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From the Forums: Should I worry about rust on my bike?

Posted by on January 19th, 2012 at 10:30 am

[Note from publisher: Before Will shares a post from the Portland Bike Forums, I need to address a few things: Our server expert and I are currently working on issues with the forums related to spam user accounts. None of these accounts are visible, but hundreds of thousands of them have been created and they are taxing our servers. Because of that, I sometimes disable new user sign-ups. If you’ve signed up or would like to sign up, please be patient while we correct these spam/server issues. Thanks — Jonathan Maus]

For Sale, needs some work-2.jpg

Rust happens.
(Photo © J. Maus)

It’s been a while since we mentioned the Portland Bike Forums (We’ve got forums? Yes!); but a thread popped up which I think is relevant for a lot of people this time of year.

Bikes with steel frames will rust when they’re left out in the rain and snow. One small area of exposed steel can be a starting point for oxidation and once rust starts it can be tough to stop. Thankfully, our very smart and helpful forum members have discussed this issue and have some tips you might be interested in…

Forum user “zpl” (Scott) posted a thread last week asking:

I ride a steel bike that’s about four years old. I’m starting to see spots of rust on the head tube, right where the paint has been worn away by the shift cable housing.

1. Does this matter?

2. If it does matter, where can I take it to be fixed? I figure it would involve sanding off a bit of the surrounding paint, removing the rust, then repainting it, and putting a clearcoat sticker on top of it to prevent the issue from happening again.

Other forum users had some good advice for how to handle Scott’s issue:

  • It’s probably just cosmetic
  • If the rust is causing bubbling under the paint, take good look at the rest of the frame for more rust spots
  • Surface rust can be removed with a fine abrasive, cleaned thoroughly, then touched up with paint and a clear coat
  • If you keep your bike outside year round, you may wat to look into anti-rust coatings for the inside of the frame
  • Naval Jelly can be used to remove rust that’s stubborn or hard to reach

Check the entire thread for yourself for more tips and info; and remember, rust can spread quickly and sometimes it can get into areas you can’t see just by looking at your bike. If you suspect rust (or anything else) might have compromised the strength of your bike, you can always take it into a shop and have a pro take a look at it.

Do you have questions about your bike? Want to talk with other people who ride in Portland and surrounding areas? Head on over see what people are talking about on the Portland Bike Forums.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you.

  • Jerko January 19, 2012 at 10:47 am

    I’m surprised at how popular steel frames are here with all of the moisture.

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    • wsbob January 19, 2012 at 4:01 pm

      As you can see in reading through the comments, by observing some basic precautionary measures, steel can hold up very well.

      Something else to keep in mind is the additional corrosive effects that bikes used in coastal salt air conditions are subject to. I’ve read references made to this, though I don’t know much about what people routinely do to reduce the effects of salt air on bikes

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  • Kristen January 19, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Speaking of rust, does anybody know where I can get a tarp-like bicycle cover (if not just a tarp)? I store my bike outdoors because there’s no room in my apartment and the basement stairs are steep and narrow.

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    • Bradford January 19, 2012 at 12:39 pm

      extracycle makes one for longtails, but i would imagine it would work with any bike(s). I believe you have to order direct from them. Also a tarp and some bungies and some finetuning of technique would work almost as well.

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    • wsbob January 19, 2012 at 1:12 pm

      Performance has one:


      If it’s got to be outdoors, just not being directly in the rain is the first priority. I haven’t used one, but I’d be thinking about covers impeding air circulation, subjecting the bike to excessive humidity. Being continually exposed to moist air, never being allowed to dry out, is the problem.

      I’d put the thinking cap on and maybe figure out some rube goldberg trolley-dumbwaiter contraption to help get the bike in and out of the basement more easily.

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    • BRC January 19, 2012 at 1:56 pm

      The Bike Repair Collective sells them…

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  • are January 19, 2012 at 11:28 am

    if you are going to store your bike outdoors, you should be prepared to relube moving parts and overhaul bearing surfaces a lot more frequently. rust is not the only issue. in general, it is best to store a bike in a place you yourself would be comfortable in what they call “shirtsleeves.”

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  • spare_wheel January 19, 2012 at 11:31 am

    carbon is the future!

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    • cold worker January 19, 2012 at 11:44 am


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      • craig harlow January 19, 2012 at 12:28 pm

        **Heck** nope. My steel frame bike weighs all of 20 lbs. wet. 🙂

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        • sorebore January 25, 2012 at 11:31 am

          easy really. Alex Singer made 17-19lbs Ranndo. bikes WITH small racks on them in the late 1930s.

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        • cold worker January 19, 2012 at 12:39 pm

          Hey! Super for them! I will continue to commute and tour on steel frames along with the vast and overwhelming majority of cyclists on the road.

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          • Chris I January 19, 2012 at 2:00 pm

            The vast overwhelming majority use aluminum, just as the vast overwhelming majority of aircraft makers used aluminum, and are now starting to shift to carbon fiber.

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            • Huey Lewis January 19, 2012 at 3:35 pm

              I would be surprised to find most bikes are aluminum and not steel. Think of alllll the beaters people have kicking around in garages and sheds and locked outside coffee shops, etc. There is way more steel than anything else.

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    • sorebore January 19, 2012 at 1:10 pm

      Here is a tasty bit for you, Carbonman!

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    • are January 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm

      carbon fiber is a petroleum product

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    • was carless January 20, 2012 at 1:32 pm

      You mean crabon?

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  • Mike Fish January 19, 2012 at 11:46 am

    I sometimes I have to leave my bike out in the rain and it has been getting some rust spots on the chain. Is it OK to use alcohol to get it off? I know it can degrade the rubber tires, so I keep it away from those, but is there any reason not to use it on the chain?? Thanks!

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  • Nathan January 19, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Use some chain lube (Tri-Flow or a bike specific lube and not WD40). Pedal as you drip some onto each pin/link. After you’ve gone around at least once, pedal vigorously, then wipe off the excess with a rag. Regularly oiling and wiping down your chain helps to displace water which causes rust.

    Alcohol isn’t going to help (your chain).

    If your chain is so rusty that it is hard to move or bend, you need a new chain.

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    • Nathan January 19, 2012 at 12:15 pm

      @Mike Fish

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    • Alan 1.0 January 19, 2012 at 1:07 pm

      Yeah. Also clean the chain before lubing if it’s caked with dirt or street grime, or been awhile since it as last cleaned. Grit in the link-pin bearing area is what makes you work harder and wears out the chain faster. A chain cleaning tool makes it much easier. Taking it to a bike shop is easier still.

      Wiping the chain with a rag dampened in alcohol won’t hurt anything but all it’s doing is wiping off the superficial rust. Drenching the chain in alcohol will displace the oil and soak oil/alcohol/water emulsion into the important link-pin bearings, so don’t do that. I’ve not heard alcohol recommended for removing rust.

      WRT naval jelly in the article, be careful, it contains phosphoric acid. It’ll eat away lots of stuff it comes in contact with (clothes…) and must be thoroughly removed before refinishing. It’s more for total tear-down restorations than for spot touch-ups. (Definitely not for chains!)

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      • wsbob January 19, 2012 at 1:24 pm

        Good point about being careful with Naval Jelly. The other acid bike restorers and refurbishers use is oxalic acid. I’ve read people saying they buy deck wash from the building supply store and putting rusty parts in a bath of that to remove rust.

        Advantage of NJ, is that it’s in a gel, making it easier to apply to surfaces that aren’t horizontal.

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      • A.K. January 19, 2012 at 2:11 pm

        I was given a Park Tools chain cleaner for Christmas, and it makes cleaning the chain so much easier than either removing it, or painstakingly scrubbing and cleaning it by hand. I use to think that they were a gimmick, but it actually works quite well and keeps the mess to a minimum.

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  • Dave January 19, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    I’ve also heard WD-40 and a steel wool pad works pretty well on surface rust.

    From what I hear, if the bike is high-quality steel, it will probably go decades before the rust becomes a major problem – in fact, the rust may form a protective layer on the outside of the steel.

    You certainly see steel bicycles in other parts of the world that have been left outside every day for decades, and the frame is still structurally sound.

    If it’s a cheaper bike, you probably want to be more careful about cleaning up the rust.

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    • Joseph E January 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm

      Many “cheap” bikes actually have very thick steel tubes, so surface rust is even less likely to be a problem. Old electrowelded Schwinns are particularly sturdy, and even many cheap cruisers are very thick steel. But they are more likely to rust, since the paint is often poorly applied, and many components are steel with cheap paint.

      Some old high-quality steel bikes, with painted finishes, are in theory at higher risk of frame failure from rust. They were made with strong but thin steel, and the old paints are not so durable. Most rust is only going to be on the surface for a long time, but in theory an old “lightweight” steel racing frame could rust throught, faster than a heavy cruiser bike. But it will take years of exposure to the weather, even then.

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  • Chris I January 19, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    If you have rust issues that are beyond surface removal techniques, there is a product called POR 15 that seems to work pretty well. I have used it on an older car. It covers the rust and prevents it from propagating further.

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  • craig harlow January 19, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    Sounds funny, but I’ve had great results removing surface rust from chrome using “Wet-n-Black”, a Turtle Wax spray shiner for car tires. It also worked like magic when removing black grime from ’80’s white brake hoods.

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  • BURR January 19, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    deep rust can damage iron and steel, but a bit of surface oxidation can actually act as a protective coating

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  • Paul January 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    I’ve seen bikes left outside for 40 years in the rain and they’re still being ridden every day.

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  • Rusty McCrusty January 19, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    Wax will repel water while making your frame sparkle in the rain. I use Zymol as it smells like rainbows.

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  • sorebore January 19, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    take that, carbonman!!

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  • Threestrand January 19, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    As a former Merchant Marine and a cyclist living on the coast rust has always been a big issue. Rust is a form of combustion just like fire and can be dealt with in a similar fashion. Like the “fire triangle” rust requires fuel(steel), moisture, and oxygen. Cut any of these things out and the process stop. Turtle Wax is a good preventive measure, but it will do nothing after rust starts. Clear fingernail polish is a good quick fix for scratches and chips.

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  • Pat Franz January 19, 2012 at 7:39 pm

    Of all the rust failures I’ve seen, all but one or two were from the inside, and it’s hard to tell until it’s too late. If you’re concerned about rusting out your frame, tear down your bike and squirt Frame Saver or one of the similar things into all the tubes. “Death from within” is the big rust problem with bikes. Not to say you shouldn’t take care of exterior dings, but don’t think that will solve your problems.

    While rain can get directly into the frame through bosses and vent holes, there are other things that draw moisture in. Taking a warm bike out into the rain can suck water inside as the air in the tubes cools down. It’s not just hours in the rain, things like temperature cycling can do damage too.

    Frame Saver is cheap insurance.

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    • wsbob January 20, 2012 at 12:32 am

      “…While rain can get directly into the frame through bosses and vent holes, there are other things that draw moisture in. …” Pat Franz

      The mention of frame saver inside coatings has me wondering if any bike manufacturers are prepping their bikes with this procedure.

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  • Doug Morgan January 20, 2012 at 5:22 am

    All rust is bad. All steel rusts. All bikes have some steel on them, they all have a chain, spokes, headsets, bottom brackets, go get a magnet and check. Dry them then lube/grease them.

    If paint is rusting take it down to bare metal, epoxy primer it, repaint it, but the rust still might come back.

    I repainted my bianchi after a frame repair, I bought it second hand in 1994 I don’t know what year it was new. I’m going to keep riding it, lugged steel is great. I just put a nice cannondale slice fork on it in October, but I wouldn’t have bothered on a pos hunk of rust.

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  • Dave January 20, 2012 at 7:56 am

    Those who take their seats and posts off of the mountainbikes “to reduce theft” when parked/locked outside are really asking to fill the bottom brackets with water. Framesaver isn’t so easy to find in shops, but one can will do 4 frames. Its kind of messy but probably worth it. I agree, wipe down your bike after riding in wet, and park it under cover and/or indoors! My rainbike cruiser is an aluminum frame singlespeed, and my icebike is a cr-mo framed chrome plated old school atb converted to singlespeed. It helps not having as many cables and stuff exposed to wet and salt. Wiping it down helps remove any salt that can attract moisture from the humid air…

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  • Peter January 24, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Maybe cyclists will start buying fake aged bikes, like guitars, for instant ‘I’m a regular city rider’ street cred.

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