Backstory: I’m an avid mountain biker. I recently broke some welds on my old ten-year-old full-suspension frame. Instead of coughing up a few grand for a new frame which I couldn’t afford or trying to get someone to patch together the old frame, I decided to grab this cheap solid-tail frame from pricepoint.com.
Now, some of you bike snobs may think you can’t get a quality frame for under $100.. but after doing some research on mtbr.com, I decided this might not be such a horrible idea. I also ran the idea by a couple of my friends at the local bike shop (LBS) and they said most bikes are made in the same two factories in Tawain anyway, so there is a good chance it may be coming from a manufacturing plant that was producing some of the big-name frames.
So, I was set. Except…
I wasn’t really thrilled to have a plain black bike. I wanted to spice it up a bit. Besides, I was dying to have a creative project on the side and according to the reviews on mtbr.com, the paint was crappy anyway and had a tendency to chip.
As I started contemplating the prospects of painting the bike frame, I remember an article a car buff friend of mine showed me. It was about how some guy decided to repaint his car entirely with Rustoleum paint. It turns out there are a lot of youtube videos and tutorials that are pretty much in line with this tutorial for car painting with both the paint-on version of Rustoleum and the spray paint version.
There are plenty of tutorials online for painting cars but not so many for painting your own bike. I created this with the intention that you may learn from my mistakes and perhaps perfect the process. Painting a bike is fun and gives you that special feeling that you have something that no one else does!
Shortcut To Useful Tips
Unboxing Bike Frame
It came in a box. Upon initial inspection, the frame looks solid. Nice welds, good milling and honestly, the paint job it has really isn’t that bad to begin with. However, I’m committed to this project. The frame won’t be black for long.
Setting Up The Garage
To be perfectly frank, I had no idea what I was getting into. I’m a technical systems analyst, so to say I have soft hands is an understatement. From everything I read, prepping the surface is one of the more important details when painting a surface. I think I remember that from cub scouts when I made my pinewood derby car.
The most ideal approach to prepping is to sandblast the frame down to its core aluminum. I don’t have a sand blaster. I’m too cheap to rent one.
The next best thing would have been to use sandpaper to strip the frame down to its bare aluminum. I’m not a Zen master; I have no patience. That wasn’t an option to me. I wasn’t about to spend weeks of time hand sanding the frame down all the way.
The last best thing was for me to go over the frame with a rough grit sand paper so at the very least the primer would stick. I was worried about this approach because technically the primer would be sticking to the roughed up factory paint job. So essentially, my paint job is only going to stick to the frame as well as the factory paint job would. If you have more time or the tools, go with the complete stripping approach. If you’re lazy and cheap like me, use my approach.
For this job, use 100 grit wet sand paper. The wet sand paper helps keep the dust down and becomes more important in the later stages.
I started off pretty OCD about getting all the painted Sette logos on the frame off thinking it would screw around with my end product. After spending 45 minutes getting just one of the 5 painted decals and logos, I decided that it probably wasn’t as big of a deal as I thought. The painted logos was as suceptable to the sanding as the rest of the frame, so I figured it’s best to scuff a nice even surface all over the frame and not get too hung up on being so meticulous. After all, this was just a $100 frame and I was itching to ride.
Once I had the entire surface sanded, I needed to set-up a defacto paint booth.
Painting The Booth
I think my wife ended up being pretty happy about this project. It basically forced me to clean and organize our extra garage so I had a place that would be relatively free of dust, debris and wind.
Once I was done cleaning and organizing the garage, I laid down a tarp and rigged up a hanging system for the frame. I wanted to be able to get around and under the bike without having to fidget with a stand or clamps.
Using The Hanging System
I grabbed some extra hanging hooks from the other garage and inserted them into the wooden support beams overhead.
I then used a 3 foot metal pole to thread through the bottom of the bottom bracket shell. I used some tape and straps on the end of the pole and strapped the pole to the overhead hooks.
To support the front of the frame I ripped apart a toilet stopper. I ran a couple threads of high tess fishing line through the plunger and the ran the fishing line back up to the hanging hooks.
It wasn’t a very eloquent solution.. but it worked. The bike was magically suspended in a garage that could be closed off to most wind and dust. I had my paint booth!
Sealing The Important Parts
There are a few places on the bike that are very important to seal before any priming or painting can be performed. If you don’t seal these parts, you risk not being able to install critical components such as the bottom bracket, the headset or the seat post! If you end up getting paint in these places, it isn’t the end of the world. You will most likely have to take the frame up to the LBS and have them prep whatever place got painted. They have tools for it. Save yourself some time and money and just make sure you seal up the following places:
Priming The Bike
Make sure you have proper ventilation, a paint mask or a respirator and some eye protection.
Even with proper ventilation, you may want to choose the time you spend in the paint booth wisely. There were a few points during the project even with my mask that I noticed I was light-headed.
You should also be aware that primers and paint will hang around in the air after they have been dispensed from the aerosol can. So keep your mask on even after you finished the spray.
Also, whatever isn’t covered in the paint booth will end up getting coated with a fine mist of paint. So, if you don’t want your junk like cell phones or cameras painted, don’t bring it into the booth.
I ended up using Rust-oleum’s self-etching primer. I don’t have a real good reason to use it.. other than believing all the marketing jargon all over the front of the can. I figured the anti-rusting compound would be good for a frame since it has to endure the elements. I don’t know if the self-etching crap works. I’d like to think sanding the frame surface helped along with that feature to set a good base primer. It’s important to note, I did lay down about 3 coats of primer. Just follow the instruction on the back of the can.
One note, if you do end up using the same primer as me; make sure to wet sand your final coat of primer once it dries. For whatever reason, the self-etching primer finishes with a slight popcorn finish. I actually tried to apply a test coat of paint in a small area of the frame and the popcorn is way to gritty. The final paint finish would have been bumpy and not smooth. So sand it down! I did a quick pass at the frame with a wet sand 100 grit paper.
- when you leave paint on the bike you don’t need primer! save you some cash (obviously give a sand and all that)
- I didn’t even use a whole can of each of the types of paint/primer I used.
- after priming and quick pass at the frame with a wet sand 100 grit paper, remember to use a damp paper towel to wipe down the dust.
Painting The Frame
Close your eyes. Seriously.
Imagine your newly painted bike frame. Imagine all the details and intricacies.
Now open your eyes and forget about fulfilling half of those details! Seriously. Using sprays cans makes it very difficult to make clean and accurate detail painting. If you’re patient enough, I’m sure you could use a paint pen or brush and go to town.. but that’s not me. I wanted something good looking and unique. I didn’t have to go crazy on the details.
That being said, if you are going to use multiple colors and stencils like I did, remember to think backwards.
“What does that mean?” you ask? That means that you have to think in layers. If you have a top-most detail, that will need to be painted last. The color that underlines it will need to be painted first.
As an example, to the right is my first run of of my maroon base coat.
Tips and Considerations:
Here are a few things I used or learned along the way:
- Stick to the same brand for painting, including the clear sealant. There is no science that proves this, but I would imagine products engineered by the same company generally work best together. I used Rust-oleum for the whole project.
- Use several coats at each layer. At the end of the day, this bike will still have to be able to take a beating on the trail.
- Sketch out your design ahead of time. This will save you from getting into the project then changing your mind mid-project. Then again, it may not… but it helps to make you think out some of your ideas even if you can’t draw like Leonardo…
- If you are going to make stencils, go to Michael’s or a craft store and get an Exacto knife, a cutting mat, and some adhesive stencil paper. In between the coats of your first layers, you can work on drawing the stencils and cutting them out.
- SPRAY FROM 12 INCHES PLUS LIKE THE CAN SAYS. This was my first mistake. I thought I could safely get close than that to make the paint coating a little heavier. It simply ended up running the paint (look at the picture on the right) and I had to wet sand the paint down and re-apply a couple of coats. It takes less time to make multiple lights passes. Most of the paints I worked with allowed you to apply a second coat 15-20 minutes after the first coat. Basically, what I’m saying is, light coats are cheap on time, running coats are expensive on time.
- Use Frogtape for detailed paint lines. Avoid using the blue crap for detail lines on the frame. It’s okay to use for larger surface areas. I would also recommend grabbing some used newspaper or packing paper. You’ll need it to wrap larger areas of the frame.
Design & Masking
It’s kind of hard to describe in writing the next steps I took to get through the project. Keep in mind, each paint stage has several coats laid down and was given about 24 hours to cure enough for me to handle the frame in order to prep for the next stage. I’ll just lay out the pictures of the next stages and leave a brief description of what was going on. Like they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
As I mentioned before, you need to work backward. The maroon was my first base coat for the rear seat stay and chainstay. The front triangle base coat was white. I had to mask off the previous maroon base coat in order to not get any what overspray on it.
My next step was to add some detail that I wanted to add to the seat and chain stays. I ended up using some yarn to wrap the stays to get some of the design detail that I wanted. Notice how I masked and wrapped the front half of frame to prevent over spray:
What the detail looked like after a couple of passes of white paint on top of the maroon base layer:
The next part was tricky. I wanted a fire engine red on the frame that was primarily on the seat tube and bottom bracket shell but blended more intricately than just plain lines into the white base layer. First, I had to protect the detail I had created. I was very careful with my Frogtape to make sure I covered every line I wanted to preserve:
To get the detail I wanted for the fire engine red to bleed into, I first drew out my pattern on some adhesive stencil paper I got from Michael’s and then went to town with an exacto knife. NOTE: Make sure to measure the circumference of the tube you’re making the pattern for. Most bikes have a larger down tube and a narrower top tube. As such, your stencil paper will end up being two different widths. This step actually took me a couple of tries to get right. Symetric patterns work best… unless your some sort of geometry savante:
The next hardest thing from cutting the pattern on the stencil paper was getting it to stick on a round tube without any air bubbles at the edges:
I masked out the rest of what I didn’t want fire engine red and then laid on a couple of coats of the red:
The last step was to paint the front end with the hammered black and to put a silly logo on the head tube of the bike. It wouldn’t be custom without a silly custom logo, no?
The silly logo:
The Rust-oleum hammered black was actually my favorite paint out of this project. It has a pretty wicked finish that looks great on a bike. If I were to do a frame in a single color, I think I would grab one of the colors from the hammered finish line. Again, with all the coats, I did several passes with this color.
Almost done with the spray paint job, everything is pretty much done. Just need to peel off the stencils and unmask the entire bike. Make sure to leave the head tube, bottom bracket and seat tube sealed. After you get everything off the frame, you’ll be spraying it down with a clear sealant. NOTE: Be careful when peeling back the tape and stencils. You run the risk of ripping the new paint if you move to quickly and carelessly.
The last step, once everything is peeled off, is to spray several layers of clear enamel over the bike. If you’d like, you can run a very fine wet sand over the paint before applying the clear enamel. I used 400 grit to go over most of the bike. The same tip goes for this step as with the rest of the spray paint; use multiple light passes to apply a layer and avoid laying it on heavy. Just because its clear doesn’t mean it won’t drip…
Also, be careful when you wet sand the final paint. You’re wanting to mildly scuff the surface so the clear enamel binds to the paint well. You don’t want to strip any paint off!
Again, make several passes with the clear enamel. This will dry hard and be part of what protects your paint! I did so many passes that I actually emptied the whole can on the bike. Whether you are painting a road bike or a mountain bike, you will have rocks and road debris flying at your frame. Too many coats is probably not enough here!
IMPORTANT: Once you’ve applied the last cost of enamel, let your frame sit in the paint booth for a week! This alloys the paint to completely cure. Remember, you’ve applied many layers to the frame. You’ll need to let it go through this process to get the moisture out and allow for the paint to harden to its final state. If you take your bike frame out for a spin before its done curing, the paint will be soft and you will easily damage the paint you just spent so much time on…
Some other thoughts and stuff..
While you go through the process of painting your frame, you’ll end up with a lot of waiting time on your hands. If your using any components off an older bike, I’d recommend you take the free time and clean those components. I cleaned my cassette, scrubbed old rust off my disc brakes and cleaned my rear derailed while I was waiting for coats to set in between. It ends up giving the final bike a very polished look… even if it is a spray paint bike!
Clean dem wheels:
Clean dat disc:
In my case, it was short lived. It is after all, a mountain bike. Below is the final, assembled product and probably the only day I will ever see this bike this clean.
Final Verdict of The “Spray Paint Bike” Project
I finished the spray paint bike project about 6 weeks ago. Since that time, I have taken the bike on a ride once or twice a week. I ride some pretty rough and rocky trails. For those of you familiar with Salt Lake, I regularly run this down the Bobsled Trail. I’m actually surprised how well the pain has held up! There hasn’t been any rips in the paint. It’s taken on a few dings.. but honestly, it’s nothing I’ve never seen on a factory powder coated bike! Next time I need a new frame, I think I may repeat this project!
I just went outside and wiped down the bottom bracket, an area that would normally be subject to the most regular abuse, and took a picture to let you see how it is holding up: