Saturday, April 16, 2011


A friend of mine who happens to be (at least in my opinion) one of the top creators of rolling art on the planet said to me that there are two types of frame builders. # 1 is someone who crafts frames to do it. # 2 is someone in the business of frame building. He meant this with no judgement in particular as to which type of builder was superior , it was only a distinction based on making a living versus persuing a craft for art's sake. I , of course am type # 2 as I build frames full-time for a living.
In a perfect world, the two types of builders would get along fine as they basically do the same thing . Unfortunately in a lot of cases there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the 'Artisans' and the full-timers . The artisan builders tend to look down on the full-timers who do not have the time to create the award-winning show stopping bling-mobiles . Even if the career guys did make the time to build a masterpiece , they would no doubt take a significant pay cut as there is little likelyhood that a customer would pay the equivalent of a living wage for the frame . There are exceptions but they are rare-there exists a handful of builders who have frames that command many times the price of an average welded custom frame. These few guys are kind of like pied pipers to the newest wave of neo-builders on the scene.
The world of custom bikes is being shaped in a large way by the few builders that can command the kind of price that makes building a labor-intensive masterpiece profitable and therefore a sustainable enterprise. As a result of the influence of these exceptional few, there have sprung up a number of things that didn't exist when I started building. The most notable thing is NAHMBS. Now there are many similar shows , mostly smaller and more regional vying for builders and custom bike fans all over the country. The other new item is the supplier who designs ornate lugs and has them manufactured in Taiwan for the new builders who want to build in a more traditional style.
So, with all these new fancy lugs and eager builders and custom bike shows , there is quite literally a glut of really remarkable bicycle art out there. Who is going to go see these bikes at the show and fill their flickr pages with photos of these beautiful efforts ? Everybody. Conversely , who is going to buy up all of these magnificent and painstakingly crafted creations ? -Nobody, at least if they weren't pre-sold before the show. The amount of folks willing to shell out the big bucks to pay a living wage to these new artisans is almost non existant. The folks who are waiting to find these bikes at drastically reduced prices on craigslist are out there , quite willing to buy your magnum opus for about ten cents on the dollar.
Am I attacking the artisan approach to frame building ? No, I am simply pointing out that it is not self-sustaining. I liken the new breed of builders to the artisans who created works of art for royalty and the church. They were slaves.............are the new wave of builders indentured servants ? Maybe not, but they are likely to sacrifice themselves in the pursuit of trying to get noticed at one or more of the many shows -either that or they'll have to have a lot of monetary support from a spouse , trust fund or family-the support that should really come from the folks that ogle the works of art they produce. Yes, I'll say order for the artisan part of our craft to survive the public must actually pay for the work. From what I saw at the last bike show I attended this is not the case-I saw the same bikes on display as last year , in other words the builder didn't sell his or her entry and cannot afford to build a new one for the next show.
The upshot of all this can be summed up with a few recent happenings: The lug supplier who thought that this would be the time to provide great stuff for the artisan builder is selling his busuiness. Since the customers are not supporting the builders, the supplier has few people to sell to. The next unfortunate developement is that several talented builders have decided to quit and it is likely that more are to follow. While this is happening , more and more shows are cropping up to showcase this seemingly doomed craft. At one point or another this whole thing will implode unless there are actual customers to support it. I for one wish to survive and I can only do that by building what is ordered, not build what people want to photograph and award trophies to. I'm almost wondering if going to these shows is such a financial burden on new builders that it is contributing to their demise rather than giving them a viable place to sell their goods.
I really wish I had some answers, some way to make it all o.k. and that the art portion of frame building could flourish . Time and the public will decide if the new ambition displayed by the latest wave of artisan builders will be rewarded with viability or go the way of everything else unsustainable.


  1. Well said.

    During this year's NAHBS in Austin, I posted the question on one of the bike forums regarding a similar issue: It was something like; what do you do with the over-the-top frame you built for the show? Is it really going to sell at the price commensurate with the labor that went into the frame? Or does it just hang on a hook until the price is reduced enough to sell? This kind of construction can't support itself year after year. Wouldn't it be better to display an affordable production model that would likely draw enough interest AND SELL DURING THE SHOW by virtue of eliminating any lead times, and at the same time cover the show's costs? Carl Strong and Dave Kirk do just that and every year they offer their show frames for sale on the bike forums. They get snatched up quickly.

    As a side note, I noticed the photo accompanying your blog entry shows Sean Walling in his booth-with a beer. This is not to pick on Sean, but it did spark my memory to something I noticed recently:

    I follow another builder's RSS feed and Flickr page. On a recent entry he posted photos of a new frame in his shop that he was building. In the background, on a workbench, was a bottle of beer. My reaction was; a hobby builder can get away with that but if you're in the business of selling frames/taking money from customers to build their frames, and working on them while drinking, it's not good. In addition to the safety issue of working around machinery while buzzed, the concept of a framebuilder constructing MY frame while drinking doesn't exactly leave me with a feeling of confidence about their work.

    I mentioned this to the builder and he wisely removed the photos.

    No sooner than a day later, I noticed a photo of another builder with an entire milk crate of beer bottles in the foreground. While the photo's appearance and setting left me with a slightly different impression on whether they were drinking on the job, it nevertheless made me question the credibility of the builder.

    Of course, drinking a beer at a bike show might be considered okay, depending on the consumer's viewpoint, but it's the consumer that pays the bills...

    P.S. I love Sean's no-nonsense viewpoint on frames (a tool to be used rather than the works of art you mention in your blog); his headbadge is the coolest too-next to a lobster, of course!

  2. Maybe frame building can drive a man to be truthful , I imagine that the beer on Sean's bench was a happy-hour Friday after work thing. I can't picture a guy as good as Sean is at what he does drinking while building frames. The beer at the show ? If you have ever worked a trade show of any kind you would know what a drag it can be. I'm sure the beer was the much needed thing to take the edge off.

  3. paul -

    you just returned from san diego, so i'll assume some of the text reflects the mood - or your mood - from the show. all this, "artisan builders tend to look down on the full-timers..." stuff you are writing about, how does it manifest itself? do these guys actually have words with each other? is there some us/them thing going on? atmo it's somewhat laughable that the former would be in any position to judge the latter. i don't condone judging at all, but in this passion play cum drug store novel screenplay you seem to be describing, it's clear that the career guy would wanna telling the, er - artisan, to take his fleur-de-lis-a-thon and shove it.

    so lettuce know how this works. who says what to whom atmo? and when it's said, do the whoms, in turn, go nihilistic on the asses of the whos?

    hey - thanks for reading.

  4. Funny you should ask.There will be a part II to this post. Thanks for reading to you , too.