Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How to Restore a bicycle- Part 1-Dissassembly and rust removal

How to Restore a Bicycle-
Getting off that rust is a must!

It's been one week since my last blog post, but it already feels like forever. I want to apologize to my disgruntled fans for having kept them waiting on my every word for the very next thing I  have to say. In my defense, I've been busy. With what, you might ask? With my next project, restoring a blue 5 speed Schwinn Cruiser. It lived it's life on the ocean and became a beach bum. Now it bares the consequences of it's laid back lifestyle with a collection of rust on it's frame and parts. In fact, this bike is so rusty that I think I'll just refer to it as "Rusty".

Bicycle newbies, mechanics and restorers need to pay close attention to this article if you are trying to revive a Rusty of your own. This article is going to cover the steps I take to get rust off a bicycle and also the tools and chemicals I use for the job.

Things you'll need for this job:
- A socket wrench set with metric and standard sizes
- A bicycle repair stand
- A large universal wrench, the kind you would club somebody trying to rob you with
- Needle nose pliers
- A cable cutter, preferably the one Park Tool makes
- A pedal wrench. Mine is a chain whip and pedal wrench combo, found at your local bike shop.
- A few buckets
- Savogran Wood Bleach or any wood brightener that contains oxalic acid
- Rubber gloves, goggles and a respirator mask if the fumes are too intense.
- Baking soda
- A ventilated area or a space in your backyard where the neighbors won't mind
- Allen wrench set
- WD40, steel wool, and wire brushes
- A Phillips and Flathead screwdriver 
- A clock in the room and a coffee maker, just 'cause.

Okay so each restoration project is different in that the parts of the bicycle are all mounted differently. So instead of going into detail general bicycle diss-assembly, I'm going to talk about the diss-assembly for this bicycle. Here's what the bicycle looked like, after I took off the bolt on wheels.

Ol' Rusty getting stripped down for the rust bath.

This fork has seen better days.

This chainring, believe or not, will shine after the oxalic acid bath.

Taking the bike apart is the easiest part depending on how you look at it. Where there's a bolt, use a socket wrench, a screw, a screw driver. But it is also very labor intensive. Turning parts that have don't want to be turned because of rust can be a real challenge. My secret weapons for stubborn parts are my bicycle repair stand and WD40. Whenever possible, use the bicycle repair stand to your advantage. Even if its to remove a pedal from a crank arm, you can set the crank arm in the vice and bear down on the bolt of the pedal to screw it freely off. This will save you from having to bend over constantly and in the long run will save your back. 

I will, against all bike snobbery wisdom, use WD40. I don't rely on it exclusively, but to get parts to move on old bicycles, its a must to have around. This single piece crank set shown on the picture took about half an hour to remove. The reverse threaded side was stuck onto the frame by rust. With some WD40 I was able to work at it little by little until the crown started turning. (FYI: the non-drive side on these crank arms is always the reverse threaded side. Always remove the bolts and crown on this side of the bike, then slide the crank arm out the opposite end through the bottom bracket.)

The best way to learn how to put the bike back together is by making a mental note of  what you remove. "Does that washer come before, or after the ball bearings?" for example. Save every little part taken off because you never know how important that part may be or how difficult it might be to replace.

After I remove all the main parts such as the wheels, crank arms, fork and seatpost, now I'm ready to tackle the small stuff. I take a pair of cable cutters and cut the exposed cable on both ends of the brakes and the shifter and derailleur. I leave the housing intact because I will need to know how much housing to buy in the future. 

Finally with all parts taken off, the frame is ready to be sent for sandblasting and powder coating. This is an acceptable strip down of the frame at this point of the restoration.

Once the frame has been stripped down, a painter should have no problem removing the remaining rust  and repainting the surface.

I'm not going to lie and say that I know how to do powder coating, because that would be over promising any potential clients of mine. I do know where to get it done at a reasonable cost, and paint jobs like these aren't exorbitantly priced luxuries. The paint job is, however, a major expense in the restoration process. Be ready to shell out at least a Benjamin to get a frame like this painted to match. I will post pictures of the results of the powder coating on my next article.

Now that all the parts have been removed, it's time to put that rusty pile in a chemical bath. The chemical you will need is called oxalic acid. It is a compound mostly used to bleach wood decking. You can buy it at some hardware stores in its concentrated, or crystallized form. They also carry a diluted liquid version which takes longer to remove the rust. At first I went to my nearest Lowe's and bought a gallon of Cabot Wood Brightener which contained oxalic acid. I set the rusty parts in a bucket and filled it with water. Then I started adding a few ounces of the wood brightener. After leaving it overnight, the parts looked almost the same, so I added more copious amounts of the stuff into the bucket. At the and of the day I saw the water turning yellow which is a sign that the oxalic acid is doing it's job. I will leave it again overnight and see the results tomorrow. 

If you are using Savogran Wood Bleach oxalic acid, two tablespoons should be enough to tackle a batch like the one below. This acid needs to dissolve in hot water when it is first used.

My first 48 hour Oxalic Acid bath using liquid wood bleach.
Reader be advised, when using oxalic acid, please take the necessary safety precautions. This acid is a poison. It should not be left in a garage or an area with no ventilation. When cleaning parts off with this acid use rubber gloves. To dispose of the acid you will first have to neutralize it using baking soda. Pour small amounts of baking soda at a time until the water sizzles out, then you know the bath has been neutralized. After the acid has been neutralized, it can be poured down the drain. Also, when working in close proximity to the acid, use a respirator mask. Exposure to this acid has been linked to kidney failure and joint problems. Again, take the proper precautions. 

In my next article I will feature the after photos of the acid bath, the finished powder coat and decals on the frame, and a few more other steps in the restoration process. Stay tuned for part 2 and possibly a part 3 on how to restore your bicycle.


  1. Cool job but frankly that acid bath look like scary stuff!!! Did you research any other ways to clean the parts? I remember seeing a National Geographic special years ago where treasure hunters were using some sort of non-chemical bath to take rust and crust off of silver coins which were retrieved off the bottom of the ocean. Anyways..just a thought.

    I restore all sorts of items so I am open minded. In fact, I just restored a trash picked 1950s Eskimo box fan which was completely dissassembled and reassembled and now works great and pushes 3 tons of air! I typically clean throughout but leave surface rust as it adds some character. I just trash picked an early Trek Mountain bike and that is my next project on the resto line. I will try and use some of your tips. Thanks for the tips and keep the blog going! Cheers!

  2. Hi Greg!

    Thanks for following. I regards to your question there are other known ways of removing rust from bicycle parts- WD40, mineral spirits, Simple Green, just to name a few. I have yet to find a more effective way of removing rust from chromed parts on a bicycle than this oxalic acid bath. The bath is only recommended for parts that have been chrome plated. Other parts that are not chrome plated should not be cleaned with oxalic acid. Simple Green is known to be more environmentally friendly if you are restoring a newer bicycle with mostly aluminum parts. Even though I use strong chemicals like oxalic acid, it is still safer than cleaning parts in gasoline which is known to cause cancer. As long as you take the necessary safety precautions and do not frequently expose yourself to oxalic acid, you should be okay. I think the Trek will have mostly aluminum parts and Simple Green should be enough to tackle the job. I'll keep posting more articles about this and you're welcome to ask any questions you might have.

  3. Thanks for the reply! Luckily, the Trek appears to have been garage kept so not a lot of rust on it......just filth! :) Lots of cleaning to do and replacing missing parts...pedals, tubes, tires, small pieces here and there. I will try and snap some pictures as I go! Happy Trails!

  4. This is about a year old article already, but I've been using Citric acid. It works great, and does the job quickly, I think. I haven't tried that acid that you mentioned, but I'd say this is good. Probably safer too I think.

  5. Vinegar or Molasses also works. Also electrolysis using a battery charger and a sacrificial anode can work.

    1. I agree with the vinegar treatment, however I'm unfamiliar with using molasses or electrolysis. Interesting ideas.

    2. I use evapo-rust, to loosen and clean rusty parts on cars and bikes. Disposes down your sink, you can pick up the parts with your bare hands and it works. Parts don't come out bright, but can be buffed for shine. Restored about 20 bikes so far. Just did a Raleigh Technium glued aluminum frame. I don't do paint jobs, so farm out any powder coating. Fun hobby, ride what you fix.

    3. A surprising trick that can work to remove rust from chromed parts is to wet them with water and scrub them with aluminum foil. We repeatedly. The aluminum reacts with the rust and will break down into a slurry. Wash away the slurry when it gets gritty enough that it may scratch the chrome finish.

  6. Hi Greg- We have acquired my father-in-law's 1935 Schwinn Motor Bike, that he won in a paddle ball contest on Oct. 19, 1936, at age 11, in Detroit, MI. We also have the winning paddle with date and name on it. This summer I plan to work on it to remove the years of dirt and rust so your info will be very helpful. I will try the Simple Green on the painted surfaces and the oxalic acid on the chrome. Thanks Donnastebner1@gmail.com