Sunday, June 6, 2010

An essential tool for every velo restoration: steel wool!

As the number of bikes that I restore continues to climb, I'm finding that there are a few key workshop tools that I use over and over again to the point where they have reached "essential" status.  In addition to the 5mm and 6mm hex wrenches, the 10mm, 12mm, and 15mm box wrenches, and various pliers and screwdrivers, there is one tool that particularly stands out:  steel wool. In my workshop, steel wool has achieved all-star status, up there with duct tape and WD-40.

Steel wool comes in several grades of coarseness, denoted by a number:  #4 is the most coarse, and smaller numbers denote decreasing coarseness.  After #0 comes #00, #000, and finally #0000, the finest steel wool readily stocked by hardware stores (there may be finer, but I haven't found them).  To give you an idea of the relative courseness, #0000 is similar in roughness to a dry eraser, only softer and more compressible, like a ball of cotton.

At its basic, steel wool is an abrasive material for removing dirt, grime, rust and other types of oxidation from surfaces.  In its most common role in my workshop, it is a polishing agent, used to polish up just about every aluminum and chrome surface:  hubs, rims, derailleurs, handlebars, stems, seatposts, cranks, chainrings, pedals, shifters, and even ball bearing cups and cones.  The advantage of steel wool is that it is soft and compressible, allowing it to conform to uneven surfaces and work its way into nooks and crannies, something sandpaper can't do.  Generally speaking, I use #000 and #0000 steel wool for most projects, and I use a variation of the "wet sanding" method exclusively:  I liberally douse the steel wool with dish soap and use lots of water during sanding.  The dish soap acts as a lubricant which allows the wool to work easier and to get into tighter spaces.  It also helps remove grime!  Below are some examples of bike components after polishing with steel wool (sorry, but I don't have any "before" shots for comparison).  This quick-release skewer was full of surface rust before polishing:

This aluminum hub was chalky grey-ish white with oxidation before polishing with steel wool:

But in addition to its routine use as a metal polish, I've discovered more unconventional uses for steel wool.  For example, when my Jeunet frame came back from the powder coater's, I was sorely disappointed with the finish:  it was so high gloss, it looked like it was wet-dipped.  But worse, the powder coater had made a critical mistake and applied too much powder around the seat cluster.  This caused two very thick runs to form, flowing down each seatstay.  These runs were a few millimeters thick and several inches long.  I had already had words with my powder coater over other issues, and at this point I wasn't going back to demand a do-over; I wasn't going to return to this guy ever again.  I needed to devise a way to remove the runs, or else just give the frame to another powder coater and have everything redone (at significant cost).  With nothing to lose, I decided to file down the runs using a grinding wheel, followed by successively finer and finer grit sandpaper, and finishing with #0000 steel wool.  I very careful progressed through this sequence, and the runs were removed to my satisfaction.  But, I was pleasantly surprised by an unexpected outcome:  the #0000 steel wool removed the fine scratches from the sandpaper, but left a nice, dull, matte lustre to the finish.  It was no longer "dripping wet" looking, but soft and matte.  I was elated!  Wasting no time, I proceeded to test the effect of steel wool on other parts of the frame, and three hours, several wool pads and about a tablespoon of dish soap later, I had managed to dull the entire frame and fork. I was amazed by the transformation that steel wool had on the powder coat:  it had removed the high gloss, leaving behind a semi-matte lustre which seemed perfect for a bike of this vintage and style:

So, steel wool seems to have two opposite effects, depending on the material on which it is being used:  for unfinished metal, it polishes it and removes layers of oxidation; for painted surfaces it removes any glossy finish.

Intrigued by this dichotomy, I asked what would happen if I used steel wool on this glossy shellacked handlebar tape:

Would it remove the high gloss finish of handlebar tape that's had many coats of shellac?  Or would it polish it further?   Believe it or not, that shellacked bar tape was originally white:

I wanted to coat the white cork tape on this bike with amber shellac to produce a deep, red-brown leathery color.  Cork tape doesn't absorb shellac as readily as cotton, so the first few coats came out light amber, too yellowy for me.  But once I applied enough coats to achieve the color depth I wanted (about six), an undesirable side effect had emerged:  a high-gloss, glaringly plasticky appearance that just didn't look right.  So, in came our old friend steel wool, along with plenty of dish soap:

The effect was pretty dramatic.  I don't know if it's captured in the picture below, but after treatment, there is a subtle, natural looking variegation that looks strikingly similar to leather:

Let's contrast before and after.  On the left in the picture below is before dulling with steel wool;  on the right is after. I think the look after treatment is more subtle and natural appearing.

So, I've used steel wool to polish up old components, dull a frame's powder coated finish, and dull shellacked bar tape.  It truly is the velo restorer's duct tape.  


Mark said...

I also found that tinfoil & lemon juice worked wonders on chrome. I'll have to try steel wool now that i know it won't be bad to my chrome fenders.

margonaute said...

I love simple things that have so many uses-- like baking soda or vinegar. I find them very satisfying. This makes me wish I had something to polish/mattify!

somervillain said...

mark, i've heard of the tinfoil and lemon juice method, and that some people swear by it, but i haven't gotten around to trying it.

mardonaute, vinegar is indeed a household "essential"! we use it for cooking, cleaning, even in our laundry as a softener.

Corey K said...

After being cautioned about the potential for scratching chrome with steel wool, I got a hold of some bronze wool in 0000 grit. As it is softer than the steel or the chrome, it is less aggressive, but still quite effective on grime and rust. You might want to give it a try- it's more expensive than steel wool, but we're still only in the range of maybe $4-5 USD a package.

I have found that Simple Green works well as a lubricating agent, too- at least on old Dunlop and Raleigh rims.

The 0000 did a beautiful job on your powder- coated frame. I am curious, though, having never worked with it- is the powder coat softer once you remove the outer layer?

Nice work on the shellac, too. Denatured alcohol does a good job on it as well, but it can remove the shellac eantirely if you're not careful. (I make my own shellac from dry flakes for lutherie work.)

somervillain said...

thanks for the tip, corey. i should give bronze wool a try. i'm guessing it also doesn't rust like steel wool after getting it wet? i often have to throw away a steel wool pad a couple of days after using it, even lightly, because it rusts.

the powder coat is not "softer" in terms of durability (and in terms of thickness, the amount of powder removed from scrubbing is negligible), but since the surface is more textured (microscopically), it holds dirt and grime more readily. on my glossy powder coated bikes, dirt and grime simply buff off with a dry rag. with this frame, i usually have to use a dab of rubbing alcohol or simple green to wipe off any grime.

and yes, i too have found that simple green works great with wool pads! and it's my favorite degreasing agent.

interesting about the denatured alcohol and shellac. i guess it makes sense because the shellac i buy (in a can, not from flakes) is suspended in alcohol. i will give that a try on my next shellacking treatment!

Corey K said...

Cool, glad to be of some service, somervillain.
I would bet you could simply give the shellacked surfaces a quick wipe down with an alcohol-dampened rougher cloth- like say, an old washcloth or something with some tooth - then give it a half hour to set. It ought to take that shine right off.

BTW, your '51 DL-1 provided some inspiration, and mine got the new creme Delta Cruisers installed last weekend. They sure are a nice feeling tire on that bike. (However, I don't want to pull a rear wheel on a full-chaincase
bike again anytime soon.)

-Corey K

ButterPecanGaragePort said...

Bless your heart Somer for your hard work with the Jeunet. My belated .02 cents on odd ball home remedies is, you know the health experts say an opened bottle of Olive Oil loses some of it's effects after a few months. Well, I don't think there is any reason to be too worried about this but I've got olive oil in my tool kit, I admit, foam coverings for handlebars may look dorky or whatever adjective you may wish to use but if they do their duty, I feel they are beyond criticism. It's a bike boom style, I took foam off of one set of handlebars before but not again on this other bike where they do as well as anything I have come across. How about massaging the foam with olive oil? I think it works. This handlebar is chromed (I'm sure) steel and I have a # of light ones I could put on, but why? Maybe the time capsule bike will outlast me and for the time being, I'm keeping the foam on. Likewise, if one is ever fooling with nuts and screws in the house, just for a quick fix I mind you, for lubricant it can work and one is not spraying petrol in the house.


Just a note on Powder Coating, some people say it armourizes the bike and other things painted with it. I tend to believe that, less rust and in the winter, maybe I'll smear on some olive oil on the frame.

Gourav said...


Wow, great article, I really appreciate your thought process and having it explained properly, thank you!

john smitth said...

Wow, great article, I really appreciate your thought process and having it explained properly, thank you!

Tool steel

Post a Comment