Steve Maas, Long Beach, California, USA
March - September, 2002
In late March of 2002, I became the owner of a Carlton Catalina touring bike, made in England in (as close as I can tell) the mid 1960s, and I promptly set about the task of restoring it. The bike was a disaster--a real rust bucket--but as I tore it down, I was astounded to see that it was largely unused and almost completely original. None of the bearings had any visible wear, and even the brake pads, gears, chain, and cable sheaths were ones that came new with the bike. The only nonoriginal part was the saddle; I assume that the original leather one died a moldy death as the bike sat decaying in a series of garages.
My philosophy of old bikes probably won't be approved by most purists. I am not interested in creating museum pieces; I have no interest in a bike I can't ride. I don't have the time, inclination, or energy to research any bike in detail and to determine its original configuration, down to the last lockwasher. I'll probably never own a bike that has any real historical or artistic significance. It's just a bike, for chrissake, not an Amati violin.
Still, I love the elegance of older bikes, and I'm fascinated by the combination of practical functionality and artistic design that they embody. That's what should be preserved. The details are not important. A bike's sense of period and design, and its silent lessons about our lives and history, are what really matter.
So, here is the story of the bike. The bike and web site are both works in progress, which may not be finished for a long time, if ever. So, for the whole story, I suggest that you check back occasionally.
I began the restoration by photographing the bike extensively with a digital camera and making some decisions about how to proceed. Since the bike is almost completely original, it makes sense to try to restore all the components instead of replacing them; this is a great oportunity to obtain a truly original bike. The bike will have to be repainted, however, and new decals created for it. The original color was a dark copper; I'm not sure I want to keep it that way. Maybe a British racing green? I need to think this out.
The thumbnails below show the bike as I received it. Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version, and use the "back" button of your browser to return to this page.
The frame artwork was in poor to fair shape. I photographed it for cleanup in Adobe Photoshop.
The next step was to disassemble the bike and bag each component. I did not disassemble the individual components at this point, but once they were off the bike, I could get a good look at them and evaluate them pretty well. Because of the age and corrosion, many parts were difficult to remove. Also, standard tools sometimes didn't fit; for example, I had to make my own freewheel tool, a special bushing for removing the crank cotter pins, and eventually a special remover for the derailleur jockey wheel. I quickly learned to appreciate my little Sherline milling machine!
A great surprise was finding a Raleigh factory form, stained with rust and primer, folded and tucked into the bottom-bracket shell! The painters must not have noticed it, and the assemblers just socked in the BB without looking, so the form stayed there for the next 40 years. (Shows you how often the BB was lubed...!) Unfortunately, it had only a couple illegible words on its reverse side, so it was little help in dating the bike. It did prove, however, that the frame was built after the Raleigh acquisition of Carlton, 1960 or 61, I believe.
It makes sense to begin with some easy components. I began with the brakes and levers, then the hubs and pedals. The spokes were a disaster; I discarded them, so I will have to rebuild the wheels. I used naval jelly to strip rust from steel components. After derusting and polishing, the chrome looked pretty good, but it still had a lot of fine pitting. I polished the aluminum components with ultrafine emery paper (240 then 320 grit) and buffed them on a wheel.
Fixing the frame artwork is laborious. It consists largely of drawing over the photos of the original artwork in Adobe Photoshop. When the artwork is finished, I print it on decal paper with my little inkjet printer. The badge will have to be repainted by hand, under a large magnifier or microscope.
There are some annoying restrictions in this process. First, most inkjets cannot print white or metallic colors. To obtain white areas, you must use white-background decal film, but then it can't have transparent areas. Decals that must have transparent areas cannot have white areas. This problem has not arisen in this project, but it could be a real dilemma in others.
One problem is that the inkjet inks are translucent. Therefore, they don't show up well, especially the light colors, against a dark frame color. To get around this, I printed some of the decals on the white-background paper, and colored the background to match the frame. This looks OK, but I don't think it's the ultimate solution. Another problem is that the inkjet's black ink dissolves in the Krylon spray that is necessary to make the printing waterproof. The colored inks didn't have this problem, so I just created a near-black color from the Adobe Photoshop color palette to use for the black areas. This forces the printer to use the colored inks, instead of black ink, to create the "black" areas.
I repainted the head-tube badge with model paints. These are OK, but I'd like to find something of better quality for my next project. I had to scrape off all the existing paint and repaint the badge under a microscope. A long, tedious job.
The restored Carlton head badge can be seen in the pictures of the finished bike at the bottom of this page. The seat-tube logo is at the top of the page. Other artwork is shown below.
My greatest fears were (1) losing a part, and (2) forgetting how to put something together long after disassembling it. To prevent that kind of disaster, I photographed all the components as I took them apart, made sketches in a notebook, and labeled the parts with 1"x 3" adhesive labels. I also kept all the parts of each component in a plastic bag. The process is laborious, but necessary. I found myself referring to the pictures frequently as I put things back together, and still wished I had taken more of them.
Now for some sacrilege: I'm going to paint the frame myself, with canned spray paint. I know, the politically correct way to refinish a frame is to take it to a bicycle frame painter and pay $400. There's no question that a professional paint job would be spectacular. The point of this restoration, however, is the project, not just the result, and subcontracting all the work is not much of a project. Of course, I'll subcontract essential things that I just cannot do, but frame painting is really not one of them.
A last look at the frame before sanding and painting...
The conventional wisdom states that it is impossible to do a good job of painting a bicycle frame at home. This perception probably comes from the way that most home painting jobs are done: take off the wheels, mask a few parts, stand back, and spray paint everywhere. Of course, that kind of job inevitably looks horrible. However, with care and preparation, it is possible to do a thoroughly respectable job. I've done it a few times. Here's what I suggest:
1. Strip the frame of its components. It's best to take off all the parts, but you can leave on some that are notoriously difficult to remove and replace, easy to mask, and don't get in the way. Among these are the headset cups and bottom-bracket fixed cup.
2. Clean the frame. Use solvent to get off all the oily gunk, then wash the frame with detergent. Rinse and dry it completely.
3. Sand the frame completely with medium-grit sandpaper. Be sure to sand all chipped areas smooth, and get in close around the lugs. This step is tedious but important. It is not necessary to remove all the paint; if the paint adheres well, it's probably best not to remove it. If it's peeling, or flakes off easily with light sanding, get it off. When you're finished, there should be no shiny areas, and the whole surface should be smooth to the touch. Wipe off all the paint dust.
4. Give the frame a light coat of spray primer. (The primer coat is soft; if you make it too thick, the paint chips easily.) This is essential for areas that have been sanded down to bare metal, but even in other areas, it provides a good underlayer for the color coats of paint. To hold the frame, I put a loop of wire through the headtube and another through the bottom bracket. I cover my workstand with dropcloths and hang the frame from it. To keep paint out of the BB, seat tube, and head tube, roll up several index cards and tuck them into the holes. Allow the primer to dry thoroughly; if you don't, the color coat may crinkle it.
The frame, primed.
5. Now for the main coats of paint. The key to getting good results is to spray many very light coats. Hold the spray can about a foot from the frame and move it about one foot per second. If you go too fast, the paint will not cover well and will have lots of small bumps; too heavy, and it drips. Do one pass down the side of a frame tube, and do not go back over it. Spray the other tubes similarly, then do the tops and bottoms. Turn the frame, and do the other side. Finally, hang it from the other wire (BB or top tube) and spray the areas that previously were inaccessible. Be systematic; don't just spray paint randomly.
6. Unless you made the coats of paint too heavy, they will dry in minutes. When they have dried, repeat the process. As you add coats, the coverage will get better, until finally the frame is completely and uniformly covered. This should take five or six coats; maybe more.
7. Let the paint dry for a couple of days in a warm area. I've never tried baking the paint, but if you have some means to heat the frame to 150 F or so, it will speed the drying process enormously. (I'm toying with the idea of making a plywood oven, with ventilation holes and light bulbs as a heat source, for my next frame-painting project. I'll use a digital multimeter with a thermocouple sensor to monitor the temperature.) Without baking, the paint will continue to harden for months; the longer you let it harden, the better. (I let it harden in my garage, in summer, for six weeks, while I ran off to Germany.)
8. Do any hand artwork you want: lug outlining, etc.
9. Spray on a coat of clear gloss paint. This step is tricky; the margin between adequate coverage and too much (resulting in drips) is much smaller than with the color coats. Also, if you spray an inadequately thin coat on top of a good coat, you can lose the shiny surface.
10. Apply your decals. (Don't do this before putting on the gloss coat, or the clear part of the decal will show.)
11. Finally, spray on a couple more light coats of clear gloss.
12. The frame requires at least a week to dry completely, more if the environment is cool. It dries to the touch in minutes, but the paint is very soft and nicks easily. It's best to wait a few days before reassembling the bike, so the paint will be hard and less easily damaged. You can judge the paint's hardness by sticking a fingernail into it in an inconspicuous place; when you can't dig into the surface any more, the paint is dry enough for reassembly.
13. Consider painting a water-bottle cage and a hand pump to match the frame.
Home painting a frame has a few limitations. You can't do a lot of the fancy things that the pros do: pearls, fades, and so on. You're largely restricted to a single color, or perhaps two, if you're willing to do some masking. A greater problem is the lack of color selection; the available colors, in canned spray paint, are pretty limited. I've used Rustoleum metallic colors with good success, and some other solid colors. I have always used name-brand paints; I've never tried, and don't trust, cheapo store brands.
One possibility is paint from automobile parts stores. Some stores stock small cans of touch-up paint for people who do their own minor automobile bodywork. The color selection is much better, but the cans are about a quarter the size of a standard spray can and cost a bit more. Even so, you only need 3-4 cans, so the total cost is modest. Auto paint is usually a lacquer, and is not very rugged.
Canned spray paint uses acetone as a solvent. Acetone attacks most kinds of paint and, occasionally, even other spray paints. The best way to prevent problems is to make sure that the previous coat of paint is really dry before applying the next coat. Be sure to test the clear coat before spraying it on a painted frame.
The frame will require at least one can of color-coat paint (better get two), a half can of clear coat, and perhaps a quarter can of primer.
I couldn't find a close match to the original color, and it was, after all, pretty ugly. I ended up with a nice, metallic forest green: a good, upstanding British color. Bikes, in my opinion, cry out for metallic paint jobs. Solid colors are just too damned dignified, even for a British bike. A little gaudiness never hurt anything.
Footnote: I recently learned that auto-paint dealers often can create any color you wish and load it into a spray can. This opens up much wider possibilities for color selection. Their standard 15 oz. can is a little larger than the 12-oz. hardware-store spray cans, so one should be enough for an ordinary frame. I haven't tried this yet, but it's just a matter of time...
Because of corrosion, many of the chrome-plated parts needed replating. Parts that had blisters, peeling chrome, or heavy rust pitting obviously needed replating; parts that were not so bad, like the hubs and pedals shown above, could probably get by without it. Still, those parts had some degree of rust pitting, and would rust again without some kind of stabilization. Occasional polishing and waxing would probably be enough, but it's hard to polish a hub in a laced wheel. So, I had them replated. "Focal points" of the bike, like the derailleurs and crank, must look nice. So, after a trip to the local plating shop, and an expenditure of $260, I had the hubs, rims, derailleurs, fork, headset, and a lot of little parts nicely rechromed.
I plated only the large parts of the derailleurs, not the screws, nuts, or springs. I derusted and polished those and gave them a light nickel plating with a brush-plating kit I bought from a hobby plating store. This gives them a decent finish that is more rust-resistant than bare steel. If you polish the surface well before plating, and buff afterward, you can even get a nice, mirror-like shine with it.
I think they look a little nicer this way, no?
Man, nothing is easy!
Working on new bikes or building one from components can't prepare you for all the nasty little surprises lurking in the frame and components of an older bike. Anything--and I really mean anything--that can happen to a bike probably has happened to one that is 35 years old. I encountered bent axles, a bent fork, warped chainrings, nonparallel headset races, bent derailleurs, warped rims, and an out-of-round seat tube. Fortunately, the frame itself seemed to be pretty straight.
It's hard to understand how a bike that was so little used got so badly bent up. Whatever the cause, it's much easier to fix such problems before painting or replating. It would be easy to say that I should have checked everything before starting the restoration; however, the parts were in such bad condition that it was not possible: how can you spin the crank to make sure it's not warped, when the damn thing hardly moves at all? That's just one of the things I have to deal with.
Rebuilding the wheels was a real task. The rear rim was a little warped. I straightened it as much as possible before building the wheel, but it wasn't perfect. It is really difficult to use spoke tension to adjust for wheel warp, because you inevitably get the tensions uneven. When spoke tensions are not uniform, the wheel tends to relax in the direction of the spokes having the greater tensions, causing it to warp again. The rear wheel is still about one millimeter out of true. I'll just live with it. The rims, of course, are not modern hook-bead types, so I can't pump the tires above about 70 PSI, or they will start to lift off the rims. Well, in the 60s, 70 PSI was a high-pressure tire; 55-60 was the norm. Higher pressure required tubulars.
I wasn't able to find any of the classical, patterned Raleigh bar tape, so I used Benotto. It looks OK, and I can easily replace it later if I find the right stuff. Also, I reused the original cable sheathing, even though it is in pretty bad shape. Maybe later I can get some of the original sheath in better condition.
I bought a lightly used Brooks B17 leather saddle to replace the nonstandard one. I know that the bike originally had a Brooks saddle, but I'm not sure which type. My catalog pictures show something very similar to a B17, so I think it's a good choice.
Thanks to some information from a reader of this
page, I can date the frame accurately. According to Bruce Robbins,
there is a date code on the Williams chainrings. The chainrings have a
small "EW" mark with a two-letter code underneath. The code gives the
date of manufacture; according to Bruce, it is as follows:
1918/1919 probably E
Apparently, this information is available on the Classics Rendezvous web site (how did I miss it?) and originally came from Hillary Stone.
My bike has a ZE, dating it at 1964. Of course, the crank isn't the bike, so it doesn't date the bike exactly.
The Carlton Cycles site, which didn't exist when the project was undertaken, has a list of serial numbers and corresponding dates. The serial number is M5992, which similarly dates the bike at 1964. It also notes that the Capella lugs were used only through 1965.
Previous to this, I knew the following:
- The bike was built after the Raleigh acquisition of Carlton, 1960 or 61. Raleigh continued to make bikes under the Carlton name for some time, although I'm not sure exactly when they stopped. In the 70s, some had both the Carlton and Raleigh names; eventually, though, the Carlton name was phased out.
- A 1967 Carlton catalog does not show the Catalina.
- Pages from a mid-60s Huffy catalog (Huffy rebranded and imported Carltons in the 60s) show a very similar Catalina with quick-release hubs and the same color, brakes, and drive train. My bike has nutted axles, so it must predate the bike in those pictures.
- The Weinman Vainqueur 999 brakes, of the style on my bike, were made from the mid 60s to the early 70s.
- The serial number is nonstandard for Raleigh, indicating that the Carlton manufacturing process had not been fully integrated with Raleigh's at the time the frame was made.
- The Reynolds 531 frame decal is a very early one, common in the 1950s.
I had stated that this pointed to early to mid 1960s, maybe 1963 to 66.
Here are some pictures of the finished bike. Unfortunately, the flash makes the color look more blue than it really is; the green in the Carlton and Catalina logos matches the frame color much better than it seems. Maybe someday I'll get proper lighting equipment for photographing bikes.
After photographing the bike, I replaced the cable sheath at the rear derailleur with a stainless one, similar to those used on Campagnolo-equipped bikes of the 1970s. The old, soft, original sheath made the shifting too sloppy, and the ancient Huret derailleurs need all the help they can get. I also added Campagnolo toe clips; I came close to taking a spill, on the bike's maiden voyage, when my foot slipped off one of the metal pedals and jammed between the frame and front wheel. Finally, the drag in the old freewheel causes the chain to hit the chainstay frequently, chipping the paint, so I added a removable chainstay protector.
Some of the parts I had restored started rusting again after several months. (Sigh.) I realized that the buffing, after plating, had thinned the plating layer to the point where steel was exposed, allowing rust to reform. To fix the problem, I buffed the steel before plating it, then, if necessary, gave the nickel a very light buffing. I also made sure that the nickel plating was a little thicker.
One of the cheap tires blew off the rim during a ride, so I replaced them with Continentals, the only good 27-inch tires I've been able to find. They have a very stiff wire bead, so they're holding up much better. I still keep them at about 70 PSI, just to be safe. This is actually pretty high pressure for a 1960s set of wheels. In those days, non-tubular tires were usually kept at 55-65 PSI.
I still need a dust cap for one of the Philippe pedals. Anyone have an extra?
As of this writing, I've taken the bike out for three rides. The first was a quick ten-miler around the neighborhood, mainly just a shake-down cruise. On the next ride, I stopped for coffee at my usual spot (in Seal Beach, California) and the bike attracted a huge amount of attention from both cyclists and non-cyclists. I spent a half hour talking bikes and fielding questions. On the second ride, the same thing happened. One guy at the coffee shop just stood and stared at the bike in awe, telling me over and over how spectacular it was! Great for the ego...
Of course, I'm aware of every flaw in the job, and I'm painfully aware that the old Huret parts are much worse than Campagnolo or Shimano ones. I'm the one who shifts carefully to make sure I don't lose the chain, and brakes carefully to make sure the pads don't grab on the chrome wheel rims. I know of all the problems, but other people don't see them; they see only the overall effect, which, with all that chrome, is pretty impressive.
In spite of the poor components, the bike rides remarkably nicely. Even with the steel rims and large tires (27 x 1 1/4), it feels light and responsive, and the tires give it a comfy, touring-bike ride. After about 100 miles, the Brooks leather seat is actually starting to conform to my tush; I always wondered if leather seats really did that, as people claim, or if their tushes actually conformed to the seat. Probably a little of both.
Velo Retro: Among other things, a library of catalogs for old bikes. Very helpful in dating.
Classic Rendezvous: Quite a bit of information on old bikes.
Carlton Cycles: A site by the "Carlton enthusiast" of the Veteran Cycle Club in the UK.
Old Roads: An extensive old-bike site with discussion forums, picture database, and lots more.
Bicycle Museum of America: Largely, the former Schwinn family bike collection. Very impressive.
Cyclart: Frame painting, restoration, and lots of parts for older bikes.
National Bicycle History Archive: These are the serious historians.
Mark Bulgier's Raleigh Archive: Pictures and catalogs; a really wonderful archive.
Retro Raleighs is back, sponsored by Harris Cyclery.
Caswell: Hobby metal-plating and aluminum-anodizing supplies.
Bel Decal: People keep asking me where to get the material for making decals. Here it is.
Old School Cycles: Name was changed to Old School Bicycles, but now the site seems to be off line. If anyone finds it, please send me the URL. It had several nice Carlton pictures.