In May 2006 I had occasion to visit Argos Racing Cycles of Bristol. I was greeted by Gary, the son of the founder, and given the run of the shop for three hours.
Argos set up shop in 1974 building made-to-measure frames for professional racers; they have many victories to their credit. In 1977, the sprayer, Martin, joined the shop and since then Argos have built up a solid reputation as one of the best paint-shops in the UK. They respray vintage frames of all marques, source historic transfers where necessary, and carry out warranty repairs for several well-known manufacturers and dealers (including Trek and Specialized) in the UK. New frame exports to the USA were strong in the 1970s but tailed off in the 1980s. After that, the renovation side of the business picked up and now accounts for the major portion of their work.
On the day I visited, several frames were in the shop in various states of renovation/restoration, including Hetchins, Ephgrave, Bates, Claud Butler, and a few I had never heard of. One of the workers in the shop, Tim, was shot-blasting a tandem. He and Gary kindly showed me what goes into restoring a vintage frame.
Frames usually arrive by courier, so the first thing is to unpack the frame and document it. Components (such as bottom bracket and head set bearings, and head badge, if any) are removed, sealed in plastic, and marked with the owner's name for safe keeping. Then the frame is inspected minutely, noting what repairs may need to be done (rust, peeling chrome, pitted or damaged tubes, broken dropouts, etc.). The paint color is matched, if the owner wants original paint. The original transfers and lining are documented.
A docket is filled out, noting in detail all work to be done, such as tracking, tube repairs or replacement, addition or removal of braze-ons, new dropouts, chroming, color scheme, transfers to be fitted, lining, lettering, etc.
The next thing is to shot blast the frame. Tim is responsible for this. This is done in an enclosed metal box about 2 meters by 2 meters by 1 meter containing a high-pressure nozzle and an extractor fan which recycles metal grit. The door has a thick glass plate so Tim can see what he is doing. The frame is put inside, the door is closed. Then Tim puts on gloves, reaches into the box through two arm-sized chutes lined with heavy rubber, and blasts the frame with a spray of metal grit to remove the old paint. If the original chome is to be preserved, it must first be masked and covered in rubber inner tubes to protect it from the shot blasting.
After shot blasting, the frame gleams and has an evenly-brushed, gray surface. In this condition, everything is revealed: a first-rate frame shows its pedigree, whereas mediocre one yields up its flaws.
After shot blasting, the frame will start to rust in a matter of days, just from the humidity in the air.
The next thing is to carry out any repairs and tracking. Repairs might include simply filling in dents with silver solder, or replacing tubes or broken ends. Braze-ons are added, if necessary.
Tracking means checking frame alignment. For example, a rod is inserted into the head tube and parallelism is checked (optically) with the seat tube. Measuring rods also determine whether the triangle is still centered on the bb shell. If the frame not 'true', it is cold-worked back into alignment. 'Cold working' means putting a rod through a tube to increase leverage and then hauling on it until the frame lines up again. Warm working is not recommended, as reheating weakens Reynolds tubes.
I couldn't bear to watch someone wrenching on one of my Hetchins with a long pipe, but Gary is an experienced frame builder. Hetchins tend to be pretty stiff, he said, so I guess he has hauled on a few.
After tracking and repairs have been carried out, the frame is sent for rechroming, if needed. Willochrome do the chroming for most UK frame builders, including new Hetchins from David Miller. Willochrome mainly do motorcycle parts; bicycles are a sideline.
Shot blasting leaves a rough surface, ideal for primer to stick to, but unpleasing if chromed. So the areas to be chromed must be polished smooth. Some surfaces are difficult to polish, so full chrome is not often seen these days. Difficult spots are the hollow behind the bb shell and the join between the seat stays and seat lug. Head lugs, fork blades, and stays are better places to polish. After polishing, the frame is dipped in an electrically charged bath of molten metal: first nickel (which bonds to steel), then chrome (which bonds to nickel).
When the frame is returned from the chromers, it is usually already starting to acquire a rusty tarnish again, so the new chrome is masked and the frame is shot blasted again to prepare it for primering.
If the frame shows pitting, several coats of primer usually fill it in sufficiently. Enamelling consists of three undercoats and three color coats, plus clear laquer. Flamboyant paint consists of a silver base and one or more translucent color coats on top. The painted frame is then stove baked to obtain a hard, chip-resistent finish.
Transfers are applied after painting. Lining and lettering last.
Below are fotos of Gary and Tim in the shop.