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Jim's Velo Rendezvous Symposium Presentation

Should this bicycle be repainted?  A daily question here.  It's one I try not to preach about, I respect a range of opinion on this subject and try to offer feedback to assist in coming to a satisfying decision.  I found my notes for the Velo Rendezvous presentation.  I think they cover this subject about the best I have done to date, so here they are:

Should this bicycle be repainted?  It’s a complex question, with many answers and few absolutes.

It is instructive to look to the larger, more mature and more moneyed field of antique furniture for insight:  Take this quote from “Art and Antique magazine”:

“Over the last few years, the media (and TV in particular) have provided a near constant barrage of antique and appraisal programming that has heightened our antique awareness.   They also have created an induced neurosis, which could be characterized as “Don’t touch it!”    The experts on such programs frequently claim that a given piece would have been a very valuable item if only the owner had not repaired, or stripped, or refinished the piece.   While this may be true for many legitimate antiques, such as an original Louis XVI chair, for example, it is not necessarily true for all “old furniture.”  This  “don’t touch it “ attitude has created mass confusion and doubt about older furniture, in general.”  

It seems to me that the refinishing work on the devalued pieces featured on TV is often poorly done.  Had it been done well it might not have had such a negative effect or might have not been detected at all. 

In the antiques furniture field, there are long established schools and licensing for appraisers.  Thousands of individual pieces trade at auction for 10’s and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars.  With our vintage lightweights, we have few resources by comparison, a good percentage of them are in this room.  Likewise, the market for the objects of our desire is tiny and their prices are modest.  I propose, that given the relatively low valuation most of our bikes hold, we should use even the best of them occasionally.  Putting them where they will be seen and appreciated is better than storing them ‘til we die.  If that means that more of these bikes will need refinishing than if they were treated like a Louis XIV chair. So be it.

Looking to another, large and mature field, a recent survey of classic car shows suggests that 95% of the cars in attendance had been refinished. There is no great fear of loss of original finishes and scraping rust off chrome and waxing over the pits is not considered proper stewardship of a classic. 

When I am asked for advice on whether to repaint a bicycle, I consider three key elements, the bicycle, it’s condition and the intentions of it’s owner.  I then try to help by providing options and information on the possibilities and ramifications. 

I’ve worked this out on paper as a self quiz:

First, with your bike in mind, consider its category:

Bicycle categories:
1. Rare, with provenance and very high value
2. Rare & interesting with high value
3. Popular classic with good value
4. Common with moderate value
5. Unpopular or low value

Then consider its condition:

Condition categories are:
1.    Near perfect original
2.    Slightly blemished
3.    Poor condition
4.    Unsatisfactory refinish
5.    Significant rust or damage

Now consider your intention for this bike.

Owner’s intention:
1.    Preservation
2.    Resale
3.    Vintage show bike or museum display
4.    Use with display or resale a possibility
5.    Extend useful life of frame, authenticity not a concern
6.    Upgrade or customize

Take the numbers of each choice and add them up.  Scores will fall from 3 to 16.  Find your number in the options below for a recommended option and cost range:

1. Preservation services 3 to 5          $50 to $150
2. Touch-up    5 to 8                 $75 to $350
3. Refinish 7 to 16                $160 to $950
4. Custom. 11 to 16                 $120 & up

Sometimes “preservation” is only the way to go.   For example:  A fine and rare bike that has been maintained in close to original, as-made condition; and has a documented, even interesting history, and; there is intent to sell it for its collector value, would score just 4; certainly a case where ‘don’t touch’ is the rule.  Greg LeMond’s 1989 Tour de France winning time trial bike would fall into this category, as would other important race winners, pioneer tourist Velocio’s bikes, the Schwinn family triple and others.  Very old bikes with heavy patina also usually fall into this category. 

For these bikes, we recommend very careful, even limited cleaning and proper storage and display.  Sometimes, on older bikes, we see finishes that are severely oxidized and so have lost their gloss and much of their color.  Decals and pinstripes are reduced to a very fragile oxidized layer easily damaged by cleaning or polishing.  In these cases, we preserve them by cleaning with extreme caution and applying a thin coat of clear to protect and bring out the original colors. This is still preservation.

The most frequently overlooked option is that of “touch-up.”  While this can be performed with a scraping tool, carefully matched colors and a paintbrush, the results are usually conspicuous.  Using airbrushes, blending techniques and partial decal and stripe replacement as required, it is possible to touch up localized damage, rust, dents or frame repair, invisibly, while preserving an otherwise original finish. We have performed both brush and invisible touch-ups including dent repair, cracks and braze-on replacement leaving the repair undetectable.   It helps that CyclArt has built and maintained a complete color mixing system and decal production capability in house. 

Sometimes, touch-ups, which start at $75 are far more cost effective than a complete refinish, but many factors affect their difficulty.  Color matching, multi-layer colors like candies and pearls, airbrush effects, number of  areas affected, pinstripes, decals, chrome and damage can all be overcome, but can push the price to exceed that of a refinish.  I have been very proud of our ability to make an invisible repair to complex finishes.  I recall a lace-painted Tommasini and a stained and crazed Claud Butler that we were able to touch-up invisibly and can still be called and original finish.  

If the situation calls for a refinish, care in documentation and execution is paramount ~ even for Paramounts!  CyclArt takes "before" and “after” photos as part of restoration projects. We have the ability to replicate virtually any color, pinstripe, airbrush, chrome, any technique originally used.  Given the economies of production, one often invests several times as much labor restoring a bike as was put into building it in the first place. But this certainly parallels other industries, such as antique furniture or vintage cars. 

At CyclArt, we have always discouraged restoration as investment.  On the other hand, there is great satisfaction in returning a sad, battered and rusting old campaigner to "better than new" former glory.   This year's super-bike is next year's old news and carries a guarantee of immediate depreciation.  On the other hand, vintage bikes are appreciating in value, and become increasingly interesting with age.  Then, of course, there's that special satisfaction in dropping the guy on the high tech bike.

Once a decision to restore is made there are still questions for those who are very concerned about authenticity;  Do I compromise accuracy when I use a toner that won't fade??  What if I fill a dent caused by the builder?  How about correcting alignment?  Some old finishes exhibit obvious flaws, should they be recreated?  What if it looks too good?  Smoother, richer, more even color, crisper masking, straighter stripes, clearcoated decals, better chrome polish, brazing gaps and file marks filled... Are these things objectionable?  Is it wrong to recreate the frame as beautifully as possible?  Would the builder have done so if he had the means? 

Unless requested otherwise, we repair damage and rust pits, perhaps improve lug edge shape slightly and fill pinholes and gaps.  We normally exceed original finish standards, partly out of improved material and process, mostly out of pride.    It is extremely rare, but if the client is concerned with “over restoration" and we'll take special care to match the "character" of the original with all it’s flaws. 

The fact that we can do very accurate refinishes brings up another question, that of weather or not to apply our decal to identify the bike as a refinish.  I've always been uncomfortable with not applying the small CyclArt decal on accurate restorations.  Although the client's intent may not be to deceive, it seems probable that at some time in the future the bike will likely be misrepresented as "original".   
 
One of the greatest challenges, and one the more interesting aspects of all this, is that mystical substance “patina”.  One man’s dirt and damage is another’s character and mark of authenticity.  There are no rules or formulas here. It is “patina” when it makes the bike look old.  It’s not, when the bike looks damaged, abused or neglected.  I consider repairing damage and touching up a heavily patina-ed finish undetectably may be our greatest accomplishment.  We have even performed complete refinishes were the paintwork was matched to the level of patina on the components.   

The final option I’ll bring up, may be the most controversial among this crowd. But here goes:  If you intend to keep a bike indefinitely; if it is not exceptionally rare or valuable and if visions of a custom bike keep fogging your Oakleys... consider that an ordinary bike can become an exotic.  Bicycle "hot rods", can be just as exciting as their gas-guzzling brethren.  As with the auto hot rods, there is a certain charm to a tasteful mix of old style, new performance and perhaps some custom paint.  Favorite old frames, with upgraded paint and adapted to contemporary components can be the best of both worlds for some.  Many clients come to me with old favorites that they want to upgrade.  Typically they seek longer cranks, smaller chain rings, or wider gear range.  After all, riders age too and sometimes they need a little help to keep up with their riding partners. We repaint many brand new bikes too. As much as I love the pure classics, I'll admit, that some of my best moments at CyclArt have been in helping a rider define and realize his dream bike.  Sometimes, the client has worked out the design and we execute it carefully to the letter, other times, we brainstorm with the client to extract his sleeping dream bike.  When they're "right", such bikes can be very seductive!

The choice it yours, we're here to serve.