Bulletin # 3
by Carl Wiedman
Prepared April 1993
Revised: 1994-01-01

The complete restoration of an old bike can be a major undertaking, but the results will provide a great deal of extra pleasure from the standpoint of appearance as well as better riding performance. Riding performance, in particular, is more than an added frill; it has much to do with safety, and the old high wheels can be dangerous machines. If a tire comes off, if any critical part breaks, if a wheel locks—these can become a disaster, particularly if the rider is moving at high speed.

So above all, make certain that your machine is mechanically sound. If you have the capability there is much you can do yourself, but if not, there are good craftsmen available who can carry out any reconstruction or restoration you might require, up to and including the complete building of a bike on a replica basis.

There are a few hints that may be helpful for the do-it-yourselfers, however, and a set of data sheets is appended for many parts and services as may be required.

When you first acquire your new high wheel or safety bicycle, check out the working parts very carefully. If you want to ride it as is, there are a few important points to test before climbing aboard. First, the most important parts of any bike are the wheels. They should turn freely without rubbing against the fork at any position. And they should be reasonably true so that they do not wobble badly as they turn. The latter is a function of the state of repair and adjusting of the spokes. Check with The Wheelmen's Resource Coordinator for available help.

Let’s assume that the wheels are reasonably true and free—there are many other important items to check before your first flight. One of these is the tires. If these are the original rubber, chances are that new tiring will be badly needed, and both tire rubber and tiring installation service are available.

How are the handlebars? Does the front wheel turn freely and without obstruction (including any hindrance from your knees)? Check over the backbone and the front and rear forks. Are they mechanically sound so that they will support your weight? Check the bicycle’s tubing (handlebars, forks, backbone) by tapping with anything metal such as a key ring. If the tubing is sound (i.e. intact) a decided ring is heard. However, if the sound is dead, check for cracks or rust on the inside due to condensation.

The foregoing are also good check points when you are looking over a bike for possible purchase. Your best bet, if you want an early ride, is to have someone with experience check the machine for you, to be assured that all safety conditions are met.

Of course, the seat should be capable of supporting you without undue discomfort. And as a final safety check, the machine should have a brake, particularly if you are a beginner. On a high wheel, however, use the brake gingerly. Applied with the least bit too much pressure, the brake will slow the wheel enough to cause you to do a “header,” that is, go over the top of the wheel. The expert can get by with backpedaling to stop, but this can take some practice. There are some machines, like the American Star, that must have a brake, as they are free-wheeling and have no means of back pedaling with their ratchet drive mechanism. The Springfield Roadster is another machine with this same limitation.

A complete restoration job is a different matter, and you can have the entire job done by an expert or you can undertake it yourself, at least in part. For those who want to tackle it, a number of separate bulletins have been worked up, and these describe many of the restoration steps from the viewpoint of others who have had the same experience. See the list of bulletins that are currently available.

After you have fortified yourself with the proper bulletins, you are ready to begin. The first nightmare you will become involved with is the complete dismantling of the old, rusty machine. This is always a difficult job, as there are probably nuts, bolts, and screws that have not been turned for 80 or 90 years. Remember that threads were not as precise in the old days, and metallurgy was not as advanced so that the old castings and wrought parts may be flimsy by today’s standards. Be very careful not to break them.

On many of the old machines, however, the workmanship was outstanding, and most manufacturers had fine craftsmen in their employ. Treat the parts with care at any rate, as you can spoil a complex old part rather easily by exerting too much force with a wrench. Penetrating oils and Liquid Wrench are valuable aids, and closed or box wrenches should be used wherever possible. Open adjustable wrenches can slip, and will quickly destroy the corners of old nuts and bolts. This is also important when you are reassembling later, particularly if the parts are carefully finished or nickel plated.

The biggest single job in terms of hours of effort are the wheels and spokes. If it is at all possible, these should never be dismantled, but should be refinished as is, even though the finishing is slower. Spokes are generally threaded into the wheel hub on the old high wheels, and they can snap off if you stare at them too hard. These threads, though, are critical in trueing the wheel, so the spokes may be turned when necessary.

When your machine is dismantled, your cleaning, replacing, bending, filling, grinding, polishing, plating, and other operations can begin.

Refer to your bulletins, keep track of all parts, and if you can’t handle the job, call in the experts. Good luck in your many, many happy hours of effort.

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