For those of us who are true cycling fanatics - we’ll never tyre of it - undertaking a vintage bike restoration is a big deal. Not only are vintage bikes stylish, iconic and total collector’s items, but restoring a classic bike is a real passion project, and can offer loads of insight into how to get the best out of your rides.
But how do you know how to restore an old bike? Whether you’re a new owner of an old bike and are looking to get it into working order, or are simply looking for the best tips on refurbishing a favourite that was last ridden years ago, our guide to vintage bike restoration should help. Read on for our step-by-step guide to getting that old bicycle up and running again.
Vintage bike frame restoration
Restoring a bike frame is one of the first and most important steps to any cycle refurbishment project, whether you're dealing with a vintage bicycle or simply a road bike that just needs a bit of TLC. Obviously, the frame is an integral part of any bike, and in order to make sure a full restoration project is successful (and safe), you’ll need to make sure the frame is sturdy, clean and fit for purpose.
Bike frame resprays and paint work touch ups may seem simple, but to get an even finish that won’t flake or rust, you need to take the proper steps. If you’re restoring the bike frame yourself, you’re probably going to need to gather a bit of kit. Some of the items you might need for your bike restoration project include:
Cloth or rag
Bike tools - including an allen key, spanners, wrenches and screwdrivers
anti-rust bike primer
Get it squeaky clean
But the first step? According to Andrew Deacon, Raleigh Head of Brands, a good old wash is the most important starting point. “You’d be surprised how much dirt, grime and general mess you can remove with a sponge, some hot soapy water and a reliable bike cleaner. At the very least, after a bit of hard work and a good scrub down you’ll be able to tell what’s rust and what’s old mud. Then you can begin to remove surface rust and get the frame back into shape, if possible.”
Back to basics
Sometimes, bike restoration projects really need to start from the ground up. That often means disassembling the bike frame - right down to the bare metal - so you can make sure each component is free from rust and in good shape. You'll be able to spot dents, holes and general wear and tear better this way too. Taking it all apart might seem like a bit of a hassle, but it could save you more money in the long run - you can spot problem parts like a rusty bottom bracket, worn-out tubes or a dented bracket shell now and replace them at the get-go.
If you are disassembling the entire bike, Raleigh's top tip is to keep your phone handy. "Take photos at every step," advises Andrew. "Not only is it a cool way to commemorate the restoration process, but it will help you remember where everything goes, and cut out a lot of headaches later."
How to restore bike paint
Unfortunately, with a rusty bike, you’re unlikely to be able to save the underlying paint job. You'll want to strip all the paint off the frame and coat the bare metal in a good quality anti-rust primer. Paint stripper and abrasive paper are good tools for removing the old paint, but make sure to wear a mask and protect against any fumes. If you do want to repaint the frame, choose a good undercoat and reliable waterproof paint to do the job - make sure you leave plenty of time between coats for the paint to fully dry.
How to restore bike wheels
Even the sturdiest bike tyres aren’t designed to last forever, and if you’re restoring a bike, chances are those tyres have seen their fair share of damage. “Even just sitting around without being used can cause bike tyres to become dried out, brittle and cracked,” says Andrew. “So it’s pretty inevitable you’ll be looking to spend money on replacing original wheels with some good quality replacements when it comes to a proper restoration project.”
When you’re looking for replacement bike tyres and new wheels, make sure to check you get the right size and type for your bike. For example, if you’re dealing with a mountain bike, you’ll likely be looking at 26”, 27.5” or 29” wheels, and the amount of grip and width of the tyre may differ depending on your model of bike. If you’re unsure which bike wheels are best, it’s always a good idea to check with the bike’s manufacturer or visit your local cycle shop for advice.
If your bike wheels do need a bit of TLC, you might be looking at replacing the whole thing, including splashing out on new, well-gripped and reliable tyres. However, you might be able to get away with simply replacing the bike wheel tube, if the cycle is in generally good condition and hasn’t suffered too much damage.
Brakes - restore, refurbish or replace?
Depending on the type of bicycle you have (and the type of brakes, cables and brake pads that come with it), you may be able to refurbish some brake components as part of the restoration process. Of course, if there's significant repairs needed - from aging or damage - it makes sense that you're likely looking at getting new parts altogether. For example, if the brake cables are frayed, or the cable housing is damaged, it's really important to replace them for safety.
With cables, you might find there's a bit of life left in them if you lube them regularly. If not, cables should be replaced at least every three to six months as a good rule of thumb. Brake pads need to be replaced regularly due to wear and tear, so with any bike restoration you'll probably need new pads as a minimum.
If you’re restoring a bike with rim brakes, it’s definitely a good idea to replace the brake pads to make sure you can stop safely and swiftly when you take your new ride out for a spin. If you're changing the wheels, you might look into new rim brake components entirely, which can make a big difference to stopping power and make riding that much smoother.
Restoring bike components
Restoring bike components - like handlebars, the chain, tubes, front and rear bike lights, the bike's steel fork etc - might seem like an additional cost if they're in somewhat decent working order, but to get your money's worth out of bike restorations it's often well worth spending a bit of money on the bike parts that get regular usage. Knowing how to restore bike components can be the difference between a successful restoration project and having to shell out for a brand new bike.
Restoring bike handlebars
Rubber can degrade over time, and get bobbly, cracked and brittle. Spend a bit of time assessing parts like the handlebars (but also pedals, the bike seat and mudguards) to check for damage. If your handlebars aren't too broken up, you may be able to use handlebar tape to repair any minor damage and get them ride-ready.
Bike chain restoration
When it comes to how to restore bike chain parts, the first step is to remove as much rust as possible. Use a lubricant spray and soak the chain for around 10 minutes, before giving it a good scrub with a wire brush. You may have to repeat this step a few times to make sure the chain is completely rust-free. Afterwards, keep it in fighting shape with a spray of water-protecting lubricant, and try to keep it as dry as possible when you store the bike. If there are patches that won’t clean or are just too corroded, you will need a new bike chain.
Bike saddle restoration
Getting the bike seat restoration right is such an important part of making sure your bike is comfortable and safe. Replacing the seat can be an easy job with certain models of bike, but make sure to measure and double-check the saddle type before you spend a lot of money on a high-end bike seat. Seats that are simply dirty rather than actually damaged can often find a new lease of life with a good wipe down with a cleaner and soft cloth.
Replacing bike accessories
Having good quality bike accessories like mudguards, front and rear lights and bike bells can make all the difference to your restoration project. With existing mudguards, baskets and racks, it may be possible to clean any flecks of paint and rust away, and simply give them a good go-over with the bike cleaner. However, particularly if you're working with a vintage bike, it's likely you'll be best off splashing out on new accessories wherever possible. Make sure everything fits securely onto the frame, and then fit everything together - bike restoration complete!
Looking for more advice on maintaining your bike after your restoration project? Our Cycling Advice hub is full of great stuff on all things cycling, while our Bike Knowledge section is a great resource for getting the best out of your wheels.