A Nickel Plated Bike.
In 2007, I went to the North American Handmade Bike Show in San Jose, CA and one machine stood out to me. Don’t get me wrong, there was a room filled with almost overwhelmingly stunning bicycles. But, this one wasn’t part of the show. It was a visitor’s vintage Miyata that had been plated in nickel. I was really attracted to its warm shine and the reality that nickel would need to be polished from time to time–how charming! I logged it away in my noggin thinking that would be a swell way to upgrade a beater. Hmmm.
You can check out Gina Morey’s story and see more pictures of her bike here: http://www.living-room.org/50buckbike.html
A year later and I’d let it slip from my mind until a project arose. I’d found an old Bianchi Giro (I have no real idea that’s what model it is.) for $155, shipped on eBay. It was full of very pretty but used Campagnolo parts and was made from Columbus SLX tubing. An abused, but sweet ride. I rode it around for a while as a “movie bike.” Named because I wouldn’t run out in front of a bus in grief after coming out from a late night picture-show to see nothing but a busted lock where my Waterford once stood. Everyone needs just such a bike, if not more (the: “what you have, plus one” approach to bike ownership) . Expendable, but, decent-like. My friend Bennett says, “All your bikes are nice. You seem incapable of owning a junky bike.” Okay. There’s truth to that. Let’s just say this Bianchi was going to be my beater for as long as I could stand it.
Cut to about 9 months later.
It was always on the back burner to do something with it as it was an incredibly comfortable riding bike and it seemed to be against my prime directive to neglect this one. I explored the possibility of getting it painted. I always wanted a “Celeste” green Bianchi and there’s this guy in Australia who remakes classic bike decal sets which are perfect (ebay store: cyclomondo). I’d maybe send it to Cycle Art or Joe Bell or a motorcycle paint shop and for a fistfull of dollars, have a perfect bike. A bike that would look a lot like just about every Bianchi out there (sigh). What else could I do? Chrome (too cold for me)? Blueing (not much protection)? Copper (way hard to maintain and preserve but still in my mind…)? Nickel!!! I loved Gina’s bike and when I went to a Tour de France breakfast party at a friend’s house and found Gina’s Vivian parked along side the other guests’ bikes–the back burner project moved forward.
I stripped the paint off myself. A grubby caustic job. But, I did get all the paint off and found myself really loving the time spent with ScotchBrite and extra fine grit cloth-backed sandpaper. The frame was clean under what was left of the dreary matte black paint and stick-on decals. I grew up around furniture refinishing, as my mom was way into this for a bit so it’s in my blood to crave steel wool and rubber gloves.
I had some forks chromed by Astro Chome & Polishing Corporation in Van Nuys, CA before. They had done as good a job as I had hoped and they continually came up when I asked around. So, I went to their shop and handed over the frame and fork. I was told that despite my efforts at polishing the frame, it would need to be polished a lot more. Every little scratch would lead to a brushed finish as the plating is pretty thin. How much? $200 total. That would have included the paint removal as well. I wouldn’t have needed to do the stripping at all. I requested they cover up the bottom bracket and fork crown race seat to prevent plating of the threads. Maybe I expressed concern for the many threaded eyelets as well, I don’t recall. Cool. They’ve done bike frames before, no problem. I was in a daze of excitement and anticipation. Isi, (pronounced “Ec”) was a bit of a ham, but was reassuring and I was told it would be about a week. I could hardly wait.
When I unwrapped the frame in the shop 8 days later, it looked AMAZING. Perfect. A quick look for any flaws, nothing. I thought the bottom bracket looked a bit like some nickel had found it’s way into the threads (I’ll just go to the Bikerowave and use their thread chaser and clean out the threads!) and they had taped off the crown race seat–sweet! Here’s my MC, my signature, thanks, and I’ll take a stack of cards for the Bikerowave!
Back home, I began reassembling the bike. I’d come across some new-old-stock Campy shifters and couldn’t get them on. WTF? The plating had thickened up the down-tube shifter bosses and the threads for the lever bolt were plated too…there were other issues too…..grrrrrrr…
Using a tap I was able to clear out the treads of the bosses and filing the bosses themselves eventually provided a shaft I could fit the levers on. I tapped out the water bottle bosses as well and the derailleur hanger had to go through the same process. Some plating chipped. Some clear nail polish got applied to seal the flaked wound in the finish.
The fork took the crown race easily, thanks to the tape, and from what I could tell only a minor amount of nickel wound up inside the head tube. I pressed the Campy headset in and although snug appeared to fit fine. Later, like in Gina’s story, I discovered a short 1/8″ long crack in the plating right in front, above the lower headset cup. F**k. The nickel finish had cracked because the head tube was either stretched (yeah, right) or cracked from the pressure of fitting the lower headset cup. Some super glue and a coat of clear nail polish as well here…
The bottom bracket could not be chased with the English thread-sized tool–this BB is Italian! I did a search on a Friday afternoon of a bike shop in West LA that wasn’t requiring a couple days and at least $35 to spend 8 minutes cleaning up the threading. Helen’s in Santa Monica came to the rescue! A very reasonable shop time fee later (thanks, Matt!) and some more super glue and nail polish, and the bike was together.
It’s a gorgeous bike, but I should have re-read Gina’s story before undertaking this project. But, alas, I can be so impatient sometimes. It’s important to be a demanding customer here, in a compassionate sort of way with the platers. I highly recommend all surfaces that shouldn’t have additional thickness in the form of plating by taped off or plugged. Paint in threaded eyelets is one thing, but hard metal plating is significantly more substantial. Stripped bolt and the nuts themselves could result if the threads aren’t correctly sized for their respective bolt diameter. The plater uses a special thick green tape when they cover everything up. You can at least mark all the spots you don’t want to be plated. Those spots includes: the bottom bracket threads, inside the head tube (where the headset cups press in), crown race seat, threaded steer tube, seat tube, downtube shifter bosses and ALL the eyelets (fenders, rack, water bottle and rear derailleur hanger). Now if any of these listed items do end up getting plated there are a variety of taps, dies, thread chasers and reamers that will clear them at the cost of some chipped plating.
I called Isi at Astro today and asked him about the frame and how things might have worked out differently. He told me that plugging all the bits I didn’t want plated would have helped. But, he said his crew should have known about this already, “they should have known better.” He stands by his work and told me to bring the frame in. They’d acid dip it (Not hurting the metal at all apparently–but, you can forget a green-earth-friendly process here.) and redo the plating taking the extra care to preserve all the threading. NO CHARGE. Wow, I was surprised. I guess I can do that. But, that means I’ll need another set of decals, unless I can preserve these… like this one:
So here it is, December 9th, 2008. The bike frame is back at Astro and has been for over a month. Apparently, they have had a number of problems with the plating. I have been there at least twice during this the last 5 weeks. Once, I had the frame in my hand, it looked great, except for that wave-like ripple right on the top tube…. Isi took it back. The next time, I was told come get it and upon arrival, was told it wasn’t “right.” Ok. Apparently, it takes a lot of finesse to do this kind of plating. And, if there is a problem, they don’t need to redip the whole frame, they can feather the nickel. I guess it would help if I had some more info. Ooh, if I could get in the shop and take some pictures… Too bad I’m working today, good I’m working though. But, by working, I’ll be near Astro and can probably pick up the frame today. If it’s ready.
December 15, 2008.
I got the frame back last Wednesday. I am sad. I am really disappointed and discouraged. It does not look good and actually it looks worse then when I first wrote about the initial plating. Basically, it looks like with the acid bath, and the repeated polishing(s) some of the detail in the frame has been rounded away and lost. You can see it in the lugs. They look as though the edges have been sanded away. Also, some of the spots on the frame where buffing wheels and polishers can’t reach show what look like etched flaws in the metal. I’ll post some pictures when I can build up the courage to go look at the frame again. I’m really disappointed.
So, I learned valuable lessons here. If you want to get your bike nickel plated:
Go with a plater that knows about bicycles, has had experience plating bikes and respects your needs and requirements.
Make sure you tape off all your spots on the frame and fork you don’t want plated. Buy some long bolts you can screw into the threads of anything on the frame that has threads–this is what got me into trouble.
Don’t get it replated. Whatever you do, don’t get it replated. If I’m wrong, let me know!