How to Restore a Vintage Motorcycle Wheel

Restoring the wheel of an old beat up motorcycle is a labor intensive job, but if done right it is comopletely worth it.

For these instructions I’m going to use some photos from a 1971 Yamaha RD350

When a bike is left outside for a long period of time it rusts, oxidizes, and generally just looks terrible. I dragged this bike from behind a shed in Eastern Mass where it had been rotting away for 10+ years. This is what the rear wheel looked like.

RD350 Motorcycle Rear Wheel Rusted and Oxidized

As you can see the whole motorcycle is weather torn, but we are only going to focus on the rear wheel in this post. The rear hub and drum is very dull and oxidized, the spokes are rusty, the tire is filthy, and the rim is covered in grunge.

First, take the wheel off (duh). I always like to start with the hubs first and work outwardly. I gave the hub a quick wipe down with a rag and this is what it looked like.

RD350 Motorcycle Rear Drum Brake - Oxidized

Aluminum is very easy to bring back to life, especially on large flat surfaces like this piece. Take some sand paper and get to it! Start with a 220 or so wet/dry paper, then jump to a 400, 800, 2000. It takes time but you’ll be rewarded handsomely for your efforts.

After a quick rough up with the 220 it will begin to look like this:

RD350 Motorcycle Rear Drum Sanded

As you use finer and finer sand paper it’ll clean up like brand new. You can even use some aluminum polish once you’re done and rub it in with a terry clothe, but I generally just wipe it with a little oil instead to make it shine up. It’s amazing what a thin coat of oil will do for the look of your bike, it’ll also bring back faded paint a little bit over time (painted motors fade through thee years as the natural oils in the paint evaporate from the heat). . . but I digress….

Once you have the drum all cleaned up move on to the hub and spokes. For the most part I will leave the inside of the hub (between the spokes) be. The only way to clean up in there effectively is to either remove the spokes (not worth the effort) or have access to a sand blasting chamber. If you do have access to a bead blaster I would recommend using a walnut shell media rather than class or sand. Glass can work alright, but it tends to be a bit more abrasive than you need.

Anyway, use sand paper rolled up and folded to get into the tight areas. It definitely takes some work. The spokes are not aluminum so they won’t polish up, but you should be able to get most of the rust off them with the sand paper, then a real light spray with some WD-40 will make them sparkle.

The rim is chromed almost 100% of the time when it comes to vintage Japanese bikes. Some European bikes will have aluminum rims (which can be sanded), or hard anodized rims (which can only be cleaned and re-coated). For a chrome rim the best way to clean it is with a #000 steel wool. Do NOT use a steel wool that is any thicker, #000 is all you need, any stronger and you’ll scratch the chrome. Just run the steel wool back the forth in large sweeping motions across the chrome and you’ll see it wipe away all the rust, dirt, and oxidation in just a few minutes.

Once the rim is polished up turn your attention to the tire. Really this tire should have been replaced, but I didn’t have a replacement handy, so I just cleaned it up. Some simple soap in water works great the scrub it with a stiff plastic bristled brush. This will scrape all the dirt from between the lettering and tread. Take some time to get all the dirt off.

The last step is to shine everything up. Another light coat of oil works great. For the tires I generally spray on ‘Tire Magic’, a tire spray polish available at any auto parts store. Any tire polish should work just fine. Do your best not to get any oils, or polishes on the tread of the tire, else you’ll be skating all over the road.

Thats about it. With just a few free hours, a lot of elbow grease, and a couple inexpensive items from the auto store you can bring new life to an old motorcycle wheel.

RD350 Motorcycle Wheel Fully Restored

RD350 Motorcycle Cleaned Painted and Polished 



By ef

Hey, I'm Evan and this is one of my motorcycle sites. You can find more about me on my homepage, or visit me on Google Plus: +Evan Fell


  1. Actually… you can polish the area inside the hubs, between the spokes. You can also speed the polishing of the brake cover, etc. by using aircraft stripper gel. Paint it on, wait a few minutes, wash it off. It works amazingly well, and is much faster than doing all the manual work. It also saves time because you aren’t using a heavier grit sandpaper to remove heavy oxidation and working down to something finer to polish away the scratches you made with the heavy stuff. I was blown away the first time I tried it.




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