Monday, June 30, 2014

Meditations on Early Ruin

Doing errands in the city today, I spotted a woman rolling what I took to be a pre-1960s loop frame roadster. From my vantage point across the street, the bike had a look about it, suggesting it had known better days: a wobble to the front wheel, a crimp to the rear fender, a lumpiness to the saddle, an orangey aura around the black silhouette suggesting a generous coating of rust, and a general ramshackleness that marked it as a tired, creaky, longsuffering thing. The rod brakes and generator bottle corroborated my impression of its age. By the time I reached the bike, the woman had locked it up to a pole and disappeared into a building. Carefully I approached to examine the decals - or what remained visible of them, as most of the frame's surface was caked in dirt and blighted with all manner of exotic fungal growths. When I finally could make it out, the writing surprised me: Gazelle Toer Populair. At first I thought the owner might have plastered new decals onto an old frame. But identifying features in its construction confirmed that I was looking at a retro, not a vintage bicycle, made, at the earliest, in 2009.

What could account for such exuberant decay in a machine only 5 years of age? I imagined the bike being tossed, as a prank, off the Peace Bridge into the Lough Foyle, where it served as a playground for aquatic life before being fished out by local boys and sold at a car boot sale. I imagined other scenarios, too. But even as I played them out in my mind, I knew the bicycle's real history was nowhere near that exotic. Though this specimen was one of the worst so far, I have met others here with prematurely aged bikes, with bikes in horrendous condition for which they have no particular explanation.

Ireland is a strange, damp place. Vegetation flourishes. Man-made things fall apart. Both can happen with breathtaking speed.

I am slowly renovating the house I live in, which, judging by its condition when I moved in, I had at first thought lay empty for decades. It was in fact last occupied just 3 years ago. In this time span, rot and mold had crept in with methodical determination, while on the outside weeds and stinging nettles the size of trees smothered the once-manicured garden, their roots cracking brick walkways and stone walls. The plastic on the decade-old kitchen counters had softened and browned in the manner of pre-war cellulose nitrate. In the upstairs bedrooms I peeled off decomposing wallpaper I was certain had been put up in the 1950s, to discover children's scribbles behind it with the date 2007. Even the overall age of the house is not what I had first assumed from its look and feel. It was built not in the century before last, but in the 1940s. I wonder now how many other lovely old houses I spot in the area are really fairly new constructions.

On a cliffside 4 miles down the road stands a North Coast landmark, the enormous skeletal remain of Downhill House. When new to the area and not yet familiar with this structure, I heard locals refer to it as "ancient" as if it were some excavated archaeological site or an early medieval castle. Considering that even from a distance I could spot obvious neoclassical elements, this struck me as unlikely. Still, when I looked it up I did not expect the dates to be as recent as they were: The latest version of the house was built in the 1870s and remained inhabited until after World War II, its trajectory toward disrepair beginning mid-20th century. To think that within that time, the sturdy-looking giant, built no doubt with the finest materials available in its day, became this roofless maze of crumbling stonework - so thoroughly dilapidated that locals (some of whom must surely still remember it intact!), prefer to playfully re-imagine it as an ancient ruin.

There is a trend in some circles of cyclists to celebrate - and even try to hasten - signs of aging on their modern machines. From tattered grips to chipped paint, even spots of rust and tiny dents, such things are cherished as evidence that the bike is authentic and "well loved." This trend can be observed all over contemporary culture, from distressed jeans to the "shabby chic" style of decorating. To a critical theorist, this hunger for decay is symptom of a desire for history in an ahistorical era. But I wonder also whether it is specific to areas where things tend to preserve well - decay requiring either many years or special effort. Here in Ireland, if I want "history" to happen to a modern bike all I need to do is leave it in the garden for a week, then watch it succumb to stunningly early ruin.

32 comments:

  1. Dampness and saltwater tend to age anything made of metal. I recall visiting my brother in law in Hawaii. To my horror, his Bridgestone MB2 was quite rusted for a five year old bike. Take care with any bikes you cherish while living in Ireland.

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  2. I saw an ancient Linus last week. Of course a Linus can't be ancient but this one had similar wear to what you describe. I think the salt of winter New England roads does a decent job at replacing the salt laden air of coastal Ireland.

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    1. Ah, rusted-out Linuses. They had become a familiar fixture in Boston when I was around. But the thing about this Gazelle, is that rust wasn't the main feature. There were parts bent and broken, there were layers of strange grime and dirt; there were things *growing* on it. And then other things growing on top of those things. I would not have been surprised to see an insect colony inside the chaincase. Perhaps this bike was a ridable garden ornament.

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  3. The story of Gazelle Toer Popular is a sign of programming obsolescence. We can also think about false aging marks on modern machines which are a trompe-l’oeil for consumer.
    In that two cases, Ireland is innocent.
    L.

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  4. It's the same thing at the boat yard. Amazing what a little leak / drip here and there can do. Condensation that is allowed to freeze will do disastrous things in short order. Wood de-laminates, shiny finishes get hazy, mold grows, rust flourishes. Add a little salt water to the mix and one can never be busy enough.

    There is something to be said for a nice patina. My old Huffy "dock bike" is a miracle of cheap metallurgy. Keeps soldiering on. The drive chain will definitely snap ... or dissolve one day. I'll replace it with a Schwinn Point Beach or Point Breeze or something similarly disposable.

    vsk

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  5. My late friend from Cork told me that he never had a car last more than 8 years in Ireland, even if garaged. The rust took everything.
    It is amazing that such a bike as that Gazelle would succumb so quickly there but last for decades in a place such as Amsterdam, when Holland is so very wet and close to the sea also. I think the Peace Bridge scenario might have merit.

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  6. Do you have a Trek Madone and want that weathered vintage steel look ? Try Rustall.
    http://www.rustall.com/

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  7. Is it possible the Gazelle is also victim to modern cheapness in materials etc? Looks like a solid dutch oma, but is a bso. I cannot imaging wanting to 'age' my bikes as they are all so old that I am fighting rust and ruin to various degrees. The pacific is not as bad for rust, but the PNW dampness does so much damage.
    There is something to be said for building cob houses as was the way for so long in the British Isles and Ireland. Solid mass, whitewashed walls every few years. Watch out for rising damp, something my dad speaks of in horror having grown up in Scotland. Post WW2 things were dire, rations of heating materials and not enough money to heat to keep houses dry, people got very sick.
    I've had cottages out here with green and black growing up walls, and thus permeating everything around it.
    I do not leave bicycles outside, even over the summer.

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  8. I think the rusty bike in this post may have used Rustall, mentioned above, the rust is just too perfect, I really changed my ideas about rust on bikes after seeing it ...
    http://bicyclesinnewcastle.com/2012/03/20/cool-things-in-hamilton-islington-today/

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  9. how do you know they were fungal growths and not bacterial? :)

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    1. The growths were voluptuously mushroomous.

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    2. "The growths were voluptuously mushroomous."

      You had fun saying that as you typed it, didn't you?

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    3. I had fun reading it...

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  10. I would be interested to know how your unpainted Brompton holds up in that climate. Love the raw finish, but I was not brave enough to go for it when ordering mine!
    Marie

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    1. Just to clarify, it is not unpainted, but coated with a clear lacquer. I've had the bike for 2 years and 3 months now, and it's lived in Ireland for about a year total. I keep it indoors overnight, but am out and about on it so much during the day that it spends quite a bit of time outdoors overall. On some of the components and bolts rust builds up quite quickly when I don't clean it. On the frame itself there is almost none - except a couple of teeny-weeny spots near the joints where the lacquer must have gotten scraped off over time. I've put clear nailpolish on those areas for now and will ask Brompton about a longer term solution. But bikes that are painted in a standard manner develop rust spots all the time, especially if you scratch the paint. So far I don't see my clear-coated Brompton being any more susceptible than an ordinary bike.

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    2. A clear-coated Brompton (or any other bike) would ultimately suffer more from rust because there isn't any primer under the topcoat. Good primers have a high Zinc content and Zinc has this neat relationship with steel(maybe some other metals as well but I don't know) where it tries to creep over the whole surface through galvanic action.

      If you scratch a well primed or galvanized steel surface you can observe over time how the zinc coating spreads to cover the bare steel. If there is a thick enough coating it's amazing how large a breach it will eventually cover. Zinc is like the Father of a Teenaged girl, constantly monitoring hemlines, bare shoulders and the proximity of slavering teenaged boys, ready in all circumstances to throw himself headlong into the breach in a desperate, but doomed campaign of protection and self sacrifice. The steel bike frame would of course be the Virginal Daughter and the Knuckle-dragging, slack-jawed leering male would be represented by all the dirt, refuse and FILTH outside the safety of the cottage door...

      I am Zinc.

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    3. "If you scratch a well primed or galvanized steel surface you can observe over time how the zinc coating spreads to cover the bare steel. If there is a thick enough coating it's amazing how large a breach it will eventually cover."

      Did not know that. Interesting, because I have seen bikes with fairly minor scratches in the paint develop rust in those scratches. Would this be a result of the bike not being primed properly (or at all)?

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    4. There are good primers and less good primers. A good primer for steel usually has a healthy dose of Zinc to add some corrosion protection where a cheap primer is more about making a thin finish stick and look presentable. Look at almost any year old Mall-Wart b.s.o. and it will be covered with rusty scratches and spots, a 40 year old Schwinn, not so much.

      I'm not sure how many bike makers go for corrosion protection instead of just trying to save paint so maybe I should be more careful about making blanket statements but I would be surprised if Bromptons with traditional paint jobs didn't have a good Zinc bearing primer.

      Spindizzy

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    5. There are certainly manufacturers that do not use a primer at all.

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    6. Phosphatizing (aka Bonderizing) first, then zinc primer. Chicago Schwinns and Raleighs did this. Most bikes no longer do this basic stuff, even at the high end. It's not just that it costs real money to perform these steps, many do not know of them at all. For home use phosphatize is a bit tricky, zinc is illegal. It is possible to keep bikes alive a long time, even in inhospitable climes. Witness the 80 year old Claud Butler displayed in these pages. Regular wipedown with the proverbial oily rag works well too, presuming the owner can cope with an always somewhat grungy bike.

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    7. Ahoy! Anon 4:25!

      We still have Zinc primers on the hardware store shelves in these parts. The big brands like Rustoleum and Krylon market them specifically as containing Zinc. In use they appear to be just like in the past. I don't see the Airplane guys favorite Zinc-Chromate anymore but I understand that was more about the Chromate part of the equation, I dun'no.

      The cold galvanizing sprays I used to get at the electrical supply houses are creeping back onto the shelves but who knows whether they are as Zinc rich as before, but even a little is better than none for corrosion prevention ( if not the health of ones liver) but I agree, the oiled cloth is perhaps the best approach.

      Spindizzy

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    8. "80 year old Claud Butler… Regular wipedown with the proverbial oily rag works well too, presuming the owner can cope with an always somewhat grungy bike."

      I think that is exactly how the original owner maintained this bike.

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    9. Yo Spin

      I don't know what you're buying. Zinc left the market 20 years back. Through most of the 90s when really necessary I could get metal paints with various subterfuges now past the statute of limitations and also past usefulness. I know the owner of my paint store extremely well, he tells me the problem is statutes. Could be it's only state law but I don't think so. I have seen zinc in the large print when the fine print gives 0.01%. You've got me wondering, I'll look around some more.

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    10. Hello again Spin

      Just back from paint store. My guy is enough an industry insider PPG just bought a share of his brain for a hefty retirement bonus. He was flabbergasted by your news. We went online together, he was dubious at first there was any significant amount of metal involved but it looks real enough. And he just couldn't get how product was in distribution and the first he'd heard was from me walking in. Yes, it had been illegal.

      Got a story how well zinc chromate works. Way back in 1983 I met a large & elaborate terne plate architectural cornice. Rusted bad. Galvanize was thin in the first place in 1881 and all the manipulation hadn't helped. 102 years had done some damage. Best choice seemed to be replace it in copper but repro is repro. And the price tag was 6 figures with no firm estimate forthcoming, just T&M. There were still a couple guys alive in Chicago who could theoretically have repaired it with original method, they were way too old to work on scaffolds, didn't think they could teach anyone techniques in a reasonable amount of time. They did agree the metal was done for. I put on 8 gallons Rustoleum zinc primer. Couldn't dismount half of it, couldn't prime all of the backside. Thirty-three years later the landmark remains in perfect condition. Topcoat has worn through a couple times because it's a severe exposure. Prime & metal are fine. Zinc works.

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    11. I really, REALLY like it when I'm right, even when my rightness is just not being wrong. I also hate it when I'm wrong but have sort of gotten used to it...

      Spindizzy

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  11. we don't quite have that problem in California. I live where it's wetter and more damp then much of the state, but still it's not unusual to go from April to October/Novermber with barely a hint of rain. things stay pretty well preserved in the warm dry air. though we are a "newer" state, so finding a house built in the 1870's is considered "ancient".

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  12. Countertop plastic laminates don't get soft, the particle board beneath them does. (If you have some local plastic that is really soft, dump it now. Lord knows what it is outgassing and leaching.) Had the particle board been sealed before installation your counter would still be alive. Sealing everything and designing to vent/drain water takes time and patience.

    There are some extraordinary newer sealers available but I can't know what is marketed in Ireland. I've got raised bed gardens in the yard, boxes made from No.1 pine protected by traditional linseed oil. Oil thinned so it soaked in. The boxes have been out there full of wet dirt, rained on, snowed on, frozen, for ten years now and they've got more life. Neighbors less patient get to replace their boxes in three or four years.

    Occlusive waterproof coatings always fail. They are never so complete as one imagines, then they wear through. Wear through at a single point is enough to finish any coating. Penetrating sealers work. Prime and backprime everything. Especially prime endgrain. Prime every cut. Beeswax on every nail and screw. The hardest problem I've encountered in damp climate is getting the materials dry the first time. I know of no coating that will work well applied to wet wood.

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    1. No-no, the plastic itself had degraded. And yes, countertop is gone now.

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  13. You may find this article on the Brompton website interesting and reassuring: http://blog.brompton.com/2014/03/19/paint-and-rust-protection/
    The writer's answers to queries in the comments are also helpful. It sounds like clear nail varnish over any nicks/scratches is the way to go.

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    1. Excellent - thank you, I missed that!

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  14. This reminds me of a puzzling trend that I have observed among some musicians over the last several years called "relicing". It involves taking a brand new guitar and using substances and tools such as paint thinner and sandpaper to give it an aged, well played and road worn look, thinking that it gives the player more of an appearance of "credibility". Major manufacturers' custom shops such as that of Gibson and Fender even offer it as a service now. I'm of a mind that this process should occur naturally (both the aging as well as the credibility) and take every care, as I believe any sane person would, to ensure that my expensive instruments stay as free from harm as possible. Ah, well. To each their own, I suppose.

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