Mesmerising Metallics - and the Colours That Go with Them

[early Raleigh in unpainted steel, image via A. Weed]

I love the look of silvery-metalic bicycles: stainless steel, clear-coated steel, chromed, nickel-plated, silver paint, even titanium. And though I do not own such a bicycle myself, it is nice to live vicariously through others. One of my readers, Jim P. , is getting a stainless steel bicycle from Royal H. Cycles that will be ready in a couple of months. 

[stainless steel Gerhard Marshall bike at DBC, image via Lovely Bicycle]

Jim's bicycle will be fitted with an internally geared hub and upright handlebars. And while waiting for the frame to be finished, he is trying to decide about colour. The frame will mostly be stainless steel, but he is considering a secondary colour - for some panels, Royal H. insignia, and lug outlining - and has asked me for advice. After thinking about it, I realised that it is actually quite difficult to decide what goes with stainless steel, or any silvery frame.

[Co-Habitant's silver Motobecane, image via Lovely Bicycle]

One direction to take, would be to go for low contrast. For instance, the Co-Habitant's vintage Motobecane Super Mirage has black insignia and decals that blend in with the frame colour. I have also seen beige, navy blue, white, and coppery-gold used in the same manner: to break up the sea of steel, silver, or chrome without attracting attention to the secondary colour.

[chromed Rene Herse, image by Mike Kone via J. Ferguson]

Or one could go in the entirely opposite direction, and choose a colour that creates a strong contrast. Red seems to be a popular choice when going this route, like on the Rene Herse above.

[chromed Alex Singer randonneur, image via cyclezine]

or on this Alex Singer

[chromed Waterford bicycle, image via velospacee]

or on this modern Waterford, which I believe was built as an homage to the vintage Schwinn Paramount (though could somebody please explain that saddle?...).  I have also seen the high-contrast look achieved with a lemony yellow (on a vintage Panasonic touring bike), and I think orange and pink can work pretty nicely as well - for those who like those colours, of course.

[nickel-plated bicycle; via Steve on Bike]

One colour Jim was considering was turquoise, or blue-green. I was not able to find any examples of this colour integrated with the frame, but you can sort of tell how it would look next to the stainless steel based on the picture above. Personally, I think this would be a great choice. It would not provide quite as much contrast as red, yellow, orange or pink, but it wouldn't blend in with the frame either. It would be an interesting and unexpected combination, and would evoke a shimmery seascape - which would be fitting, as Jim P. lives near the water. If it were me, I might also choose violet - which would offer a similar degree of contrast as the turquoise, but in a slightly warmer tone. And I would definitely keep the secondary colour to a minimum - maybe some narrow strips on the seat tube and downtube instead of full panels.

[chromed Peugeot PX10 via fixomatosis]

Of course if Jim is feeling indecisive, he can go with a little bit of everything and choose the rainbow look - which, if done in moderation, I in all seriousness think could look nice.

[silver Royal H. track bike, image by Eric Baumann]

Generally speaking, what do you think of stainless steel as a frame material? - in of itself, as well as in comparison to chromed frames, nickel-plated frames, titanium, and "plain old" silver paint?  Personally, I think stainless is a great idea, especially for those who live near salt water, or who cycle through the winter. And the finish looks fantastic to me. But I was surprised that I was not able to find any good images of stainless steel bikes on the internet. I have seen a few in person, but apparently not many builders are showing them off online. Bob Brown does have a few here, but I can't find one of a fully built up bike without a carbon fork. There are also a few by Bilenky, such as this one, but I am a little confused by the wiring and the components these bicycles are fitted with. Feel free to point me to any others, if I have missed them. Of course, when Jim's bicycle is finished I will take loads of pictures, so the internet should have no shortage of stainless steel "bike porn" after that point!


  1. Well, that's my favorite ever Lovely Bicycle post ever! Wonderful shots, great dissertation!

    Yours, Adam:

  2. Thanks! - though I was disappointed that I could not find good shots of classic stainless frames.

  3. Let me introduce you to Mr. Bob Brown.
    Does not get any better! He makes some of the most beautiful and well thought out frames available and is quite the specialist in SS.

  4. I have seen his website and the frames look beautiful, but I was not able to find pictures of any built up bikes without a carbon fork (I've added this to the text now, last paragraph) - do you know of any pictures of his builds?

  5. *faint* so beautiful!

    As far as paint goes, if I were Jim P., I'd like the insignia in black outline and absolutely nothing else (panel-wise). I'm slobbering over these photos! Lucky him!

  6. Stainless steel frames have been made before. I've never ridden one myself, so I can't speak for the ride qualities. But, from what I understand, they aren't quite as strong after they're welded or brazed as the chrome-molybdenum or manganese-molybdenum steel frames. And stainless steel is more difficult to weld or braze.

    On the other hand, Reynolds' new 953 tubing is a stainless steel. So, perhaps, metallurgy has advanced to the point that it's a viable material for bikes.

    Unless it's properly done--which is a very expensive process-- I wouldn't get a chrome- or nickel-plated frame, as attractive as they are. If the steel isn't prepared properly--and, even if it is, if it's exposed to continuous damp conditions--the steel will rust from inside, as the chrome and nickel are just porous enough to let moisture in but not to let it out. Think of it as a sort of reverse Gore-Tex.

    That said, I've seen some lovely chromed frames. In particular, I recall a Frejus track bike I once saw. Its chromed frame--made, if I recall correcty, in the early 1960's-- had translucent dark blue panels on the seat and head tubes tube that looked rather like stained-glass windows.

    As for titanium: It's the only material besides cro-mo or mang-mo steel that I'd consider for one of my "nice" bikes. However, I wouldn't get a lower-cost titanium frame, as they are made of lower-grade alloys. To make up for it, more material is used, which can make the frame nearly as heavy as one made of steel. A better titanium frame, on the other hand, has nice ride qualities and is light.

    If you ever decide you want a titanium frame, Seven makes some of the nicest ones I've seen. I've ridden Litespeeds and liked the ride of them; Merlins aren't half-bad, either. None of them come cheap, though.

  7. Justine - Thanks so much for the information. I am planning to test ride a Seven bicycle soon, so stay tuned. Of course the test ride report will be from the pov of someone who is not their typical customer, but that in itself might be interesting.

    Re chrome plating - I have seen many frames at this point, where the chrome has peeled badly, or where rust shows through the chrome, so what you say makes a great deal of sense.

  8. My two cents:

    I personally wouldn't go with the bluish green in conjunction with the stainless steel- it would look a bit too 'united colors of benneton' for my tastes- too much of an 80's shopping mall aesthetic. I think the best route to go would be to pick out the colors of everything else that will be going on the bike- the saddle, the bar tape or grips, the luggage, and the tires- and then coordinate the color on the stainless bike with those choices. If going with a brown saddle and tape, and green luggage, red would probably be the best frame accent color, followed by orange. Orange (particularly a slightly burnt orange) would actually be a pretty good choice, as most greys (i.e. the color of the stainless steel) are actually slightly bluish greys, and orange is the complimentary color of blue. If black is the color choice for the saddle, tape, tires, and luggage, there is certainly a bit more freedom, but some restraint would need to be shown lest the bike be forever limited to all black accessories.

    One interesting place to consider paint on a stainless frame, in addition to lug lining and the head tube would be the tips of the forks. Many bikes have had painted forks with bright metal ends, so a bright metal fork with painted ends would be, in my book, pretty cool.

    Overall, i think the best look would be the stainless frame with orange highlights in conjunction with a honey brooks saddle, similar color bar tape, gumwall tires, and gilles berthoud bags.

  9. That Raleigh is simply beautiful; left simply unpainted and silvery, it looks as if it came off the production line this afternoon.
    My own choice of colour accent for a stainless steel bike would be on the cool side but it depends on the saddle. Brown or honey Brooks, I'd go with a darker grey as an accent, or as Finley suggested an orange, or a honeyed tone to complement the saddle. Black Brooks (and why would you not put a Brooks on?) I'd go with blue/green, but not the bright aqua shown on the tapes in the photo above; more of a dark turquoise, almost teal. Particularly in lining around the lugs. My other pic of colour would be violet, particularly if the bike was my own :-)

  10. Carinthia - The owner of that lady's Raleigh actually rides it! They live in a very dry climate, so apparently the "naked" steel is not a problem.

    Personally, I would definitely get the saddle and grips in some shade of brown, not black - to add some warmth to the frame. But I would not make the lug outlines and details the same shade as the saddle. Teal/turquoise and violet strike me as good possibilities precisely because they would offer some contrast both to the frame itself and to the brown leather accessories.

    Finley - painting the fork tips, what a cool idea!

  11. To quote Henry Cutler in his replies to a commenter on his blog "How the Amsterdam Papa Rolls" in July 2010:
    < I’ve toyed with making a series of stainless steel frames for the hardcore fans. They’d be badder than badass but also expensive as heck. The fenders and struts are already stainless (under the powdercoat). Replicating the carriers in stainless would just be going too far though. I’d be happy with a stainless bike with brightly colored carriers though.
    Depending on how faithfully we wanted to replicate the chro-mo design making the frame in stainless steel would add at least couple hundred to the cost. Making it the same weight would cost many hundreds more since it would require working with some very special materials. Doing the carriers and other ancillaries in stainless would get way out of hand since the bending and forming characteristics of stainless are very different.
    Fenders are painted because it generally looks better that way. They come from the manufacturer in Italy polished which looks kind of cheezy. Brushing the stainless does fix that but costs at least as much as powder coating them.
    All types of steel basically weigh the same amount per cubic unit and they all have the same stiffness. What varies widely are the strength and fatigue characteristics. If the very strong 4130 chrome-moly tubes of the Fr8 frame are replaced by less strong stainless we’ll have to make the walls thicker. The selection of suitable stainless tubes is also much smaller so there won’t be many choices in some of the sizes. How much heavier is dependent on what tubes we can find. A kilo or so sounds like a fair guess.

    Alternatively there are some very special structural stainless steel types but they are extraordinarily expensive and must be very skillfully welded.

    Sure it would be super bitchin’ cool, but it’s just not so simple as telling the framebuilder “please make some Fr8 frames in stainless steel” and I think our time is better spent on several other development projects.>

    Apart from the cost: my personal experience with cutlery tells me that stainless doesn't live up to its name unless kept meticulously clean.

  12. Wowowowow love the stainless. I look forward to seeing and hearing more about Jim's bike. I would go for a medium toned brown saddle and extremely subtle oxblood or bottle green accents myself. Contrast but not too violent. I am of the mindset that any shade in the right tone would be fine, though. The tone is what's important.

    I bought a VO mixte frame a week or two ago when they were on sale (they may still be?) and planned to have dipped then coated. Maybe now I'll just have it dipped and clear-coated.

  13. Personally, I LOVE the look of a metallic frame. Stainless steel has an incredible aesthetic appeal - That Rene Herse depicted, for example, is drop dead classical gorgeous. When it comes to color schemes that work well with the reflective surface, it's really tough to beat blacks, reds, the tans and earthy browns of leather. As a designer, my advice in any event is one of minimalism: the metallic surface is a powerful statement on its on and should be complimented; too much color or graphics will compete and the net effect might be overwhelming instead of "oohs" and "ahhs."

    I think the dearth of imagery, though, may have something to do with how diabolically difficult it is to photograph reflective metal surfaces. Even the very best images leave something behind when compared to the original.

  14. Wow, wonderful pics and comments.
    When I decided to have a bike built for me I looked around but, must admit, I thought that if Velouria was happy with Bryan at Royal H, I knew I would be as well. After contacting Bryan, his enthusiasm for building the bike was contageous and I got even more excited. I am trying mnot to pester him with too many e-mails but it is very difficult!!
    I live at the beach for about 4 months out of the year. I am into telescopes and all my telescope mounts and all my counterweights are stainless steel. ANYTHING that is not rusts very quickly out there. We had to replace our A/C unit and I was talking with the gent replacing it. He said you can buy the $3K model or the $12K model. BOTH will have to be replaced because of rust before anything else goes wrong. That made me think of a stainless steel bike. Yes, it is much more difficult to work with Stainless but, I am absolutley confident Bryan is up to the task. Now, trying to decide on a secondary color... Yikes!!

  15. I love the look of the bare metal Bombadil's with the gold decals. Looks great with browns and golds. I could picture the green Brooks B17 special with copper rails as well.

  16. A stainless steel bike with brushed copper lugs would be amazing. (Not sure how to keep the copper from going verdigris, though, but perhaps enameling would help.)


  17. I also love the Rene Herse--I mean, how could you not?

    Some of my favorite metallic-hued bikes have always been the 1960's-'70's Cinellis in silver.

    As for the Waterford: Paramounts were being made around the time Salvador Dali was at his peak. That might explain the saddle. ;-)

    I'm partial to violet or amethyst with silver/chrome/polished titanium or stainless steel. Then again, purple is my favorite color.

    I think seafoam green might be nice, too. It might look something like the photo from Steve. That handlebar tape looks like "Bianchi green," or, to those who don't like it, "Crest toothpaste green." Personally, I like it, with the chrome and other colors, too.

    I like red with metallic hues when they're used with brown leather saddles and other accessories. I'm also partial to cobalt blue and emerald green.

    I think metallics paradoxically make it difficult to choose complementary parts because there are so many possibilities.

  18. I recently came across a beautiful '81 Schwinn Voyageur 11.8 in chrome. Other than the obvious mechanicals, I simply replaced the black seat and re-taped the bars, and added a VO rando rack. The decal panels are mostly red, and I am ambivalent about their continuing presence. Every time I stop, I get compliments. I would agree with Anderson, in that minimalism seems best when dealing with a metallic 'foundation'. In fact, we refer to the Schwinn as 'the bikini bike', since unlike my Bianchi I have not loaded it up with fenders, racks, bags, and clutter on the bars. That being said, however, there is a picture on the VO blog of someone's buildup of a chrome Voyageur into a 'faux constructeur' that is very intriguing as well.

  19. i'm a fan of red trim on chrome frames. lots of production bikes were made in chrome, notably the early japanese-made schwinn voyageurs (just google schwinn voyageur 11.8 chrome) and you'll see tons of them). schwinn outfitted their chrome voyageurs with red trim, and my impression is that schwinn was heavily influenced by the french in choosing that color theme. i also think that with a chrome frame, the trim has to be minimal and understated.

  20. The saddle on the Waterford is a Selle Italia SMP Pro; the Gonzo beak is for sustained climbs. You cant tell from the profile picture, but the SMP has a very wide anatomical relief channel down the center that would allow someone to perch on its tip without killing their perineum.

    If you think it looked bad in that photo, you should see one in real life; they're hideous. Still, I know people who swear by them. My wife really wanted one when she saw it in a bike shop in France after we had been touring on our tandem for a few weeks. Unfortunately, they are as expensive as they are ugly, and we were on a tight budget.

  21. Frits - Thanks for posting Henry Cutler's comment here. I see his point about how time consuming and expensive it is to do stainless steel well. That is why someone who is doing this on commission for a specific client is probably a good way to go. And in terms of upkeep, it makes sense to me that this bicycle would need to be maintained similarly to a stainless steel knife.

    I think all in all, if one is in a position where they are able and willing to order something unusual, it's a cool thing to do - for themselves as well as for the builder.

  22. I've been assured that stainless steel isn't actually stainless unless polished. This is why "stainless" nails and other hardware for exposed outdoor structures will rust, just slower than with other steels. It's too expensive to polish nails. Without polishing, the surface exposes bits of reactive iron along with less reactive chromium. The alloying process is finally just admixture, at a higher granularity than might be wished. The polishing process smears the chromium over the surface, covering the rust-prone metal. If you gouge it? Will rust. Miss polishing a spot of your highly complex surface area, say on an inside face, or in the crannies of a weld? Will rust. Don't like mirror shiny? Unless you poli$h first and then distre$s carefully, will rust. Save on manual polishing labor and electropolish? Surface will be pitted and porous at a molecular level, retaining salts and dirt... will rust. And that mirror polish doesn't offer ideal adhesion to brazing metals, paints etc.

    This, along with the lower strength and relative difficulty working it, scarcity of butted tubesets, etc. makes stainless a rarity in bike frames.

  23. Actually, Stainless steel has plenty of strength and tubes are easily found.
    See . Scroll down to bicycle and you can read all about stainless tubes. Yes,it Is difficult to work with, which is why I have chosen Bryan at RoyalH, and, is more expensive. It is corrosion resistant depending upon the amount of Chromium and nickle present. The more chromium and Nickle the more corrosion resistant it is.
    So, I have looked into stainless steel frames and am quite certain it is what I want. I have no concerns regarding strength and rust resistance. Yes, it is more expensive but I have decided it is worth it and Bryan is eager to build it. Now, about that accent color...

  24. Jim - did you include a link? It is not showing up here, I'd like to read about it.

  25. Hi Lovely Bicycle!
    many thanks for posting the link to my photograph on your blog! My Flickr page has never seen so much activity! Since there seems to be a lot of interest in the bare steel I'd like to share some of my obsessive tips . . .

    Yes, living in an arid climate helps a lot. Even in this climate, though, I store the bicycle indoors and try my best to keep it dry. Also once a month or so I rub on a polish containing silicone. This cleans the beginning of rust and seems to help slow the formation as well.

    Now, this polished steel bicycle is, like I wrote earlier, my current obsession. Be that as it may I am also fascinated with many materials including rust. Some day I might let the bicycle rust. Who knows I may even speed up the process with some ferric nitrate. New rust is amazing! Have you seen it? It contains; along with browns; reds, oranges and even yellows. The problem is that eventually it all turns to dark brown and it's dirty. Rust can be, however, a highly durable, low maintenance, earthy, protective coating for steel when allowed to form evenly on the surface.

    Thanks again Velouria!
    Your blog is great.

    Andy (A. Weed)

  26. Andy, your bike is INCREDIBLE. I really enjoyed seeing it and also hearing that you ride it. I would love to know where you found it if you are up for sharing that story?

    Re new rust, I agree with you-- pretty cool and I am fully down with a bike homage to Richard Serra, but maybe with another bike? Pretty please? :)

  27. JimP - Thanks for the link, interesting!

    Andy & neighbourtease - I have a non-functional early Raleigh Tourist of a similar vintage to Andy's and have been considering ding something similar after seeing his mouthwatering pictures. I would get mine clear-coated after stripping the paint though!

  28. Hi neighbourtease,
    sure I'm glad to share the story on our relationship. Here is the Readers' Digest version . . .

    I went to school in Basel from 1990-93. As Switzerland is a socialist country there are no garage sales. They did, though, have something called Sperrgut. Roughly translated in English this is bulky goods. Every few months or so people would leave what they did not need on the curb for others to come by and take. Some of the 'goods' have probably been changing hands like this for centuries including incredible furniture. Anyway that is where I found the Raleigh along with all my furniture.

    When I left to come back to the US, Swiss Air had a great deal at the time that bicycles were free on international flights. Since then it has traveled with me by train during my gypsy life to San Francisco (3-speeds are tough on the hills but possible), Seattle, and now finally here in the Sonoran Desert.

    Many thanks for your nice words. Don't worry, most likely the Raleigh will stay polished and yes, isn't Serra wonderful?

  29. Hi Lovely B.,

    I was wondering if you have come across the Pederson Model-T in your travels and if there was a chance you could review this rare Danish gem?

  30. Here's what I would do: Go to a very ritzy jewelry store. Look at silver jewelry with gems. Pick a color based on what you like. For example, if you like silver or platinum jewelry with emeralds, use emerald for the accent color.

    Why didn't I think of that 20 years ago!

  31. A great post, thanks... I was just thinking of getting some Gilles Berthoud stainless steel mudguards for my Kona Ute but still can't decide between those or plain black.

    I have been trying to add a few vintage features to my bike but I am held back because I am a big fan of the Selle SMP saddle, like the one you noticed on the Waterford. I run a black Selle SMP TRK saddle and it is the best saddle I've ever had, way more comfortable than any other I have ever ridden. The centre cut-out and the curved rather than flat surface make it feel like an armchair. Shame it's let down by its looks; if only they did a version in vintage leather!

    By the way, I think red or black graphics are the way to go on a stainless or silver frame.

  32. 300 Pound Gorilla - I was thinking tin foil and paint, but I think your way may be better : ))

    Andy - I am imagining you and the bike on Swiss Air! Would be almost unfathomable today.

    Anon 12:13 - A friend of mine rides a modern one in Vienna, but I never tried it because I can't imagine mounting that frame! And I have some pictures of a vintage one here.

  33. I saw a gorgeous stainless(?) Bianchi this weekend at the Philly Tweed ride ( but unfortunately can't find any pictures)! This one had very flamboyant rainbow accents, which I thought was really cool but it's definitely not a subtle choice.

    As for Jim's bike, I think if it looks anything like that nickel plated bike with the seafoam bars, it will be a total knock-out! I'm totally in love with the mix of the frame, saddle, bar tape, and hoods on that bike. And of course with the Raleigh up top... but who wouldn't be, right?

  34. Oh, not a Bianchi! I have a little crush on vintage Bianchi at the moment and will look into fostering a celeste racing bike if/after I sell my vintage Trek.

  35. I am still leaning toward Teal but really like many of the suggestions I have read here. I will keep an open mind. I like Teal because I really like Native American Turquoise and Silver Jewelry.

    The color of Turquoise stones can be Teal, Teal green and Teal blue! The bluer the turquoise the more valuable it is. So, when I talk about the color Teal I know that whatever shade you come up with, it will be a color that Turquoise stones can be.
    I was biking around a couple days ago and came upon the "Market" a place, mostly a tourist trap, where all kinds of "stuff" is sold to the tourists (not all bad stuff either). I walked my bike between the aisles looking at all the trinkets. I came upon a booth selling old coins. When I looked in a glass case I thought "Aha, an 1876 silver dollar!". I'm sure you know what happened in 1876. Correct, Gen Custer had his "comeuppance" at the Little Big Horn. Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were there to greet him.

    As with Native American jewelry, Turquoise (Teal) and Silver go together very nicely.
    But, I will keep an open mind.



  36. sigh, I was looking at some photos on flickr the other day of an unpainted steel loop framed dl-1. so beautiful! My husband has a vintage(it's a mysterious model) botteccia that is all chrome but is painted. We found out that many bikes back in time were chromed before painted. This offered better protection and explains the stunning glow of the paint jobs. I read a blog about a woman who had her bike frame nickel plated. Chrome was too expensive or something so she went for nickel.
    I am not sure I could ride a chrome/silver metal finish bike. In cars the silver usually means wealth-at least what I have noticed. People who like beautiful german cars but don't have alot of money seem to get the champagne cars while actual rich people go all out for the silver. just my observation from having a champagne bmw in one epoch of my life. Also chrome finish cameras seem to go for more than their black paint siblings.
    I also fear such a bicycle would be a thief magnet.
    but such beautiful photos!!

  37. Oh, thanks for this. I'm in the midst of deciding about a titanium bike frame myself, and this goes a long way to convince me that it can still be pretty. My current quibble is the fork. Titanium isn't considered a good fork material, and generally I'm finding that modern aftermarket forks are always black. But I really want brown accents to "warm" the frame a little, and black+brown is hard to wrap my head around. Still, it's a nice dilemma to have.

  38. Here are some very tasteful 953 stainless frames.

    Looks like red works very well. I've also seen very deep navy look great.

  39. i have a nickel plated Bianchi 1982 road bike and dare i say it's a pretty good looking piece of usable art....regarding frames...columbus steel frames to my mind are the best, they have better feel/give on a bumpy road than say the newer carbon frames which although stronger do not give you as good a ride...

    1. Carbon is "stronger" in what regard? It's basically a woven fabric held together with epoxy. It shatters.


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