By Jacob Palmer
Everyone knows of that old Huffy, not necessarily by brand name, but that old rusted mangled mess of metal and rubber that a self-respecting person once rode and proudly proclaimed as their bicycle. Whether its residency has been behind your garage for the past decade, a recent acquisition from your local charity-store, or a hand-me-down from an otherwise loving relative, that rust with wheels could (with a little physical and monetary investment) be the envy of all your friends.
Starting with part selection, just because you’re shopping second-hand does not mean you should settle. Some preliminary points; focus on the frame, it doesn’t matter if it’s the most beautiful shade of purple you’ve ever laid eyes on, if it’s bent consider it garbage. Check for major gouges/dents, they look terrible and while body filler can hide them away, a misplaced dent could mean a weakened frame, thus an unsafe bicycle. While the bike doesn’t need to look crispy, be wary of excessive rust, not only is it harder to remove than even the toughest paint job, it could be a terminal (and irreversible) structural failure.
The next step is fit. Fit here means frame size (the only aspect of a bicycle that isn’t adjustable). If a bike is too small you’ll be uncomfortable and look like a clown in a circus, if too large you’ll be uncomfortable and look like a toddler on a ten speed.
Fit is something that many wise old cyclists have broken down into a mathematical science, but what it really comes down to: find a bicycle that is comfortable in your “reach”, of course this will vary based on the type of bicycle, but you want a riding stance that you could easily ride in for a couple hours.
Unless you already have a design in mind, now is the time to do some research. Look around for options and find a dream bike, the configurations are infinite. Decide if you’re looking for a plush leisure bike, an efficient commuter to get across town, or something faster with lighter components and an aggressive stance. Overall, you want to be comfortable. An uncomfortable bike usually ends up an unused bike.
While you peruse the endless ocean that is bicycle variety, color is what will truly make the bike yours. Really use that imagination, but decide on a color with some permanence in your taste (you’re only going to want to paint this thing once).
Sketch a rough idea of the bike or write down the color combination, this will be helpful later when choosing parts.
Setting a Realistic Budget
It is crucial, whether you intend to pinch every penny or you have disposable cash to throw at this project, to set a budget. Budgeting makes for more concrete direction once it comes time to write a parts list, and then shopping for that list. The world of bikes is far too immense to jump in without some kind of parameters.
Now obviously you want to shoot low (since the intent here is a low-cost rebuild) but the key here is to be honest. If a budget is set too low, quality and quantity of the replacement parts will be diminished, while setting a budget too high could result in money wasted.
To help with this process consider the cost of your dream bike and cut it by a quarter, or even half. Overall, be realistic, how much are you willing to spend on a bike that you made as opposed to a store bought model. For this particular project, we set a parts budget of $150 and ended up going over slightly.
Writing a Parts List
Specificity is key while writing up a parts list for the project, which luckily isn’t too complicated when working with bicycles. Start with the front tire and scan the whole bike to the rear, alleviating the possibility of missing parts in need of replacement.
Place damaged or broken parts in higher priority, followed by those in need of change simply by taste, practicality, or possible upgrades.
Keep in mind bike fit, maybe you need a shorter or longer stem (the bracket that attaches the handlebars to the bike). If you got a chance to ride the bike and pedaling seems awkward, a longer or shorter set of cranks could resolve the issue. If you’re building a commuter or a “race” bike you may want to consider clipless pedals. They’re called “clipless” because they replaced “toe clips” or sometimes known as “messenger clips”, the old metal toe cap and strap setup that older bikes were fitted with.
Depending on the style of the bike even toe clips are an option, they can give the bike a more classic feel and they’re functional too.
The direction chosen for our rebuild was a multi-speed cruiser (being that it started off as an 18 speed mountain bike) so the parts selection was made that much easier with that style as a guide.
Shop to Stretch Your Budget
As far as shopping goes, steer clear from the big name shops, they’re usually over priced and their selection will be limited to a smaller number of brands. Shop around local and see what’s out there, but be skeptical too of local shops, even their markup can run high.
Your best bet is surfing the web, there are hundreds of sites to browse through and there will never be an over-eager salesman breathing down your neck. Sites like amazon.com, ebay.com, danscomp.com, or nashbar.com all have extensive inventories with constant sales or freebies.
Our choice marketplace was Amazon, where we walked away with all out parts for less than $160.00, shipped right to our doorstep. Part acquisition could be a recycle effort as well, using parts off of other bikes is a great way to further the green initiative that bicycles are already such an integral part of.
This is where the actual work begins, the dis-assembly process down to nothing but bare frame. For true first-timers, label everything you can, that way you’ll know exactly where pieces go when it comes time for reassembly. Whenever you remove something it is good practice to replace the nuts and/or bolts that were loosened in the process, this prevents them from being lost (which is a nightmare).
Start by taking off any bottle cages, baskets, racks, or saddle bags. While bike service stands are convenient, they are also pricey, what I find to be easiest is flipping the bike over so that it rests on its ‘bars and saddle, that way you can begin with wheel removal.
Standard procedure, loosen up the nuts opposite each other on both the front and rear axles, but before trying to pull off the wheels, let the majority of the air out of your tires so that they’ll slip past your brake calipers more easily (or unclip your calipers if that is an option on your bike).
Continue by pulling apart the drive line (the chain, front chainring/s, and both front and rear derailleurs if applicable). If your chain does not have a master link (this was the case with our Huffy) no need to worry; option one is to simply put the chain in a plastic bag sealed with tape prior to painting.
If the bike has multiple speeds, remove the front and rear derailleurs, but keep both the shifters and the derailleurs attached to their cables. Cranks will vary from bike-to-bike, so it may be best to look online for a manual before you pull yours apart.
At this point you can flip the bike over and it should stand nicely on its forks and bottom bracket.
Detach the brake calipers from the frame, and remove/cut any ties holding the cables to the bike. Unbolt the seat, along with the seat post, and remove them. Removing the shifters (if there are shifters) and the brake levers may require removing the grips.
If you need to remove the grips they can be cut off with a razor blade (carefully, might I add). If you’d like to keep them slide a screwdriver between the grip and the ‘bars, some shops use lubricants but I find that applying a generous amount of hand sanitizer between the grips and ‘bars works beautifully.
Now you can easily remove the shifters and brake levers, this would also be the time to remove any lights, cyclometers, and bells or horns. Loosen the stem bolt and use the still attached ‘bars to pull the stem out of the head tube.
The headset will have a top lock bolt, remove it along with the washer underneath, then remove the bearing “cup” along with the bearings inside (be careful not to pop the bearings from their cage), and slide the forks down and out of the head tube.
You now have completely disassembled your bike, leaving you with a frame ready to take on a new life.
The Cleaning Stage
As a general rule, if it is to be reused, clean it (with the exception of bearings). Here it is nice to have a few basic tools in your arsenal: you’ll need shop rags (terry cloth), steel wool, a steel brush, a toothbrush, and some form of detergent (WD-40 does wonders for cleaning).
Water and a rag will get any dirt and loose grime off of the frame and other parts, for difficult and hard to reach areas use the toothbrush or steel wool/brush (if scratching isn’t an issue).
Cleaning is a great time to check smaller parts for excessive wear or possible broken components. Unless you’re buying new wheels, clean each spoke individually, and while doing so check for any that are noticeably more flexible than the others. If you find loose spokes you can tighten up the spoke nut at the rim, but this could run your rim out of alignment (making the rim wobble while spinning) so I recommend you take the rim into your local shop for adjustment.
Wipe everything down afterward with a clean, dry rag to grab any remaining cleaner/residue.
Painting to Turn Heads
Painting will take more time than you’ll expect and it will challenge your patience, but the reward of a fresh coat of that beautiful color you picked out earlier is tremendous. Materials for the job include stripper, an old paintbrush, a flat scraper, 60, 200, and 400 grit sandpaper, painter’s tape, Nitrile gloves, spray primer, spray paint, and spray-on clear coat.
A preliminary step, using the painter’s tape cover the holes in the frame i.e. both ends of the head tube, the bottom bracket (where the cranks came from), and the top of the seat tube.
Also, if chain removal wasn’t doing it for you, now is the time to bag and tape it sealed.
This will get messy and the stripper is harmful to your skin along with anything else it touches, so work in a properly ventilated and covered area.
Using the old paintbrush apply generous amounts of stripper to the frame forks, and any other pieces you plan on repainting. Allow the stripper to sit and do its job for at least the time recommended by the manufacturer.
The paint should begin to wrinkle and bubble up, at which point (wearing nitrile gloves) remove it using the steel wool (be careful not to get any stripper on your skin).
Once you’re satisfied that you’ve scraped as much paint off as you can, move on to sanding. Start with the more coarse 60 grit and sand in mostly circular motions, removing any leftover paint or rust spots. Follow up with a 200 grit full sanding to smooth out the more prominent scratches. Make that bad boy really shine by cleaning every piece again, this is a necessary step in order for your primer to really stick to the metal.
Priming doesn’t have to be pretty, but you do want to follow the manufacturer’s directions for the best and safest results. Once the primer has dried, lightly sand over the surface with the 400 grit sandpaper, smoothing out any runs or imperfections. With a clean, dry rag give the surface a good wipe-down ensuring that all of the dust from sanding is removed.
Again, as with the primer follow manufacturer’s instruction, but before you start spraying map out in your head where you plan to begin and end, this prevents uneven coating or missed spots altogether.
Spray in a sweeping motion regulated by short bursts of paint, two to three coats will suffice. Clear coating the bike adds additional scratch and rust resistance, along with giving the final product a professional look.
Let that last coat dry for a couple hours, then you’ll be ready for reassembly.
Pure Creation (Reassembly)
Slapping it all back together should be anything but careless, all of that hard work you just put into the paint could be ruined in an instant if you aren’t careful while you rebuild.
The process is much the same (only in reverse order) as dis-assembly, only now you install those shiny new parts you ordered. For longevity of parts it’s good practice to “re-pack” bearings, which means removal of the old grease and generous application of new.
Also, for parts like the pedals and others that thread directly into a component, it will help down the road if you apply anti-seize to the threads before installing them, to prevent corrosion or any “dissimilar metals” issues from locking the bolt up.
Be sure not to over tighten anything, this is a bicycle, while you do want to be safe, there isn’t a tremendous amount of force being applied. Remember too that the position parts like the seat and handlebars are in now can (and will) be adjusted later.
Back to our friend “fit”, before embarking on this two wheeled extravaganza you made sure that the frame size and parts ordered were appropriate for the size of the rider. That in mind, the rest is up to comfort and while yes, there is a “correct” manner in which to go about it, just do what feels right.
The levers and shifters can be adjusted to wherever your hand finds them most comfortably. In terms of tire pressure it will vary from bike to bike, but usually the tire will have a max pressure on the sidewall and as a general rule you should run a few psi under that number.
If you’re really bothered to get it “perfect” do your research or take it to a local shop and ask them to help you.
Before you go running out the door to show the world your new ride, give it a good cleaning.
Wipe down all of the cables and areas where excess grease shows. Be positively sure that no grease got on your rims or brake pads, as this could lead to brake failure and probable injury (possibly worse).
Keep products like tire-black away from bikes, you don’t want that stuff on your hands from the grips, and if you apply it to your tires you run the risk of losing traction or having it run onto the rim (the stuff can be worse than grease).
Waxes are okay if kept exclusively on the paint, but with that clear coat, none will be needed. Keep the bike maintained well, keep moving components lubed, give it a bath once in a while, and dry it off well if you ever encounter wet conditions.
Congratulations, you have officially dove into the subculture that is the DIY cyclist. A bike rebuild can be self-confidence building, it can be a bonding opportunity, and it’s just downright cool to say you built it yourself.
This process is far more difficult than buying chocolate, flowers, or even chocolate flowers, but it has permanence and is in most cases cheaper than jewelry so what better way is there to get that special person riding with you, than to build them a custom bike. Be proud of your hard work, and be prepared to be the envy of everyone you know.