Story and Photography by Ryan Lee Price

Updated, originally published October 2009

If your wheel bolts are original, go to your car, pull one out and take a look at it (just one!): It's a simple threaded iron bolt likely covered in what appears to be a thick layer of dirt and/or grease. Upon closer inspection, the dirt and grease are probably hiding a destructive coating of rust. Rust causes iron to fail, and failing in an area as important as wheels isn't a good idea no matter the condition of the rest of your car. Instead of sitting hunched over your workbench for hours with a tiny wire brush scraping away at 16 to 28  little wheel bolts (or any number of other dirty bolts on your car), consider a different approach that will add not only life to your old bolts but beauty as well. Several companies offer vibrating tumblers similar to rock polishers that will clean and polish small parts with very little effort.


The tumbler system has a capacity of 5 lbs. and is very effective in removing rust, grease and dirt on most any parts you can fit in there.


Here's a closer look at a few of the wheel bolts we had around the garage that needed some sprucing up.


On the left is the pyramid green rust cutting media; for roughly $20, the 2.5 lbs. lasts quite a while. While on the right is the dry shine media for finer polishing.


There are a few ways to give your smaller parts a clean, fresh look, from professional powder coating to chrome plating, but tin-zinc plating kits are popular for small jobs when details count. Electroplating uses electric current (in this case from a battery) to pull small amounts of metal from the charged tin-zinc anode bar, through an electrolyte solution, and onto the negatively charged piece to be plated. It is simple, safe, non-toxic, and easy to use.


The kit includes everything you'll need to start plating out of the box (except for batteries), including gloves and safety goggles.


Place the positively charged anode bar into the solution and attach the negatively-charged piece into the solution for five to six seconds, or until there is a gray film over the part. The included metal polish will bring the piece to a beautiful shine.


Here is an example of the progress of our efforts, from an original bolt through the replating and the tumbler systems to the final product. From left to right, the first bolt is untouched and covered with 35 years of dirt and grime; the second bolt is after five hours in the rust-cutting green media; the third after an hour of dry shine media, and the last bolt is after a protective coat of tin-zinc electroplating was applied.


If you are one to spend the time and trouble of media tumbling and zinc-plating old bolts to a fancy shine for your latest project, you're probably also the sort of do-it-yourselfer who takes pride in the smallest of details. This is where a subscription to your vehicle at would prove to be just as handy as the wrench in your toolbox. With comprehensive service procedures, specifications, graphics, recalls, and technical service bulletins just a click away, you'll have everything you'll need at your fingertips.


Not only is Ryan Lee Price a freelance writer specializing in automotive journalism and a former long-time magazine editor, he is part of the technical editorial team that provides content for most all of the Chilton products. He currently resides in Corona, California, with his wife Kara and their two children.