30 January, 2009

Shellac and Bar Tape, a Guide


We still get lots of questions about applying shellac to handlebar tape. A couple of years ago I wrote some posts that, I think, are a pretty good guide to this subject. So I've cleaned them up a little and am re-posting them as one definitive document:

Shellac Basics

Many of the great French builders wrapped handlebars in cotton tape coated with shellac. Today cork tape is the norm. While cork tape does provide better cushioning, it is fragile and needs to be replaced at least once a year. Shellaced tape lasts for years, or even decades. When it gets worn you can simply brush on a fresh coat. As for appearance, well look at the photos and judge for yourself. Even well worn shellaced tape has that special beauty or patina that's only evident in natural materials.

Yes, shellac is a natural material. It is the crusty secretion of the lac beetle (Coccus lacca) that lives in the forests of Assam and Thailand. It is a natural polymer that when dissolved in alcohol makes a varnish like coating sometimes called "French polish". Though I've never eaten any, I understand it's edible, however, denatured alcohol is not. You could dissolve it instead in good-natured (grain) alcohol.

Shellac may be bought pre-mixed at most hardware stores in clear and amber tint. But it is better to mix your own from dry flakes (which are available from VO) that come in clear, amber, and garnet shades. Shellac should be fresh. Old shellac may not dry, will not be as clear, and may not be as water resistant as fresh. It must also be free of contaminants, such as water. It is better to mix a small quantity of flakes with denatured alcohol as needed, rather than rely on a pre-mixed can that might be old. And since pre-mixed shellac is often available locally only in quart cans, the average rider will never use up even half a can before it gets old.

Shellac will add its tint to cloth tape. I like to experiment to find the best color tape and shellac for a particular bike. This photo shows the three colors of cloth tape I was considering for a new bike.

Here they are with a coat of shellac.


Wrapping Bars

I wrap handlebars in a style I've seen on some Alex Singer bikes. I think his method differs from that used by other constructeurs, for those of you who follow such trivia. Both methods involve starting the wrap at the stem-end of the bar, thus eliminating the electrical tape or twine required to finish a wrap started outboard and leaving a cleaner looking bike. But Singer's method involves wrapping the top half of the bar from the center out, and the bottom half from the end in. "But why is this better and who cares?" you ask. Well, Singer's method not only looks better, but it prevents the rider's hands from 'curling' the tape as he pushes forward on the drops.

If using brifters or aero levers, I secure the cables with duct tape (the good metal foil type) rather than with black electrical tape which can show through light-colored cotton tape. The metal duct tape is also used to secure the ends of the cotton tape under the brake lever hoods.

Wrapping bar tape is not easy and it often takes me several tries to get it looking nice and even. It usually takes 3 rolls of tape for any, but very narrow, bars.

Wrapping from the center toward the brake lever. Note the lack of twine.


Wrapping from the bar's end toward the brake lever.


Applying Shellac

Shellacing handlebars is pretty darn simple, but I'll go through it step by step anyway.

Tools:

I've spent countless hours varnishing wooden boats, and one thing I've learned is that it pays to have a good brush. Good brushes hold more shellac and so don't need to be 'dipped' as often. They leave a smoother finish, and they last almost forever. I won't suggest you buy a $50 varnishing brush, but a decent quality bristle brush (like the one in the VO shellac kits) is worth the investment. I use a semi-disposable brush called "The Fooler" that's popular in the marine trades. It's made in Indonesia from pure bristle, has a proper wooden handle and costs around $3-$4.

In addition to a brush, you'll need a bit of masking tape and some alcohol to wipe up any spills and clean your brush.

Preparation:

First mix your shellac according to the instructions. Remember to use only denatured alcohol from the hardware or paint store, never rubbing alcohol which contains water. Shellac flakes take a long time to dissolve, between 8 and 24 hours. I mix in an old glass mason jar that I leave on my desk so I'll remember to give it a vigorous shake every hour or two. That way I'm ready to shellac after work.

If you use aero brake levers or brifters, secure the cables to the bars with electrical tape or metal foil tape. Tape your bars and put a wrap of masking tape (or any type of tape) around the center section of the bar to keep shellac off. Spread a drop cloth under your bike, or roll it outside. I don't bother to mask-off the bike because any shellac dripped on it can easily be wiped off with a paper towel dipped in alcohol.

Application:

I pour as much shellac as I think I'll need into a paper cup or old jar; that's about 6 or 8 ounces for 6 or 7 coats. If any is left over after the job is finished it will be discarded, not poured back into the original container. This ensures that the original shellac is not contaminated.

The first coat of shellac will fill the weave of the cloth and use up as much shellac as all the subsequent coats. Brush it on as evenly as possible and don't leave any dry spots. Wait at least a couple of hours after the first coat to allow this first thick layer to dry. The longer the better. The next coat will darken the tape and be much easier and faster to apply. It will also dry in less time, 30 to 60 minutes. You can keep adding coats as soon as the previous one has dried until you archive the desired color and texture. But don't put on too many coats, or the bars will get slippery when wet; leave a little texture. In between coats I wrap my brush in Saran wrap to keep it from drying out rather that washing it.

That's all there is too it.

63 comments:

Aaron Thomas said...

Two follow up questions:

1. How do you clean the brush afterward, assuming it will be used only for shellacking bars in the future? Denatured alcohol? Water? Turpentine?

2. Where do you get denatured alcohol? Hardware store? Is it different from rubbing alcohol you might get at a drugstore?

Chris Kulczycki said...

Use denatured alcohol for cleanup. Never use rubbing alcohol because it contains water. Denatured is available at hardware and paint stores, not at drugstores.

Anonymous said...

Chris,
I've been wrapping bars for 48 years, and always feel clumsy at it,
so I feel better that you also find
it demanding.
Preston

Salvo Lutzery said...

Hey Chris, thanks for the tip(s) on wrapping, etc. But I was hoping you could comment on how you wrap around the brake levers. I have had trouble with cloth tape at the back of the levers, and my friend at the LBS simply told me to "use cork tape. There is a reason almost nobody makes cloth anymore." I disagree, however and have a feeling I need to use more than two rolls to get it right without running out at the end.
Also, a little hint I have picked up: For those who want some extra cushion under their cloth tape, go to a hockey pro shop and pick up a cheep roll of white cotton tape. The roll will last for many tape ups and is nice and durable, but not quite nice enough to use by itself in my opinion, so nice bike tape is nice to have on top. I played hockey for years and years, so I have an affinity for the stuff.

Anonymous said...

From your shellac kit, what quantity of flakes is mixed with what volume of denatured alcohol? Is there any particular mix of flake colors that you tend to favor? Also second Salvo's request for your thoughts on wrapping around the levers. Thanks, Jack

Ty said...

Nice comprehensive post. Here are a few variations some folks may wish to consider:

I like the padding of cork tape, but the look and feel of cloth. For my bars I first wrap in cork, then wrap in cloth, then shellac. A fresh layer or two of shellac is applied every couple of years. Some won't like resultant thickness of the padded bars, but it works well for me. On one bike I've only double-wrapped from the hoods up, and not from the hoods down. This produces a weird aesthetic, but is very functional.

My wife's bike has shellac over light tan cork. The shellac wears off quicker from the cork than from cloth, but still works well and looks nice. On her bike I re-apply a layer or two of shellac about once a year.

Chris Kulczycki said...

The VO kits mix with 12oz of alcohol for what is termed a "20 pound cut". Instructions are included.

If you come at the brake lever from both ends, as described in the post, then taping the lever is pretty easy to figure out, though not simple to explain without a lot of photos.

Anonymous said...

I think it takes less time and effort to baseball stitch some elkhide covers on the bars than go through the shellac procedure! But I've heard it's a good idea to put a few cloth tape wraps on the bars to hold the elkhide from sliding.

Anonymous said...

I switched from drops to upright bars on my touring bike and went with the cork grips and shellacked them myself with Zinser Bullseye shellac from the local Home Despot.

I am sorry I did. In warm weather, when my hands sweat, the shellacked grips become incredibly slippery, so I can't ride without gloves.

Oliver said...

Has anyone shellacked light green bar tape/cloth? How did the color turn out? Thinking about matching the color of the green Brooks saddle...

Ian Dickson said...

I put maybe seven coats of amber shellac on some light green tape, and it turned a deep, deep olive. It's nice. With clear shellac you'd get something completely different.

Chris Kulczycki said...

Anon makes a good point about the bars getting too slippery. Don't put on too many coats; leave a little texture. After the first coat the tape will feel like sandpaper; after ten coats it will be like glass. You want something in between

Anonymous said...

BTW, Chris, I gave the cork grips only three coats. But of course, cork is smoother than cotton tape to begin with. I think I should have stopped at one.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the guide!

couple of tips from my wood working experience. first I like to use a mason jar for my shellac. I leave my brush suspended in it with a rubber globe sealing everything inside. That way, there is no clean up between coats and no fumbling with seran wrap. I use the same principle when finished, except that I store the brush in a mason jar with an inch or two of denatured alcohol and a glove on top to seal it. works great!! I can use a nice brush without ever cleaning it.

Allan Pollock

C said...

Nice article though I have two suggestions:

For taping cables use narrow strapping tape. It's clear with thread in it. Doesn't stretch like plastic and won't show through light colored tape.

For wrapping around bars a very easy solution is to first figure out where you want your levers. Tighten them down and then apply two short pieces of strapping tape in a X on the back of the brake lever clamp. You can now carefully remove the brake lever and simply wrap around the clamp. Once you're done taping simply reattach the brake lever. This works best with non-aero levers. Little tricker with aero levers and quite tricky with Ergo. For Ergo I'd only loosen the lever just enough to slide the tap under.

Anonymous said...

Nice tips C, in fact that's exactly how I do it on my bike. The levers I use have no hoods, so removing the lever body is a must if it's to look nice. In fact, just last weekend I re wrapped my bars with light gray cloth tape from VO, then put three coats of amber shellac on it. It turns a nice light brown that has an ever so slight olive tint. It doesn't match any Brooks saddles, but I think it looks nice.

BTW, to be on the safe side I use four rolls of tape. One for above the brake lever, one for below, two on each side. I have some left over, but I use it for all sorts of other things. It works great to silence certain parts on metal fenders, and you can even use a little strip to finish off cork tape wrapped in the typical fashion. Believe it or not, it usually holds just fine.

nick said...

why would you even use cotton bar tape w/ shellac on anything you would actually ride? sure, it looks nice. thats all good for your waterford custom that you take out to look at. but if your going to actually RIDE your bike wouldnt you want something, like cork, for the cush factor? i dont know about you guys, but cork is the cats meow, whether or not i have to pay 10 dollars a year. trivial.

Ian Dickson said...

Nick, I prefer a skinny, hard bar to a cushy, fat one. I have smallish hands, and I like to have something solid to grab onto when I need to grab on. Gloves provide more than enough cushion for me, and usually I'm holding the bars very loosely and putting as little weight on them as possible.

None of my bikes are showpieces, and all of them have shellacked bars. Given the choice between fat, cushy bars and bare metal, I'd take the bare metal. Everyone is different.

James said...

The "extra cush," gell pads and supposedly improved "cork" isn't all that relevent when you have a more comfortable riding position. If I set up a bicycle according to my needs, as opposed to the requirements of any particular bicycle scene, I can ride without tape just fine. When my handlebar cloth wears out I usually wait 6 months to replace it, I couldn't be bothered. Right now I have cork on one side and nothing on the other and I think I prefer it bare.

Isn't cloth more about grip than comfort?

Joel said...

I am with Ian. I don't like cushy bars.

I use cotton tape on my bike with drop bars.

On my bike with a swept back, I use Keirin style grips with infused cord cut short enough to allow for the brake handles.

I only wear gloves when it is cold (unfortunately more often than I like here in Chicago)

Finally, automatically assuming people who like different grips than you are vain is a mite vain itself.

zoovegroover said...

Chris; How did Singer secure the two sections of tape at the brake lever? Did he do it sort of like 'C' (a commenter) by tucking the ends under the loosened lever body?

justinaugust said...

I've used a layer of old bicycle tube underneath cotton wrap and enjoyed it heartily. However, I really enjoy the feeling of a hard bar - if you're using the right setup, you don't really need the cushion of cork.

john k novack said...

thanks chris for the taping info, i,too, have found this seemingly simple job to be a challenge. perfectionist...
i must say that the sewn on elkhide is a super alternative, i do love mine!

Steve Fuller said...

I too will have to make sure that I bookmark this post. Regarding tape and cloth. I went with the Brooks leather tape on my Surly LHT (this was before I was aware of VO). It has, by far, the least amount of padding out of any of the sets of drop bars in my fleet. It's also the most comfortable. It took me a bit of time to get used to the lack of bar diameter. but once I did, I had no issues with hand numbness or grip. I wish it wasn't quite so expensive, but it does look nice.

Anonymous said...

Any thought on shellaking leather?

nick said...

well i am sorry if i have angered any of you with my ignorance, but my opinion has been swayed. i guess that i didnt realize the venture of it all. thank you and good day.

Anonymous said...

I suppose I might as well recommend the Fi'zi:k tape - it is thinner than cork and thicker than cotton and, to my hands, comfier than both. No gloves.

Wraps very easily (as opposed to cotton or Cinelli cork), stays clean and comes in tons of colours. Reasonably priced.

It may not be my sentimental favourite, but it is my rational one. Only thing I'm not crazy about is the perforarion.

Anonymous said...

Perforation.

Also, it's naughty to flaunt that dashing, no-longer-made, orange cotton tape...

Chris Kulczycki said...

Regarding how to secure the tape under the hoods, once the shellac dries it's not an issue, so I simply use a little square of duct tape.

Joel said...

Well Nick, now you have gone and made me feel guilty for responding as sharply as I did.

Maybe the best way to put it is to affirm the wonderful malleability of the bike. The wonderful simplicity of bikes affords them an inherent flexibility. No matter ones physical ability or preference, there is usually a way to make the right bike.

nv said...

Slippery-grips-Anon,
While "natural" cork grips look better, the black cork grips (VO sells them) are much comfier and don't show dirt so no need to shellac. The black ones are a synthetic/cork mix and are my favorite grip by a country mile - have them on 3 bikes.
If you do try cork grips, I recommend punching a hole in the closed end so you can run the handlebar flush with the end of the grip. Otherwise there is a flexy 3/4" or so at the closed end that is annoying in use. I use an old steel MTB flat handlebar as a punch, sharpened one end with a few passes of a file.

Anonymous said...

I've wrapped hundreds of bars over the years, having been a shop mechanic. I prefer wrapping from the lever up to the stem, and from the lever down to the bar-end.

As you approach the bulge or reinforcement near the stem, cut the tape at an angle to finish in a straight edge with no lump. Yes, this will require a twine finish, but I personally find that detail pleasing to the eye and touch.

The real benifit of wraping up from the lever is no "tape roll" problem - like Chris describes for the drops. Most of us spend the majority of our miles riding near or on the hoods. The area just behind the hoods wears out the quickest. Wrapping from the levers to the center of the bars will minimize this wear and tear.

This method also makes the use of short lever band area strips unneccessary.

- EE

Anonymous said...

After using shellac once, I thought I'd try using some model airplane dope I had on hand. It worked just as well, and is clear, so bar tape color is pretty much what you get. It also lasts for years in a jar or can, so you don't have to mix it. Either clear nitrate or butyrate dope will work, but I like nitrate. It's made from cotton dissolved in solvents. It's available at hobby shops or online: Sig and Brodak are two manufacturers. A pint of dope and a pint of thinner is plenty. It goes on just like shellac, smells bad when you put it on, but soon dries into a non-odorous, shiny, smooth conformal coating. I've had mine on for almost 3 years and it still looks and feels fine.

robatsu said...

I've become a big fan of using braided wrap pattern w/cloth tape. This is what people do to get a harlequin pattern, which some people may find tasteless, but it can be done monocolor and has a couple of advantages.

The first is that the tape is consistently 2 layers thick, not just where overlapped. This gives it a somewhat less "ridgy" feeling under the hand.

The second is that the beginning of the wrap has a nice rolled appearance that makes it look like the wrap was slipped onto the bar.

The third is that it totally recuses one from direction of wrap arguments. It is adirectional, and I don't see how it could possibly loosen up, since if you are pulling in a direction to loosen one of the braid strands, it is pulling the other one tighter, so it is sort of locked in place.

This blog post has a couple of pictures of this on my Fuji America shortly after second shellac coat. I'm not sure I'd do the same color combo again, but the pictures show how it looks at bar ends, etc.

Anonymous said...

Chris: I recommend that the entire bicycle (except for the handlebars) be wrapped in an old bed sheet before applying the shellac. This will keep the brush "fling" from spotting up the bike. Removing the dried shellac from the frame is quite difficult. Andrew

Anonymous said...

But won't three coats of shellac add considerable weight to my carbon fiber bars?

C said...

I second the Fizik suggestion. I can't stand just cotton. People claim you don't need the comfort from cork. No, YOU don't need it. I however do, especially when I'm doing a 200+ mile ride. Also keep in mind not all of us like wearing gloves, especially on warm days as they get all sweaty and gross. Also the "you just don't have your bike set up right argument" isn't true. Not everyone benefits from a higher bar. I raised my bar to be level with my saddle and found out it caused crippling back pain after a few hours. No two people are the same.

The Fizik tape is very nice and holds up great. Good grip, good cushioning and not too bulky.

BTW is strikes me as funny that some people are claiming that an advantage of shellacked cloth is cost savings. You drop $2000+ on a bike but then you're going to complain about $10 every couple of years for tape? Seems like an odd argument to make.

One last tip: if you wrap from the ends to the center in addition to cutting the end of the tape at an angle you can also finish it with a dab of superglue or contact cement to hold the tape in place. Much cleaner looking than black electrical tape.

Anonymous said...

"Crippling back pain" from raising your bars to saddle level? That's very strange. Your back problem must be from something else.

Brian said...

Hey C- you aren't alone. It's funny how bicycle fit theories become religions.

I found riding with my bars higher than my saddle to be pretty uncomfortable and in the end, found that a little lower than saddle height-long distance comfort. For me.

Anonymous said...

Fizik bar tape users, how cushy/comfy is this stuff compared to cork bar tape?
I've seen comments elsewhere online ranging from not comfortable at all to very comfortable, looking for more feedback...

Brian said...

less than cork, more than cotton tape.

It's pretty thin and there's not much cushion, but it's not bad. I put an extra strip on the bars under my palms on the tops for extra cush, and it doesn't look nearly as bulky as cork but it does help.

BG's Blog said...

For years and years I've read countless posts and stories about the shellac treatment from bikelist.org to the Riv Reader, and even back in the BOB days of Bridgestone when the shellac-ers waxed poetically about the unique color variants obtainable if you combine these flakes with those flakes. I've rode shellac-ed bars before, but I still don't understand why cyclists put themselves through the rigmarole of the process unless they are out to recreate a look from the past for accuracy purposes. No, I wouldn't put old Schwinn handlebar grips on my English three-speed (heresy!), but I've no guilt bypassing shellac in the pursuit of my bike restorative aesthetic.

patrick said...

Totally off topic, but any chance you'll be at the MD Bike Symposium tomorrow (http://www.ohbike.org/symposium/) or in the store. I'm thinking about dropping by to look at the Basil Memphis Panniers.

C said...

""Crippling back pain" from raising your bars to saddle level? That's very strange. Your back problem must be from something else."

I was in a helicopter that decided it no longer wanted to stay airborne. My spine compressed 3/4" from the impact. Keep in mind not all back injuries are the same and raising handlebars isn't always a cure for back pain. Raising the bars takes less weight off your hands puts that load on your back. For many types of back injuries (including mine) that is absolutely the last thing you want! Trust me, raising the bars was the source of the pain. It was the only thing I changed on my bike and after I lowered my bars back to where they were I was able to return to riding centuries without pain. I know this breaks from Kool Aid so many people seem to drink but keep in mind the people pushing that Kool Aid are usually not medical experts.

Anonymous said...

Another Fi'zi:k benefit is that it comes off cleanly and is eminently re-wrappable at least a year after installation in case you need to do some lever fiddling.

Re: shellac - I actually find it more useful on cork tape, which won't age with the dignity of untreated cloth and has a more sensitive surface. Just don't overdo it, it easily becomes slippery.

Anonymous said...

I always have an old bedsheet wrapped around my bike. With a bit of practice, it hardly ever gets in the wheels anymore, and the bike stays cleaner.
mb

keithwwalker said...

I have all you people beat. For cushioning, I wear extra large gloves filled with marshmallow fluff...

Anonymous said...

C,

You said: "I know this breaks from Kool Aid so many people seem to drink but keep in mind the people pushing that Kool Aid are usually not medical experts."

You are an exception to the "rule" because you had a severe spinal injury. I'm sure anyone with a normal vertebral column will benefit from raising the bars to saddle height or slightly below. Bars that are too far below the saddle are terribel for your back, but especially for your neck. Apparently the only reason the low bars work for you is because you have a damaged spine.

BG's Blog said...

Speaking of vertebrates, anyone read Neil Shubin's book: 'Your Inner Fish'? I liked it.

Joel said...

"I know this breaks from Kool Aid so many people seem to drink but keep in mind the people pushing that Kool Aid are usually not medical experts."

The adage drinking Kool Aid means being for something without really knowing why.

Most people who praise having bars higher have ridden bikes with bars higher. They are not talking about something they do not understand. They are talking about something they do and like.

Sure, it is quite possible that some riders dislike or will not benefit from having bars higher. That does not mean the others are wrong.

As I say above, bikes are wonderful because they are vesatile. Rather than snipe at someone who puts that versatility to use, we should be happy for them.

Giles said...

You probably have eaten Shellac, they apply it as a shiny coating on chocolate coated peanuts and raisins.

Anonymous said...

great post! not to nitpick, but the lac bug is not a beetle. :)

abedrous said...

Any suggestions on which color of tape (cloth preferably) and shellac to go with to get as close to a honey brooks as possible?

any help especially with regards to things I can get in the USA would be helpful.

Anonymous said...

What a shellacking!

I saw shellack listed in the ingredients for a commercial brand of ice cream sprinkles. So maybe you have eaten.

brad said...

I think that changing the bar tape every year is the whole point. Why would anyone want an unpadded bar tape solution that lasts for decades? The cables and housing don't last that long either so you have to shellac all over again after chiseling off the old stuff.

I'm just not seeing it.

jjg said...

Do you or does anyone know if shellac can damage carbon fiber bars (FSA K-Wing Compact Carbon Road Bar, to be exact). Merci.

Jeremy Burlingame said...

maybe I missed it, but is the first photo orange with amber on it?

Anonymous said...

Is it possible to remove the shellacked wraps without damaging the handlebars in the process?

718 Cyclery said...

Thanks so much for this article...will be attempting this for a client tonight.

Joe Nocella
718 Cyclery
www.718c.com

Anonymous said...

i find it takes for natural tan or on even white cork tape about 6-9 coats to get it into a darker honey (cognac) colour to match my slightly worn brooks saddle...i let it dry about 30-60 minutes before reapplications and have never had a problem doing it this way.

timdaw said...

When using shellac it doesn't matter in which direction you wrap the tape, as long as its neat and each side a mirror of the other, because the shellac is so hard that 'tape roll' isn't a problem. It's only when doing it without shellac that the direction becomes an issue.

Kit said...

I would be very surpised if you haven't eaten shellac. Most candies with a sheen obtain that nice finish with confectioner's glaze, aka shellac. Many drugs in tablet form are also coated with this material, called pharmaceutical glaze in this case.

I have used polyurethane varnish in place of shellac with great success. It's tough and might already be on a shelf in your garage. Don't be afraid to try something historically inaccurate! If you're on the fence about cotton and a varnish (shellac or otherwise), brush a coat over the synthetic tape you already have on your bars. You can keep that glove-less comfort while gaining that beautiful luster. Try it before you replace your tape. A tan coating over white bar tape works for me!

Jrome said...

Somewhere above it may have been stated already, but in most circumstances wrapping cloth tape is much easier when the tape has been dunked in a bucket of water just prior to applying. As it dries it shrinks slightly and will be nice and tight. The water makes the tape lay down and grants it a bit of elasticity. It also adds some drying time, but if you're shellacking you're in for the long haul anyway (multiple coats, maybe some twine, etc). Also, hemp twine can look fantastic if it is coated with Elmer's and then shellacked.