Ask a Mechanic: Restoring Old Steel Frames

Question: I want to complete a top-to-tail rebuild of a classic steel bike. What should I look for regarding the quality and wear of the frame and wheels? I am especially concerned about rim wear and how to judge it. From: Barry


The Enemy.

Answer: The concern with vintage steel bikes is rust, especially in areas with a humid climate. Steel bikes typically rust from the inside out so most of the damage is invisible. If you plan on riding the finished bike and there is any question on the extent of the rust damage (e.g. you are not the original owner and don’t know where that guy on Ebay, or the owner before him stored the bike) you should get the frame media blasted to ensure that it is structurally sound. I’ve seen some frames—that looked okay on first glance—come back from media blasting (aka sandblasting) with tubes that had sections resembling a fine lace napkin. Of course the frame will need to be repainted after blasting and the best restoration painters are Joe Bell and Keith Anderson.

When it comes to rim wear, many alloy rims have grooves or dimples in the brake track to act as wear indicators. If your model rim came equipped with either of these when new and the wear indicator is invisible now, it is time to replace the rim. I’m not aware of a hard and fast rule on how much material should be left on a brake track in order for it to be considered safe. With many different alloys and heat treatment options available, brake track thickness doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to the integrity of your rim.

Generally, if the rim is worn enough that you are concerned about it, you should probably replace it. H Plus Son makes a great, high-quality vintage-looking box section clincher rim called the TB14 with a very modern 23mm width that is worth considering. The other option is to find the oldest, most experienced mechanic in your area and take the rim to him or her and get their opinion on it. They’ve seen it all and should have a pretty good idea if the wheel is sound.

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It’s hard to argue with the beauty of a properly restored vintage steel frame. Photo: Flickr

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