I had always pictured powder coating as something done to Jeep bumpers and wrought iron fences. I knew it could be done to bike frames, but the ones I had seen looked unimpressive, and they were expensive.
This past winter, one of my riding buddies got his Santa Cruz Nomad powder coated at Pristine Powder Coating here in Denver. It looks AMAZING and it cost less than $200!! I was so impressed I decided to pay a visit to Lee at Pristine and check out how the process works.
My friend’s Santa Cruz Nomad looking pretty sad.
About Powder Coating
Any metal surface can be coated: steel, aluminum, scandium, manganese, titanium, etc. The basic process involves removal of the old paint, sand blasting to prep the surface of the metal, application of the powder coat, and then finally baking at 400 F to cure. Here’s a detailed breakdown of the whole process.
After removing all non-metal parts anddisassemblingthe frame as much as possible, the first step is removing the existing color, whether it be paint, a previous powder coat, or anodized finish. This process can be started with an off-the-shelf remover, but either way the frame will still get sandblasted to remove anyremainingmaterial and to prep the surface for its new coating. Pristine gets the blasting done by an outside shop, and passes that cost straight through (no markup). Pre-stripping the frame can save you some money, but just letting them do it is quick and easy. If it’s a steel frame, blasting also removes any rust that may have built up over the years.
A Santa Cruz V-10 back from the sand blaster.The picture doesn’t really show it, but the finish is very rough to the touch.
Next, the frame gets cleaned, first with compressed air, then acetone. This removes all traces of sand from the blasting phase. If a steel frame has become pitted due to rust, an epoxy primer is used to smooth out the surface. With the frame stripped, cleaned and prepped, it’s now time for the owner to select a color scheme. There are literally thousands of colors and finish options! For finish there are choices fromtexturedmatte all the way to high gloss. For colors, Lee said if you can imagine it, he can mix it. Then you can add a metallic flake to it or maybe a textured effect. You can do a colored coat over a chrome base, you can go clear coat over raw … go nuts! Once you have picked the color(s) you can then choose to do a hard line or faded two-tone (or three-tone, four-tone, etc). You can choose different colors for the front and rear triangles, and yet another color for the suspension hardware.
Now the frame is ready to head to the application booth. Powder coat, as the name suggests, is a fine powder that does not need a liquid solvent for delivery like paint does. It is transferred to the surface electrostatically with a spray gun that is both the conveyance for the material and the source of the static electricity. This step is what separates the artists from the guys who just apply powder. Lee runs his machine at a lower voltage and takes more time during the application. His approach is slower, and wastes some material due to less efficient electrostatic transfer, but the results are worth it!
One common issue Lee pointed out is that MTB frames, especially full suspension ones, have some tight spots that create a “Faraday Cage effect” which results in 1) paint not sticking where it should and 2) messing up the existing material in the surrounding area. Lee combats this effect by lowering the voltage even more, securely grounding the item being coated, and he has also installed a special rod on his spray gun to counteract the static build-up. Due to the wild fluctuations in Colorado humidity, he also needs to adjust for naturallyoccurringstatic. Powder coaters who do not take this level of care during application are the ones cranking out the jobs that had originally turned me off to ever getting a bike frame done this way.
With the powder coat applied, the finish needs to be cured. The whole frame goes into a big oven similar in operation to a pizza oven. The coating itself needs to cure at400 F for 10 minutes, however the time it takes for different items to reach that temp varies, so Lee uses a laser heat sensor to monitor it. Once it’s cured, the finish is impervious to scratches, dents or dings. It is even flexible, which makes it an excellent choice for steel frames. All that’s left is to let it cool and re-assemble the bike!
The Nomad frame, ready for decals and re-assembly
About Pristine Powder Coating
Pristine Powder Coating runs out of a nondescript suite in an industrial park in Denver. Lee handles all of the powder coating and he has one part time assistant to help with prepping. His bread and butter is Harley-Davidson motorcycles, custom choppers, wheels andsmall car parts, and he also cranks out an average of one bike frame per week. He said when he first started doing bike frames, he got mostly antique Schwinns and Raleighs that were being restored. Lately however he is seeing a lot of mountain bike frames coming in. Short of actual graphics, he loves to go wild with color and finish. Want a candy apple frame with matte blacksuspensionhardware? No problem. Looking for a two-tone fade in your race team’s colors? Done. Lee also has no minimum order, so if you only want your suspension linkage redone, or even just a custom color for a seatpost clamp, he can do that. If you’re local, and in a hurry, he will even try to get stuff out for you on the same day.
This whole process sounds like it would be expensive but it’ssurprisinglyreasonable. A basic frame, without fork, will run $90.00 + sandblasting for a standard color. Metallic, flake or other multi-layer effects will add about 50% to that. A two-tone, whether faded or hard line, will run $150 – $170 + sandblasting. Bottom line; you’ll need a seriously weird frame and a lot of imagination to get the total over $200. Sandblasting is handled by the shop across the street and they charge for actual time in the blasting booth. The time needed to clean a frame isdependenton the shape and the previous color coating. Customers can pre-strip most of the previous coating with off the shelf products and save a little money, but it is definitely easier to just let the pros handle it. For a real world example, the Santa Cruz Nomad pictured has two coats of candy apple over a chrome base. The sandblasting was $110 and the powder coating was $80 for a total of $190. WELL worth it in my opinion, based on the before and after shots!
One SWEET looking Nomad!
So if you have a bike that fits really well, and you have kept it mechanically sound, but the scratches and dings have got you bummed out … have a look at getting your frame powder coated. Granted, $150 – $200 is a substantial amount of money, and completelydisassemblingthe bike is a chore, but it is 1/10th or less of the cost of a new mountain bike. Your bike will look brand new, and you already know you’ll like it on the trail!
Thanks to Lee at Pristine Powder Coating for showing me around the shop and to Mark for the before and after bike photos.