Tire punctures are one of the most annoying things that could happen while driving. Just a small nail can ruin your day and take precious hours. Not only you’ll need to replace the punctured tire with the spare (or use a tire repair kit), but you’ll also need to bring it to a repair center or use a tire plug kit to fix the puncture yourself. It’s a tedious process and usually happens when you least expect it (Murphy’s law?).
But it can get even messier than that. See, although many people don’t really know this, every puncture can’t be repaired, and in some circumstances, you’ll need to pay for a whole new tire. Yup, cars are perhaps the most convenient machines we own, as we use them when we want to get to where we want, but they also eat money like almost nothing else.
Now, informed people know that tires are very complex and not just a rubber donut attached to a rim. Each modern tire has several layers inside to keep it stiff and stable under load and also resistant to punctures. Oh, yeah, if the tire was only made from rubber, it would’ve punctured from sewing needles.
Hence, it’s crucial to be informed before attempting to fix a puncture because some areas on the tire are off-limits. Which, of course, brings the question – how close to sidewall can a tire be patched? I could simply give you the numbers, and you could go with your day (it’s 0.5-2 inches or 1-5 cm), but the truth is, not every tire is the same.
Therefore, a thorough inspection should be in order before you even attempt to plug or patch a tire, and you can follow this article as guidance. And to better understand why every tire puncture is not the same, let’s have a look at the different layers inside modern pneumatic tires.
Why You Can’t Repair Every Puncture
The modern radial tire consists of many different layers inside, each serving a different function, but all have one goal – to make the tire stiffer and more flexible at the same time.
This is important, as the tire is subjected to many different forces, including the vehicle’s weight and forces acting due to driving (acceleration, braking, cornering). And tire manufacturers will need to find a perfect balance between stiffness and flexibility. If a tire is too stiff, it won’t conform well over the road, which lowers grip. Meanwhile, if a tire flexes too much, it would be less stable during acceleration, braking, and cornering.
So, to help it better tackle all those different loads acting on the tire, tire manufacturers put several different layers below the parts you see – the tread and the sidewall. It all starts with the belts, which are usually made from steel, but they can also be made from other sturdy materials.
These belts give the tire structural rigidity and help it better cope with the driving forces. However, they also serve another important function – keep your tire from puncturing. Thanks to the use of steel, these belts can’t be punctured by just about everything on the road – it really takes a stiff and pointy thing, like a thick nail, to penetrate inside.
It’s important to know that the steel belts only run below the tread and not on the sidewall. Moreover, on most tires, the belts don’t cover the area below the tread shoulders, meaning those are more prone to punctures.
Modern tires usually have a cap ply over the steel belt. Usually made of durable material, such as nylon, polyester, or aramid, the cap ply provides additional strength and stability to the tire and helps distribute the forces of acceleration, braking, and cornering.
Under the belts, there is another ply called the “radial ply.” Its name comes from the way it’s arranged inside the tire, as it runs at a 90-degree angle to the tire’s motion. Unlike the cap ply, which is the same width as the belts, the radial ply runs across the sidewalls as well.
The radial plies give the tire flexibility while adding further to the overall structural rigidity. Thanks to them, modern radial tires provide excellent highway stability, good comfort, and a longer treadlife. In the past, though, manufacturers usually employed plies that ran at an angle in bias-ply tires. These had higher load ratings but worse stability, ride, and treadlife.
Under the radial ply, there is another layer of rubber called the inner liner, which keeps air from escaping. Also, near the bottom of the sidewall, there are also bead fillers, which help the tire better attach to the rim and not lose air.
So, what’s the point of this lecture, you ask? Well, as you can see from the construction of a modern radial tire, not every part is equally resistant to punctures. In other words, you’d want to hit the steel belts to have any chance of repairing the tire, as otherwise, you’ll need a new one. But let’s get into more detail.
Tire Repair Guidelines
Whether you are preparing to plug/patch a puncture or just want to be sure that the tire technician is giving you the right advice, it’s important to know the differences between punctures on different areas of the tire.
1. Repairable Area
The repairable area of the tire usually coincides with the width of the steel belts. As a rule of thumb, for a normal passenger car tire, you shouldn’t patch punctures within ½ inches (12 mm) of the edge of the tread, i.e., the sidewall. In other words, you should refrain from repairing the tread shoulders.
However, some manufacturers actually let you patch punctures within that region, as it depends on the internal design of the tire. Again, the punctures shouldn’t be close to the sidewall, with ¼ inches (6 mm) the closest you can go. On other tires, though, manufacturers don’t recommend patching punctures within 1 inch (24 mm) of the sidewall or the edge of the tread.
Generally, punctures around the center of the tread, or the part that touches the ground when you are driving straight (the shoulders help during cornering), are repairable. The good news is that most punctures happen there simply because that’s the area that pressures the ground with the highest force.
2. Hole Diameter
Even if the puncture is within the safe area for patching, the hole diameter can also prevent you from repairing the tire. Most manufacturers don’t recommend patching a puncture that’s wider than ¼ inches (6 mm).
Moreover, if the tread is cut across, i.e., the puncture is not a circular shape, it means greater damage to the steel belts. In this case, an inspection is necessary to decide whether the tire can be patched, but in most cases, the damage to the steel belts would be beyond repair.
The angle of the puncture can also play a big role. For instance, if the nail enters the tire at an extreme angle, it could also cut through the internal layers of the tire, which would lower the structural rigidity of the tire and potentially lead to bulges, tread separation, and a potential blowout.
So, whenever you have a puncture, it’s always best practice to visit a reputable tire repair shop. Sure, you can plug or patch the tire and continue driving as if nothing happened, but that can be hazardous. Remember, tires are complex, and only experienced technicians can tell whether the tire can or cannot be patched.
3. Puncturing a Previous Puncture
If you see a puncture close to the area of a previous puncture, you should not attempt to repair it. Two punctures at a proximity of ½ inches (12 mm) could severely weaken the steel belts, which would lower the structural rigidity of the tire.
Now, you could attempt to patch the puncture, and the tire will probably hold air, but a tire bulge (bubbles) might appear in that area. And they could lead to potential blowouts, which is certainly not something you’d want when driving down the highway.
4. Tire Plug vs. Tire Patch
There are three procedures you can use to repair a puncture: plugging, patching, and vulcanizing.
- Tire Plug
Plugging has been very popular in recent years due to its ease of use and low price. With this method, you won’t need to remove the wheel and tire – all you need is some soapy water to find the puncture. Then, you’ll want to remove the object and make the puncture wider using a reamer tool. After that, you’ll insert a plug along with some cement in the tire before airing up the tire again.
Although very convenient, I wouldn’t recommend using tire plug kits. This is an invasive method where you use a reamer to make the hole wider, which means you’ll also be destroying the steel belts. And if you overdo it, a tread bulge might appear, which could lead to potential blowouts. Besides, plugs can only repair punctures of up to 1/8 inches wide, meaning, in most cases, they will be unusable.
- Tire Patch
Patching a tire is a much safer solution but also way less convenient. To patch a tire, you’ll need to remove the wheel and the tire from the rim, which often requires special tools and a lot of your time.
Once you remove everything, the process becomes easier, as it’s similar to patching a bicycle tire. In other words, once you find the puncture, you’ll want to mark the spot and then use sandpaper to roughen the surface. Then, you would put some cement around the puncture and apply the patch.
If you want a properly sealed tire, you’ll want to wait for the cement to bond the patch with the rubber compound. The cement acts as a vulcanizing agent and needs time to bond everything together, though you could accelerate that with heat.
Either way, vulcanizing is another reason why a patch is a safer solution. With a tire plug, you’ll continue driving immediately, while with a patch, you’ll first need to reattach the tire and wheel, which is precious time.
Can You Patch a Sidewall Puncture or Damage?
The sidewall of your tire is an important structural component, as it provides support and stability. Unlike the tread, though, the sidewall isn’t supported by steel belts, with only one layer of radial plies running below the rubber surface. Therefore, patching a sidewall puncture or damage is NOT repairable.
Despite that, I see many people patch the sidewalls to save some money, as the other option would be to buy a new tire, only to regret it later. A patched sidewall puncture will eventually start to weaken the area, creating tire bulges that could potentially lead to a blowout.
Some tire repair shops will repair a sidewall, which is frivolous if you ask me. Sure, the customer will be happy, but this affects his/her safety and also the safety of other traffic participants. Therefore, I strongly suggest against repairing any sidewall damage, especially cuts, and punctures.
Although tire punctures always seem repairable, that’s unfortunately not the case. And that’s exactly what happened to me before winter 2022. I just bought a new set of Michelin Alpin 6 winter tires to make my Corolla Hatchback ready for the winter holidays and ski season, and after two weeks of driving, I punctured the front right tire when driving near a construction site.
I was fortunate to be in the city and near a tire repair shop, but unfortunate with the puncture – it was on the tread shoulders. The tire technician told me he would try to patch the tire but that the shop wouldn’t give me any warranty, but I didn’t want to hear about that. After all, I’m driving my baby girl around in that car!
I thought I could save some money on other, less meaningful stuff, like a Netflix sub or a night at the pub, but surely not the safety of my family. And I think that all people should think the same. I know there is nothing pleasurable about splurging the cash for a whole new tire, but imagine it as an investment in your family’s future, and it should bring peace of mind!
Surely, paying $80 for a new tire, however inconvenient at the moment it might be, is more important than risking the lives of your most loved ones, right?
I’m Ivo Gievski, the content writer for Tireer. We built our website with over 15 years of experience and extensive research in the automotive and technology sectors. My dedication to delivering high-quality content is unwavering, and I strive to continuously hone my skills to stay ahead of industry trends and provide readers with informative, engaging, and valuable insights.