So you got your Spud, Inc. Econo Hammer in the mail and you need some Olympic plates to use with it. Craigslist, OfferUp, Gumtree and Play It Again Sports are the garage gym athlete’s ally when it comes to budget friendly equipment. Buying used can save us hundreds if not thousands of dollars off the retail price, could snag us some top of the line Ivankos or some vintage Yorks, or simply allow us to test the waters on this entire garage gym life thing without dumping tons of money on new products.
The problem, is that sometimes that equipment isn’t exactly up to par for use, or simply aesthetically looks like crap. You don’t want to use old, rusty plates with your new Econo Hammer right? This is where the plate refurbishing process comes into play.
Depending on what you are refurbing, you might need a handful of tools including a mask, eye protection, sandpaper, tape, cleaning products, paint stripper, etc.
Today, we are just going to talk about Olympic plates.
I’ve refurbed well over 2000 pounds of plates at this point, along with a couple of machines, plate trees, dumbbell racks, several bars, and a few other items. Certainly not a record by any means, but more than enough to set me up as someone with some experience. I’ve been called the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) by a few. I’ve tried everything from wire wheels on a drill, hand brushing, power washing, CLR, paint stripper, several types of paint, paint pens, foam brushes, you name it. And there is one process that seems to give me the best, most consistent results, with the least amount of effort. The following assumes you want to clean and then paint plates. If you aren’t doing both, this process might not work.
- Brush (any kind will work)
- Hose (ideally with a power wash setting)
- White Vinegar by the gallon (the more plates, the more vinegar)
- Large plastic tub (kiddie pools are awesome)
- Large shop towels (these are going to get rust, vinegar, etc. on them – probably get tossed afterwards)
- Paint – Rattle Cans (Rustoleum Painter’s Touch is the best I’ve found) – As a frame of reference, if you are doing a common set of pairs of 45s, 35s, 25s, 10s, and 5s – You will likely need 2 to 4 cans, depending on how good you are.
- Paint Pens or Foam Brush (optional for lettering) – If foam brushes, you need paint. Typically I buy a sample can from the paint store.
- Nice clear sunny day (painting works better when it’s clear and warm)
A Note on Safety
If you plan to paint in a garage, or simply have a bad reaction to anything that smells like chemicals, or just don’t like the thought of your lungs being painted and covered in rust, invest in a mask of some kind. I often wear a mask, goggles, and some thick reusable painter gloves. This makes clean-up a snap (no more scrubbing paint off my hands and arms) and I feel better knowing I didn’t just inhale everything I cleaned off of the plates.
Prep – Cleaning and Vinegar Baths
White Vinegar, a natural cleaner, likes to remove pretty much anything from everything given the right amount of time and environment. Yet it seems to keep the things you want intact. A very nice alternative to some of the harsher treatments available. My last two plate refurbs, both sets of hundred pound plates, went through the following process:
Step 1) Spray down the plates with a hose and then lightly scrub with a brush. We are simply removing the first layer of dirt and grime that falls off easily.
Step 2) Take the biggest plastic container you have (the prior mentioned kiddie pool works wonders here) and start setting up your plates. You want to place the plates on something like small pebbles so they are just slightly off the ground, but you don’t want whatever they are on to lift them too high or to have too much surface contact with the plates.
Step 3) If using a kiddie pool, one gallon of white vinegar with the rest normal hose water will be your solution (just do some basic math here if doing a bigger or smaller bath). Fill the kiddie pool up as high as you can. If you have cats, dogs, children, or its hot outside, I’ll probably recommend you put a tarp over the kiddie pool to avoid evaporation or drinking. So the small pebbles keep the plates fully surrounded by the solution, instead of one side potentially being completely flat on the bottom of the kiddie pool.
Step 4) Let the plates sit overnight in the solution (so if you started this around 5PM, they should be ready by the time you wake up, eat breakfast, and get moving the next day. Longer is fine, just don’t rush it).
Step 5) The next day, pull the plates out and place them on some clean rock or other area that will drain. Hose them off well, brush them down slightly, and then wipe them down with your towels. Depending on how bad they were originally, and how long you let them sit, you may need to rub with a little elbow grease. You aren’t trying to remove every imperfection or rust spot. You are trying to remove anything loose that the paint will adhere to and then fall off.
Step 6) Let the plates air dry. Depending on how hot it is outside, they might air dry by the time you finish cleaning up your towels. If you have more plates to do, repeat the process. Otherwise, it’s time to paint.
Plate refurbishing fact: Prep is vitally important and should be done correctly. But remember, you are painting these, so save the perfectionism for the painting.
The basic process is paint one side, let it sit, flip, then paint the other. Take your time while painting. Even strokes from side to side, keep the can the recommended 12 inches or so from the plates, and dab at and clear any spots as needed.
Step 7) Start with the backs of the plates up, resting on some cardboard (other material is fine, just keep it clean. No dirt or dead grass, etc., and nowhere that overspray will annoy you). Paint the back of the plates and as much of the sides as you can on all plates. As much as you can, try and look at the plates from ALL angles to not miss anything. You can use the pebble trick from before to raise the plates just a tad which can help keep the plates from sticking to whatever they are sitting on, as well as help get the sides covered.
Step 8) Let them sit for a few days. Seriously, 48 hours is the minimum. I normally do a week to make sure when I flip them they aren’t sticking to the cardboard and ruining my paint job. If you can, let them bake in the sun. It seems to provide an almost powder coat finish and protection in a lot of ways. If you live where it is windy, I highly recommend this be done INDOORS if possible for the first few hours. You do NOT want wind throwing dirt, grass, weeds, and whatever else on your newly painted plates.
Step 8) Flip the plates (did you wait? If not, stop it, wait, and take your time) and spray the front and sides.
Step 9) Again, let them sit for at least 48 hours, maybe a week. Then check them out for any spots you missed. Common culprits are on the lips of the sides and inside the plate. Paint the final touch-up, let it sit, and then check again.
You can paint the plate holes if you want, or not. Either way, the paint will likely wear away fast sliding on and off your bars. I recommend oiling the holes occasionally to reduce rust and keep things moving and grooving.
Step 10) Last step, which is 100% optional, is lettering. Depending on the make of the plates and the style of the lettering, you’ll either want paint pens or a foam brush and a can of paint. For example: Ivankos have fatter, bolder lettering. The paint pens seem to simply not work well on these. I’ve done several hundred pounds and had less than stellar results. However, paint pens worked great on my current vintage plates with thinner lettering. A foam brush with the smallest amount of paint possible will do wonders on the Ivankos, but be a horrible mess on the skinnier scripted plates. Depending on how careful you are, you might want a piece of cardboard or even Q-Tips and nail polish remover for the accidental paint runs.
Step 11) After lettering, let them dry again and then do one final pass for any touch-up work.
That’s it! It’s a lot of work, but personally I love lifting on something custom, on something that I DIYed myself, something that I paid a fraction of the actual value for, and something that I know was lifted for 20+ years (I own vintage plates) and will last another 80+. If you ever need to touch up the plates(I’ve used mine for 2-3 years so far and see very little signs of wear – BECAUSE I TOOK MY TIME AND DID IT CORRECTLY!!!) you can typically buy a small can and use a foam brush to hide small imperfections. Much easier than taping and spraying.
If you decide to go down this journey, make sure to post pictures of your results and tag us: @gray_matter_lifting and @garagegymlifemagazine on Instagram.
Video of process can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_4VPpAaeIE
Video of Paint after 1 Year of use : https://youtu.be/yEZdgIy3a5Q
For some more comments and discussion, check out these Reddit threads as well: