How to Remove Rust from a Bike Frame

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steel bike 1985 schwinn world sport

Schwinn World Sport FrameThe terribly shot picture to the left documents the beginning of my first real bike build. Between the yellow Italvega frame and whatever it is that’s behind it, sits my powder blue, 80s Schwinn World Sport as it was when I found it about a year ago. Since sort of posting about my project bike several months ago, Why Every Cyclist Should Build a Beater Bike, I’ve received a lot of questions for how to remove rust from a bike frame or components. So, here are some of my top tips for getting that metal shiny and “new.” Oh, and a much prettier picture of my finished Schwinn will follow.

Grab the Aluminum Foil 

For smaller areas of rust, some wadded up aluminum foil works wonders. Just pull off a sheet, crumple it a bit, and rub it on the rust spot. It takes a little effort, but several passes will give the brown demon a run for its money. This seems to work best on steel or even chromed handlebars–takes off the surface rust without flaking off the chrome coating. Adding a little chain lube to the foil sometimes helps to increase its power as well.

Head to the Kitchen for a Scouring Pad

A dish-worthy, scratch-free scouring pad can also ease rust spots. For this one, you’ll certainly want to use some chain lube on the spot to help it work. This isn’t quite as effective as the aluminum foil, but it will work for surface rust. Be prepared to scrub, but all the while stay thankful it’s for a much better cause than cleaning last night’s dinner dishes.

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When in Doubt, File it Out

Since my Schwinn frame only had spots of rust here and there, I was able to use a nail file on most of the offending areas. Grab a cheap pack of emory boards in different grits and sizes. You’ll find they work better than sheets of sandpaper because the hard edges and rounded shapes allow you to reach difficult or smaller areas of the frame. You can also break them to fit exactly the size you need.

  • Cover it Up: Of course, after you sand steel-colored shapes into the paint job, you’ll want to cover them in some way. What to use? Sure, you can go the automotive paint route, but there’s an aisle in your local store that has tons of colors. It’s called the nail polish aisle. Of course, it took me three or four trips to the store to get the exact color match (something about employees not wanting me to carry around a bike frame in their store. Sheesh.). But once you get the right color, you can simply paint the nail polish over the bare metal area to cover it.
  • I also recommend getting a high-quality clear coat (also in the nail polish aisle–I spent a lot more time there than usual for this) to protect both your paint repair and prevent the rust from coming back. You can just skip the color if you don’t mind the metal showing through, but certainly add some clear coat. Then a quick once over with a suuuuuper fine grit file or buffer to smooth any lumpy paint and blend the edges and you’re done–just make sure not to remove the top coat you painted on (you can also save the top coat for after you sand down the edges of your color).
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Bring Out the Big Guns . . . Er Big Drill Bit

So you’ve got some serious rust on your bike frame. Say you just want to repaint the whole thing anyway–been there, done it. Get a wire drill bit made specifically for stripping paint. The one I’ve linked to below works really well to get the paint and rust off without leaving those annoying semi-circular marks along the metal. Strip all the paint off, and have fun creating a new design on your bike. Or take it to a professional powder-coating shop to really restore the beauty of your classic frame.

My completed Schwinn World Sport
My completed Schwinn World Sport

So with these tips, I was able to take the above-pictured frame and turn it into the single speed to the right. That is, with a little digging around in some used parts bins (thanks to the SLO County Bike Coalition’s Bike Kitchen), some Craig’s List searches, and a set of new brakes from my LBS (stopping seemed important to me). Whatcha think?

 

So did these rust removal tips work for you too? Anyone tried ink remover? I’ve heard that’s a great solution too, but haven’t tried it. Comment and let me know!

About Bek 301 Articles
SLO Cyclist's former chief editor and recovering road snob, Bek made sure everything ran smoothly around here. She was also the one who reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously--unless it involves black socks. Black socks are always serious.

10 Comments

  1. Attempting to file off a powder coating layer that is stopping me putting rear wheel into drop outs, this blog was really helpful. Thanks

  2. Thanks for passing on all your bike knowledge! It’s a rainy school holidays in Perth, Australia so we’re going to put all your bike rust removal tips into action this afternoon! Cheers, The Dobson Family? PS: we’re gonna wear our black socks for this job?

  3. I just completely sanded down my mom’s old Schwinn. Looks just like the one in the picture. Now it’s off to paint! You’re awesome with these tips!

  4. Thanks so much for the great info. I like the low cost stuff around the house/drug store approach to getting the rust out.

  5. Thanks for this information. I have a vintage Schwin (city bike (style) with baskets on the back wheel) given to me from a friend. It has some surface rust and I’ve been trying to figure out the best way of removing it without ruining the paint. I don’t want to have to repaint it, I’d prefer to keep it all original. I’ve been wondering if lemon juice with salt used as an abrasive, won’t hurt the paint job. Any thoughts?

    • Hi Amy! Is the rust localized to small patches, or is it covering large areas of the paint? I’ve never personally used lemon juice with salt, the aluminum foil does work well–you could test it on a small section and see what happens with the paint. If you’re brave you can try Coke and a scratch-free brillo pad too. When I restored my Schwinn, I simply used an emory board on the localized rust spots and covered the bare spots with nail polish. If you can find a perfect color match, great, but I just stuck with a clear coat.

  6. Oxalic acid (sometimes called wood bleach)mixed into a weak solution is an excellent rust removal bath that will not affect paint. Let the rusty metal sit in the bath for as long as needed, usually less than a week

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