it takes to do this right.
    I hand sanded (wetndry) but polished with a dremel and it still took 42 hours per wheel.
    Then I sealed them with a german wheel sealant – nanoflex.

    Restored old wheels are just that little bit more special I think.
    Now I have restored my wheels myself, I take pride in them and not jealous of anyone elses stuff because of the hard work I put into my wheels myself.

    I look at them and think gat dayamz those wheels are fresh 🙂

    oh – and white pen colouring of the tyres for the win 🙂

  11. miatadon said:

    If you live in northern CA, try Rite-Way if you need wheels repaired. They also renovate wire wheels. I recommend them highly, and so do 97 other people on Yelp.

    http://www.yelp.com/biz/rite-way-wire-and-wheel-specialists-walnut-creek

  12. nice read. thanks. didn’t know such big companies doing this work existed. over here most wheel-repair Shops are one-man-businesses with doing the paint and powdercoating at external paintshops. The wheels came out really well. It’s so much cooler to restore old stuff to former glory than just buying a new replica 🙂

  13. Jun said:

    Gonna have to look into some barreling, I need some 11.5j’s. Good to know a local shop can handle it.

  14. James said:

    Very cool article! Thanks for documenting it.

  15. Randy said:

    They’ll fix your wheels AND your cat! Wow!

    I like the wheels in the pic between the dunk tank and the dude in the “JACK FM” shirt. Turbines forever!

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