If you’ve watched any professional bike races recently, you’ll likely have caught some bike frame painting envy seeing the stunning custom-painted bike frames ridden by many pros.
Sagan’s beautiful color-shifting S-Works frames, Mario Cipollini’s eye-catching animal print bikes, or the multitude of Tour de France jersey-matching paint jobs: they’re all unique and memorable bikes that anyone would love to ride.
But such beautiful custom bike frame paint jobs aren’t just for the pros.
If your bike has seen better days, but you don’t want to break the bank, then perhaps you should consider custom bike frame painting at home.
But what equipment do you need to DIY paint your bike frame? And how do you get the high-quality finish your bike deserves?
Fear not! Here’s a first-hand guide to walk you through custom bike frame painting at home. To give you all you need to get going on your own custom paint job (and help you learn from our mistakes!), we’ll be covering:
- Why Custom Paint Your Bike?
- What Equipment Do You Need to Custom-Paint Your Bike Frame?
- Step 1:Preparing Your Bike Frame
- Step 2: Painting Your Bike Frame
- Step 3: Finishing Your Bike Frame
Ready to get spraying with DIY bike frame painting?
Let’s get started!
Why Custom Paint Your Bike?
As cyclists, we take pride in our equipment.
Unfortunately, all of the abuse we put our bikes through does take its toll on both the functionality and the aesthetics. The components will slowly degrade, but with proper maintenance, can last a very long time.
One thing that’s not quite so easy to protect, however, is the frame’s paint job. Especially if you have a vintage bike, using a bike regularly and over different terrain will eventually scratch, chip, and damage your lovely paintwork.
Getting a bike professionally resprayed can be costly, and although professionals often get their bikes custom-painted by the manufacturers themselves, this isn’t within the budget of many amateurs. Another option is custom bike painters, but unfortunately, this isn’t cheap either.
However, if you want to renew your frame but don’t want to spend an arm and a leg, then it’s worth considering painting your bike yourself! A new paint job will not only look better but might encourage you to get out on your bike more often – and take better care of it when you do.
My first road bike was a Pinarello Surprise, an aluminum frame with carbon forks from the 1990s. A fantastic first bike: light, responsive, stiff, and a pretty frame at that. Although I’d always used a bike as transportation, it was this first road bike that really got me into riding for pleasure.
I’ve ridden the bike 1000s of kilometers. It’s taken me on bikepacking trips to the Hebrides, the Pennines, Devon, Cornwall, the New Forest, and the Isle of Wight, it’s served as my trusty steed on uncountable rides around the Sussex countryside, around the Peak District and Lake District, and the bike is incredibly sentimental to me.
All that use and abuse, however, really did show.
The frame was chipped and scratched, the lettering had come off, and the old Ultegra components were worn out and broken. It was definitely time for a renovation, to give it aesthetics that I love as much as the bike itself.
So, looking to save money, I sourced a number of old parts on eBay – and decided to respray the frame myself.
This guide will tell you exactly what to do – and what not to do – if you want to DIY respray your frame. It took me an unreasonable amount of time, but much of it was spent fixing my own mistakes.
I’m hoping that my experience can make yours more streamlined and enjoyable!
What Equipment Do You Need To Custom-Paint Your Bike?
Although it’s the most cost-friendly option, repainting your bike at home isn’t free: you’ll need to invest in some equipment to do it.
First, you need to decide how you’re going to do it. If you’re lucky enough to have an airbrush, then use it. It will give you a great, even finish, and the paints might be cheaper.
This certainly isn’t a necessity, however, and you can actually respray the bike with spray cans, and even get a high-quality professional finish with it too.
Make sure you get a primer that will work on the material of your bike frame. For carbon, most universal primers will provide good adhesion. For aluminum or steel, you’ll need a surface-specific primer to get a durable finish.
After you paint it, you’re going to need to protect the frame. Make sure to get a good-quality two-component lacquer, as it will provide excellent protection and last a long time.
Another thing to consider is how you’re going to strip the current paint from the frame. If you plan on doing it yourself, you may need an electric sander and plenty of sandpaper. I would not, however, recommend doing this, but more on that later!
Since you’re going through the effort to fully dismantle your bike to paint the frame, it’s a good idea to replace any components that might be worn out, or that you want to upgrade.
Step 1: Preparing Your Bike Frame
This is one of the most important steps for your custom bike frame painting process. You need to properly prepare your frame before you start painting it. The first step here is to remove everything, all the components, wheels, handlebars, bottom bracket, everything.
If you want a high-quality finish, you need to strip all the old paintwork from the frame. This is the only way to get a smooth-looking finish on your new design, since the old paintwork can react with the new layer of paint and bubble up underneath it, ruining all your hard work.
The method to do this is dependent on your frame’s material. If you have a carbon fiber frame, you’ll need to remove all the paint by hand, wet-sanding until you reach the bare carbon, and then increasing the grit of your sandpaper incrementally until you have a completely smooth surface.
If you have a steel or aluminum frame, however, I would recommend getting the frame shot-blasted. This will usually cost less than $50 but will save you a huge amount of time.
I had considered this, but wanting to keep the cost down as low as possible, I decided to sand the paint from my aluminum frame myself.
This was a mistake.
I laboriously and painstakingly removed all the old paint using an electric sander, and then by hand sanding at higher and higher grits. This took over 20 hours of work, and the result is less clean than if you get the frame shot-blasted.
Once you’ve stripped all the old paint from your frame, make sure you mask off any parts you don’t want to get paint on; the threads for the bottom bracket, bottle cages, and dropouts for starters. I also masked off the head badge and some parts of the headset that I just could not remove.
You also need to carefully clean the frame with alcohol to remove any oils or dust that might prevent adhesion with the primer.
Now it’s time to apply some primer to the bare metal or carbon. This is essential if you want your paint to last, as the primer is the only thing that provides adhesion between your nice new design and the raw material underneath.
I got some Montana Aluminum Primer for my frame, which was easy to apply and provided the correct adhesion. Since I have carbon forks, I used some standard universal primer on those, which worked great! Make sure to apply 2-3 coats, leaving at least 15 minutes in between.
Step 2: Painting Your Bike Frame
Now for the fun part: painting the bike! Unfortunately, this is actually a remarkably small portion of the work involved in a custom paint job.
It’s a good idea to design your frame beforehand. I used Photoshop to do this and drew a few different designs for my frame from a template. But if you don’t have Photoshop, you can always use a good old-fashioned pen and paper. This is an important step, as it will show you the reality of what your ideas will actually look like. Once you’re happy with your design, you can get to the painting!
Make sure to wait at least 24 hours after your last coat of primer, and lightly sand your frame with 600-grit sandpaper before applying your paint.
Apply the base color in long, smooth strokes, making sure to cover the frame and not concentrate too much on one area, so as to avoid runs. Depending on the color, this will require 2-4 coats of paint for an even finish.
Any extra details you wish to add to your design will need to be carefully masked. Make sure to wait another 24 hours for the base coat to dry before putting tape on the frame.
I went for a simple two-stripe design of black and white over the light blue. So for this, I masked off the whole width of each stripe and painted it white, and then later further masked half of that white stripe and painted the other half black.
I did, however, have a bit of a disaster removing the tape. It took with it a large section of the blue paint on the down tube, which took hours to fix.
A good way to avoid this is to put the tape on the back of your hand a few times before applying it, removing some of its tack. When removing the tape, do it slowly and carefully and use a scalpel.
Finishing Your Bike Frame
Now it’s time to add the finishing touches.
If you have any decals to apply to your frame (you can order these online, I found the original Pinarello Surprise decals here!), now is the time to do so. Use transfer paper to carefully remove the decals and stick them on the frame. Before fully pressing down on the decals, make sure to check that you’ve got them straight relative to the tubes.
After this, you can apply your lacquer. For the initial coat, apply just a light dusting to the frame, and then a thicker one 15 minutes later. Repeat this process until you’re happy with the coverage and thickness. It took four coats on my frame until I felt the decals would be protected from rubbing off.
Once you’re happy with the bike frame painting, you can build it up! Make sure to wait at least a few days for the lacquer to fully harden before riding the bike and putting its durability to the test, though!
The components of my bike were very worn, and the rear derailleur and wheelset were both ruined since I had been hit by a car last year. I managed to find good deals on Dura-Ace 7700 shifters, rear derailleur, and chainset, and some Mavic Ksyrium wheels.
I also got some Cinelli zebra-print bar tape to spruce up the design, a little nod to Mario Cipollini’s zebra bike that won the 2002 Gent-Wevelgem Classic.
I found it very enjoyable building it back up, and it’s a completely different bike now. 50+ hours of work later, I’m very happy with the final product. I feel an extra connection to my bike, having put so many hours into its renovation!
So, What Have I Learned From This Process?
Well, a lot actually.
Firstly, it’s incredibly time-consuming. I spent weeks doing this and it took up a lot of my free time. It’s also a bit more expensive than I’d expected. The paints, parts, and decals do add up and I ended up spending a fair amount on it.
And lastly, get your frame shot-blasted! The sanding was such a huge part of the process and was just not fun at all. Save yourself the pain!
However, custom painting a frame is also incredibly satisfying. I’m now extremely pleased with the final result, and it’s something that I can enjoy on a regular basis when I ride my bike!