Sunday, September 14, 2008

Against Anodizing

I understand why nearly all bicycle components come anodized these days. Well, first, there is apparently some sort of protection offered to the aluminum — though based on the condition of my 1973 Campagnolo Nuovo Record group, I find this a bit dubious. The real reason is that it's less expensive and easier than polishing components. Instead of paying someone to sand and buff all day, simply have someone operate a machine that can apply a finish in matte silver, in shiny silver, or in any colour. This is, indeed, clearly a good thing: buffing aluminum all day is a bad job.

Except: polished aluminum is so clearly superior, in every other respect.

Anodized aluminum may come in every single colour; unfortunately, none of them looks as good as polished aluminum. And none of them keep their colour, either. While anodized aluminum will stay looking beautiful for as long as you're willing to polish it, anodizing inevitably wears off and looks awful. Even the most lovely and most shinily-anodized of TA Zephyr cranks will eventually strike your shoe enough times to rub its finish off, revealing a spot of the bare lustrous aluminum that lies beneath — the contrast of which also reveals just how dull that "shiny" anodizing was all along.

Accepting that we don't want other people working all day to buff and polish aluminum components, then, there is only one thing for ethically-minded bicycle aesthetes to do: polish them ourselves.

I've been doing this quite a lot recently. When I bought some Mafac 2000 brakes and found them ugly, I sanded off the anodizing and polished them up. When I found the finish on my Stronglight Delta headset too dull, I did the same. It took quite a while, I got very dirty, but not only did they look infinitely better — but I also had that sense of having been involved in their production. Psychologize as you will: I value that intimacy with my bikes.

Component selection for Niles, the bike I made myself, has naturally favoured non-anodized aluminum. My stem is a beautiful "short quill" Nitto Technomic, which costs way less than the anodized Pearl and is, well, not anodized. My handlebars are old GB randonneur bars — a bit of a triumph; non-anodized bars are hard to find these days. I'm using the Stronglight Delta headset I described above.

As for my seatpost, I originally was planning on using Velo Orange's new seatpost, which they originally advertised as being non-anodized. Clever: it isn't; it has that same bright-but-not-polished Nitto Pearl look. When I received it, I immediately started looking for what I regard as the prettiest seatpost of all time: the Campagnolo Nuovo Record. I found one on eBay, covered in scratches and decidedly not shiny. Due to its less-than-immaculate appearance, this absolute classic came to me for less than the price of the VO. And, no matter: they're not anodized, so with some sandpaper and some Simichrome, it would be shining like the Velo Orange never could. Indeed, it arrived last week and looks very beautiful now. (You can see it, slightly out of focus, in the "group" shot below. It's a living before-and-after: I only polished the part that will be visible, and left the bottom gunky.)

And what about the cranks? Well, originally I had planned on using some Stronglight 93s that came on a Raleigh Grand Sports I subsequently fixed up for my sister (this is also the source of the GB bars.) They came to me foggy and gross, but with five minutes of Simichroming revealed their true beauty. Unfortunately, my bottom bracket drop issue meant I couldn't use them.

I did have a set of 167.5mm Dura Ace track cranks, however. There was absolutely nothing wrong with them: they're surely machined more precisely than the Stronglights, they have a nice shape, they don't leave the unsightly axle-gap on the non-drive side that classic cranks do, and they also have a Q-factor of about 135mm (according to my measurements). But they have that most obnoxious and deceptive of finishes: the "bright" anodizing. Why do I so dislike it? Well, possibly because when you look at it from far away it looks like polished aluminum, but up close gives itself away: not only do any scratches or rub marks show up mercilessly, but its pearly finish reflects a strange spectrum of pastel colours, not a true "mirror." It masquerades as a superior finish. On my bike, where everything else is mirrorlike, these cranks would have stuck out (not like a sore thumb — worse.)

Since I needed either to use these cranks or to spend several hundred dollars on a pair of new TA track cranks (or try to track down some of the Campy-copy Mavic track cranks...), I had only one option: to take off the anodizing. This is quite a lengthy and obnoxious process on anything with a very irregular surface. First, you need to scratch off the anodizing itself with emory cloth. This is a tedious step, especially around places like the crank spider. Then you need to smooth out the roughness caused by this step, by sanding with 320, then 400, then 600, then 1200, then 1500 grit sandpaper. Then you need to polish.

To read this post, you might think I didn't like spending whole day sanding. In fact, I had a very nice time. I have no idea why I didn't do this much earlier, in fact. Part of it was that Dura Ace logo: even though I bought these used (they were cheap: they were pretty badly scratched on the non-drive side), it just didn't feel right to scratch it off. I didn't want them to look generic. Also, I didn't want to wreck them: to encounter some unforseen problem and have them never get shiny again. (This is why I didn't use the oven-cleaner-as-anodizing-remover method: it can ruin the finish. I could have used a proper anodizing removal product, but I've never tracked one down in Toronto, and I was impatient.) Well, it all worked perfectly.

And, as usual when I do this sort of thing, they look even better than I had dared to imagine. Polished aluminum just looks incredibly good. And I removed nearly all the scratches in the process. Ecologically-minded people take note: anodized aluminum wears and looks "wrecked" very quickly, prompting people to discard their "ruined goods": in fact some sanding and polishing will have them looking better than new.

I've also photographed my "component group" for Niles. Two things will likely change. As much as I love then, I don't think the Tektro 521ag brakes will be able to wrap around the 43mm fenders that my need for wider tires forced me to use; nor will their quick release likely be able to clear the 29mm-wide Grand Bois tires I'm going to use. So I'll probably have to use Tektro R538s, which aren't quite as pretty, but are still very nice. And I think I'll use some TA pedals I have instead of those MKSes. The TAs have more ground clearance, and their cage shape vaguely resembles my bell logo (as does the shape of the Delta headset, the profile of the non-drive-side DA crank, the shape of the bottle cage, etc. I'm obsessive.)

And yes, those Dura Ace brake levers are anodized grey — but they look so good!!






Finally: here are some shots of some new straps M. made yesterday (a present for her employer). And I was kidding about the waiting list, of course. Currently we have exactly one person in line, and he's my friend.




8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Read something about anodizing and find out that in order to anodize something you MUST FIRST polish it.

AH said...

This means that using a good anodizing remover will save lots of time -- instead of sanding it off, just chemically remove it and polish up the smooth aluminum beneath. Good tip!

michael said...

Has the polished aluminium changed appearance since you posted this in 08?

AH said...

No, these cranks are still looking gloriously shiny. See some of my latest posts for my blue bike (Niles) on which these cranks are mounted. Some dirt and dust on them, but still lovely.

michael said...

Great, I might try it on a set of rims. How can you tell when the anodizing has been scratched of in the first step?

AH said...

Keep in mind that different aluminum alloys polish up very differently, so it's a bit unpredictable. Some tarnish quickly, some not at all; some don't even polish up to a shine at all.

When you're sanding off anodizing, you can see it come off and the aluminum underneath. Not much mystery to it generally!

Anonymous said...

I also like the look of polished aluminum. Unfortunately, bare aluminum is soft and easily scratched. In contrast, the surface layer of anodized aluminum is extremely hard - it's just under diamonds - and very resistant to corrosion. If the metal is polished and chemically brightened first, then anodized, it can also rival the reflectivity of bare, polished aluminum. Note that only the purer alloys of aluminum, such as 6061, are suitable for anodizing in this situation. Others can produce unsightly results due to the higher content of other metals.

Anonymous said...

I also like the look of polished aluminum. Unfortunately, bare aluminum is soft and easily scratched. In contrast, the surface layer of anodized aluminum is extremely hard - it's just under diamonds - and very resistant to corrosion. If the metal is polished and chemically brightened first, then anodized, it can also rival the reflectivity of bare, polished aluminum. Note that only the purer alloys of aluminum, such as 6061, are suitable for anodizing in this situation. Others can produce unsightly results due to the higher content of other metals.