One of the greatest pleasures (to this collector), is to find an original bike in fair or better condition. I don't care how good a restoration job is on a particular bike, I would much rather have a nice original, even if it's a bit "funky", Original patina is where it's at. I like 'em "barn fresh". I like them with about an inch of dust and dirt still on them. This is very exciting.
The very first thing I like to do is to take a photo of the bike exactly as I found it (often I forget this step in my excitement to start cleaning it-up). You'll be so glad you did this later. The before and after photos are usually quite impressive. First step is to remove the saddle. Then get out your WD-40 and spray the whole bike, and don't be stingy. Make sure you put some newspaper underneath and work in a well ventilated area. Really spray every nook and cranny. You can even spray the tires. WD-40 is a penetrating oil and it will loosen most of the dirt, grease, tar, you name it. Leave the bike alone for a good half hour, when you come back, you'll notice much of it has evaporated, SPRAY AGAIN!!
Now leave the bike for another half hour. Get some rags, and your tools, and get ready to disassemble. Now, do I really have to tell you guys how to dissassemble? I didn't think so.... Just be careful, and remember that the bike you are taking apart is probably older than you. Use care with stubborn bolts, and rusted screws. Most will come loose with the right tools and some patience. Remember you will want to reuse all the original hardware if possible. Keep a small can of Liquid Wrench, WD-40 or other penetrating oil handy and squirt some when you need it. This stuff really works. Also, Be very careful around decals. Some were produced quite poorly and are sensitive to penetrating oil and abrasive automotive wax and compounds. For example, Iver Johnson decals have a gold metalic pin-stripe detail in their decal, and will thin easily when elbow grease is applied. So, when in doubt, just clean with some soap on a wet cloth. Also some decals tend to crack because they have shrunk over the years, but can be preserved with careful cleaning and application of some clear coat.
As you pull apart your project, put all hardware back into their respective holes and slots. It is much easier to figure out what goes where when you put it back together. Each piece should be cleaned as you pull it off the bike by wiping off every surface with a rag. You'll be shocked how much crap comes off and how the paint starts to show through.
I like to pull the wheels off the bike and, if the tires hold air, I clean the tires on the rims. Put air in the tires and get yourself some Wesley's Whitewall Cleaner (you can use soap & water with a little bit of bleach mixed in also). This stuff is pretty strong, so do this step outside or in a well ventilated area. I also use rubber or latex gloves, cause it is a messy job. Best to do this job where you have a hose handy. I use a stiff plastic bristle brush. Cover the tires with the cleaner liberally, and let sit for a few minutes. Then use the plastic brush and scrub them well. Do the tread as well as the sidewalls. You'll be surprised how black the brush will get. Now spray it down with the hose. Repeating this process always gets even more dirt you missed the first go around. Now remove the tires from the rims and wipe them down with a clean rag, especially the bead portion of the tire. After the tires have dried, use some ArmorAll which not only makes them look a little better, but also protects. Now wipe down the rims completely. If the rims are chrome plated, use some chrome cleaner on them. There are lots of techniques for cleaning chrome, but you should never, ever, ever use steel wool (I dont care how fine it is), it will scratch. Automotive wax works great. There is a product I use called "Quick Glow" that work very well on stubborn dirt and surface rust. I have even heard that aluminum foil works, but I have not tried it. In any case Rims (chromed or painted) should be waxed after being cleaned and scrubbed.
As I dissassemble, I like to put all the sheet-metal parts (as well as small parts) into a box to keep them off the floor and to keep it all together so as not to loose or misplace anything (If your basement looks like mine you would understand). Sometimes it takes me days or even weeks to finish a project, so keep everything in one spot. Remove everything from the frame, including cranks, bearing cups and races, clamps, hardware, chain, kickstand and badge. I keep a coffee can with kerosine to soak the chain. After a few days just wipe it with a rag, and use a wire brush on any stubborn gunk. Park Tool Company makes a great parts cleaning brush that sells for under 10 bucks. It has plastic bristles and a slim design for tight spots.
Be careful when you remove the badge, those little screws can be very tight and most badges are made of soft materials like aluminum or brass and will scratch or dent easily. Find a good small screwdriver with a blade that fits snugly. The right tools make any job easier. So I don't loose those little screws, I usually tape the screws to the back of the badge. Some badges are held in with rivits and can be really hard to remove. I try to remove these from the inside of the steering tube. You can make a handy tool from an old screwdriver by grinding the tip down to a point and bending it into a "L" shape. Removing these can be really tricky, so if in doubt, leave the badge on the frame, and just clean it carefully in place. I use an old drift tool to remove the races and bearing cups from the steering tube and crank bracket. This is basically a steel rod about 10 inches long and about half an inch in diameter. I also use a wooden mallet to tap these out with from the inside because you want to ease them out without damaging or denting them or the painted surfaces. Usually these races and cups are covered with old dried grease (this usually helps preserve the plating from rust) and will clean-up nice with some elbow grease. Disassemble the crank and sprocket because it is much easier to clean and polish it this way. I use an old pipe wrench to remove the sprocket retaining nut, because this nut is over sized and most times very tight. Remove all grease from every part including bearings. I have a wire wheel attached to a bench grinder, and I use it when I need to remove rust or dried grease on unplated screws and small parts. Don't use this on anything that's plated because it will remove chrome as well as dirt. This is a dangerous tool, and I will warn you to treat it with respect. Always wear eye protection when using a wire wheel, those little wires fly off the wheel eventually and could get in your eye. Also every little bit of dirt, rust, chrome, etc., is a potential projectile. Loose clothing can also get caught in the wheel and watch your hands as well.
Have some fresh bearing or cup grease handy. Grease all threads when reassembling. This is insurance from rust and corrosion.
Your bare frame is now ready for the royal treatment. Spray some WD-40 on any gunk that still remains on the frame, and carefully remove all visible crud. Then wipe it down completely with a rag. I use a product called Zymol. They make a line of cleaners & waxes for automotive use, and they work great on any painted metal items such as pedal cars, steel toys, and bicycles. Their greatest product is called HD or High Density Cleanse. This stuff is great! It will deep clean the paint without removing any paint whatsoever. It is truly amazing. You need to use some elbow grease, but boy, what a difference. It will bring back color and it will remove impurities that have been built up for years. Wipe off all excess HD and repeat if neccessary. Repeat this process on all painted parts such as fenders, chainguard, rack, rims, and accessories. And then wax with any non abrasive wax. Zymol wax is also excellent, because it contains a very high amount of carnuba. You don't have to use Zymol wax, but I recommend it. Any quality wax will suffice as long as it is non-abrasive. The HD will work better than any compound out there because it will not remove any of that original paint. You may still need to use some compound to remove more stubborn stuff like deep paint scuffs or overspray etc., then use some more HD and wax.
When you are done with this process, you should see a huge improvement, and want to reassemble to get the full effect. You should finish by cleaning the pedals, these can be disassembled, cleaned, polished, adjusted, and reassembled. Try some Wesleys on the pedal blocks. The saddle can also be disassembled, and cleaned for a big improvement. Shoe polish and saddle soap can be very helpful. The suspension can be cleaned-up also. Any electronic accessories like a horn or light can be made operational fairly easily. Most of the time, dirty contacts or a broken bulb is all that's wrong. Other times it is a little more involved, but having these things work can make your bike much more enjoyable. Just remember to remove batteries if your not going to use the bike for extended periods. Battery acid is leathal on old paint.
There is great satisfaction in seeing the final product. Now is when you should pull out the before photo, for a real thrill!