Skip to main content full screen background image

The limits & ethics of bicycle restoration.

How accurate can you be?

A DAILY QUESTION around here.  A guy will call up saying something like, "I've got an old bike.  Won some races on it when I was... ahh... younger.  It's got a lotta junk parts on it now I'm gonna toss, I got most of the original parts inna box, even bought spare parts like new, but the frame needs help."  I ask him for more detail, he seems stunned that I haven't tried to sell him a mountain bike, then goes on:  "Bought it in '62, from the 'ol man himself, toured Europe on it.  Rode it through college, and a couple of marriages. There are other bikes now, but I still like to ride it.  Only one I ever saw, even tried to contact the old man for decals when the rust first showed up, but he's gone.  Maybe it should be retired, displayed, with the jerseys and trophies an' stuff.  I think it might be valuable someday.  I'm concerned about rust.  I saw a job you did on an old buddy's bike, it was really sweet, but he went kind of custom, added braze-ons and changed the color.  I want mine to look like new.  How accurately can you restore a frame?   

Gooood question.

We can turn back his clock.    In fact, if he had a pair of bikes, one thrashed, and one still in the box, we could make them reeaallly hard to tell apart.  There are limitations, but mostly in the form of budget.   We'll look at costs and trade-offs and other finance stuff another time, the subject today is: Accurate restoration.

If  the original finish is there, we start with quality photos of the frame when it comes in.  Refer to them constantly; the goal is an "after" shot that looks like the same frame before the wear and tear.  That's tough.  Take color:  The human eye can easily discern 600,000 different solid colors, factor in metallics, in various size, texture and flip, transparent color overlays, iridescence and pigment variation under different light sources and the number is unknowable.  Precise color matches are possible, I've got $9,000 worth of equipment to do the job, but many people balk at a $40 color match charge.  Most auto paint shops charge more and they usually mix to a published formula.  No bike company publishes color-matching formulas.  Color is it's own science, equal parts chemistry, artistry and magic, then stir.  Color "elements" are "toners".   A Periodic Table of color.  Some toners can't be used alone, or with each other, some are more expensive than gold.  They're all poison.  Many paint colors look different wet than dry, so you mix and spray, and dry and clean up and check and mix and go round again, keeping track of the formula trying not to create a lot of useless paint.  For years, we did not have a toner for Gios Team Blue.  Had to get the paint from Italy, and it didn't work well.  We buy a lot of paint, and there's always a salesman who wants our account.  For a long time, every one of them got a sample of Gios Blue to match and show me what they could do.  Always stumped 'em.  Finally, a customer turns out to be a pigment chemist.  He analyzes the sample and identifies it.  Yes, its a cobalt base all right, so toxic it's illegal damn near everywhere.

No one in the US has used it for many years.  Only one known source, in Iran.  Other materials to create the color are not stable in paint.  Couple of months later, the pigment chemist sends call me back.  He made a synthetic and got the color right.  Expensive project, but sold the development costs to a company who could afford it.  It's private stock, but he thinks I can buy some paint from them.  Turns out to be almost as fun as the flight to Iran.   When you think about it, we sure go to a lot a trouble over color, which really doesn't exist.  Just a shared perception.  But a Gios looks awful navy blue!

Decals... We probably have them, or if not, we might find them, but if needed we CAN reproduce them.  How we do that, and our policy on decal sales, is a story for another time.

Pinstripes, yep, Susan, Keith and that box of brushes have been able to match any I've ever seen. The Taylor brothers built bikes, but only the painter, Jack, ever got his name on them.  Maybe 'cause he pinstriped them all!

Chrome presents some special challenges for accuracy.  Changes from dangerous Hexivalent to less dangerous Trivalent chromium produce a slightly "warmer" color.  (Oh No!)  You might notice if you mixed parts.  Rechroming is more difficult and requires more manual polishing than original plating.    Our chromer, has worked with us for 15 years and he's the best.  Rusty parts with sharp edges, or shallow engraving, can be very difficult.  They might look a little different than it did new.... probably better.

Many of the materials used to finish bikes originally no longer exist.  Industrial finishes evolve rapidly and environmental concerns are accelerating changes and forcing some materials out.  Current finishes are better.    Which begs the question:   Do I compromise accuracy when I use a toner that won't fade??  What if I fill a dent?   What if the dent was caused by the builder?  How about correcting alignment?  Bikes leave here straighter than they've ever been.  What if I stress relieve it?   Some old finishes exhibit obvious flaws, should they be recreated?  If someone ever points to a paint run and told me it added to the charm of the bike I'd replicate it, but it has never happened.  (Maybe now!)

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, I'd normally exceed original finish standards, partly out of improved material and process, mostly out of pride.  Occasionally, I get a guy who is concerned about "over restoration" and we'll take special care to match the "character" of the original.  There is a charm to all those "Bastard" file marks on the old Cinelli's, Jig punches on the Whitcombs and nail holes in the Quinns.  (Not so the Bondo in the Lasers!)

After all the effort to make it "original", I usually put a CyclArt decal on it to prove it's not.  Conflicted?  Shameless self-promotion?  Pride? (Well, that too.) Just seems ethical  to me.  Don't lecture me about how car restorers don't do it.  The ethics of that industry are not a model to emulate.  Consider...   Fewer red herrings for future experts.   A link to a paper trail on the bike's history.  Sometimes the frame has been modified, or extensively repaired. (though I've never done a "show only - unsafe to ride" piece.)  A remedy for manufacturers, paranoid about liability and trademark control, who threaten suit for "misrepresenting" old frames as new ones.   A quality assurance mark by a reputable company will make the frame easier to sell.      

Maynard Hershon says the group interested in this stuff is so small we could all draft him!  Let me know if you're one of us!

by Jim Cunningham, CyclArtist ~ JFC

If you find this at all interesting, be sure to check our FAQ page for much more on the subject.