Conservation and Restoration


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Probably 99% of the bikes out there have no special requirements, aside from routine maintenance and a kind owner to ride them once in a while so they don't feel neglected. 

The other one percent are special... one of Greg Lemond's road bikes might have some historical value, having been ridden by a well-known racer, while a bike like Merck's Hour Record Colnago is one of a kind and perhaps priceless.  A Cinelli Laser or a Bowden Spacelander might be of value because of unique or interesting design.   Some bikes are just classics... a mid-60's Cinelli is certainly not one of a kind, but it possesses the right combination of rareness, beauty and quality to make it desirable and worth preserving.  A Schwinn Paramount or Peugeot PX-10 might not be rare at all, yet we still like them because they are old (and perhaps representative of a period that we remember with fondness), and we know that no one is ever going to build any more of them.

These bikes may differ in their particular combination of rarity, craftsmanship, ride quality, beauty and historical significance, but most bike lovers would agree that they are all probably worth preserving to some degree.  To what degree exactly is where the arguments often begin.  Vintage bicycle aficionados have opinions on bike care ranging from "ride it hard until it falls apart" to "hang it on the wall and don't mess with it." 

I don't pretend to have any definitive answers on how to care for a vintage bike... first of all, each bike is different and second, I know that we all have different expectations as to what we'd like to get out of the vintage bike experience, as collectors, as riders, as historians.  All I'd like to do is present a few observations and opinions of a general nature for those who may find themselves in possession of an older bike that they are not quite sure what to do with. 

There are quite a few approaches to caring for a vintage bike, but if one were to examine them in their simplest terms, nearly all might fall into one of two basic categories, "conservation" and "restoration."  Conservation could be described as protecting what's there, while restoration might be described as an attempt to return the bike to some previous state (in some cases, it might even be a state that never existed for the bike in question, but more about that in a bit).  So that you will not be misled, let me confess my personal bias up front:  In most cases I definitely favor conservation over restoration, perhaps owing a bit to my training and background in art, a field in which poorly executed restorations have done considerable harm.  I should add that perhaps I tend to tilt more toward the former with frames and a bit more toward the latter with components.  Many components are raw or chromed metal with cast or embossed trademarks and thus lend themselves to a makeover more readily than a painted frame with unique and often irreplaceable graphics.

It has been my experience in dealing with works of art that most restoration should be minimal and done with extreme caution and care.  The most significant reason of course is the obvious one... the object might be worth preserving, with as few alterations as possible, for appreciation by future generations.  Since repairing a damaged finish sometimes necessitates the removal or significant alteration of that finish, sometimes it is best to just leave it alone rather than risk irretrievably altering the character of the object.

Another reason I find compelling is that one can often find beauty and charm in the visible signs of use in objects whose original purpose was, after all, to be used.  I think worn leather is more beautiful than new leather and I think the patina that wooden tool handles attain after years of use is far nicer than the look of new handles.   The Japanese have a centuries-old term for the beauty of use: "Wabi."  A companion term "Sabi" refers to the beauty of imperfect objects, or objects of humble origin.  Strictly speaking, I don't believe either term has a literal English translation, since both are rather inextricably entwined with Zen and the tea ceremony, but the essence of their interpretation can certainly be applied to vintage bikes. 

Most bike restorations, even careful ones, often look sterile and lifeless to my eyes.  Worse yet, sometimes a bike is "restored" with such zeal that it looks far better than it did when new.  Modern paint that is of better quality and is more carefully applied than original paint, reproduction decals that are cleaner than the originals, overcoating to provide a more durable finish... these are a few examples of "over-restoration."   While guaranteed to look pretty and attract the attention of the uninitiated, it will usually feel a bit empty and dishonest to those who remember the imperfect charm of the original bikes as they sat on the floor of their local bike shop in decades past.  Vintage car collectors wised up to this years ago... the better-than-new restoration has fallen out of favor these days while the well-preserved original (with obvious signs of age and use) is the new standard of excellence.

To be fair, most knowledgeable vintage bike collectors do not embark on a heavy restoration unless the bike is quite far gone or has already suffered a poor quality repaint. Unfortunately, there are many newbies who view a couple of rust spots as a personal insult and immediately ship a valuable bike off to the painter so that it can come back looking like the photo in the catalog.  Thankfully, peer pressure on the Classic Rendezvous list is spreading the word and helping to limit this practice.  Too late for some bikes unfortunately...

So if the bike is not a complete mess and you have decided against a full-on restoration, what alternatives are left?  Depending on the state of things, let me describe three simple approaches:

The first is by far the most tempting, and unfortunately the potential dangers are subtle.  This is when you have a bike that is nearly perfect, decals intact with maybe just a few rust spots or pebble hits.  Here, I think one must proceed very carefully... often one's first instinct is to say, "Well, it's so close to perfect... with just a little work I can make it look new."  In most cases it is obvious enough (even to the novice) that a repaint would be criminal, as well as a needless expense, so they just send it off to a pro for "touchup."  Sometimes this works out well, other times the pro goes too far and removes or obscures too much original paint or doesn't get the match right or whatever, and the bike comes back with much of the life gone or just looking a bit "off."  Many of us have experienced something similar with an automobile... the repair of a minor scratch that was not all that noticeable to begin with ended up as an eyesore because the paint was a slightly different color or was not leveled or rubbed out properly.  The lesson is this:  A repair that is completely invisible requires a very high degree of skill, is expensive to accomplish, and is not always successful.

Another way to proceed might be to take the approach that most conscientious "non-collector" owners would do with their new bike as it aged and collected its inevitable wounds... clean off any rust, match the paint as well as you can at the local hobby shop or auto supply store, and dab the spots with a small sable brush.  This is what I like to call an "honest" touchup... the rust spot is stabilized, the frame protected, the spot is less visible, but if you look closely you can still see it.  There is absolutely no doubt that the bike is a well-cared for "all-original," not an attempt to recreate the new bike it once was.  One could consider this approach similar to the restoration that is done on frescos where damaged areas are painted with the original color, but using layers of very fine cross-hatching.  Thus the repair looks great from far away, but up close it leaves no doubt in the eyes of future curators what is the original work and what is the restoration.  The only caveat with this approach is that your knowledge level does need to be higher than the aforementioned "non-collector owner"  since most often his repairs were performed on recent chips and scratches.  If you are touching up a spot that is not a recent blemish, you have to pay close attention to the edges of the area during rust removal... rust has a tendency to migrate under the paint so you should look for loose flakes or bubbles and attend to them carefully.

Another approach is perhaps the most minimal of all... you can take a fine X-acto blade or some other scraping implement (also helpful: Evapo-Rust, a small wire brush and a 3M Spot Sanding Pen) and remove all loose rust, then forget about the touchup paint and just give the whole frame a few coats of wax.  Wax affords quite a bit of protection (as long as you don't ride in heavy weather and forget to clean up afterward) and is nondestructive... unlike resprays or touchups, wax is completely removable (with ammonia).  Actually, if the rust is not granular or bubbling, you can even forgo the first step and just proceed with the wax... a thin coat of rust, if it is burnished smooth, can actually help protect the steel underneath. A good example most of us might be familiar with is the satiny brown patina on an old hammer or axe-head.  Please don't misunderstand, I am not advocating rust as a preservative!  I'm just saying that if you choose to stabilize the rust and then leave it uncovered, it is not going to destroy your bike, so long as the bike is cared for properly... this means storing it indoors and away from rapid temperature shifts that can cause condensation (as in an unheated garage whose door is opened and closed repeatedly).

This "nothing but wax" technique is popular with museums.  It enhances the appearance, dust does not accumulate as easily, and as I said, it is removable.  It has not been popular with vintage bike enthusiasts except in the case of very old machines (the type that might be more at home in a museum than your garage), but is now becoming more acceptable as collectors have grown to appreciate the patina and sense of history that some of these old machines have.

When asked, the thing that I recommend first and most often to anyone contemplating a restoration is to just ride the bike for now, put off any irreversible action and take some time.  Sometimes it takes quite a while for a bike to speak to you and for you to drink in all its details and decide which defects are objectionable and which are acceptable (or even endearing).  Many folks are surprised when I tell them I kept my Masi Special for nearly two years before doing any work at all on it.  All I did  was tighten the crank bolts, adjust the brakes and take it for an occasional ride.  And look at it of course (a lot), patiently considering how to proceed.  As the months passed, I not only learned quite a bit about restoration in general terms but I also witnessed significant changes in regard to how I viewed this particular bike.  As it stands now, my approach to fixing it up would probably fall somewhere between #2 and #3 above (hand touchup on a few of the larger rust spots... under the BB, a spot on the top tube and one under the shift lever clamp), then an all-over cleaning and waxing for the rest.  The bike is pretty battle-scarred but still I have grown to admire and respect what it has been thru.  Even if it were in worse shape than it is I don't think it would bother me one bit to leave it pretty much untouched, just so long as I was certain that any corrosion was stabilized so as not to go any further. 

More and more, when someone writes to me asking for advice on the direction they should take in caring for their old Masi, I am seeing phrases like "preserving the patina" and  "keeping it original" and "responsibilities of stewardship."  This is quite an encouraging trend.  I wish more people would stop and think that they are probably not going to be the last owner of that bicycle.  Whenever I think about doing something to a vintage bike, I first ask myself why I am doing it:

Is it to please some inner vanity, a desire for order, neatness, perfection, or beauty?  Or worse, to enhance its value in the eyes of a potential buyer?

Or is it to protect the bike from degradation and decay? 
If it is the former, I always think twice and I always ask myself if what I am about to do is reversible... once an original finish is gone, you can't get it back.  If the action is reversible or nondestructive, like a coat of wax or polishing the chrome, I'll go ahead.  Anything else, I think about long and hard.

But if it is protection from degradation and decay, then I tend to be more aggressive... I know that if I do not act, the bike will suffer because something on it is going to rust, break, fade, flake, or wear.  In a case like that I will feel more free (or even obligated) to get out a bottle of touchup paint or perhaps put a protective coat over a flaking and non-reproducible decal.

So in the very simplest terms, I guess the first question one should ask is, are our actions to be for the benefit of ourselves or the bicycle?

Some might argue the point, but for me it is this one question that most often determines the dividing line between restoration and conservation.




The intent of this article is definitely more philosophical than practical... it is my hope that those who are unsure of what to do with their vintage bike may find my comments helpful in determining a direction in which to proceed.  For instructional tips and other assistance with maintenance, conservation and  restoration I would suggest that you consult the many friendly enthusiasts at the Classic Rendezvous mailing list.  Please select the "digest" option if you don't want your mailbox stuffed with dozens of vintage bike messages.

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