Cleaning, Polishing and Restoring Vintage Aluminum Fenders

Having spent hours cleaning and polishing vintage aluminum bicycle fenders, I have wondered if there is a way to improve the efficiency of this process without harming a vintage fender’s finish?   Maybe not, but there are some products that work a bit better than others and are less likely to scratch or damage the fender’s finish.

Custom Meral steel fenders, with original wine cork spacer and attachment reinforcement

Aluminum fenders – hammered, patterned or smooth – are often found on vintage bicycles with 650b wheels.  Steel fenders, painted or chromed, were also used – although not as commonly as their aluminum counterparts. Lightweight chromed steel fenders can be found on some French, British, and Italian randonneuring bikes dating from the 1950’s on.  But, aluminum alloy fenders were generally the material of choice in those days.

Vintage 1950’s fenders with red highlights and a smooth surface

1950’s hammered fenders with dark brown paint highlights.

Vintage aluminum alloy fenders can have painted portions to add color highlights.  Cleaning and polishing these fenders involves a number of steps.  You don’t want to use any product that will dull the color highlights.  So, it’s best to focus on the unpainted portion of the fender for polishing.

As a first step, I remove the fender from the bicycle frame and remove all the mounting hardware.  Then I gently wash it with a mild surfactant, such as Finish Line’s pink bike wash. After that, I continue the cleaning process with a clean rag and some alcohol.

Because the fender is flexible and subject to damage  I place it over an inflated tire of similar width, mounted to a wheel and position this into my truing stand. I prevent the hub from turning by securing the spokes to the stand. This prevents the fender from getting twisted or misshaped while its being polished.

Once the fender is clean it is time to think about the best product to use for polishing.  For aluminum fenders, a wadding polish such as Nevr-Dull seems to work best.  I have tried many other polishes, but have found this product to work most efficiently and with the best results.

That doesn’t mean that you won’t need to reapply this product many times over a heavily tarnished fender.

I have also used MAAS metal polish with excellent results on any steel component.  So it is a good choice for chrome steel fenders (and any other steel component).

My 1973 Jack Taylor’s fenders were seriously tarnished and dull when I acquired the bike.  After polishing the fenders (over many hours), the luster of the metal was restored, as you can see from the photo above.  I used Nevr-Dull to polish the fenders.

The Lefol aluminum fender shown above is from an early 1950’s bicycle.  Cleaning and polishing this fender took some time (as in many hours), but the end result was well worth the effort.  Using a wadding polish for vintage aluminum fenders will yield the best results, as these products will not harm the underlying metal.

Rivendell Appaloosa Build

I first became aware of Rivendell back in 1999.  At that time, I was looking to replace my crashed 1976 Centurion Pro Tour, a bike which was my only bike for 20 plus years, and upon which I had ridden over 40,000 miles. I didn’t know how difficult my quest would be, and maybe that’s a good thing.  That quest led me to question all that the cycling industry offered during those dark times: racing bikes marketed to everyday riders with no clearance for decent width tires and fenders, mass produced aluminum frames, carbon forks of questionable reliability, and throw away parts.  Then, along came Grant Peterson, guru of “normal cycling”.  Back then, there wasn’t a web to browse, so mail order catalogs were how you learned about the latest stuff.  I wish I had saved those old Rivendell Readers, but at the time, who knew?  I now only have one or two in my collection of print material.

I wasn’t sure whether I should spring for one of their bikes given their higher cost, and so chose a Cannondale T2000 instead.  That experience is actually what led me here, 19 years later.  The Cannondale forced me to consider why the Centurion Pro Tour was so good, whereas the Cannondale was so bad.  I had done lots of touring in those days, but getting on the T2000 for anything but a short jaunt would exhaust me.  I ended up replacing every single component on that bike, and then finally realized it was the stiff aluminum frame (made stiffer by its smaller size) that was the culprit.  Since then I have ridden and enjoyed many interesting bicycles from many different eras, and have returned, for the most part, to riding exclusively on lugged steel frames. (uh oh – have I buried the lead?)

While I have many great bikes that I enjoy riding, as I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed that I prefer being in a more upright position.  Much of my cycling is commuting, and being more upright is not only safer, but a bit more comfortable.  While any bike can be converted to a more upright position, many Rivendell frames are dialed in that way.  The Appaloosa features a 112 cm wheelbase (exclamation point!), clearance for 55 mm tires (another exclamation point!), and is made with lugged, butted cro-mo steel.

The lugs, and almost every other feature of this frame, are well executed. I can’t think of any other non-custom frame that is as lovely.  It is almost too beautiful.

For the drive train, I wanted to use my favorite vintage Japanese component maker:  SunTour.  If you haven’t used their friction ratcheting bar end shifters, you are missing out.  For this build I chose a SunTour Superbe front derailleur, a SunTour Sprint cankset and bottom bracket, and a SunTour Cyclone rear derailleur.  You might wonder how these vintage components worked on this new frame.  Perfectly!  I was worried that the Cyclone wouldn’t be able to handle the 8 speed cassette, but with the adjuster screws dialed all the way out, it was able to swing across the full width of the cogs.  I’ve got an 11-30 cassette installed, but have ordered a NOS 12-32 which will be a better match for the 48/39 rings up front.

The SunTour Sprint crankset originally had a 40T small ring, but the frame clearance was questionable with the SunTour Sprint NOS BB I had installed.  So, I swapped in a Sugino 39T ring. You can see that the clearance on the small ring is tight, but acceptable.  The chainline is perfect, and shifting both front and rear is crisp and reliable.

The saddle and seatpost choices were more involved.  I knew I would want a no-set-back seat post, given the Appy’s long top tube.  So, I selected a Thomson, a brand which I had used before.  It’s very easy to micro-adjust the horizontal angle on these seatposts.  What’s a Rivendell without a Brooks leather saddle? But before I opted for a leather saddle,  I decided to try out the Brooks Cambium Saddle, a non-leather option whose color scheme looked perfect for this bike’s paint scheme.  Wow!  While it’s probably not right to use the words comfort and saddle in the same sentence, this Cambium C19 saddle was far more comfortable on its first ride than any other saddle I have tried.

For the braking system, I used SunTour’s XC Pro Cantilevers, with the “champagne” finish.  While the brakes look beautiful, I doubt I would choose them again.  Setting them up, with their internal springs, involves dialing in the spring tension on each brake arm using a 13 mm wrench.  SunTour supplies this tool, but its shape is not optimal for this process.  As a result, me and my 13 mm cone wrench have spent so much time together that I think we are in a relationship.  Sheldon Brown has some excellent advice regarding setting up this type of cantilever, but what I found is that fine tuning the spring tension requires a great deal of trial and error.  For the brake cables, I decided to try Jagwire’s compressionless brake housing (try not to panic!) in an Ice Grey color which integrated well with the color scheme for this bike. The rear hanger was a problem. No hangers were supplied with the frame, as it is assumed that the build will include V-brakes (gasp!).  I used a Surly hanger, but it doesn’t work well with the Rivendell’s seatpost bolt, so I hastily added a wine cork wedge to help align the rear cable. I also routed the front cables “french-style” over the top of the handlebars.  I like it.

The 650b wheelset consists of Velocity Atlas rims laced to Deore XT hubs. This is the wheelset recommended by Rivendell.  I wanted to use 38mm 650b tires in order to make this tall bike a little lower to the ground, and because I had some 48 mm hammered aluminum fenders which would work well with this application.  I hadn’t tried Pancenti’s Pari Moto tires before, so thought I would give them a shot for this build.  They are very light, but difficult to mount.  I haven’t ever had to use my truing stand to mount tires, but for the Pari-Motos this was necessary, as they would not seat evenly into my rims.  That process took hours.  But, out on the road, the tires provided a plush and comfortable ride.

Speaking of being out on the road, I took the bike out today for its maiden voyage.  I knew I would have some issues to deal with regarding the Suntour cantilevers, but I wanted to also make a list of other tweaks, plus get a feel for this unusual bike with its slack angles and long wheel base.  I did a short circuit from my home, which is in a hilly neighborhood.  On the way back, there’s the “easier hill” and then there’s the harder hill which I don’t normally choose unless I’m feeling really robust.  But today, on the Appaloosa, I returned home up the more difficult route.  Even without really low gears, the bike responded well to steep inclines.  Riding the bike felt like driving my Dad’s old Northstar Cadillac – truly a stylish land yacht, but comfortable and offering plenty of performance.

The V-O porteur bars offer several hand positions, which I took advantage of while climbing.

I also used V-O’s Grand Cru levers, which seemed to integrate well with this build.  The levers are really light weight, but do not have a return spring.  Nonetheless, they were easy to set up, and offer a good feel while riding.  I also tried out these inexpensive MKS commuter pedals, which I pumped today with my summer sandals.  They actually worked better than expected.  As with most MKS pedals, you will want to add grease and adjust the bearings.  In my experience, MKS pedals are shipped dry and adjusted too tight.

I was more cautious than usual about taking the bike out on its first test ride.  I think partly because of its lovely frame which seems too beautiful to ride, and partly because of anxiety regarding the SunTour cantilevers.  While the brakes are not in their ideal adjustment, they actually performed very well.  The ergonomics turned out to be almost perfect, with just a few minor tweaks needed. As I got used to this bike, I found its natural cadence.  Every bike has one. The Appaloosa’s is unhurried and strong.

Aluminum Fender Installation Tips

Installing rigid aluminum fenders is a process that differs more than you would think from the installation of plastic mudguards, whether they be of modern variety or vintage.  In fact, setting up fenders and racks can take more time than ALL of the other steps involved in making a bicycle mechanically sound and rideable, or building up a frame from scratch.

There are only a few resources on the web that will help with this process, and one of them is from the Jitensha shop in San Francisco. The guidance at Jitensha is helpful to anyone setting up aluminum fenders.  While Jitensha’s advice deals specifically with Honjo fenders, it translates across most other aluminum fender installations.

In addition to the other tools you might need (drill, punch, hacksaw or dremel, and file), a deburring tool shown above is also helpful.  You’ll also need stays and a set of fender hardware, plus you’ll need to consume a few bottles of Belgian Ale or Champagne (see below).  Yes, this is a very difficult task.

  

If you are working on a bike with newer dropouts, they may not be designed to allow for the fender stays to clear the wheel axle nut. The eyelets on the dropouts shown above are from my new Rivendell Appaloosa frame.  While these eyelets look robust, and it is nice to have two on the front and the rear, their position is in stark contrast to dropout eyelets on vintage bicycles, as you can see from the example below.

Properly positioned dropout eyelets allow the fender stays to clear the frame, thus making set up of the fenders much easier.  Such eyelets allow the rider to change tire widths without having to replace the stays.  In the case of my new Rivendell, it was necessary to cut the stays to the exact length necessary to accommodate the tire size I’ve chosen for this bike.  That means that if I want to change tire width, I’ll have to install a new set of stays.  That is just one example of the difference between modern plastic fenders and their aluminum counterparts.  Plastic fenders have the stay adjustment at the fender, and not at the dropout.

Recessed brake nut instead of 10 mm lock nut – adds additional length to the daruma bolt

Plenty of room for a large cork spacer.

My Rivendell is the rare bike with HUGE clearances front and rear. I will be using 38 mm tires for my build on this bike frame (which can accept up to 55 mm tires). That means that my fender line is going to need some large spacers (of the Champagne and Belgian Ale cork variety – life is hard!).  Even on a bike with regular clearances the front fender daruma bolt is often too short to provide the length needed for the width of the spacer at the fork crown.  The solution is to use a recessed brake nut to extend the length of the daruma bolt.  The photos above show how this works.

For the front fender installation, it is easiest to turn the bike upside down.  You can see from the photo above that the cork spacer consumes almost the full length of the daruma bolt.  That’s where the recessed brake nut comes in handy.

The champagne cork spacer is shown above, as installed.  The extra width helps to set up a proper front fender line for my chosen 38mm tire size.

I also used a Velo Orange leather flap on the front fender, as shown above.  The flap sits low to the ground and will help to keep debris off my frame and bottom bracket.

Rear fender line in excellent shape, thanks to the cork spacers.

Champagne, anyone?

Porteur rack has fender attachment – a nice feature.

Belgium Ale cork spacer

With the front fender now properly spaced, the rear fender set up proved easier.  Again, because of the positioning of the eyelets on the dropouts, it was necessary to cut the stays to the exact length needed for my 38 mm tires.  Champagne or Belgium Ale corks respond well to a metal file, so they can be shaped to follow the curve of the fender.  My porteur style rack allows for a fender attachment, as shown above.  I’ll wait to set that up until I’ve test-ridden the bike and adjusted all of the accessories and components.  Meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy a glass of Champagne!