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The Perfect Pinstripe PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 06 August 2008


The Perfect Pinstripe

By Bruce Deveau


It may seem self-serving for a pin striper to be promoting his craft, but please hear me out.  This article is intended to save you time, money, and aggravation in the finishing of your vintage bike.

The perfect pinstripe for your vintage parts, it turns out, is slightly imperfect.  As all vintage BMW enthusiasts know, the motorcycles came with hand-painted pinstripes. Hand-painted stripes have a certain slightly imperfect charm that is impossible to replicate by mechanical means.  They are the perfect finishing touch to a hand-crafted bike.

 It is therefore essential when restoring your classic that the pinstripes be correct.  The value and integrity of a restoration is often judged by what is seen first: the pinstripe.

Yet we have all seen beautifully restored bikes that were diminished by an incorrect stripe, or worse, vinyl tape stripes.  Often this misstep in the finishing touch happens because the owner didn’t have the necessary resources at hand.  Let these three steps be your guide to getting the correct stripe on your bike.

Step One: Find an experienced striper

This is the obvious first step.  If you are going to get your parts striped correctly you will likely have to do some hunting.  The computer has taken over much of the graphic arts world.  Therefore, there are less and less young people entering the hand-painted field.  That means a good striper can be hard to find.  Here are a few tips:

Check with friends.  Look at who has the best stripes on their bike and find out who did them.
Inquire at bike shops.  Most major restoration shops have at least one good striper that they call on.  It’s not unusual for that striper to be several hours drive away, so be prepared to travel.  Sometimes a striper will travel a distance if there are several bikes to stripe, so it may be to your advantage to find others in need and get all the parts striped at the same time.
Go where the stripers hang out.  Check out www.Letterhead.com which is an online site for lettering artists, graphic designers, and pin stripers (pin stripers are sometimes referred to as ‘pinheads’).  This is a popular site, visited by artists from all over the world.  Go to the bulletin board and post a note that you are looking for a pin striper in your area.  They are a helpful bunch and will likely respond.  If you don’t get a satisfactory response the first time, try again.

Check out the striper’s credentials.  OK, you found a striper.  But just because someone says they pinstripe doesn’t guarantee they will do a good job for you.  Unless the person comes with a great reputation, ask for photos of their work or a reference sample.  If they can’t provide either, it’s likely they don’t have the experience you need.  An experienced striper should also be able to give you an accurate quote up front.

Step Two: Take responsibility for the accuracy of your pinstripes.

Never assume that the pin striper knows exactly where the stripes belong on your bike.  Even an experienced striper may have only worked on a few BMW’s in the past, and will not know the precise size and location of your stripes.  You must supply him or her with accurate reference materials if you want to be sure you get the right job.  Here is what your striper needs:

Photos of original parts.  Before you strip your old parts in preparation for paint, take photographs from lots of angles.  It’s a good idea to lay a ruler next to the stripes to give the striper a precise idea of size and location.  Note: if you are using your old paint as reference, be certain that the old stripes are correct…otherwise you could be compounding someone else’s earlier mistake.

Validate your data with original sources.  Books and magazines can be a good resource.  Compare your notes with photos of known original bikes.

Ask your striper if you can be present when he does your work.  This does not mean that you look over his shoulder, but it’s not unreasonable for you to have the chance to view the work while the paint is still wet.  Making a change at this stage is relatively easy.  Once it dries a change is much harder on everyone.  Stripers will vary on this point.  Some refuse to work with the customer present.  Others are fine with having the customer watch.  You will have to work this out.

Good working conditions.  If your striper travels to your shop, expect him or her to be fussy over the conditions.  It’s not about being a prima donna; it’s about getting the stripe correct.  A good striper will expect excellent lighting, good heat or cooling, and a place to work that isn’t over-crowded, dusty or greasy.  These are the conditions necessary for good work.

Step Three: Use the correct materials.

A correct pinstripe will be on top of the finish (not buried in clear) in glossy enamel.  The standard paint of the industry is ‘1-shot’ brand lettering enamel.  This paint will take several hours to dry…Keep this in mind if you plan to travel with your parts.  Allow several days to cure before tight packing for shipping as well.  ‘House of Kolor’ makes a striping urethane that dries quickly.  However HOK is not recommended unless a hardener is added, as it dries flat and is mostly used under clear.  Here are a few other tips:

White is not white.  On vintage parts painted in black, the white stripe is not bright white straight from the can.  It needs to be slightly ‘dulled’ with a drop of black and a drop of golden yellow.  This makes an antique white (though not an ivory) that looks old and is just right.

Hand striping is done by hand.  Be clear that you want hand-painted stripes…not stripes that are masked-off and filled in by hand…there’s a big difference.  Often the masked-off stripe will be too ‘perfect’ and be spotted as incorrect.  In addition, a masked-off stripe will leave an unnatural tape edge.  It’s not unusual for an inexperienced striper to sell masked stripes as ‘hand-painted.’  I know because a long time ago that’s what I did.  A masked stripe may be fine for a line down the side of a car, but will not do for your classic.

Use a template to get the tank stripes correct.  The factory used a template to locate the pinstripe on each tank.  If your pin striper is really invested in correct placement of the pinstripe he should improvise a template…it will actually make the job easier.  Some people trace a paper pattern off an original tank.  Others refer to photos and chalk off some reference points on the tank.  I do both.  I also use a tiny (1/16”) tape line next to where the stripe will be (a visual guide, not a masking guide).

The pin striper should sign his work.   All original tanks were signed by the striper.  The signature consists of two initials located on the left underside of the tank in the same color as the pinstripe.  A signature also appears on the inside of some fairings.

Some final thoughts

Many vintage enthusiasts own several bikes.  Therefore it’s likely that you will need your pin striper more than once.  For that reason and for the good of the vintage craft, it’s worth building a relationship with your striper that is mutually beneficial.  Supply your striper with good reference materials to enhance his job (and your finished product).  Send other customers his way to keep him busy and interested in vintage parts.  Share your passion for these classics with him.  In short, give your striper reason to be interested in classic BMW’s….That’s how I became interested.

By investing in a relationship with a pin striper, you are investing in the continuation of a craft that is at risk of extinction.  Isn’t that what vintage enthusiasm is all about?

© Bruce Deveau 2006

About the author:

Bruce Deveau has been lettering and striping for over 30 years.  He was introduced to the world of vintage BMW’s by Chris and Bobsie Betjemann at Barrington Motor Works and has been doing vintage striping ever since.  He works on the road as well as at his studio in Amesbury, MA.  To contact him: 978-388-3264 or This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Last Updated ( Monday, 08 June 2009 )
 
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