What do I need to know to improve
June 11, 2012 1:03 PM   Subscribe

If I wanted to make a paying hobby out of restoring and updating old bikes, what are some resources that would help me improve my skills, research the right bikes/components, and find the right places to buy them?

In implementing some of the recommendations made in my last question, I came to the realization that I love working on bikes. There's something really satisfying about the process, about working on a machine that is simple enough to be comprehended, complex enough to be interesting, and which rewards a day's work with tangible, pleasing results. I really like everything about it -- doing maintenance and repairs on my bike and my fiance's is one of my favorite "chores".

I've been toying with the idea of turning this into a paying hobby of sorts. The idea would be to buy a couple of old bikes with nice frames but which need some TLC, and restore/update/modify them to make them into awesome all-purpose street bikes for commuting, bar-hopping, and all the other stuff that the fashionable young things of this city like to do with their two-wheeled steeds. Then when I was done I'd turn around and sell the bike to make back my costs plus a bit extra. I'm not looking to make this a full-time thing, just basically a hobby that happens to make a little bit of money in the bargain.

I think this would be a nice way to take my bike-mechanic skills to the next level. I'm not worried about being able to turn out bikes quickly or anything, I'm happy to learn as I go and take my time in order to get things done right. I do know how to do basic maintenance -- I can adjust a transmission and brake system, clean a chain, clean and repack a bottom bracket, true a wheel, etc. I have all my tools and I have a place to work. I know about Sheldon Brown's most excellent website (RIP), and I know that you can find tutorials on YouTube for just about any procedure you'd care to name. (Although if anybody has links to other good resources about how to build and maintain bikes, I would absolutely love to see that here.)

What I don't know is what I'm looking for. I know I like older road bikes, but I feel like I could be better at sorting the wheat from the chaff in the world of used bike purchasing. I'm mostly interested in road/touring/commuter bikes, rather than mountain bike, BMX, or cruiser styles. I know that a lugged frame is a sign of quality construction, that I like steel better than aluminum, and that serious rust is a deal-breaker. I don't really have a great concept of what brands are good/desirable, or what else to look for in selecting a serviceable frame that will form the foundation of a bike that somebody will eventually want to buy from me. I'd love to hear advice on this topic and/or get links to other forums or resources where I could research the subject. Also if anybody knows of some good frame-painting tutorials then I'm all ears (although I'm leaning toward keeping stock paint jobs and just cleaning up the frame or maybe giving it some protective laquer if it's missing significant paint.)

Also, I expect to be buying some components for these bikes. I'd be replacing worn-out saddles, upgrading old brake systems, modernizing and modifying transmissions, swapping out handlebars and tires, putting on racks, that sort of thing. The problem here is that I haven't the foggiest idea how to go about effectively shopping for that sort of stuff. I mean, I know roughly what style of components I'd be looking for, but I don't know anything about brands or models or where to go to get a good price. This is probably the area in which I am most deficient and would welcome any and all wisdom that you can provide on the subject.

Finally, any other relevant advice that you feel might be be of value is welcome. Thanks in advance to all of you for your gracious assistance. I will pop by periodically, as I'm sure there's plenty here that I'm not able to think of yet given my ignorance. I look forward to whatever edification you can provide.

Oh, and please understand that I do intend to first try out this advice on my own stable of bikes before I go and sell somebody some haphazardly cobbled-together monstrosity. I wouldn't sell somebody a bike that I wasn't totally confident about and willing to stand behind. Nobody deserves to ride a crappy bike.
posted by Scientist to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Get in touch with this guy, he's made his living for a number of years doing exactly what you're thinking of.

I've purchased a few bikes from him and talked for a bit, and beyond the basic mechanical knowledge you're going to need some logistical experience as well. He's got a team of pickers that sell him old bikes, which he then cleans up and sells in his own store and at local bike swaps. So, knowing how to find the old bikes in the first place is important, as well as sourcing lots of small parts and consumables - nuts and bolts, brake cables, tires, things like that. He also has sources for period-appropriate (but not necessarily "vintage") bits and bobs like reflectors and handlebar grips. You may want to look in to getting a dealer number to work directly with wholesalers for components.

Maybe look into insurance, too.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:10 PM on June 11, 2012

This is my go-to bike repair site:
posted by fbo at 1:15 PM on June 11, 2012

I did something like this for a while -- I had access to a bike graveyard of sorts to fill in bits and pieces, and would cobble together parts of non-working bikes to make a complete, working bike. Most were fixed-gears, since the conversion was fairly easy and could net a bigger profit than a refurbished ten-speed.

For starters, spend a lot of time on craigslist and Sheldon Brown's website, and to a lesser extent, Ebay. Get a sense for what asking prices are like, what sells quickly, what doesn't. SB has great writeups on a lot of the brand lineups for some of the bikes you'll run into commonly (e.g. Fillet-Brazed Schwinns). Read those. Once you get a sense for the tiers that all of the major brands have, you'll be able to develop an eye for the good ones. Beyond that, if it's a manufacturer you haven't heard of and it's a light steel frame, assume it could be valuable. If you pick it up and it feels like it's made of gas pipe, don't bother unless it has something else going for it.

If you're buying components, they had better just be brake cables and pads, and the occaisonal saddle; beyond that and there's no way you'll make a profit on the bike unless it's very high end. Drivetrain components are expensive. Find a bike shop or bike co-op that has a bike graveyard that you can pick through and salvage bits off of. Hack down drop bars to bull-horns, etc.

The forums on the fixed gear gallery are full of bike nerds who like to cobble things together, and their discussions aren't restricted to fixed gear builds. They're helpful if you need to know how to deal with a french-threaded bottom bracket or how to un-stick a seatpost, etc.

If you're in any sort of a major market, you're going to have to look hard to find your bargains; if you troll through the bike postings on craigslist and see the same user posting a bunch of older bikes, that's probably what he's up to as well, and you'll both be looking for beater bargains. They're out there, but to find them off craigslist you have to be fast.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:16 PM on June 11, 2012

Response by poster: backseatpilot, I'm talking about a much smaller operation than it sounds like that guy is running. I'm talking about maybe two bikes over the course of the summer, working on weekends and evenings in my yard, selling stuff on craigslist and/or via flyers for cash only with maybe a simple written agreement covering the terms of the sale. I am very much not looking to make a living out of this. (I'm also not very worried about period-appropriate bits and bobs -- I actually want my bikes to look like frankenbikes, though of course I also want them to be reliable and effective transportation.)

That said, it looks like he's got a ton of good information on his site and I thank you for the link. I just wanted to make sure that people didn't think I was trying to make a real business out of this or anything. I'm interested more in mechanical advice than business advice, you know?
posted by Scientist at 1:17 PM on June 11, 2012

I don't know anything about buying and selling bicycles, but I do know plenty of people who do this with motor vehicles, and I have flirted with the idea. Same process but you need more tools. What makes it work:

Specialize. Have something very specific that you work on, brand and era. That way you know prices, you know the market, and the spares from the last project can be used on the next one. It also lets you build a "brand" since the communities of people who care tend to be small.

Don't pay retail. The whole thing only works if you can get the vehicle and parts cheap. You need relationships with parts sources, junkyards, etc, rather than buying expensive. That gets back to the need to specialize, since it takes time to develop those relationships.

Your labor its your value. Parts is parts, what makes a bike from you better is the quality of the labor that you put in. That means you need to be good, to have decent tools, and that you should consider adding competencies like braising and painting -- low cost stuff that must people can't do well.
posted by Forktine at 1:31 PM on June 11, 2012

Well then, do you have a bike stand? They're not too expensive and it makes working on the bike so much easier than flipping it upside down on the ground.
posted by backseatpilot at 2:01 PM on June 11, 2012

If you're getting into old road bikes, you might educate yourself on steel tubing. Learn how to identify the specific tubes used in a frame (many builders made frames with a variety of tubes, ranging in quality and price point) and how to evaluate the frame's condition.

Another skill to learn would be wheel building/wheel adjusting. This is a highly specialized skill, but one that really marks out a good mechanic.

To these ends, acquiring a good repair stand and a truing stand will be extremely helpful.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:12 PM on June 11, 2012

Response by poster: Yeah, a bike stand is definitely something that I will be buying if I decide to do this. I already want one, as much time as I spend working on my own bikes. That is an excellent point.

I also appreciate the advice to specialize rather than generalize, though I think bikes are a bit more interchangeable than cars. Can anyone say with any certainty what the Golden Age of Standardization was for bikes? What decade had the least amount of annoying rare/proprietary/localized systems that don't play well with other bikes? What country was best at producing high quality interchangeable parts with consistent standards?

Also, is it generally agreed that it's impossible to get one's money back putting new parts on old bikes, and that this is to be avoided if at all possible as it just eats up whatever thin profit margin there may be on the overall endeavor? Are there any exceptions to this rule?
posted by Scientist at 2:14 PM on June 11, 2012

Unless you stick to a particular brand or country of origin, there never has been Golden Age of Standardization for bikes.
posted by scruss at 2:20 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it will be quite difficult to do this in a way that you will actually make any money at. If you want to modernize components, you'll be spending quite a bit (especially paying retail prices) and in the end you'll have to compete against brand new bikes (which are not really that expensive). I've messed around a bit with old ten-speeds and such and even replacing the basics (tires, tubes, brake pads, possibly cables and housings, chain, bar tape) is not cheap. Once you get into modernizing wheels, drivetrain, saddles, adding racks, you'll spend too much on parts to have any room at all for any profit to offset your labour. This kind of work makes sense if you have a frame you love and aren't afraid to spend money and your own labour to make something better out of it, but doing it on spec just doesn't make sense.
posted by ssg at 2:22 PM on June 11, 2012

You might be able to make money if you convert vintage bikes to single speeds, depending on your market. Especially if you convert them with a flip flop hub and say "fixed gear ready, all you need a cog and lockring."

I've had good luck finding Weinmann wheels for cheap. PureFix has a pretty affordable set in some real hipster colors.
posted by advicepig at 2:38 PM on June 11, 2012

Best answer: A good era of bikes to look out for is 80s road bikes, esp. Japanese ones and later era Taiwanese bikes tend to be good for having all standard threads and parts. These bikes are sometimes looked over by the fixie crowd. 80s MTBs can be made into great commuter bikes with a few changes and they almost always have standard bottom brackets and stem sizes. French bicycles tend to sell well but have many quirks that can frustrate new mechanics.

Personally I wouldn't bother trying to sell fixed gear conversions anymore, wal-mart sells cheap fixies for 150$ or something ridiculous like that and bikesdirect sells decent to good fixies for 300 or 400$.

For a decent flip bike I'd get something with all the parts on it, wheels that spin and seem true. Bring a multi-tool and check that the seatpost can move up and down, same with the stem... these two things seize up a lot on bikes, so part of being a good flipper is to make sure you grease/anti-seize these parts, and all the other bolts on the bikes you sell. I don't really make a huge amount of money on the bikes I sell but I do enjoy it as a hobby and I get satisfaction on putting a good working bike on the road. I usually repack all the bearings and on a lot of bikes strip the parts off and give the frame a good polish and waxing with the car stuff, like meguirs scratch-x in bad cases or just a good coat of wax on cleaner frames.

Usually new cables and housing will improve the braking and shifting a lot. Replacing crusty and cracked pads and tires is a safety issue so I usually do that too. The only way to make this money back is to start on frames that were cheap or free. I still dumpster dive sometimes and have found many bike parts. The other thing I watch out for is crashed frames, sometimes people will sell them for parts-only and they can be a profitable way to get a frame on the road. Even buying one to strip parts from would be a valuable learning experience.

A used copy of a reference book from back in the day is handy too, I have an old copy of glenn's manual that is good for the basics and it was cheap too. Sutherland's is apparently the gold standard but I haven't seen it so IDK.

My ten speeds is a great resource by a fellow up in Thunder Bay that has rehab'd and sold many bikes. He has some great tips on acquiring bicycles for flipping purposes. I like some of his mechanical articles too... a good resource all around and lots of nice pictures. A lot of material on 70s and 80s road bikes.

My workshop space isn't all that great, I lack a good table but I have an awesome cast-iron antique stand I found on kijiji for 30$. A bench vice is something I still go to the co-op to use. You can make your own chain whips (ideally 2 3/32" and 1 1/8") easily, as well as a headset press. I acquired many of my tools over time but since I knew I wanted to maintain my own bike before I decided to try and recover some money from the hobby I bought a filzer tool kit and it's worked out well for my needs but I build and overhaul many bikes, often from the frame up. I'd acquire at least a good set of metric allen keys and wrenches, both these are often available used if you don't already own them. I'd also recommend a good socket too, they are so handy, esp. if they have allen sockets too.

Wow, that was a long post... sorry if that's too much; feel free to memail me any followups if you want, I answer heaps of questions at the local co-op where I volunteer so I don't mind doing it here either (try to volunteer if you have a local place)
posted by glip at 3:30 PM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oops, I forgot to include a link to wheelpro a great e-book about building wheels. It really helped me since many of my flips had busted wheels... it also has instructions for a nice truing stand one can build for 30$ or so. Bike tools get pretty expensive after a while.
posted by glip at 3:35 PM on June 11, 2012

I see people trying to get rid of bikes on freecycle from time to time. And trolling garage sales will probably net you old bikes to use for parts. I know a garage in northern Illinois that is housing a few old bikes that haven't been ridden in years. (Hi, Mom!)

Are you in a college town, or near one? I rode a frankenbike all through college. Not for aesthetic purposes, but because I was poor. I think college kids might be a good source of customers.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:56 PM on June 11, 2012

I have a very good friend who does this. He buys them off Craigslist, but also from thrift stores and sometimes just rescues them from the trash. He says garage sales are the best source. You'd be surprised how many he's picked up for free. We've all bought our bikes from him and he makes a little extra pocket money along the way. Memailing you his contact information.
posted by raisingsand at 4:02 PM on June 11, 2012

I would recommend you just be careful about "upgrading" things too much.

Quite frequently what a lot of vintage bike enthusiasts like is all the older gear on a bike. In the eyes of collectors I am sure I have destroyed my dad's late 70's Holdsworth by putting new Shimano 105 calipers, a Thompson seatpost, new saddle, new bars and bar tape on it.

Some brake styles just weren't very good at braking though. But a lot of braking and shifting issues can be solved with new brake/shifter cables and housings. Check out Jagwire, who makes them in all kinds of colors.

I guess all of that depends on how cheap you are able to get the source bikes and in what price range you are looking to sell things for.

Thank god I checked eBay before I was going to sell my Dad's bike. They were selling for about 5x what I thought it might.

I have always loved Lotus bikes. If you find any they are definitely worth fixing up.
posted by MonsieurBon at 4:47 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

A guy I work with does this. He collects cheap used bikes and refurbs them. He gets most of his bikes from Craig's List (IIRC). One of his biggest skills is spotting scammers and dealing with them firmly and assertively (for example, he always insists on getting a receipt for everything he buys and won't vack down if he has any sense that the bike was stolen.
posted by plinth at 6:46 PM on June 11, 2012

Response by poster: plinth, might you share any tips you or your coworker might have regarding how to spot a stolen bike? I know a few (such as bikes whose identifying markings have been obscure by a hasty coat of black spraypaint, or ads on Craigslist with suspiciously low prices and no pictures) but I'd really like to avoid buying anything stolen and I feel like it'd be a good PSA to put in this thread (and anywhere else, as often as possible) so any advice you or anyone else can provide on that subject would be welcomed.
posted by Scientist at 9:49 PM on June 11, 2012

Regarding spotting stolen bikes, poor descriptions and low prices, especially with no photos and of higher-end bikes, are usually the telltale signs. If someone is selling a bike worth over $500 and can't tell you the name of the component group (unless it's some vintage find), be wary.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:32 AM on June 12, 2012

Zinn and the Art of Road/Mountain Bike Maintenance wouldn't be a bad book to purchase, if only for your personal stable. Other pro mechanics here might disagree but I find it approachable and well laid out, if not 100% suited for older bikes (that bottom bracket has a backwards thread where??!!) it at least gives you an idea of what to do in most situations.

Beyond that I'd start scouring yard sales or estate sales to get some parts bikes or learning bikes to begin with.

Good luck!
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:56 AM on June 12, 2012

Best answer: You ask, we answer. This is from my co-worker:
I’m not a member, so I’ll reply to you, and you can post. Also, a side-note- I have bikes from $50-$5,000, so I do generally run the whole gambit, as far as range of inventory. Also, not sure if you can tell the region of the OP, but I have an extra bike stand that I would love to sell (cheap), if he is somewhat local. I wouldn’t want to post my personal email to that site, but if you can get his, or PM him, I’d be happy to email directly with him regarding the bike stand, questions, or just advice.


If you enjoy working on bikes, I agree that you should make it a paying hobby if at all possible. If you have any local shops, securing a connection there would be key to finding parts at (or close to) cost. Otherwise, I don’t know as you’ll ever profit from any of the bikes with the retail prices of parts. I worked for a bike shop (started at Age 13) for 14 years until I finished college, and have not only helped them when they are short-handed, but have kept a great relationship there, which provides me a cost +small margin pricing structure for parts that I order.

Using parts from other bikes can be useful as well, but prepare to have a back-stock of random parts, and often NOT have the exact part that you need.

In regards to not buying stolen bikes, I have always stuck to a few rules that I set for myself.
  1. Always check serial numbers. Not that they would always tamper with them if stolen, but if it is tampered with, odds are that it is/was stolen at some point. I’ve heard the excuse of “My son fell on a bike jump and it scratched the bottom”, or “I painted over it, so it wouldn’t rust where the numbers are”.. After I buy this bike, do you have a bridge for sale?
  2. Trust your gut. If looks like a Duck, and pedals like a Duck.. it probably is.
  3. Ask if the seller will provide you a bill of sale for your purchase. I always joke and say “That way when I’m riding this bike down the street, and someone points and says “That’s mine!”, I can provide proof that I did not steal it from them, but bought it from you. I ask for name/address phone, and will offer this to them if they request as well. Generally, the response you’ll get from the seller in response to that request will tell all. I had one seller (who wanted to meet in a public parking lot of a grocery store) turn the bike away and begin to walk away, saying “he couldn’t verify what the guy before him had done, so could not provide a bill of sale to me”. He called hours later and apologized stating “I thought you were the State Police or something, and felt like it was some sort of sting, sorry for getting weird. Still interested for a bit less?” While it was a higher end mountain bike, and priced quite fairly, it was also in pieces. Because of this, the low price seemed appropriate, being that it would require complete reassembly of bottom bracket, cranks, brakes, and purchase/install of shifters, cassette, chain. Even with all of the work it needed, it was a great deal and would definitely be something I could sell for a decent profit. My only response to him was “If it’s legitimate, it should not matter if I’m the freaking FBI… Please do not call me again.”
  4. While I buy bikes usually from local shops that do not carry used inventory, and/or do not want to pay their tech to repair the bike, I also sometimes purchase online, at tag sales (seldom), or word-of-mouth. If online, I will usually ask for larger pictures if possible, especially if there are no pictures shown. Most people nowadays have a cell phone, digital camera, or a friend with one. Reluctance to post or show pictures can be a sign.
  5. If there is any doubt in your mind of whether or not it is a legitimate deal, walk away. There’s always another bike, and your gut is usually right. Personally, I enjoy the bikes more now as a hobby than I did working at the bike shop. Keep it as a hobby and you will continue to enjoy it. If you try to live off of the profits, you may very well stop enjoying it. Good Luck!
posted by plinth at 12:49 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: My thanks to you and your friend, plinth. That's an excellent comment.
posted by Scientist at 10:24 AM on June 14, 2012

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