Take a close look at Kevin Fallon's 1930's racing Arrow bicycle frame, you'll see it's decorative coatings are expressed as a retro metal tubed collage. Now compare the Arrow's hand painted decoration, pin lining, transfers and stencil work to modern production line, factory painted carbon clones. The retro racing Arrow bears all the hallmarks of a customised one off piece, a specialty item unique to it's moment of conception.
Next go ride down the street on your modern carbon race machine with it's digitally enhanced graphics. Every time you leave the house you are bound to see someone else riding a precise facsimile of your own bike.
Modern bicycle frame painting techniques, used to create today's clinical factory paint schemes are far removed from their enamelled ancestors. Yet bicycle frame painting history can be traced back to one particular antecedent, the highly decorated jet black and coloured enamelled bicycle frames of the 19th Century.
I came across a box of metal frame painting stencils. These are similar to the ones which would have been employed in painting Kevin Fallon's bike. I photographed some of the frame painter's metalstencils, which Joe Cosgrove has in his collection of bicycle ephemera and I wondered how these clip on frame stencils were used. This is what I found.
The art of creating highly decorative finishes on mass produced bicycles required an amalgamation of highly skilled trades, the two most conspicuous being electro plating and enamelling. Expert enamelers of the late 19th Century were highly proficient in the preparation of metals, oven baking techniques, stenciling, detailing with transfers, hand painted brushwork and pin lining, either by hand or with the aid of clip on guide rods. Electro plating required the hard graft of polishing parent metals before receiving coatings of gold, silver, copper, brass, nickel and other metals. This rich combination of finishing techniques, transformed the bicycle into something much more than a machine for riding. More an expression of the human spirit exemplified through the bicycle and it's applied decorative finishes. One cycling reporter gave his deliverance on bicycle finishing techniques.
Work with enamels was performed by skilled artisans equipped with the experience to achieve decorative perfection. Difficulties in achieving a quality finish using early enamels spelt disaster for the uninitiated. When problems occurred with failed paint application, early enamel manufacturers unjustly bore the brunt of complaints. In most cases the fault lay with the carelessness of inexperienced enamelers.
One frame manufacturer of 1897, new to the game of bicycle manufacture paid a high price when their enamelers got the oven temperature wrong. Obviously careless, these would be enamelers attempted to paint and bake four thousand frames, their oven thermometer registered 265 degrees, yet the actual temperature had been much higher rendering the painted surface too brittle. Soon after, chipped and cracked frames were returned.
A fiery epistle was sent to the house which supplied the enamel, and suit for damages was threatened. The services of an expert, from the enamel maker were demanded to repair the mischief. Who when he arrived at the scene of desolation discovered that the oven thermometers were defective, only registering 265 degrees of heat.
A simple remedy for the costly mistake of ruining four thousand frames was contained in this advice from an expert enameler.
All thermometers do not register alike in different ovens, so it will be best to experiment on pieces of tubing, wood, etc. In that way you will get acquainted, as It were, with your oven and thermometer before attempting to enamel a frame.
Black enamel was favoured in the late 1890's because the end result was more easily calculated, oven temperatures and time were more consistent with black. Coloured enamels introduced more variables, their parameters were different to black with results affected by the chosen colour and paint manufacturer.
There is a marked tendency to return to the genteel black enamel, it having been found after two or three seasons that the variety of hues do not stand wear equally well. A maroon frame soon becomes shabby. Orange color wears well. Striping is done more carefully than has been done in the past, more elaborately, too. Transfer work is the vogue, some exceedingly artistic patterns for the decoration of frame tubes having made their appearance in the last three or four months and many bicycle making firms having their own exclusive patterns.
Two options existed for paint application, dipping components in tanks of enamel, or application with a brush. Spray painting with enamels came with later advancements in paint technology. Stove enamelling required meticulous surface preparation. Early methods for frame preparation entailed using solvents to hand clean frames prior to painting. This proved to be unreliable as some workers were lax in their work ethic, especially when thousands of frames were being prepared at one time.
Another fruitful source of trouble for the enamel makers is the carelessness of operatives in the enameling room. In the handling of frames by filers, brazers and polishers, they necessarily get greasy. Naphtha is used to cut the grease away. As a matter of fact it is highly important that after the treatment with naphtha the frame should be wiped with a cloth soaked in turpentine, for after the evaporation of the naphtha there is often a considerable deposit of carbonate of iron on the frame, which, if not removed, will cause discoloration in the enamel.
To avoid these mistakes in handling, later processes included special frame treatments deployed en-masse via spray equipment or dipping in tanks. Bruce Small and Company at their Perth facility in Western Australia used an acid for final prep work in the 1930's.
The frame, when completed, is next prepared for enamelling. All of the filing and polishing with emeries will not remove every particle of impurity in the tubing, and the frame is accordingly immersed for some time in a bath containing a special acid preparation, which cleans out the pores and makes the metal as smooth as glass; it also has the effect of preventing the frame from "sweating" later, and thus renders it rust-proof. The enamelling is a lengthy and thorough process, as many as three coats being put on and baked in a stove at a high temperature before the frame is painted the colour desired by its owner. The painting is done by a spray gun, and after it has been baked, stencils are used to give the different colour schemes around the lugs and on the tubes. There is still more to be done, and a highly-trained craftsman is employed to do the lining and any little fancywork designs that are wanted.
In outback Australia equipping a bicycle store with an enamelling oven was a major advancement for the people of Broken Hill during 1898, saving the expense of shipping the work to Adelaide. This was at the exact moment when bicycle riding shearer squadrons were roaming the colony, demanding the services of the bicycle trade. W. Blows and Son were enterprising bike merchants with a store on Sulphide Street, Broken Hill, New South Wales, and set about installing an imported enamelling oven for the restoration of tired old bicycles "which had begun to show the mangy-looking spottiness of old age or too careless handling".
The oven is of fair proportions, portable, and built of iron plates riveted together. It is heated by means of a series of gas jets after the manner of an ordinary gas stove, and a thermometer let in to the iron casing in front indicates the temperature. Tho process of enamelling those parts of a bicycle is simple but interesting, although the effect on the finished article is perfect. The enamel, which has to be imported, is applied to the parts to be treated, and these are hung inside the ovens like so many joints to roast.
A more thorough description of how to enamel a bicycle frame was offered up as a remedy for bicycle shop owners to pass the time at the beginning of a long American winter. What else would you do with so much time on your hands, get that tired old stock off the floor that won't sell, strip it and re-paint.
Repair work is falling off somewhat, and during the chill preceding the winter overhauling of both stock and customer's wheels is a good time to prepare to re-enamel machines. Then, too, there are wheels in stock which would sell much easier with a good coat of well baked enamel. The frame or other parts to be enameled are prepared by having the old enamel removed by burning with a gas torch and scraping with a wire brush, after which polish with emery cloth. Great care should be used, after the frame is scraped and polished, to remove all oil and dirt before the enamel is applied. To do this wash the frame in potash or soda dissolved in water, then wipe frame off, rinse in clean hot water and put in oven for ten minutes to dry thoroughly. There is so great a difference in enamels manufactured by different concerns, that it is practically impossible to lay down a definite rule as to the temperature of the oven, and the amount of time required to bake. Dipping enamels bake more readily than those applied with a brush, as enamel thin enough for the dipping process requires great skill to get it on evenly, and as repair shops in general have no dipping tank, only the brushing process will be described. Having prepared the frame, raise the temperature of the oven to about 250 degrees. Apply enamel evenly and thinly and place in the oven; run the temperature up slowly to 300 degrees and hold there for thirty minutes; then raise the temperature to 375 degrees and bake at this temperature thirty minutes; let oven gradually cool before removing the frame, as the cool air will be likely to "check" the enamel if the work is removed at a high temperature. Rub down with curled hair and pumice stone before applying the second coat; then bake in the same manner as the first. The finishing coat should be baked one hour at 375 degrees, gradually raising the temperature from 250 to 375 degrees without a pause. It has been found by experience that by placing the work in the oven while it is hot that the enamel "sets" immediately upon striking this temperature and prevents the enamel from running and becoming streaked, which is very often the case when the frame is placed in a cold oven and the temperature increased gradually. The foregoing is for black enamel only. To give a brilliant luster and a richness to the enamel after baking the finishing coat, whether it be the second or sixth, take a woolen cloth, dampen it with water, sprinkle a little rotten stone on it and rub frame thoroughly (not hard), brush the rotten stone off with a clean rag, moisten the palm of the hand with a little olive oil and apply to enamel, rubbing vigorously until a luster is obtained that will satisfy the most exacting customer. Colored enamel will not stand so high a temperature as black, but is treated much the same way. Always apply a coat of black enamel to the frame first, then the second coat can be colored enamel. Enamel on wood should not be baked above 250 degrees. White and blue should not be baked above 210 degrees Fahr.
During the late 1920's nitrocellulose lacquer spray paint became popular for automotive applications, except for rare instances this did not transfer over to bicycle manufacturing. Bicycle manufacturers were still using baked on enamel paints, the "natural" enamel paints equally complimented finishing materials like transfers, stencils, and pin lining paints.
Electroplating was so widespread, specialist electroplaters existed in cities and towns and small bike shops installed their own electroplating equipment, even in remote locations. W. Blows and Son complimented their enamelling oven at Sulphide Street Broken Hill, by importing an electroplating plant manufactured by W.Canning and Co. of Birmingham.
From the dynamo the electric current is transmitted to a bath composed of certain salts in solution, in which the article to be treated is immersed for an hour or so. lt is then taken out and polished, and is ready for use. This part of the process is simple enough; but the preparatory course of cleaning and polishing which the article to be electroplated must undergo, is far more troublesome and expensive. For this purpose felt burnishing discs, hot and cold baths, and cleansing brushes are brought into requisition.
Anyone who's had experience at preparing metals for electroplating will appreciate the labour intensive aspect of electroplating work. Once electroplating and base enamels were laid down, next on the list were the application of transfers, stenciling and pin lining.
Metal stencils were clipped around frame parts, sometimes used as guides or later used with a spray gun to paint on intricate frame details. Transfers and stencil work could then be pin lined by hand, and in the case of Kevin Fallon's 1930's track bike, a senior frame painter would have applied the detailed hand painted artwork.
"The Arrow Super Cycle ….. all bright parts are heavily chrome-plated, finished any combination of colours, stove enamelled."
Joe's set of metal stencils gives a view into a time when bicycle frames were intricately decorated using many varied and labour intensive techniques. The idea has not been lost on devotees of steel frame bike porn. The appeal of collectable Italian steel frames imbued with highly polished plating, multi-layered decorative films and overlays exemplify this art. Some 1980's Colnago's are one standout example. With so many innovative custom frame builders entering the market today, it's inspiring to see some working with plating, polishing and experimenting with bold new paint schemes. An evolution of the original art of frame painting and design. Use one of these builders and you won't be seeing a facsimile of your bike whenever you go for a pedal.
We use British spelling throughout Velo Aficionado except where quoting an original source. Before you send in your corrections, enamel proved more prickly than many other words, here's the variations. BRIT enamelled, enameler, enamelling, enamel US enameled, enameler, enameling, enamel
All images by Robert Cobcroft