How to Restore a Bicycle | Beautiful Vintage Bike Tips

Restored Vintage Bicycle
Photo Credit: 
Jay Divinagracia

The human eye is a remarkable thing. It can pick up on incredibly subtle details, and your brain transforms those signals into snap judgements. In the case of bicycles, the eye can pick out imperfections like a magnet.

Rust, scuffed and scratched paint, shoddy or worn out components: all are identified almost immediately. If you’re here to learn how to restore a vintage bicycle, I have some good news for you: I know how to trick the eye.

Performing a beautiful vintage bicycle restoration isn’t always a trial. You don’t always have to tear it down and start from scratch.

There are a few simple and quick ways to restore your vintage bike and make it look like a million bucks (or at least several hundred). Curious? Keep reading. 

I’m convinced that a rider can accomplish a very successful restoration and create a vintage style bicycle with minimal investment and effort. The secret is to focus on whatever is distracting the eye, and fix it.

The following are a few classic bicycle restoration tips that should help your older ride turn some heads. Let’s get started!

Wheels and Rubber: Key to a Beautiful Vintage Bicycle

A lot of people overlook the wheels and the tires of a vintage bike when doing a restoration, and it’s a huge mistake.

Why? Because they’re one of the largest visual spaces on your ride. They’re really noticeable, and wheels are a prime indicator of a bicycle’s condition. We’re programmed to notice them!

The straightness of the spokes, the shine and condition of the rims, the ‘newness’ of the rubber on your tires; these are all things your brain picks out within a half second.

How you deal with this depends on how stingy you are! The cheapest option is to clean up your wheels. You can pick up some tire shine spray at any auto shop, and it works wonders.

Got chrome? You can do a vintage bicycle wheel restoration in a snap with a piece of fine steel wool. It will remove oxidization and make that chrome shine like new. Chrome polish helps too. But sometimes that’s just not enough to pull off a convincing vintage style bicycle restoration.

New Wheels

Getting a set of new wheels and tires will drastically improve the look of your bike. Fortunately, make vintage bikes can be easily upgraded to modern 700c wheelsets without too much of a headache.

The wheelset I’ve added to the side is a great example of a classic look alloy set that’s actually modern, technologically.

It’s amazing how good a modern wheel set can look on a vintage bicycle frame. People will still recognize that it’s a classic bicycle, but the new wheels give it a modern feel.

Beyond that, new wheels give you a lot of peace of mind. Old spokes are weaker, and it’s often impossible to get a vintage wheel set into true. That ‘charming’ perma wobble gets pretty old.

If you do opt to upgrade your wheels on your vintage bicycle restoration project, it’s important to understand there may be a bit of tweaking involved. If you’re switching from, say, classic 27″ wheels to 700c, you’ll probably have to adjust the brake pad position a little.

Also, modern wheels tend to have wider hubs, so be sure to do your fork measurements. Forks can stretch a little bit, but you don’t want to overdo it.

Mind Your Accessories: Little Things Make a Difference

Any successful vintage bicycle restoration project can’t afford to ignore accessories. They may not seem integral (and they’re not), but they’re noticeable.

I’m perpetually amazed what a difference a new leather saddle can make to an otherwise tired looking bike. It’s jaw dropping!

Here comes some personal bias: I highly, highly recommend leather accessories for any classic bicycle restoration you undertake.

Natural materials just look better. They age well and stand up to time. They’re also authentic; people in the 40s, 50s and 60s didn’t have access to the cheap plastic junk we have today. An authentic vintage style bicycle should have these elements.

Accessories made of natural materials almost always cost more. Waxed canvas, leather, metal and wood will be an investment. That said, they’ll make your bicycle pop and stand out.

Did you know that a leather saddle is probably the most comfortable seat you can get? They take a while to wear in, but leather forms to fit your body. Your grandpa didn’t use gel padding, neither should you!

Accessories that really seem to make a difference visually: the saddle, handlebar grips / tape, and pannier bags.

The ‘Elbow Grease’ Approach: Restoring your Vintage Bicycle With Effort

Dirty Vintage Bicycle Needs Restoration

Urge to clean… rising!
Photo Credit: gregoirevdb

I get annoyed when I see a beautiful bike in shoddy shape. Dirty, rusty, whatever.

It’s sort of like seeing a Lamborghini covered in mud. With a little effort it could look so good!

The number one thing standing between you and vintage bike glory is dirt. Give your bike a bath.

Next, tackle your rust issues. People who ignore rust speckles on chrome are just lazy. Grab some steel wool or crumpled aluminum foil and give it a shine.

Lastly, strip off the ‘makeshift’ detritus. I’m talking about stuff like old, half peeled stickers, ratty bar wrap, electrical tape, that plastic hanger tab from the u-lock you lost.

For goodness’ sake, don’t use Goo Gone on your paint! It works wonderfully to remove sticker residue, but it also strips off your clear coat. Use it as a last resort, and sparingly.

(Reader Saundra left me a comment below, suggesting you can use a blow dryer to help loosen sticker residue!)

All this junk clutters up your bike visually. Part of restoring vintage bicycles is making them look clean and ‘fresh from the showroom’.

Things to Decide BEFORE You Start Restoring:

If you’re planning to restore your vintage bicycle back to like-new condition, you’re probably champing at the bit to get started. That’s great, but I’d caution you to make a game plan before you start.

  • Try drawing out what your restored classic bicycle will look like when you’re finished. It doesn’t matter if you’re a decent artist or not. Draw the frame as best you can using pencil crayon or something for colour. If you’re good with Photoshop or another photo editing software, try using that instead. This will give you a good sense of the direction you’re going in.
  • Decide early on whether you’re going to do a restoration or a reproduction. Vintage bicycle reproductions are a lot more difficult because you have to make sure you’re using original parts. It can get pricey. I typically like to restore to my personal tastes, and that’s a lot less expensive.
  • Decide on paint. You don’t have to paint, but if you do, it makes sense to paint the frame and forks before you get started on anything else. Inspect your frame, analyze the rust and make a decision.

If you end up doing a bicycle restoration that you’re proud of and want to show off, please consider sharing your story with Bikesmarts. We’re happy to display beautiful bikes, just send us an email. Thanks for reading!

Will Henry

Will Henry

Having built and repaired bikes for the last 4 years — in both a professional and a hobby capacity — Will is enthusiastic about cycling in all its forms, but particularly fixies and urban bikes. Living in beautiful Vancouver BC, Will gets out and cycles whenever he can. Current ride: a Norco XFR. You can check out Will Henry's Google+ profile here.

16 Comments

Saundra

about 3 years ago

Something to help with removing stubborn stickers is a blowdryer. The heat from the blowdryer will melt the glue and make the stickers peel off a lot more easier. Heating left over glue residue also makes it easier to wash off.

Reply
Will Henry

Will Henry

about 3 years ago

Hi Saundra, thanks for the blowdryer tip! That's something I haven't tried before.

Reply

Michelle

about 2 years ago

Hi, I just got hold of an old puch which is pretty rusty. Do you have any tips for how to get the rust off the paint work without stripping the paint? I don't want replacing it as the original design is very nice. Cheers, Michelle

Reply
Will Henry

Will Henry

about 2 years ago

Hi Michelle, how extensive is the rust? Paint bubbling? A hack I've used before: you can sometimes very carefully sandpaper the rust spots and then use a similar colour nail polish to cover the exposed metal.

Reply

Michele

about 2 years ago

My 15 year old son and I are restoring an old, rusty bike this summer. Its about as old as he is, give or take. We've taken the chrome fenders off and are removing rust with 60 grit sandpaper. Next will be the handle bars and seat shaft. He is soaking the chain and derailleurs in WD40. What's next? Can I use and indoor/outdoor spray on primer & paint? Do we have to use auto-body paint? What about the tires? They're beautiful white walls but the rubber is dry. Is that something we can repair? I have so many questions.

Reply
Will Henry

Will Henry

about 2 years ago

Hi Michele, glad to help! First, I'd get a brand new chain if it's rusted. Second: no, autobody paint isn't necessary! Spray primer and paint can look nice, thought it takes a long time to cure (harden fully.) Check out Sheldon Brown's site for lots of good bike frame paint info. As for tires, if they're dry / cracking there's nothing you can do, it's not worth the safety risk. Replace them (and the tubes too) and start fresh.

Reply

Andy Derrick

about 2 years ago

Just completed restoring my 35 year old Knight 531SL road bike 😄. Are you interested in seeing the finished bike? Regards Andy

Reply

Alice

about 2 years ago

hey, i have an old Raleigh bike from err 20? years ago give a decade or so and I want to keep the original wheels as they are good and solid however they are really pitted with rust. Is there anything I can use on them once I clean them up to help prevent further damage to seal them? perhaps some sort of varnish sealant ?

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Stephie Smith

about 2 years ago

This is good to know :) I recently purchased a Trek bicycle, I'm pretty sure it's a titanium frame, but it could definitely use some TLC. I wasn't sure how to clean the frame, since it's covered in old stickers, but I'll take Saundra's advice and use a blowdryer. Thank you!

Reply

Joe Plumley

about 2 years ago

Nice writeup, and a good primer for someone getting started with a restoration. One suggestion though: using tire dressing on bicycle or motorcycle tires can be a recipe for disaster. Centrifugal force causes the slippery substance to migrate from the sidewall onto the tires contact patch. Lean into that first curve, and watch out.

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Timothy Perry

about 1 year ago

My wife just bought a 1968 Schwinn. Has lots of rust I'm doing the Coke and aluminum foil to remove rust. My question is how do I bring out the green color in the paint make that look shiny and new again.

Reply
Will Henry

Will Henry

about 12 months ago

Hi Timothy, it depends on how oxidized the paint is, but start by giving it a bath and wipe down, and then try buffing with a good automotive wax, it can work wonders. :)

Reply

Shawn

about 1 year ago

I just purchased an old 1960's Sears Spyder that i hope to fix up for my daughter. Do you know of any good parts sites? I will probably repaint, but would like to replace the original stickers if i could find them. Also, any resource that i could trace down exactly what year my bike is?

Reply
Will Henry

Will Henry

about 12 months ago

Hi Shawn, the best parts site I've found is eBay. Takes some patience, but you can usually find what you're after there, or a decent reproduction. As for dating the year of your bike, I'd head over to BikeForums.net, they're a great resource for that sort of thing!

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Marty Glaubitz

about 1 year ago

I have a Gios Compact Pro chromoly road bike that I purchased new in 1996. It has a lot of chrome, including chain stays, fork, and lugs. The chrome is showing its age, not rusty at all, but marred and needs to be rechromed. Can I do this myself, or is it very difficult?

Reply
Will Henry

Will Henry

about 12 months ago

Re-chroming isn't something I'd DIY, personally, talk to a local paint shop and they'll give you an idea of your options. But first I'd test fine grit steel wool or aluminum foil. You'd be surprised how shiny and new you can get it to look!

Reply

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