Rubber Side Down | How To Restore A Vintage Bike

Cycling is your newfound passion. Tens of hours a week are spent riding bikes, talking about bikes, or reading up on the latest gear. But,  for whatever reason,  you’ve always left maintenance up to the experts. Enter the old ten-speed—your opportunity to delve into the world of bike maintenance risk-free. By embarking on a restoration project, you can pick up some valuable knowledge on bike maintenance and repair without resorting to experimenting on your weekend trail bike or daily commuter. In fact, this is exactly how I began working on bikes, slowly building my confidence and skill set. I highly recommend a bike restoration to anyone who rides. The process not only builds pride of ownership, it also lets you in on the satisfaction that comes with maintaining your own equipment.

Where to find a bike?

There is an abundance of old bikes—if you know where to look.

Finding an older steel frame bike is easy if you know where to look. Here are just a few ideas of places to investigate. Spend an afternoon sorting through your grandmother’s garage. Quality time with granny might come with the bonus of stumbling upon a hidden gem. Grassroots bike co-ops are springing up with surprising frequency, and these non-profits will often have a plethora of parts and frames on hand. Online classifieds like Craigslist are an obvious resource, and, if all else fails, I’ve also rescued a few abandoned frames from my local neighborhood dumpster. Regardless of the source, a bike should be attainable for less than two hundred dollars. Less money spent initially, however, could result in more labor later so consider how big of a project you want to tackle. I recommend finding a complete bike for your first project. This way you won’t spend an exorbitant amount of time sourcing parts.

Things to look for

Don’t buy a lemon. Examine your potential purchase to see if it’s in good shape. Surface rust on components is not a deal breaker—it can be buffed out, however, frame rust is a bigger problem. I would steer clear of anything even hinting at possible frame corrosion. Also, be sure to check your bottom bracket. Rotate the crank arm and feel for any binding. A side-to-side wiggle of the crank arm is also a good way to check for exaggerated play in the bottom bracket. These two basic tests can also be performed on wheels to check for potential bearing issues in the hub. If problems exist in either, first decide if you are willing to spend the time to correct them, and secondly, if you will even be able to source the necessary parts.

Building with a purpose

Now that you have acquired a new steed, take a moment to think about how you might use it in the future. Are you staying true to the bike’s roots and restoring it to it’s original, pristine glory? Or, will it be your trusty commuter with requirements for storage and protection from the elements? Having a direction, even a vague one, will help you stay on track and improve the end result.

Required tools

Certain tools will be different depending on the bike, however, a lot can be accomplished with a few screwdrivers and a good metric Allen set. A chain tool is a must if you don’t already have one. Figure out a good way to secure the frame before beginning work. Repair stands are extremely helpful. The investment will pay off in the long run—especially if you have multiple bikes.

Stay organized

Disassembly is the easy part. With a few tools and little experience, it’s possible to strip a bike in a matter of minutes. But hold up there, are you going to be able to get everything back together? The camera is your friend. I recommend taking some close up pictures during the disassembly process. Pictures can be referred to days, weeks, or months down the road when you don’t quite remember how something goes back together.

Use resealable bags to keep your parts organized. This helps with loose screws and small items. Label bags individually for derailleurs, shifters, brakes, and anything else that seems logical to you.

It’s supposed to be fun!

Don’t forget, these bikes have been through the paces. Most of the bikes I’ve restored had been around the world a few times before I was even a twinkle in my father’s eye. Expect parts to be rusty and seized up. Large amounts of elbow grease may be required—and probably a fair bit of cussing too! A hint for the unititiated: Brute strength always seems to increase with simultaneous swearing.

Always remember that this bike is your project and you aren’t dependent on it for daily workouts or commuting. If you start getting into a funk, just walk away and come back later. This whole endeavor is supposed to just be a fun way to pass some time drinking a few cold ones in the garage, by no means is it worth getting worked up over.

Spend time polishing, it will do wonders for the final product.

This is the part that’s really going to make your steel pony stand out at the local coffee shop bike rack. Pick up a quality degreaser and get to work on the decades of embedded grime and dirt. Old ten speeds tend to have an abundance of chrome and polished aluminum parts. Unless your baby has led a pampered life, you will probably want to pick up some chrome polish, and perhaps a Dremel rotory tool with a set of polishing wheels if you’re lacking in the required elbow grease. We recommend Joe’s Moonshine to make “the chrome bits shine like a bonfire on a cold Kentucky night.”

Housing and cables

Cutting housing and routing new cables is a great skill for the future. This is time to practice. Once perfected, it will become a maintenance item possible on all bikes in your garage. Head over to our Cables, Housing & Wire Kits section for complete kits. Cable sections will need to be cut using a cable/housing cutter. Keep the old housing after disassembly and match section lengths.

Ride and tune

Tinkering is part of the game. Don’t expect your first bike rebuild to come together overnight. Take your labor of love for a few rides and then reassess. The cables will undoubtedly need to be readjusted along with a few other items. Heck, if you’re anything like me, you will be looking for an excuse to grab another frosty brew and head to the garage for some evening wrenching.

Rubber Side Down is a weekly column dedicated to the fledgling cyclist in all of us. Art’s Cyclery Web Content Editor, Brett Murphy is not a professional cyclist, and doesn’t try to masquerade as one either, but he does love to ride bikes. Whether you are clipping in for the first time or counting down the days until your first race, read on, learn from his mistakes, and keep the rubber side down.