Let’s get real about paint on bikes -- specifically, durability

I love my 1980s Cannondale ST800. It’s got soul like other C-dales of that era.
But one challenge I’ve had w/ a few old Cannondales is the paint.
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I like the single-color approach they took, but the paint often seems rather chip-able. This ST800 has managed to preserve most of its paint and the paints lustre, too. But I am nervous enough about scraps from poles or bike racks that I’ve lathered it up w/ protective tape. Which sucks. My 2018 Synapse AL SE 105 seemed to have an especially hard-wearing paint that I haven’t see much elsewhere.

Anyway, this gets to a long-standing question I’d had about paint on modern bikes – especially carbon bikes. Orbea and Ribble both have awesome custom-color options for customers. And a number of firms, like Speedvagen or All-City, take pride in their paints (or in the case of All-City, the durability they say their paints and steel frames have from a rust standpoint). But there seems to be a wide range of durability with the paints used by brands, or durability based on the quality of how the paint is applied or the frame material used. In bike reviews, I often see photos of carbon bikes that, if you look closely have a random chip from rocks or whatever, like by the bottom bracket or on a fork tip, even if it’s a new/nearly new bike.

Any thoughts or sage insights??

  • Are certain paints more durable for carbon, steel, or aluminum, respectively?
  • Are shiney (i.e., clear-coated) paints better against chips?
  • Are matte paint finishes less durable? They seem to ware easily, which makes me wonder why they are so popular on expensive carbon frames.
  • Are the custom-paint options you get from, say, Ribble, less durable than the factory-painted options (where they’d presumably get to bake the paint on, not just spray it)? (Assuming baked paints are more long-lasting than sprayed paints. Is it??).

I’m just careful with my bikes so I don’t test the durability of the coatings.
for example, I see these sh-theads place fork dropouts directly on the ground, etc. …

The carbon bikes that I have had were all pretty durable. They tend to have a good clearcoat over most of the frame and this will normally allow you to polish out even pretty significant scratches. the worst can be filled with a bit of clear nail varnish before sanding and polishing.

Metal bikes not so much though. I think I was on my second group ride with a new custom steel frame when some clown managed to play dominos with a whole bike collection at the coffee shop. I had a part chrome, part paint fork and chain stay on one side when I picked her up which wasn’t what I started the ride with. :thinking: Fortunately I have a tame spray painter who was able to fix it up for about $50. He has now done that a second time after a similar performance so I am relatively calm about it, but it does make me go quiet for a while. :roll_eyes:

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It varies hugely.

Giant TCRs in particular seem to have super thin, fragile paint that chips very easily. I wonder if it’s a weight-saving thing, as a friend has noticed the same with his Emonda. I also noted when I was talking to Rourke about a custom steel frame, they do explain that different paints/finishes have different weights and expected longevity.

Matt finishes can also mark up very quickly and be hard to get wholly clean. I noticed that with a former riding buddy’s Canyon, which picked up strange little grease patch like marks that were impossible to get out. You couldn’t see them without looking closely but they looked quite tatty close up.

I’ve also heard numerous complaints about ornate custom schemes that look amazing but mark up/chip very quickly; Speedvagen and Saffron are allegedly repeat offenders in this regard. A guy I chat to periodically on weightweenies had a long-running dispute with Saffron about a warranty issue pertaining to paint.

On the other hand, I’ve had quite a few workhorse alloy bikes where the paint seemed like armour plating; Ridley SLA, a c.2010 CAAD are the 2 that spring to mind. Also, shout out to Factor: my LS was literally unmarked after a high-ish speed crash. Is it a bit tougher because it’s a gravel/allroad frame? I’m not sure, but it’s a working theory.

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So there are a ton of variables at play re: paint, and it can challenging to address all the issues on a forum like this.

But in general, a deeper paint job will often (but not always) be more brittle. Successive layers of paint / clear coat tend to become less durable.

High gloss finishes will tend to show small surface scratches faster.

Now, quality of the paint used and environmental regulations all play a massive role in a paint’s durability. DuPont had a great paint that was gorgeous and durable as hell called Imron, but it was an environmental disaster. As we continue to reduce the VOC’s of paints, durability suffers. (Still the right thing to do, however, because climate change sucks). To reduce VOC’s, you can either use less powerful solvents or increase the percentage of solids in the paint. Each of those solutions has their own set of drawbacks.

Water based paint is also an option, but again, is generally less durable than oil based paint.

We continue to improve our ability to use powder coats and get increasingly great finishes. It has been awhile since I have looked into it re: bikes, so can’t really speak to it authoritatively at this point. But powder coating is very durable.

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My mid-80s Cannondale Criterium series has a fine looking paint job after all these years. Yes, it has its share of scrapes and scratches, but overall the first impression is “that’s a nice blue bike.”

My CAAD10’s finish is still looking good after 8 years, but then about half of the bike is bare Al. The black and white parts still look great.

Of all my family’s bikes, the chippiest paint job is the spray.bike one I put on my son’s bmx. But he loves the colour scheme and complimented me just yesterday on the lettering I stenciled on it.

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One thing that I think helped my other old ST400 Cannondale’s nice look, despite its chips and scratches here and there, was the single-color approach they often took. Or maybe the light color mine was, blending w/ the underlying aluminum.

Very interesting, thanks, @Henri_Desgrange. Do you know if any baked-on paint will tend to be more durable? Or do baked-on finishes (or heat-cured finishes?) usually involve the more environmentally destructive paints, besides powder-coating? The environmental tradeoffs make me think also of the chrome issue w/ many forks or older seat stays. I’ve heard that powder coats are more often done today, at least for smaller customer brands, for environmental reasons, though (at least based on the photos I see online), powder-coated bikes don’t seem (again, I might be mistaken) to have the same potential for color depth or gloss or smoothness. If you can achieve that w/ powder-coating, then I might consider it more if I bought an old steel frame and wanted to re-paint it. Given the variables you mention, exploring the site, process, and options for a custom paint shop like VeloColour in Toronto is illuminating.

I wonder about the durability of the custom paint jobs for pro bikes during races, like the pink Giro bikes done before the final stage. Could the paint even have cured long enough for it to be firmed up enough? Or is the unspoken understanding “who cares” if the bike is quickly going to be treated w/ kid gloves or hung on a wall post-race?

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I don’t have any direct experience with baked-on / heat-cured finishes, so I can’t really answer one way or another. Intuitively, I would say they would be more durable, but I don’t know.

Was certainly generally true back in my day, but even then, rapid changes in PC was chasing the looks you could achieve. I have seen some really stunning power coated frames.

When we were doing bass boat paints many years ago, the first-Gen frames were only paint and it took many multiples of coats to achieve the finish we wanted. This not only added a lot of weight, but production time / cost and the finishes were very brittle. Within a few years, we were doing bass boat in powder coating with almost the same depth of color / effect.

A lot of teams/brands pre-paint the specials. Sky/Ineos always have a yellow bike for the Tour; Specialized had a green frame pre-designed for the 2020 Tour for Sagan, and Bennett ended up riding it into Paris. A lot of them end up never getting used.

Ridley had to paint a yellow bike with a day’s notice when Tony Gallopin took yellow for a day in 2014.

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The night before the final stage in 1999, Mavic and USPS literally spray-painted the Mavic Kysriums -7 rode into Paris the night before. Just masked off the braking surface, rattle-canned them yellow and put them on his bike the morning of the race.

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Colnago said similar stuff when Voeckler got into yellow (2011 Tour IIRC). They painted a C59 yellow in Italy as soon as the result was confirmed, and someone drove it overnight to wherever the next stage started.

Anyone have experience with Cerakote?

On bikes, no… but I have a bunch of rifles and sidearms that are Cerakote’d and that shit is impressive, more durable than paint or ano by far. I’m not sure if you can apply it to carbon fiber though, I’ve never seen it done and I don’t know if the ‘baking’ temperatures for it would be a problem for carbon’s resin integrity.

RE: Cerakote. It looks like there are some options here. I was not familiar with it, but it looks really interesting. Sage has the option. It’s not cheap but looks great.

https://www.cerakote.com/project-gallery?htids=Bicycle

https://www.cerakote.com/cerakote-industries/bicycles

https://sagetitanium.com/choose-your-finish/

Hi Joe, I know Speedvagen has offered cerakote finishing as a paint option on their steel frames. I do wonder how its durability differs from the usual wet paint or powder coat alternatives. And after Googling it, I saw a Facebook post on Apr 5 2019 by Argonaut of a carbon frame with a cerakote finish, so I guess it most be doable on carbon. I assume you can also do a gloss finish on cerakote, too. Here’s a link to one of the Speedvagen bikes that I believe has this finish - Speedvagen AAF Commuter — Speedvagen

It’s not even comparable… cerakote is way more durable than either. That’s like wondering how the speed of a beach cruiser compares to a Dogma F12.

(After doing some more snooping….) I guess you’re right. I found a local, licensed cerakote applicator where I am, and it seems to be a popular protector for guns, though they also advertise themselves as able to do it for bicycles, too. I hadn’t realized that “cerakote” is a copyrighted thing or process. One more thing I learned today. I have a rusted Pinarello Veneto frame, and this makes me wonder about trying this out instead of the normal route of wet paint. Coincidentally, I had pinged Joe Bell about a restoring the finish of a different Pinarello (a “chromovelato” Montello) that wouldn’t be a fit for cerakote, so far as I can tell. I don’t know how cerakote finishes related to chrome.

Cerakote has a lot of advantages, but it still has challenges for use on carbon, but shops are working around it. Definitely lighter and thinner than most finishes and extremely durable.

overall, it is extremely durable, but due to how thin it is, powder coat can be better in some applications (i.e. cable rub being one such example, IIRC).

Shops are experimenting with lower bake temps and longer cures so they can use it on carbon…but I don’t think there is “go-to” method yet for carbon.