Restore an Old Bicycle




Introduction: Restore an Old Bicycle

About: Where's the tea?

Cycling is a great way to exercise, and to explore your area. For many people including myself, the high cost of quality new bicycles is a discouragement, so in this Instructable I will show you how to take an old second-hand bicycle, and to clean, repair, and improve it. By restoring an old bicycle you can save money, as well as gaining a really good understanding of how your bike works, and also have the chance to personalise it. I feel much more motivated to ride regularly now that I've spent a few weeks working on the machine.

I started with buying (for £40) a racing bike from the 1980s, and after about 5 weeks of work, it was really satisfying to finally go for the first full ride today!

Bear in mind that there is a lot of variation in the specifics of different makes of bicycle, so not all of this might absolutely apply to your own project, but the principles and steps will be the same. If you're stuck, try asking in your nearby bicycle shops (I was helped out for parts and advice by two near me), or asking friends. Some of these steps are much easier if there's two of you, so worth involving them in the project! With the nice summer weather recently, it's been a treat to spend the evenings and weekends out in the garden working on this project, and I've enjoyed writing it up to share with you too.

Step 1: What You'll Need

The 1st item on the list is of course the bicycle! I'd never owned a racing bike before, so I picked up (for £40), an old 'Puch Alpine', which is an Austrian road bike from the 1980s.

The pictures show how the bicycle originally looked, but I'll give you a bit of a description too. The rear brakes didn't function, as they had been bodged. The gears were in good working order, although extremely dirty. All moving parts were very grimy and had not been regularly lubricated. There were many rust spots visible on the surface, and the bicycle had been subjected to multiple coats of paint. There had been little surface preparation between paint jobs over the years, so it was very lumpy and some had been applied with a brush. There was also paint all over the cables (which were rusty and splitting), and over most of the parts of the bike that should definitely not have paint on them! To top it all off, there was some gharish pink handlebar tape. Clearly there would be a lot of work to be done!

Things I needed for this project:

  • Pliers, side cutters (for deailng with cables etc)
  • Hammer (useful for 'persuading' stuck parts)
  • Allen key set
  • Screwdrivers of various sizes
  • White spirit (for degreasing parts)
  • Metal tin, toothbrush and paintbrush (for cleaning parts with the white spirit)
  • NitroMors (chemical paint remover)
  • Aluminium oxide paper (it's better than wet&dry, lasts longer, I used 80-240 grit)
  • Wet & Dry paper (I used 400 - 2000 grit)
  • Spray paint
  • Anti-rust primer
  • Masking tape for covering areas of the frame prior to spraying
  • Good quality mask for when working with paint or chemicals
  • Paper towel (for cleaning things, wiping up grease)
  • Grease
  • Lubricating fluid
  • Spanner set
  • Wrench set
  • Bike stand (not vital, but does make it easier to work on)
  • Crank-pulling tool (I used the one by Parktool)
  • Chain-link tool
  • Wire wool and sponges (for cleaning parts)
  • Wet wipes (assists in cleaning and degreasing)

New parts and components I ended up purchasing:

  • Wheels x 2 (700C size in my case)
  • Free-wheel
  • Gear cables
  • Brake cables
  • Handlebar tape
  • Decals (these are reproductions of the original 1980s decals)
  • Brake pads
  • Tyres
  • Rim tape
  • Inner tubes

PLEASE NOTE: This project will require extensive use of basic hand tools as well as some chemicals and paint. Exercise appropriate caution and always take heed of the warning labels and instructions of whatever product you are using. An incorrectly assembled bicycle can be dangerous, so if in doubt seek advice from a bicycle shop before riding your bike.

Step 2: Disassembly

To carry out a full restoration you will want to fully disassemble your bicycle. This will allow you to properly inspect and work on each individual part, and if you intend to paint the frame, then you'll need to do a full disassembly anyway. It took me a few evenings to strip the bicycle apart, longer than normal as corrosion had jammed certain things, and also because I'm not that experienced at this stuff.

Removing most things are pretty straightforward, usually a matter of undoing various bolts and screws. I used to a component tray to place all the little fixings into, and then labelled where they had come from - a precaution that I was incredibly grateful for when I came to reassembly the bicycle a month later! I'd recommend also taking plenty of photos of everything as you go, this record will help you if you get stuck (or if you want to turn it into an Instructables project!).

If you want to remove the crank arms from the bottom bracket (the axle that your pedals rotate around), then you'll probably need a 'crank-puller' tool. Like many things on bicycles, this is an example of something that varies hugely from decade to decade and manufacturer to manufacturer, but the crank-puller is a pretty common type. In short, it screws into the threads on the insde of your crank arms, and then extends an inner section, pushing against the axle onto which the crankarm is forced. Apply force with a large spanner and you'll be able to pull the crankarm off the axle. I'd recommend watching some tutorial videos online before you try this, as it requires some care.

My 'stem' (the piece that connects the front forks to the handlebars) was firmly jammed into the front forks, likely due to galvanic corrosion. Luckily I could remove mine without means more extreme than a quick tap with a mallet to break the corrosion bonds between the stem and the inside of the forks. If yours causes you more trouble than that, an online search will find people attempting to all sorts of crazy methods so hopefully you won't need to go there!

The 'head-badge' of the bicycle is the metal badge on the front with the manufacturer's motif. If yours is bonded on like mine, you should be able to lever it off, and also pry it off by sliding some dental floss in behind it.

Step 3: Preparing to Prime

Get ready for the most testing (but satisfying) step!

Now that we've removed all the parts we can from the frame and forks, it's time to prepare the bike for primer and paint. The first step (and by far the longest!) is to remove the old paint. The primer we will use needs to be applied to bare metal for good adhesion and a smooth finish, so we'll have to do this step well. For me this is where I briefly felt like an archaeologist as I found myself removing layer after layer of paint, gradually going back in time. Initially it turned out the bike was bright metallic blue, then it was yellow, then lurid green, and lastly the white I saw when I bought it.

In removing the paint you have two allies - abrasives and chemical paint stripper.

I would thoroughly recommend buying Aluminium Oxide paper for this work. It will last far longer than Wet & Dry paper (I only needed a few sheets for the whole job), and doesn't clog up. Wet & Dry is also useful. I'd recommend getting some coarse grades of the Al Ox paper (60, 80, 120), and some smoother grades of the wet & dry (240, 400, 800, 2000). Now for this job there really is no substitute for hard work, it took me about 2.5 days of near constant paint stripping. Hopefully it'll be quicker for you, as you're unlikely to be faced with four different layers of paint!

Be careful with using the coarse Al Ox paper, it's apparently easy to find yourself removing metal as well as paint, and causing damage to your frame. Go slow if in doubt!

To help you, you can use a chemical paint stripper such as NitroMors (with due respect to the hazard warnings for the specific product you use). This wasn't that effective for me as it really only removed the top layer of paint, but if you've got fewer layers to cope with then this might well be your saviour! See the photos above for the different stages of the paint stripping. You'll see that I didn't manage to remove all the paint from around the complex areas, but this hasn't seemed to cause a problem.

Step 4: Rust Treatment

If you're repairing an old bicycle, you'll probably find quite a lot of rust. Don't panic, a lot of rust will be relatively superficial, and will not consign your bicycle to the scrapyard just yet. If ignored, rust will only get worse, so let's remove what we can, and chemically treat what we can't.

On the long straight sections of my frame there were multiple streaks and spots of rust (as seen in the picture above, before I removed the paint). Moisten some fine wet & dry paper and rub at these areas. If they're shallow you can quickly remove the rust, leaving bare metal. Do this all over the frame where this is needed.

For the areas of rust which are hard to reach, in recesses, scratches, or just seem to deep to sand away, we'll use a product called Hammerite Kurust (or something similar if you can't get this in your country). Buy one of the little pots they sell (you really won't need very much), and find an old paintbrush. I poured a little out into an empty tuna tin, and was surprised to see that it was very much like milk! With the paintbrush I daubed it very liberally over anywhere where there was a trace of rust on my frame, and then sat back to see what happens. Honestly this is more interesting than watching paint dry! Kurust will turn black when it has successfully treated rust, so you can see all of the rust-coloured patches turn black, and then you'll know it has worked.

The primer that I chose to use is an anti-rust primer. The purpose of this is to continue to protect the frame from rust even if the paint above is badly scratched or chipped.

Step 5: Priming the Metalwork

I couldn't wait to finish the paint stripping, it had taken much longer than expected, so I was really happy to discover that the priming was an easier job than expected. Here's what I did:

  1. You'll need a warm, dry, windless (or nearly windless) day to do this on. Suspend your frame and forks using wires (I used lengths of the old cabling that I'd just removed from the frame) from something such as a tree branch. I was lucky in that the apple tree in my garden has a perfect branch for this!
  2. Mask off the bits that you don't want to get primer (or later paint) on.
  3. From this point on only handle the frame whilst wearing disposable gloves, as you don't want to get any oil from your hands onto the metalwork. Daub some paper towel in white spirits and rub down the entire frame, making sure you cover every area. This is very important as what you're doing is removing any dust and grease left over from the paint removal stage, leaving a good surface for painting. As with any painting job, surface preparation is everything!
  4. Now leave it for half an hour for the white spirits to totally evaporate from the frame. Find your primer can and give it a good 2+ minutes of shaking in order to properly mix the paint.
  5. I applied two thick-ish coats all over, leaving it for a day in-between coats. Make sure you don't apply it too thickly or it will run.
  6. Move the frame and forks to the shed or garage, as you'll need to leave them alone for several days now. Don't be tempted to remove the masking tape yet, it will still be useful when you come to paint these parts.

Step 6: Painting Time!

After a few days the primer will be ready to paint over, but there's still a little more preparation work before we can get to the fun part. Once again hang your frame and forks from a suitable place outside (in my case that apple tree branch), only handling it with gloves as before, and follow these steps:

  1. Take some very fine wet & dry paper (2000 grit or higher), and moisten. Very lightly rub this over the main frame sections. You've got to press very lightly or you'll sand straight through the primer. The aim of this step is to provide a roughened surface, which will help the paint to adhere well. It also is useful for smoothing the primer surface, taking away any drips or imperfections, which will help you to achieve a nice finish. You won't be able to do this for the complex and tight bits on the frame, but don't worry about that.
  2. Use some damp paper towel to rub down the frame, to remove the dust from step 1. This is really important if you want a nice smooth paint coat.
  3. Leave the pieces for a while now, just to let the frame and forks totally dry. In the meantime find your paint cans (I used four), and when you're ready to paint give the first can a strong shaking for 2+ minutes.
  4. Gently spray the paint all over the frame now. Don't apply too thickly, it's really easy to overdo it and then you'll get thick areas and running drips! Your chosen colour will not appear to be opaque yet, so don't try to spray too thickly!
  5. After you've done the first coat, leave it for 15 or so minutes to dry. Now go back and apply a second coat, then wait, then a third, then wait, then a fourth. This was the point at which my chosen yellow appeared opaque and had full coverage, so I was happy to stop. I really enjoyed the painting stage, but now you've got to be patient in order to wait for it to fully dry and harden! Transfer your frame and forks into a space like a shed or garage and leave them hanging up, undisturbed.
  6. The recommendation is to wait two weeks for the paint to be hard enough to begin re-attaching components to the frame, any sooner and you'll probably damage it quite a lot. In the meantime we'll sort out the other parts of the bike, and get them ready for assembly.

Please note: Using spray paints you'll be able to achieve a very satisfying finish with care. I'm very pleased how mine turned out, although do recognise that it will never be as good as a factory-applied paint job. I wouldn't consider brush-painting, it'd be a much bigger challenge to achieve a good quality finish.

Step 7: Cleaning, Degreasing, Paint Stripping the Other Components!

You'll probably have a big pile of the various components that you removed from the frame prior to painting etc. Take a look through these to work out what needs to be done, if anything. For me it entailed removing paint (sloppy paint jobs done by previous owners had got paint on some of the moving parts as you can see above), cleaning, degreasing and then re-greasing pretty much everything in sight!

A big bucket of warm water for washing parts in was useful, and I used a combination of wire wool, wet & dry paper, and a kitchen sponge to do the job. The handlebars, encrusted with the glue from old handlebar tape, came out looking lovely and shiny, as did the main sprockets, pedals and crankarms.

Some of the components had more stubborn paint on them, so I got the chemical paint stripper (NitroMors) out again and that did a good job of loosening that for removal. After a few evenings of effort, I now had most things ready to re-attach to the frame.

The other big loose-end was the wheels. These I found to unfortunately be in a poorer state than I had realised. If you held them up to your ear and rotated them, you'd hear a whoosh/rustle/tinkle sound as little flakes of rust tumbled down around the inside! Clearly new wheels were in order, as unless I want to use them as percussion in the Indie band I might form one day, there's not much life left in these old wheels ...

Step 8: Deliveries and New Parts!

Two big boxes (one from an online retailer and one from my local bicycle shop) brought the remaining things I needed to finish this project. It was quite exciting to unpack it all and then assemble the inner tubes and tyres onto the shiny new wheels. Although it wasn't quite time to do this yet, I couldn't resist fitting them and the saddle to the frame to see how they'd look.

Step 9: Replacing the Bottom Bracket and Cranks

When I removed the bottom bracket previously I just left it covered in the old grease, sat in a tin on the workbench. Now I wanted to install it, so the time had come to clean it and regrease.

Using the little bread tin, pour out some white spirits, and grab the old toothbrush. Scrub the bearings, bearing cups and axle in the spirits. You should find that the old grease just floats off with ease, leaving nice bare components. Now with your tub of grease, thoroughly re-lubricate the assembly, in particular the bearings, which you want to 'pack' with grease. Don't be afraid to apply too much, it's easy to wipe away the excess and it won't cause any harm. Now screw the components back into place. As they were now nice and clean and lubricated, I found that they could be installed so much more easily than they were removed which was nice.

Next are the crank arms. Lubricate the axle so they'll slip on nicely, and push into place. Then tighten up the central nut to force the crank arm onto the shaft of the axle. Repeat for both sides of the bike and make sure they rotate smoothly.

Step 10: The Chain Goes Back On

If your sprocket(s) and derailleur (both front and rear) are installed, it's time to put the chain on. I bought a new chain, possibly because I had had to remove the old one with a hacksaw!

The chain will come lubricated, so can be hard to handle, making this step much easier if there's a second person to help you. Fit the chain round the sprocket, freewheel and derailleurs. Bring the ends together, and assess the length. It's likely that you'll need to shorten it by a few links, as was the case for me. To seperate the links you'll need a chain tool (available online or from any bicycle shop). This tool consists of a handle that you turn to push a pin against the side of the chain pin, exerting enough pressure on it to push it aside, allowing the link to be removed. Now this is the theory, but for me it turned out to be much much more of a struggle! Quite simply, I couldn't get the pin to budge, no matter how hard I turned the handle of the chain tool. Eventually I resorted to fitting the chain tool into a vice, and hitting the end of the handle with a mallet (whilst wearing eye protection in case the tool disintegrated). This did the trick, and shifted the chain pin. Don't remove the pin entirely, just push it far enough to remove the link, otherwise you'll never be able to replace it.

Now remove as many links as needed to get the right chain length (not an exact science, it should be pretty obvious when it's too long), and then use the chain tool once more to reinstall the chain.

Note: Some chain manufacturers grease their chains with a heavy grease that is good for protecting the chain prior to use, but is too thick for when the chain is on the bike. If this is the case, you'll need to de-grease and then re-lubricate the chain. In my case this wasn't necessary as the pre-applied lubricant seemed ideal.

Step 11: Brakes and Cables

Unless your old bike has been well taken care of, you'll probably need to replace the brake pads. Make sure you get ones that are a similar size and design, so they'll be compatible, as there's a lot of variation available. These pairs I picked up fitted onto my bicycle pretty well.

You can now move onto the brake cabling. This was not too challenging, but was made much easier by having the help of a second person. The process is pretty self-explanatory, some specific things to consider are allowing enough spare length of cable to still have slack when the handlebars are fully turned to one side. Make sure also that you don't have loops too large, as this won't look professional. You will probably have to adjust the position of where the cable is clamped onto the brake calipers a few times, to get the brakes actuating at a good point on the brake levers's travel. Another thing to think about is the colour of the cable tubing. I chose black to match my colour scheme, but there are a large number of different ones you can choose too.

If you've managed the brake cabling, you should find the gear cabling a breeze. For old road bikes such as my own, with the shifters on the 'down-tube' (as opposed to shifters on the handlebars), the gear cable installation is a piece of cake. This is an advantage of the old-style 'index-less' shifting which just relies on friction holding the gear levers in a specific position.

For tidiness and to protect the ends of the cables from fraying, place a small metal piece (these should be supplied with your cables) over the end of the cable, and clamp it tightly with some pliers, and now your cables will be neatly terminated.

You should expect to have to calibrate the derailleurs to an extent, to make sure you can easily change up and down within the full range of gears available. Take your bicycle out for a few quick test rides and you'll soon work out what needs to be tweaked.

Step 12: Finishing Touches

Almost there now, just got handlebar tape and decals remaining.

Handlebar tape can be bought in all sorts of different colours and patterns (including things like camo), but I chose some basic black tape to match my colour scheme. The tape I bought is foamy, rather than simple tape, for comfort, and has an adhesive strip on the back. Applying the bar tape needs to be done in a specific way, so I'd recommend watching a few of the good videos of the subject on YouTube before you try it, as that's probably easier to understand than my explanation:

Apply the tape from the end of the handlebars, heading inwards. For the lower bit of the drop handlebars, applying the tape clockwise for the right-hand side, and anti-clockwise for the left-hand. Leave some overlapping the end of the bar, as you'll use this to tuck into the tube end as you push in the stops that presumably came with your handlebar tape. Wind around the handle now, and when you reach the brake lever assembly, do a loop around the brake handle housing, so that the direction of the rotation of the tape around the handlebars is now reversed. For the top horizontal section you'll want to twist it towards the rider over the top of the handlebars. Reach where you want to stop, then trim it to a straight edge, and finish with the 'finishing tape' that will have come with your handlebar tape. I strongly recommend the foam tape, it's much more pleasant on the hands when riding hard than a thin tape! Lastly, use a mallet to gently tap in the end stops on each bar, this will hold the tape in place, as it traps the ends.

The last opportunity to personalise your bicycle is the stickers/decals. There are a huge variety available, so you can really customise it to your taste, or even get some custom ones printed if you want to apply your own motifs or artwork. I found someone selling reproductions of the original 1980s Puch Alpine decals, so I applied these to my frame, and was very happy with the result! Don't forget to clean and de-grease your frame where you're applying decals, it makes a big difference.

Step 13: Conclusions

Here are some things that were on my mind at the end of this project:

  • After spending weeks on it, I am now much more attached to this bicycle than I would be to a bike I had just simply bought, which makes me feel motivated to go for many more rides. Indeed, as my first road bike, I'm really looking forwards to taking it out often.
  • It would have been possible to purchase a half-decent second-hand bicycle for less money than I spent on this project in total. This was because I ended up replacing much more than I had anticipated, which cost money. My suggestion would be therefore to consider very carefully the second-hand bike you want to buy, to make sure you don't buy one that will cause you more work than you can handle!
  • However, I really very much enjoyed the restoration, and would like to do another project like this again. Really made me appreciate the effort that goes into restoring classic cars and the like, as that's hundreds of times more challenging than a bicycle, and this proved to be quite a lot of hard work!
  • The only thing I would do differently next time would be to apply a lacquer coat after the painting was complete, this would help protect the paint in the long-term.

I hope that you enjoyed reading this Instructable and feel motivated to get cycling! Restoring an old bicycle like this can be very enjoyable and satisfying, and by restoring an old bike you're not only helping the environment, you're putting pretty old bicycles back on the road to be enjoyed once again.

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    16 Discussions

    Looks like new, nice! Congrats on winning! :)

    Nice work. Everyone who approaches a project like this does is slightly differently but this is a great starting point. I've been doing this since the 70's and I learned something from your contribution. Keep it up!

    Brilliant! Some good tips here for people that have let ther own bike become neglected too.

    Great job. Looks good.
    I'm currently working on a BMX & some other projects that someone threw out for hard rubbish collection, "Gee the things people throw out". But
    I'm Just having trouble with the rear Hub rebuild.
    Do you have Any tips on rebuilding hubs. Thanks for your post

    New 700c wheels also makes it easier to get tyres. 27" tyres can be be very hard to find these days. But if you are restoring a real old classic it may be worth servicing the original wheels, or getting a professional to do it for you.

    Great job you did there- looks like you just bought it new! I'd love to find an old Schwinn Varsity like I had as a teenager and restore it and do centuries on it like I did back in the 70s. That old tank of a bike taught me enough to get a job in a bicycle shop. Glad you said to start the bar tape from the bottom otherwise it will "peel". I use plain old electrical tape at the top because the finishing tape supplied is never enough.

    looks like the front fork is bent...

    Very cool! I've done this, and am about to start another.

    Bikes from the Ninties have sealed bearings, which spares learning vintage skills like repacking bearings... Just saying. If y'all need to go there, recommend you hunt up a bike repair book from the era, try a public library.

    I have a Gary Fischer Aquila from the trash, with an STX group, quite nice stuff from the Nineties. My first high end race bike (XC) had it. This won't be a straight up restoration, but it will end up as a rolling mythical creature to ride to Mardi Gras. Will post it.


    2 months ago

    This was a wonderful Instructable. Unlike old automobiles, old bicycles are relatively easy to restore to working condition. And you did an excellent job of taking us through all the steps to getting a bike back to roadworthiness. About the only thing I would suggest: A little better description on how to adjust bearings. Of course, it's somewhat of a moot point for you because you bought brand new wheels which already have the bearings adjusted. But for reinstalling and adjusting bearings on existing wheels, the amount of free play can be tricky for beginners to estimate. It's probably not a bad idea to buy new bearing balls, as the old ones will probably be a bit worn. The traditional way to reassemble the hubs involved filling the races completely with bearings--and then removing one! Lots of grease, never use oil, and then adjust the cups until they're just at the point where no grinding noise can be heard when the wheel is spun, a setting traditionally called "trackman's slack," then tighten the nuts. You'll possibly have to redo this, because the nuts take up some of the slack and make the assembly too tight again, but trial and error will get it correct.

    Such a detailed 'ible. I'll keep this for future need when I have my own bike to restore.thanks!

    1 reply

    Great job! I know what you mean by having a more special attachment to your bike after restoring it. I bought a used entry-level 2009 Raleigh a few years ago to get into cycling on the cheap. This past winter I completely overhauled everything but the frame with a combination of new and lightly used components, and it is like having a brand new bike. Although I've still got about half the cash invested in it than a comparable new bike would cost. Here's a before and after

    1 reply

    That is one good looking machine! You must be pleased, it looks pretty great. Yes, it's nice to spend the time working on something like this, I'd like to do the same process for something else like another bicycle or a motorbike or something next, it's very satisfying.