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Wheels On A Budget - Buying Used

Posted in How To: Wheels Tires on November 28, 2013
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Last month, we gave the 101 on what to look for when buying a set of used tires. This month, we are turning our attention to the other side of the rolling equation—wheels. Next to tires, used wheels are one of the most popular and easy-to-obtain pre-owned items. Given that there are so many wheel types, sizes, and configurations, choosing the right new-to-you rim will require a little homework on your part.

Not to worry, though, as purchasing a set of used wheels doesn’t have to be a complicated affair. Gathered here are a few pointers to keep in mind when looking for your next set of bargain rims. For all you bargain 4x4 parts hunters, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for next month’s installment of “Buying Used,” as we look into coilover shocks (we’ll even give you a few tips for where to find the high-end absorbers).

A. The wheel’s bolt pattern is what determines if the rim can bolt up to your 4x4. Always double check that the wheel’s bolt pattern is as listed. Just because the ad states “Jeep five-lug pattern,” don’t assume that they will work on your Jeep. To determine the bolt pattern of a wheel with an even number of holes, measure from the center of one bolt hole to the center of a bolt hole on the opposite side. For odd-number wheels, you’ll get your pattern number by measuring from the center of one bolt hole to the outside edge of a hole on the opposite side.

B. The wheel’s overall diameter is another important consideration. Moving up from a 15- to a 17-inch wheel is typically safer in terms of clearance. If you have the opportunity, test fit the wheel. Some wheel diameters simply won’t clear suspension and brake components due to the overall diameter. This issue can sometimes be avoided depending on the amount of backspacing.

C. Backspacing is just as important as the wheel’s diameter. Backspacing is measured from the wheel’s mounting surface to the outer lip on the backside of the wheel. The lower the backspacing number, the farther the wheel will set outside of the vehicle. Factory wheels tend to have higher backspacing numbers to keep the tires tucked neatly inside of the wheelwell. For aftermarket wheels, 3.5 to 4.75 inches of backspacing is very common.

D. Lug-centric and hub-centric are important terms to know. For the most part, the majority of 4x4 wheels are lug-centric, meaning that the lug nuts are what center the wheel to the axle. Hub-centric means the wheel is centered by the hub. No matter which type of wheel it is, make sure that the lug nut holes and seats are not egg-shaped or appear to be damaged. Damaged lug seats tend to be more prevalent on aluminum wheels, but steel can be just as bad.

E. A bent rim can sometimes be hard to spot just sitting on the ground. We doubt that Craigslist Joe will let you run his used wheel set to the local tire shop to get them checked out, so your next best option is to find a flat spot and roll the wheel for a few feet in front of you. If the wheel hops or wobbles, there is a good chance that it is bent and will create a balancing nightmare, or worse, fail.

F. No matter if the wheel is steel or aluminum, look closely for cracks. Trouble spots tend to be around the lip of the wheel, but don’t just look there. Aluminum tends to crack before steel, but steel is more likely to bend. It’s not uncommon for a steel wheel with a bent or damaged lip to still hold air fine, so if it’s only one damaged wheel out of a set of five, we would make it our spare. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can fix a damaged wheel on the cheap. For the cost to repair it correctly (assuming that you can), you would be better off getting another used set.

G. Make sure the rim’s width is as listed and will work for your tire of choice. To determine how wide a rim is, simply measure between the bead seats.

H. For those with rigs that are equipped with manual locking hubs and full-float axles, you will need to double check that the center bore of the wheel is large enough for the axle components to clear. A dial caliper is a great tool to make sure that the opening is appropriate.

I. Unlike other on-road motorsports, off-roading can be hard on wheels. Flaking chrome, pitted steel, and aluminum covered in galvanic corrosion may raise red flags for some, but others can look past the surface imperfections. A rough-looking, but solid wheel is often a prime candidate to be powdercoated or polished, which can breathe new life (and looks) into an otherwise rough-looking wheel. The main goal is to make sure that it is structurally sound.

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