Building a Custom Single Speed Bicycle

One of the first things I did when I arrived in Vancouver in early March was to buy an old 52cm bicycle frame with fork and handlebars off craigslist. The frame and fork had been partly sanded to get most of the old paint off, and I spent hours making the surfaces as smooth as I could with sandpaper at my parents’ home. I then went out and started buying new and used parts to turn the frame into a real bike, including several cans of spray paint. It took a few weeks of tinkering but, on the day we had a family party for my sister’s birthday, my brother and I were able to put the bike together and surprise her with it. This post is a bit text-heavy, but there are photos at the end if you want to skip the explanation part.

Building a single speed bicycle from parts isn’t too difficult; it just takes time and a willingness to learn. I built a touring bike for myself in 2009 so I figured I’d try building my sister a bike for her birthday. Her old mountain bike was completely the wrong size for her and was in bad shape, so I wanted to build a lightweight machine that would be fun to ride.

To start, I sanded the frame and fork down until they felt smooth enough to paint, not worrying that in some places the surface was down to bare metal while in others the paint was either green or yellow (the frame had clearly been painted more than once in the past). The first layer of spray paint was the grey primer, the base coat.

Bicycle frame, sprayed with grey sandable primer, hanging in garage
Primer on lugs of steel bicycle frame

After a bunch of layers of grey, I used painter’s masking tape to cover most of the frame, leaving only the lugs exposed. I then painted the lugs white, but I have to admit I didn’t do a great job. The paint went on pretty heavy, with drips running down in places and sticky paint easily chipping off in others at the lightest touch even hours later. I did my best to fix the mistakes and then sprayed clear coat over that, and left it to dry for a few days.

Unfortunately, when I removed the tape I found that white paint had made its way under the tape in a bunch of places! With too few days available to sand down and fix the mistakes, I chose to leave a bit of grey primer showing around each lug and focus on painting the rest of the bike red. That turned out to be much easier, either because I was more careful or because the red metallic paint was much more forgiving than the white paint had been.

Bicycle frame with lugs taped off
First thin coat of metallic red paint on bicycle frame
Bicycle fork taped off to paint crown lugs

I also decided to try painting the chainwheel white to add to the aesthetics of the bike, even though the paint will most likely chip off quite quickly once my sister starts riding the bike.

Bicycle chainwheel sprayed with grey sandable primer
Bicycle chainwheel sprayed with white lacquer

While the frame, fork, and chainwheel were drying, I went to a paint store to buy some sign-writing enamel paint which is supposed to be great for painting on metal with a paintbrush. I planned to buy some ivory-coloured paint to cover the remaining grey areas, turning the bike into a three-toned bike instead of my original two-tone red-and-white scheme. Much to my dismay, it turned out the type of paint I wanted is no longer readily available in stores as it’s a bit of a specialty item; people buy it online from the manufacturers these days. With no time to waste waiting for that, I headed home and asked my dad for advice.

My dad gave me a good tip: spray paint can be sprayed into a small container, then applied with a brush! I had no idea, but I tried this with the grey primer and it worked! It’s a bit finicky, as the liquid paint that results from spraying into a little container is not very thick at all. It runs quite easily, but I got used to it and managed to cover all the white paint that had found its way under the painter’s tape. With this done, I decided I liked look of the grey primer as the third tone. I sprayed a bunch of layers of clear coat over the whole frame and fork, then left them to dry overnight – the next day would be our family party for my sister.

Bicycle frame painted and clear coated

While the frame slowly got its colour, I was also working on building the two wheels. After all, a bicycle without wheels isn’t very practical. To build a bicycle wheel, you need four components: a rim, a hub, a bunch of spokes, and a bunch of spoke nipples.

Halo Aerorage 700c 32h rim on my Swiss ball

I bought two white Halo Aerorage rims, along with two white Origin8 Elimin8er tires, from Tracy at Jett Grrl Bike Studio, then headed up to Our Community Bikes on Main & 17th to sift through their bin of secondhand hubs. I found a Campagnolo Mirage front hub and a Shimano Tiagra rear hub, and with guidance from the amazing staff at OCB, I learned which measurements I had to make in order to calculate the appropriate spoke length for the two wheels I wanted to build. That done, I bought some spokes and spoke nipples from a store I won’t name (because in the end I wasn’t too happy with the quality), and plunked myself at home in front of the computer to search for YouTube videos of how to build a bicycle wheel. I found one, followed the instructions, found it not very easy, but got one wheel laced in the middle of the night.

The first 8 spokes connecting the Campagnolo Mirage front hub to the Halo Aerorage rim

When I took my laced wheel to Our Community Bikes to finish tightening all the spokes and truing it (removing the wobbles), it quickly became apparent that I had made some mistake and would have to start all over. This ended up happening with both wheels, and I had to buy two new sets of spoke nipples because I had broken a bunch of them in my failed attempts at wheelbuilding. Instead of returning to the same unnamed store, I went back to see Tracy at Jett Grrl and asked for advice; she builds excellent wheels, so I was confident taking her advice and buying some higher quality spoke nipples for my second attempt with each wheel. This turned out far better, and I finally succeeded in completing my first two bicycle wheelbuilds (they’re not quite perfect, but at least they’re pretty!).

Complete front wheel with Origin8 Elimin8er white 700 x 23c tire

In order to find a suitable white saddle and white pedals to fit with the colour scheme, my brother started calling around to different bike shops in Vancouver. He lucked out on the second call, and together we went to Dunbar Cycles to have a chat with the very friendly guys there. They just happened to have a returned white Fi’zi:k saddle, as well as some white Giant pedals that had been on a display model. The handlebar I got is a black riser bar, so we used white handlebar grips from MEC, plus white handlebar tape from MEC, to make it fit right in. Our Community Bikes had sold me a red KMC single speed chain to match the frame colour, and Jett Grrl had sold me white brake cable housing. I bought Tektro brakes and brake levers, plus a single speed cog and spacer kit from The Bike Doctor.

Fi'zi:k saddle, stock seatpost, KMC chain, Tektro caliper brakes, Giant pedals, Jagwire cable housing and brake cables, Shimano RSX cranks and chainwheel, Spok lights

Dan and I began assembling the bike a little after noon, when I suddenly realised that the nice secondhand bottom bracket (pedals connect to cranks, cranks connect to the bottom bracket so they can spin) I had found was the wrong type and wouldn’t screw in to the frame! I zoomed off yet again to Our Community Bikes where the staff helped me find one that would fit, while Dan continued putting things together.

It took us about four hours in total to put all the pieces together, but it worked!

Check out this video of us surprising my sister with her new bike:

We told my sister that we had a surprise for her, so she had to cover her eyes and walk out the kitchen door, down the steps behind the house, to where a bicycle was parked. We got her to put her hand on the bike seat then open her eyes: ta-da! Her old bike had sloppy red stripes of spray paint on it! We told her it was all tuned up for her, since she’d been wanting a new bike which would be too costly, and asked her to grab a rag from the basement bathroom for us to wipe the rain off. When she walked into the bathroom, her brand new single speed bike was staring back at her.

Happy sister with a new single speed bike
Detail: bicycle drivetrain
Completed custom three-tone single speed bicycle

Bicycle building win. Big thanks to the many staff at Our Community Bikes and Tracy from Jett Grrl Bike Studio for all the help and advice!

6 thoughts on “Building a Custom Single Speed Bicycle

  1. Thank you so much Chris! I took it to the water the other day–it rides really well. Such a beautiful bike, and a great gift. Thanks Chris and Dan!!


  2. Dude, that is such an awesome job for you and Dan to make such a special gift for your sis, and Lisa’s reaction shows it…

    As a big brother myself, I am impressed!

  3. You put together a good looking bike. It gives me hope that painting something with rattlecans can turn out decent! I know I don’t know any of you (found through google images), but your video made me smile. Have fun riding everyone.

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