Thursday, December 19, 2013

So you really want to do this.....

Driving....yes, driving home from work-I don't like driving, by the way-I thought about the ups and downs of the summer and fall of this year of 2013. These thoughts made me think about what I do and why I keep doing it.......the why is the hard part to figure out logically. Maybe there isn't a lot of logic involved-maybe its just ignorance and/or dogged determination, most likely fueled by the inability to think of a better way to earn a living. "Heck, I don't know what else I can do at this point - I'll just carry on no matter how many tools get thrown because of rookie mistakes....... being carried out by someone with over thirty years under their belt at this particular craft"
I thought about new folks wanting to go down the same path as I-folks who saw the whole 'work for yourself and create things' allure without knowing the full reality of being a self employed bike frame builder. While it is not my job to educate every prospective new builder on what a shit circus this job can be it is my job to tell my side of the experience, seeing as I have a great number of years fighting the strong current in my toilet of choice.

I guess I will start at the beginning-folks who know my whole story are welcome to skip this part-me, I didn't get the option on that for better or worse.

Way back in 1987 I was a full-time guitar player in a band ( another so-called dream job that turned out to not be the dream after all....) I was in a casino playing music behind a clear plastic shield on a balcony perched above rows upon rows of slot machines. In front of a few of these machines were my audience-dazed and drunk casino patrons emptying coins into slots hoping for that big payoff. I was a few feet above their heads playing songs that I didn't particularly care for , waiting for my big payoff.....the 5 hour drive home. It was in the middle of the last set that I reached my breaking point-I needed to quit this job of the last several years and do something else-something that didn't involve driving many hours to go play music I cared little about to people who cared even less than I. I knew that the next job would be in my own garage-turning my frame building hobby into my full time livelihood.

January, 1988-I had about 17 frames on order so I told the band to get a replacement guitar player-I was going full time with the torch. I had only a few tools but I had some savings and began getting a few items to make my work more efficient. I was operating out of a one-car garage that had a bike stand, a small mill, a drill press and some bikes on hooks. There was very little room to work so I usually pushed most of the bikes and the stand outside into the driveway. I brazed outside-if it was windy, I couldn't  work. Hey, I was just starting out so I had an excuse to be stupid. I had probably built about 50-odd frames as a hobbyist so I was not completely new to the work. I had done a number of lugged and fillet brazed frames.

Not knowing much about business I got the idea to sell the frame unpainted and not charge tax-I figured I could write my sales up as labor, a kind of 'contract labor'. Setback # 1 : nine months later I found out that I had indeed needed to collect sales tax and pay it to the state of California. This was made clear to me in a letter from the state board of equalization-pay the tax or be penalized in numerous nasty ways. I owed about $ 650 after calculations and decided to close shop-I simply did not have the money to pay this bill.

This is where my short career could have ended except for one guy-my former manager at a bike shop where I had worked in 1984-decided to throw a party on my behalf and pass the hat to all my friends to save my business. While they didn't come up with nearly enough money to pay the tax bill I took this as a message from the community that what I was doing had some value and was worth trying to save. I scraped the rest of the money together and have been collecting and paying sales tax ever since.

I continued making dumbshit mistakes and getting really frustrated-all the while trying to improve what I did in the shop. I really never figured out what to charge until many years went by. I lost money a good deal of the time because of this inability to really know the true cost of doing eventually beat the data into my thick skull-I had to learn or I was sure to fail like so many people who try to be full time at this job. I was really determined....almost sickly so-I did not want to fail-I wanted to prove to anyone who cared to know that I was going to weather whatever came my way-any setback.

Setback # 2.June 1993- I got a phone call from my father. Truthfully, I got several call from him on my answering machine but I didn't call back as I was not on very good terms with him and didn't want to be subject to whatever berating he was likely to give me-except that the call had nothing to do with how he felt about me.....he had been diagnosed with cancer. My dad was in hospice with an inoperable tumor and my sister was calling me to come back to L.A. and be with him in his final days. I had to leave my shop and put everything on hold-my dad was dying. I was really broke and I needed the income from the frames I was building but all that had to wait. I had bills that I would not be able to pay when I returned home.

After six weeks my dad passed and I drove back home to face the pile of work and bills.I thought about quitting and getting a job somehwere-anywhere.........I was near the end of my tether. At this point the phone started ringing and orders for about twice as many cyclocross frames as the year before came in. With the deposit money in my hands I was back in business-I could not quit....I was busier than ever. I stayed very busy for the next  two years.

Setback # 3. Summer 1995-The phone stopped just stopped. I got down to two orders-my dad had left me some money so I was going to go to France to ride Paris-Brest-Paris. I secretly started thinking about looking for work in Europe as a builder-I even left a message on my answering machine saying that I might not be coming back-I had to have a good reason to return. After two months of travel I did return-I didn't find a job that sounded worth leaving my home for-luckily, the phone started ringing again and I got busy enough to keep my doors open.

Setback # 4.March 1997- I woke up one morning with an agonizing sharp pain in my lower back-trips to the chiropracter and acupuncturist did nothing to relieve the pain so I got an MRI. It revealed two ruptured discs and I would need surgery.I did have insurance  but this was going to take time to heal and still cost thousands of dollars.My savings were getting eaten up and I had to miss work for awhile . I started thinking that maybe the work I was doing was killing my back and I would have to quit. Weeks went by and I slowly go back to the shop-turned out that bike crashes and an old job with heavy lifting had done the damage-not frame building so I got back to the torch.

Setback # 5  , August 2001-I was riding my mountain bike with a friend after work on the same trails that I had been riding for the last 20-odd years. On this day we were really flying downhill at a rate I had never done before and the predictable thing happened-I wound up crashing at high speed and shattered my hip socket. My leg was dislocated and I laid there helplessly on the ground waiting for the EMT's to pick me up. I wound up spending two weeks in the hospital and could not work for three months. I spent thousands on the deductables and making up for lost income. Things looked dire but my riding buddy passed the hat for me and was able to help me with a surprise influx of cash....I got bailed out by my friends yet again.

Setback # 6, summer 2003-the phone stopped again. I never know why this happens but I got down to two orders on the list and took a part time job at a winery pouring wine in a tasting room for $8.00 an hour. I did this part time for three months to see if a career change was viable. Turns out that building frames definitely pays better than working at a tasting room as a bottom of the tier employee-by September I had a bunch of orders again so I quit the winery and got back to work.

Since 2003 I have remained busy and have not crashed my bike too terribly. I have had two kidney stones and developed a case of hemocritic anemia but for the most part I'm going stronger than ever at the bike building. Folks who read this should know that there are other builders who have faced much graver setbacks than I and are still at it-some who nearly died from getting hit by cars, all number of things but they all carry on with the work-I don't think that any one of us can really say why definitively......I know that it definitely helps heal the wounds of the setbacks to take pieces of metal and make a working bicycle. Maybe we are all into this for theraputic electroshock maybe. If you are thinking of taking up this way of making a living , be sure and know that there will be setbacks. You should really ask yourself if you are the kind of person who can and will carry on , not needing an articulate reason to do so......just the desire.

Monday, September 30, 2013

T.G.I.F. ?

At the end of every work week is Friday-for most it is welcome .....the signal that the weekend is here and the stress of work will be gone for a couple of days. Fridays for most people mean clocking out-getting the hell out of there and down the road to something relaxing or exciting....something other than what happens Monday through Friday. It's time to go to the store and get that twelve-pack and big bag of chips. Time to call folks and make some plans-time to escape.
       Ahh, but this is not the case for me or for a good number of one-man operations . Friday for me always comes too soon......I see with the arrival of Friday that my time to accomplish my ever so unreasonable weekly goals is nearly exhausted. Whatever I set out to do that week will most likely not be completed. Part of me thinks it is because I am not as efficient or capeable as I would like to be-another view is that I expect more of myself than I can possibly deliver . Either way, the result is the same-I fall short of my goal nearly every week. Friday stands as an indicator of my failure, not my salvation from work. It is always the day when I realize that whatever I set out to do in my shop will not see completion until the following week. For some reason this can depress me significantly, even with the realization that it is only one person who really feels this failure...... that is me.
         The kind of work that I do suffers when done hastily. That said, there are timelines and I really don't want to fall short of delivering what I build on time-or at least within a reasonable margin of on-timeness. Most of the time people do not pressure me at all-the pressure is coming from within, a result of me having the misconception that things will go smoothly in the shop and that there will not be too many interruptions to the flow of work. The fact is there is no way to know how things will  'flow' at the beginning of the week. By late Tuesday afternoon I can usually tell if I am on a good week or flailing.
         Last week I was flailing-I was hopelessly torn in many directions and for the greater part of the week the welder was silent, waiting for me to get my shit together. I still managed to build a really nice frame and fork and get about halfway through another frame. All the work was top notch, even if my attitude was rock bottom. I really wonder where the striving for the unattainable weekly goal originated in my life....did it come as a result of trying to prove something to a long dead parent ? -Boy, that's a waste of time. Is it because I never forget how much I barely scraped by financially for years trying to do what I do now ? -But now I'm not scraping badly any more. And if it isn't pressure from customers, where the hell does it come from ?
          Friday.....the day that my failures come to light-the day that I wind up getting down on myself as if my transgression was the greatest disappointment on earth. The fact is , the only one really perpetuating this weekly self-beating is the guy I see in the mirror every morning. The same guy I can thank for all the cool crap hanging on the walls of my shop-the same guy who got me into this mess in the first place. I can't blame anyone else.......the problem is as close to home as it gets.
         At least it's only on Friday-Thank God Friday only comes once a week !

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The tunnel at the end of the light

Time goes by. In the words of my oldest friend who is now living on the street : " The clock doesn't stop for anyone". Yes, the clock is running and as the days, months and years go by I rarely take time to notice......except for lately. There's a milestone that I just passed ( 35 years since I first cobbed a bicycle frame and fork together ) and one that is a mere two years away-turning the ripe age of 60. Now I know that 60 is supposedly the new '40' but honestly, if you have lived 58 years your body will tell you "look, have lived 58 years and I won't lie to you about it." For the last three years I have been doing 'core work' and various yoga/pilates moves for 35 minutes every morning. I do this to counteract the raveges of cycling and standing on a concrete floor for 50 plus hours a week. If I don't do these exercises every day I will start to hurt-my back, my hips, my shoulders etc. It's just part of the job and getting older.
           This brings me to today at a time when a few years ago I felt I would have to slow down and work less because of failing physical ability. Funny how life is-current financial requirements of life, this summer its a code violation on my 'garage/accessory dwelling unit' that has made me realize that I won't be able to slow down. My home loan that I thought would be paid off by age 65 is now extended to  age 72. My father died at 73.........yeah, pretty grim prospect from my perspective. I now find myself working harder than I ever have at my job. I don't think people understand how physical building bicycle frames can be. There's a lot of filing, sawing, getting into uncomfortable positions to do all sorts of tasks. Welding gets more difficult as eyes start to lose the ability to focus. The mind slowly loses the ability to remember all the tasks and keep everything straight-particularly all the details in all the frame orders stacked up. I frequently have to phone people to double and triple check what they ordered. If I don't check, things like incorrect paint color and other avoidable mistakes are possible. I will rectify all these mistakes at my own cost in money and time-it is the right thing to do but it makes for even more work.
             So, not long ago I started to get despondent-I was worried that I would not be able to slow down, let alone 'retire' like the generation before me or like many of my friends who work other jobs. I looked at the high roof joist in my shop and thought that it would be suitable for a good stout rope-the one sure way I could get out of my dilemma. Then I kind of had a moment of clarity-what did I get into this bike building thing for ? There was only one answer for me and it was so completely stupidly simple: "To build bikes , asshole !"
             So, me-Mr. asshole figured it out......there's no end and there shouldn't be, at least not until the real end comes. This job isn't some mission sent to me from God-it is not a means to some lavish lifestyle-it is something I  like to do, want to do and continue to do-even if it hurts. I know others doing the same thing as me who are hurting a lot more than I so complaining is pretty chicken-shit in the grand scheme. Bike building is the tunnel at the end of the light - when it is over it is likely that your life is extinguished. I guess I had better shut up and keep building.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Carbon Footprint

Most of the time when I write on this blog I'll be making some sort of scathing comment about a process or a fellow builder-I'm not immune to ripping on industry trends or corporate greed, all that stuff. I'm not doing anything like that this time as this story that follows is ironic enough to stand on its own. I build frames every day of my life but this particular frame is special, as is its story.

Awhile ago , the main supplier of aluminum tubing for U.S. builders ran out of large customers and ceased to produce the material you see in the frame above. After manufacturing tubing in the U.S. for twenty-odd years, the company decided to move production to Taiwan where some large customers still existed. Within a few years, the aforementioned customers decided (  or the market at large decided ) to go to molded carbon fiber for the bulk of bicycle frames for the world market. When this happened , the company that produced aluminum tubing had lost the bulk of its customer base and ceased production altogeter.

As a builder who relies on having access to good aluminum, I took the step of buying as much of the soon-to-be-extinct material as I could afford. Some of this was from the U.S. company , some from the Taiwan operation and some from manufacturers ceasing business. The tubing in the frame in the photo is my very last set of GX-2 flared scandium that I had been saving for myself. The tubes had been sitting on a shelf for several years when I got an email from a distant customer requesting a 'Team Carbon' road frame , just like the one I had personally been riding for the last eight years. I decided that this customer who had ordered a steel frame two years earlier needed the tubes more than I did so I took the order and got ready to build the frame. This would be the last frame of this kind to roll out of my shop....ever.

This is where it gets interesting-that is, if you are still interested enough to read on. To complete this frame I would use this tubing but I also needed a full carbon rear stay kit so I got on the phone and started calling suppliers. I tried all the suppliers I knew of who might stock this kit but nobody in the U.S. had one-and nobody really was interested in carrying them any more. I decided to try international sources and luckily a company in the U.K. had most of the kit in stock-I would have to scrounge a couple of small parts but the bulk of what I needed was available. A bit later I was able to source the rest of the small parts and constructed the frame.

The path that the materials for this frame took to get to me is pretty amazing. The tubing was made for the U.S. manufacturer in Taiwan  . The carbon kit was manufactured in Taiwan for an Italian company who in turn sold it to the supplier in the U.K. and then eventually to me here in the U.S. Here's the punch line-the customer for this frame lives in Taiwan, not that far from where all the materials for his frame originated from. The aluminum will wind up making two trips across the Pacific ocean. The carbon kit will wind up literally circumnavigating the earth. Up until this frame I had never thought of where the pieces of a bicycle frame might go travel on their respective journeys between from birth to frame and eventually to the customer. This one tops them all. The ultimate carbon footprint.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

He lives in his vomit.......NAHBS 2013

This is hardly a review of the handmade bike show-truth be told, I didn't go. There was no way I could break away from nearly six months of orders with a clear conscious and be part of what is arguably the best show to see custom bikes on the planet. I have a's about 37 frames on order-this is the problem that eludes a lot of bike builders as it did me until something clicked out in the world that made me flavor of the month......or year...or whatever. My problem is a good problem and I'm lucky to have this kind of trouble in view of the economy and the competition.
         So, seeing as I did not exhibit at or even attend the show, how can I have any valid view of it ? Well, I have exhibited at four shows, did seminars at three of them and even put bands together for two of them. I have been on the inside as well as the outside of this show and I can appreciate it for what it is. The problem for me is that it isn't the place where someone like myself will get any kind of return for missing work that justifies the expense and time associated with being at the show. This is tough as I want to be there, want to see the great work and hang out with my framebuilder buddies. The problem is that I also want to have happy customers and maybe have money for a vacation that does not involve sitting in a convention center for several's really not a vacation-it is serious hard work for the most part.
         A very real issue is my own personal aesthetic of what a bicycle is-this aesthetic does not move me in the direction of trying to out-bling my fellow builders with remarkable labor-intensive flourishes on my frames. It is safe to say that I will never win any trophies at one of these shows. My attempts at artful frames have been barely noticed in a field of superior entries-I'll admit that I am not the guy who should build you that rolling piece of art. Rolling pieces of art are what the show is all about, after all.  There are bikes in the show that activate something in people that causes them to want to possess the stuff they are seeing. Aquisition.........collecting.......being in the exclusive club that has a rare item of beauty. The bike show in this respect is no different from the Concours d' elegance in Carmel, California......a fancy car show. The cars are brought to the show in trailers.....for gods sake, you wouldn't want to put any miles on a priceless investment, would you ?
          This brings me to what I hope my frames conjure up in folks who happen to see them: The urge to want to see how they ride-experience the feel of the bike in the corners, up and down hills-into a nasty headwind-careening across an icy corner in sub-freezing weather-hitting a long sweeping turn on a downhill at 50 plus m.p.h. -or simply riding down the tracks to get to the farmer's market on Saturday. My greatest hope is that upon seeing the bike , a person would think : " I wonder how much fun I could have on that thing... " There are no thoughts about paint, decals or finely filed lugs-it's all about the ride.
           While other builders were preparing for the show I was involved in something completely different. I spent the first few days of February in Louisville, Kentucky working in the pit for a few racers at the cyclocross masters worlds competition. My work mainly consisted of scraping frozen mud off of bicycles during the race. This was done in sub-freezing temperatures with  primitive implements and very little time. The work was crazy, humbling and a dose of hard reality of what happens in a world class event in harsh winter conditions. This was not working in my shop in Santa Cruz in 60 degree weather- trying to put the finishing touches on a bike that would hopefully earn me a big-ass bowling trophy to take home-this was doing my best to help riders, some that weren't on my team or even riding on one of my bikes.
            While my focus and personal approach to frame building does not really fit in the mode of 'Artisan frame builder' I am not ruling out being at the show in the future. The show is something that did not exist for the first twenty years of my career , so I am really thankful that it exists. One thing that I do realize is that my venue for promoting my work is not in these shows but out where the ice is being scraped off of frames at the side of the race course-it is on the roads and dirt paths all over the world where people ride bikes rather than drive cars-the proof in the validity of what I do is a bike in motion, not static in some display. I can have a booth and talk all day for the duration of the show but you will only really know my bikes if you ride will only know me if you ride them........after that I am sure you can asses my skills or lack thereof with authority and absolute certainty, a kind of certainty that cannot be arrived at by merely viewing a bike upon a stand.