Color schemes on mountain bikes are finally getting interesting. Santa Cruz, Devinci, Intense and others are going rad with splashy frame colors and coordinated highlights, and component brands like Fox and ENVE offer custom stickers in a variety of hues.
That’s all well and good if you’re buying new. But what about retrofitting a bike you love like an easy chair but is dull as sawdust when it comes to visuals? That was my dilemma on two of my favorite bikes. Both were fully pimped on the components end right down to colorized rotors, headset, seat collar, and valve stems with matching caps. But some components don’t come in colors. And the frames — well, they lacked excitement. Then my artist daughter turned me onto something that changed my blingy little life.
To start at the beginning: The frames came with great finishes and subtle highlights. But the logo bits were white. That included the big downtube logos, the head tube and seat stay logos, and even the tiny third party logos. On mountain bikes, I really hate white. It’s not really a color, so it’s a wasted opportunity. And it shows dirt like certain politicians show makeup. It reveals every scratch, ding, and nick. Over time a gleaming white sheen turns the color of sour milk.
What to do? You can’t just take a rattle can to a high-end carbon frame. If you want custom done right, you have to strip it down, refinish it, and mortgage your house. Even having the frame detailed by an auto pinstriper or equivalent can run hundreds of dollars and take weeks during which you can’t ride the bike.
So I was complaining about this in my random cranky fashion to my daughter and her mountain biking friend. They asked if I’d tried something called alcohol paint. My daughter showed me a still life she’d done. It seemed worth a go. Alcohol paint, also called alcohol ink, can tart up most any surface. It’s intense, deep, and very bright. It’s also a world-class PITA to work with, except for one thing. It gives you infinite mulligans, which you’ll need.
Alcohol paint is available from art supply shops or online. It’s cheap. A half-ounce bottle lasts forever and costs just a couple of bucks. You can find it in virtually any color. You can even mix and match to create your own hues.
To get started you need an applicator of some sort. A spongy material is best. I ended up using packing foam I bought in bulk from a furniture supply shop. You can also buy fingertip applicators from arts shops or on-line. Whatever you wind up using, you’ll need to practice. A lot. This stuff runs like cheap mascara and is annoyingly inconsistent. The good news is you can erase any mistake and start over. You just dampen a cloth with ordinary rubbing alcohol and wipe the paint off.
You can try masking to eliminate overruns, but it’s tricky. The paint tends to soak the masking tape. Or it will collect at the tape edge and form a stripe that is deeper colored than the painted part. What I found worked best was to mask a millimeter or two away from the border of what I was coloring. Let that dry, then mask the painted part and wipe off the overage.
Another challenge with alcohol paint is uniformity. It’s not a problem with small areas. But for the bigger logos, it can be maddening to try to get an even coat. The surface of a bike frame isn’t necessarily flat, and even if it were, positioning the frame at a perfect 180 is difficult. If you aren’t perfectly flat, alcohol paint simply doesn’t have enough consistency to keep from running or streaking.
Sometimes gently dabbing the stuff works. Other times a straight sweep with the applicator will get you there. For recessed areas, like pivot bolts, you can use drops of paint straight from the bottle. Persistence is the watchword. On tricky parts, I found myself doing not just five or six applications, but a dozen or more to finally get it right.
Painting over white is the easiest. You can try painting over colors, but unless the paint coat is darker than the underlying color, you won’t get much. The opposite holds true for border colors. If they’re lighter than the paint color, you’ve got a world of hurt trying to make the job look clean. The best border is black, as it doesn’t show the paint.
When you’re finally happy with the paint job, you have to protect it. Alcohol paint rubs off pretty easily. On the frame, I simply overlaid the painted area with motorcycle tape. You can get this clear plastic tape in wide rolls at a moto shop or on-line. As most mountain biker’s know, tape is also great for combatting cable rub and protecting stays from errant heel strikes.
There’s another way to protect the paint. My orange brake rotors came kind of dull. To punch them up, I used tangerine alcohol paint. Then I sprayed them (after masking) with clear coat. Three coats, drying in between. I used Minwax Helmsman spar urethane clear gloss. Again, available wherever quality products are sold.
I’ve used alcohol paint to colorize or brighten up logos on brake levers, handlebars, and stems. And for headset, seat collar and rotor bolts. Some of my riding friends think I’m crazy. Others think I’m just plain nuts. But I do get the double-takes in the Pivot demo booth. They can’t place my bike with a quick visual.
If you want a new look, alcohol paint is the perfect fix for the OCD mountain biker in you. Just don’t drink it. There’s not enough alcohol in it to get a buzz — and your teeth will look funny.