There was a small framebuilder who used to leave some of his bikes unpainted and uncoated. They were bare steel, with a very attractive brushed surface.
Apparently, he would just use (and recommend to others) steel wool for eliminating what little rust might appear from time to time.
He did live in a dryish climate (near Sacramento, Calif.); but many people live in similar climates, or even drier ones. (And it's possible to have a second bike for wet conditions.)
These bikes had a very attractive look, which is why he favored them.
How best to strip a frame's paint down to clean bare metal?
Is there some kind of surface treatment that would help ****** the rust to some extent, and preserve the finish?
Also, I've seen a couple of bikes that had a similar look, with some kind of clear coat over the steel.
What's the best way of going about this?
I have a bare steel frame on a Columbia reproduction bike. there is a little rust but not bad. But I am in a dry climate too. Strip the frame with an abrasive pad that fits on a grinder or drill. Or get it sandblasted.
I treated mine with a light rubdown of wd40. Breakfree for guns would also work.
Don't grind down the finish. (though if it is powdercoat, you will have to, or media blast it)
Use liquid paint stripper. Its cheap and you don't have to do much work. There are sections where it won't take the paint off (for reasons I don't know) so use some sand paper and take the paint off in those sections.
Use caution with the paint stripper. Messy (even the citrus) and caustic.
Heat gun (or propane torch), wire brush and some scrapers. That will get into all those tough places too, I just did one. Some sandpaper and Scotchbrite will finish it off.