The human eye is a remarkable thing. It picks up on incredibly subtle details, and your brain transforms those signals into snap judgments.

In the case of bicycles, the eye picks out imperfections like a magnet.

Rust, dull or scratched paint, shoddy 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 that judgmental eye.

Performing a beautiful vintage bicycle restoration doesn’t have to be a major project. There’s often no need to tear it down and start from scratch. You 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.

Here are a few simple and quick classic bicycle restoration tips to restore your vintage bike and make it look like a million bucks again (or at least several hundred). 

1) 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 simply clean up your wheels and tires. You can pick up some tire shine spray at any auto shop, and it works wonders.

Got chrome?

You can do an easy vintage bicycle wheel restoration in a snap with nothing more than a piece of extra fine steel wool. It will remove minor oxidization and make that chrome shine like new. Chrome polish helps too.

If you’re out of steel wool, a piece of crumpled up aluminum foil can often remove surface rust and polish chrome too.

Sometimes, however, steel wool is just not enough to pull off a convincing vintage style bicycle restoration.

If the wheels are pitted, wobbly or seized, you might need to just replace them. The good news is it’s one of the easier components to replace.

New Wheels Breathe Life Into Old Bikes

For a vintage ride I’d go with a set of silver or chrome wheels, like this 700c wheelset from Wheelmaster.

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

The Wheelmaster wheelset shown above is a great example of a classic look alloy set that’s actually technologically modern. This is what I’d suggest for any vintage build, since silver wheels were once ubiquitous, and they blend right in with any vintage bike frame you’re restoring.

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 weakened, and it’s often impossible to get a vintage wheel set into true. Trust me, 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.

2) 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!

I highly recommend leather or leather-look 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.

Leather Saddles Look Awesome, Become Comfortable

brooks leather bicycle saddle

A leather saddle spruces up the looks of your vintage bike.

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.

The Brooks B17, pictured above, is probably the most popular of the bunch. Not only is it good looking, it’s absolutely bulletproof.

Think of it like a pair of new leather shoes. The first few days will be unpleasant, but eventually the hide softens and forms to fit your body.

Besides, your grandpa didn’t use gel padding, neither should you!

There are a few accessories that really make a difference visually: the saddle, handlebar grips / tape, and pannier bags.

3) Elbow Grease: Restoring your Vintage Bicycle Takes 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.

For more information on how to find a vintage bike worth repairing, please feel free to check out this companion piece.

Thanks for reading!