Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Building in the school of.....

Back in the day, well.....a long time ago when I was a bicycle mechanic and a piss-poor racer I was hell bent on getting a nice frame for all of the nice Campagnolo bits I had collected over the previous four years. I had scammed, borrowed and begged my way into pretty much a Super Record gruppo, minus the titanium stuff that was way to rare and spendy for anyone making $ 3.25 an hour. I put $ 50 down on a Bob Jackson Messina , nice looking frame and it was my size and lucky for me, it was at the bike shop where I worked hanging only about four feet over my head five days a week. A few weeks went by and I got into a bit of a financial bind and had to ask my boss for the $ 50 back, temporarily-of course. My boss said that there wasn't any worry, the frame had been hanging there for two years and was unlikely to sell. Next week it sold and I was really depressed. I was so depressed that I got the stupid notion to build a frame myself ! Tubsets were only $ 20-30 back then so all I needed was the knowhow and some tools. The knowhow thing was not as easy as the tool thing but at least I had some inspiration in the form of frames hanging in the shop-bear in mind, this was no funky little repair shop-this was 'The Bicycle Center" and some of the finest frames available were hanging from the walls. Two that struck me as impossibly perfectly crafted were those of Albert Eisentraut and Bruce Gordon.......and it was a real surprise to me that two Americans of whom I had never heard of were giving all the European builders a run for thier money. The Bob Jackson was only $ 210 while the Gordon was over $ 500, but you did get what you paid for-it was undeniable. While I had no idea what any of these frames rode like I know what I wanted my frame to resemble in terms of craftsmanship-that was if I could miraculously turn into a master craftsman on the first try. Anyone who ever lit a torch could tell me that I was aiming way too high and should just try to build something rideable the first time. Well......it was rideable, but not much better than that , so I better get back on the subject. Here it was, 1978 and I was witnessing the 'American school' of framebuilding....insanely thin lugs, innovative seatpost binders, imron paint applied as lightly as possible to show every minute detail, much the opposite of my Bob Jackson where the enamel was thick to hide all the file-marks and ugliness of a more crude approach. I was to learn that this school included many other names, some that we know today, some that have been overlooked in the ensuing decades since. All shared the same phiosophy: Building in a manner that meant to raise the bar in the craft of framebuilding beyond anything coming from Europe, by far the biggest producer of upper-end racing and touring bicycles. I tried to be a late addition to this group of talented folks but my patience level was not sufficient and after about seven frames I decided to take a break and think about what the hell I was doing with all of this framebuilding stuff . The frustration involved in my primitive approach was really making the whole experience miserable. After a break of nine months I found a new shop to work in and some folks asked me to build them a few frames. It wasn't so tough this time and I found it almost pleasureable , the building process. Soon, Mountain bikes were in demand and I found myself in a new school, the' Fillet-brazed mountain bike' school, only this time I was not a late addition....I was right in the middle of it. Within a few years the lugs that I had been using were sitting idle in boxes under my bench and fillet brazed bikes of all kinds were leaving the shop, so many that I had to quit my job and go fulltime to meet the orders. Within three years I was tig welding , another school, the school of late '80's and '90's MTB and cyclocross framebuilding. This period was not that much different from the original '70's school of trying to outdo the Europeans but this time the builders were trying to outdo the Japanese, the large American manufacturers by finding ways to build better riding and longer lasting frames. By the end of the '90's I was using aluminum,scandium and some carbon pieces to try to build the same bikes I was seeing in the Tour de France and at the Olympics.....I don't know what one would call this school.....the school of looking for broader horizons , a simple case of evolution or was it economic survival? Probably all three. But what is the current school , the school of 'now' in framebuilding ? Hard to say for me.....what I see is a return to the aesthetic considerations of the '70's with some new twists, some good, some that I feel are not . A 'school' should indicate some sort of knowhow based on teachings based on tried and tested methods . Sure, there is room for innovation and though it is said repeatedly that "It has all been done before " and " I saw that on page 34 of the Data book and it was done in 1896" there is always a chance to do something new. That is what I feel the new school might be......the shool of pushing boundaries, but that's what they all have been . The trick is to push the boundaries but not to make a mistake in the process, a bike that is structurally compromised by some new untested method . Where am I going with this ? That's not the real question....the real question is where are we going with this ?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Said 'my,my' from the spider to the fly.....

When you build bikes there's two aspects of the buisness: # 1, the fun part-putting frames together in the shop. # 2 the selling part . This is done through the media, the internet and at various trade shows . Another part of selling is word-of-mouth, but that dosen't qualify for this next chapter in which I conjure up all the dread I feel for this part of the buisness , my friggin' buisness. Selling......I don't know, I just never really felt comfortable with the concept. At some of these trade shows, not all of them thankfully, I feel like we are sitting in out booths just waiting for someone to walk in-just like a spider waiting for a fly to hit the web and be tonights dinner. This part of the buisness to me is so not what I got into this line of work for. To me, the product should sell itself on its own merits, not something I spew out of my mouth or write on my website . Sadly, this is too idealistic of an approach in this world but i do believe that the majority of my bikes are sold because somebody saw them being ridden somewhere and it made a positive impression on them.....not me, the bike. Sure, I want to be very good to the folks that put their trust in me to build them something that most likely they saved a long time for and sifted through a number of choices before giving me a call. It's a tough balance , really- I want to be successful at what I do but I don't want to get to a place where I hate myself because of what I have to do to sell my wares. When I start interviewing myself on my own website I give anyone reading this permission to put a bullet in my head-you would be doing me and the world a favor. Don't get me wrong, I know that any craft like this can be a popularity contest and things like catchy graphics and what I call "logo-wear" go a long way to build your name. For me its different-I spend much more time at races than in shows or updating my website. I want to be part of the cycling community , not just feed off of it. Fullfilling a need to me is much more purposeful than creating something for someone to parade around like some priceless painting ...........but still, some of the folks who build these rolling works of art doing it for the same fundamental reason I build racing bikes - we love the bicycle. We love the bicycle more than popularity, more than prosperity , more than having things like a retirement or health insurance. it's more than what we want to do.....its what we cannot help ourselves from doing. With that kind of motivation and purity of intent there is a good chance that if you have something built by one of these folks, there will be a lot of them in the bike.......consider it a gift -a gift that goes both ways as your trust in them and validation of their craft is the ultimate gift.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Don't take this personally......o.k., go ahead.

Seems as if I am failing somewhat in this blog.....I'm trying to be informative and maybe stepping a bit too lightly, trying to avoid really saying anything that might offend my fellow braziers.....err, whatever you call 'em. This is the internet afterall and I read a lot of completely insulting rubbish all the time , some of it being passed off as infomation when its just another butthead letting off steam or reacting to a fellow butthead letting off steam. O.K., buttheads, react to this. The following is what I really wanted to say in this blog but it has taken me a few weeks to really arrive at the proper headspace to spell it out and no, I'm not drunk. I decided to do this one stone cold sober......."How to not be a successful framebuilder" by the overopinionated one hisself. # 1, Tell people that they will get their frames in 4-5 weeks when you know damn well that it is an impossibility. Being a little late is normal and people expect this of our craft.....its almost unnatural and possibly against some code we all adhere to to actually deliver something on time. My gripe is with the folks that say 4-5 weeks and the frame hasn't been delivered and its now 9 months. Shame on you.......hey, if something traumatic happens in your life and you can't get the thing done, that is acceptable-as long as you have informed the customer of such and don't give them the " Its still at the painter" bullshit. # 2, Telling folks that you have a two year waiting list when you have 5 frames on order. How unbelievably moronic......trying to gain prestige from a ficticious work load.......spare me. You either have the work or you don't. Be truthful and that will actually sell more of your frames . # 3 , Talking down some process or some material that you have not even a micron of a clue about.......this is prejudice and it serves only to magnify and spread your own ignorance. It actually shows class to admit you are not informed about something and would reserve comment on it until you gain such information. I myself have trash-talked stuff that I now rely on for my daily livelyhood......boy, was I an idiot. #4, believing that you have arrived at the top of the heap, the king-the master of your craft. This is for other people to decide, not you. If they say it is so, all the nicer for you. If you state it yourself, the gods of flame will surely set your pants on fire when you least expect it and burn your ass right down.# 5, don't return peoples calls and/or emails in a timely fashion , especially folks who are waiting for frames. What can I say about this that isn't obvious to any person of average intelligence ? I guess maybe the folks who can't get this are not the sharpest minds of our time. #6 , Not respecting customer requests........ahem, who is paying your rent ? Think about it......when someone hires you to build a frame they not only put thier trust in you to do a good job but also to build them what they asked for. Trying to talk someone out of what they want or changing specifications of the frame without telling them means that you are the wrong guy for this particular customer. I'm not talking about a customer who asks for utterly rediculous stuff, those are folks that should be avoided anyway. And now for the final insult.......#7, Putting on fancy trim that actually makes the frame weaker. Yeah, I know all of that stuff looks so cool and it sells like hotcakes but come on, what are we building....bicycles or wall hangings ? Nobody will listen to me about this stuff as I'm probably not the most convincing or reputable person to be addressing this but I have seen lots of overcooked and compromised tubes and my fear is that some people in a few years will be left with some really super awesome looking bike that broke an is rendered useless. Don't get me wrong, there are some uber-fancy bikes that will conceivably last forever built by a few folks that have the structural strength of the frame formost in thier minds. Building such a frame is a feat and truly approaches fine art. O.K., have I pissed some of you off ? Good, now return the favor and do the same to me.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Your steel may no longer be real..

That's right.....your steel, maybe aluminum, ti, whatever might not be what you think it is. An alarming trend that started about ten years ago with framebuiding supplied has gained momentum and could really wind up causing a lot of frustration for small builders. That trend is of course, outsourcing and it is not limited to U.S. companies. Over the last ten-odd years I have purchased hundereds of tubes from several suppliers and directly from a couple of manufacturers. Most of the time I get what I ordered but here and there , what I call " Mystery metal" has found its way into my shop. The first time was in 1999 when I thought I would try Columbus 'Brain" tubing to build a run of seven tig welded cyclocross frames-five of them going to a top local team. On the second ride , one of these frames buckled and ripped at the downtube. The rider was startled but unhurt and phoned me to report the failure. I inspected the frame and realized that the tubes were quite a bit thinner and softer than the last shipment of tubes I had purchased from the same supplier.I immediately recalled all the frames and replaced the front triangles with Tange Presige. Even though I have been building for over thirty years I have little ability to analyze materials I purchase......my hope is that the engineers at the tubing compaines do this for me and all the other builders-I have no metallurgy degree and no hardness tester, only calipers and a dial-guage device for checking butt-length and location. By the time the tubing is on the market we as builders assume that the engineering and testing have already been done. This has been the case in the past but now with this frame failure I was no longer sure of anything, even if the tubes were made by Columbus at all. Was my supplier trying to sell me garbage, hoping I wouldn't know ? I don't think so....I had been buying from them for fourteen years and I'm sure they want me to continue as a faithful customer. So who is at fault for selling this garbage and what the heck was it ? After doing a little asking around I have this assesment : These tubes were the first wave of S.F.C. , which stands for 'shit from China'. Seeing as how the frame failure was nowhere near a weld or braze , I was convinced that the tube itself that was at fault . After sending the tube to an engineer friend of mine my suspicions were confirmed.....not only was this tubing not to spec but its origin of manufacture was a mystery. Since then I have been a lot more dillegent about checking all the tubes that I use , after all-it's someones safety and my reputation at stake. Even if the big manufacturers might not care about that I have to. A similar problem happened when I needed some chaintays to complete a run of aluminum team cyclocross frames. normally, these frames will last a good many seasons. Two frames that got some supposed Columbus aluminum chainstays had failures within three months. These were the first failures of any kind with aluminum in my career. Again, I found the tubes to be thinner and softer than the tubes I normally bought. I checked with my suppier and he said that he was pretty sure that this particular chainstay was manufactured somehwere in the far east and that he had some others of genuine Italian orgin that I could purchase and he sent me samples to try. There was no comparison, the Italian chainstays were far superior and were up to the rigors of racing , one of the bikes wound up winning a nationa championship a couple months later. O.K., so what are we buying ? Who is making the good stuff and who is selling us unusable garbage ? It changes so much week to week that I can't tell you but I will say that if you are going to put someone on one of your custom bikes it had better be made of the good stuff. Finding N.O.S. tubes is a good thing and working closely with your supplier to ensure that you aren't getting any SFC is essential. If we are to be able to continue what we do successfully we have to have a reliable supply of tubing that is up to the task. Most modern high-end steel is made so light that it is too delicate for a big percentage of our customers. Most of the heavier tubing is just crap, soft and poorly made. I don't know what to tell you, just stay informed and go for some good solid mid-weight steel that has no evidence of coming from China. Taiwan is o.k. for the most part , some of the Fujilite tubes I used many years ago were really good. You'll have to be diligent.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Nazis of all kinds

Any time a buider says ; " ****** is the only way to build a frame. " I take this view as a sign of a person who is either 1. Bitter old guy .2. Bitter young guy. 3. Bitter young or old gal . 4. Somebody who really sincerely has one unshakeable view. 5. Completely ignorant of the process he/she is dismissing. I say to these folks, good on ya.....more work for the folks who aren't so dismissive. There are those who unashamedly build in one style and do so with tremendous dedication and attention to detail. This does not mean that they have lots of customers even though their hard work is inspiring and a show of pure dedication. I'm not dissing these folks....they are my heroes. I choose to diss the folks that say " My way or the highway" about building for all of us. I fart in their general direction, or more aptly, aim my torch at thier rear parts to set thier pants on fire. In my mind, building something such as a bicycle is to respond to a need , although it can be a personal expression as well. For me, the expression is something I leave mostly to the end user.....they will express themselves on a ride, in a race or whatever. My expression is what I give them in terms of a tool for racing , training , enjoyment , commuting or just not having to fire up the car to get somewhere. Ironically when I build a bike for a show it will have to have some sort of 'hook' to get people to look at it. Shows are all about the visual......I have never seen an award at a bike show that has anything to do with the ride and/or fit of the bike or even the customer satisfaction. This is really something that drives me crazy but it can't be helped as the bikes are stationary in a show and with few exceptions cannot be ridden. This leaves the door open for folks to develope opinions and prejudices based on purely aesthetic reasons. Not only that, all sorts of structurally questionable practices are viewed as " Innovations" at shows.......I call them " Mistakes that will inevitably put a rider on his/her face ". Where am I going with this ? Probably nowhere really....it's just this: If you want to make a living in this field you'll have to open your mind, but not too much. Consider all the ways that a frame can be put together and go with the method that suits your customers as long as it's sound. Put in your aesthetic but don't let it get in the way of the safety or enjoyment potential of the end user. Don't preach, unless you are a preacher by nature . Don't criticize another builder unless you have in fact walked a mile in his/her shoes, at least figuratively. The folks that diss tig welding probably haven't ever tired it. The welders that don't understand the validity of brazing and/or lugs are maybe too lazy to check that out. People who think that a sub 3 lb. steel frame is durable.......they are just nuts.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

In the style of.......

Here's the scenario: X builder finds himself with a ton of work and a ton of press.....or this is how a lot of folks view it. After a time it looks like this new talent on the framebuilding scene isn't going away-he's no flash-in-the-pan, as a matter of fact his momentum is gaining and his waiting list for frames is getting really long. New builders see this and a lot of them think: " X builder is who I want to be....loads of work, lots of prestige and the envy of his peers." Now some years pass and there are not just a few , but many imitators/emulators of X builder and they are all pretty good, some of them truly talented but no matter how talented they are , they just can't seem to get anywhere near the orders that X builder has. These new guys are making two mistakes in my opinion. Mistake # 1 , they don't really know what X builder went through ( and goes through on a daily basis ) to get so successful and assume that a website and some super nice looking frames will do the trick, maybe get a booth at the Handmade show to really get known. #2, They didn't really get an idea of what thier immediate cycling community needed in terms of custom frames. As I see it, many new builders want to be X builder and forgot that the needs of thier cycling community will go much further to secure a fulltime framebuilding gig than appealing to folks who buy from X builder. There isn't much room for more famous builders in the framebuilding world and there are only so many wealthy collectors who drive that market. The big numbers are the folks who need a custom bike for riding and a good deal of them can't afford to pay what X builder charges and aren't willing to wait for years to get a frame. I say to the new builders : These are your people ! Don't ignore them ! If you build 3-4 frames , put up your blog , make a really super fancy frame and photograph the crap out of it , put your prices up at the X builder level you will probably remain a hobbyist indefinitely. Unless you are the next X builder who had the vision, timing, drive and luck to start a major trend you will languish in obscurity, even if your work is absolutely stunning and your website is impeccably tasteful.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Herding cats

About 5-6 years ago a guy named Don Walker created a bike show specifically for small framebuilders. Much discussion of such a show had been made over the years but nobody could agree on the location, vision , requirements or really anything at all to create such a show. This is the world of framebuilders, opinionated, individualistic, sometimes downright bristly folks who although all involved in the same livelyhood cannot seem to get together on much of anything, at least when it comes to doing something as a group. Along comes Don Walker who pretty much says :" O.K., folks, we have been kicking this around for years, its time for somebody to actually stick thier neck out and make it happen." Stick his neck out he did and as a result we now have the premier framebuilders expo, the North American Handmade bike show. Don's creation is arguably the best place for a small builder to show what they make and some newer builders owe a lot to Don and his creation. One would think that all would be harmonious now that a travelling show ( it travels so that framebuilders who are scattered all over the country can some day count on having the show at or near where they live ) would tame all of these stron individualistic builders into a somewhat cohesive group for at least the 4-5 days of the show. In the last two years this cohesion has broken down and a few smaller shows have been popping up here and there, a couple in Portland , Oregon , one in Denver , another in Ashland, Oregon ( Connected to the United Bicycle acadamy , a school that is perhaps the best place to learn framebuilding on earth) and now one in San Diego, California. Why more shows ? Well.......it's like this: A group of individuals ( Framebuilders ) who really couldn't agree on much as a rule now have issues with Don Walkers show . Don's style , although heavy handed at times evolved from having some really daunting problems putting on his show. Eevry year Don hosts his show he gets a lttle more savvy at figuring out what will make it successful but the very things that make the show financially viable can be at odds with what some of the framebuilders want. If the show is to survive it has to make a profit , regardless of what that might mean in terms of turning some of the framebuilders off. This year the show was held in Indianapolis, Don's home town. While a bunch of west coast framebuilders opted out of the show, it still was well attended and turned out to be quite a sucess. Not to be outdone, the west coast contingent....or at least a small portion thereof has created a smaller framebuilder show to be held this weekend in San Diego. I will be exhibiting at this show and I am curious to see weather it will garner anywhere near the attention from the public that Don's show attracts. A very established and talented framebuilder Brian Bayliss along with David Ybarolla and some others has created this show and I have no doubt that the organization will be good and that the amenities will be top-notch. Don's show will probably continue to be the largest and most important show of its kind but these smaller shows will allow each demographic to try and see who has the best response to such shows and which of these shows will survive in the future. It's all symtomatic of trying to herd cats, otherwise known as framebuilders.