Monday, December 18, 2017

Full circle

As I have written in this blog previously, a significant influence on my questionable path into frame building was Bruce Gordon. While I had some more direct help from the likes of Ross Shafer and Dean Hovey, seeing one of Bruce's frames in 1977 made me aware of the existence  of bicycle frame building in America. The frame I saw at the shop I worked in definitely made a lasting impression.
 Being a minimum wage worker back in my bike shop days there was no chance for me to be able to afford one of Bruce's frames, or for that matter any custom frame - unless of course I figured out how to build one myself. With the help of Ross I was able to cob together my first two frames-both of which I still have. As a matter of fact I still have many of the earliest efforts in my shop, although they are not all in riding shape.
 I probably have about 37 rideable bikes in my shop and have owned a few bikes from other builders but the one bike that I wanted all these years was out of my reach-the rarity of Bruce Gordon's lugged frames and the chance of finding one my size made it unlikely that I would ever wind up with one. Well-40 years later I have a Bruce Gordon frame-a 1976 in a salmon-pink. It is my size and Bruce gave me a screaming deal on it as it had no fork and it had been hanging in his shop for a few decades. It has some miles on it for sure but structurally is sound. I had to clean quite a bit of dust and grime off of it and I had to build a fork for it. Fortunately, Bruce had some pre-raked blades with some dropouts already brazed in with his signature scallop so all I had to do was finish up the fork. Luckily, I had the correct Cinelli MC crown , the one that Bruce told me to use.
 I had the paint touched up on the chain stays of the frame and the fork painted to match by Allan Neymark. This was not easy as the paint was over 40 years old and a bit faded. Allan pretty much nailed it as you can see in the photo.
 I looked in all the old boxes of Campagnolo bits in my shop and culled together most of a late-70's early 80's Super Record group and assembled the bike. I built some wheels with some really old Phil Wood hubs and new Mavic Open-Pro rims. I really was not sure how the bike would ride-I was hoping that I would like the ride as much as the wonderful work that Bruce had put into it all those years ago.
 Well, I did ride it-the gearing was not super friendly to my 62 year old legs and the brakes were predictably funky on the downhills but the road feel of the bike proved to be very nice indeed.The Columbus SL frame and fork really soaked up the bumps it the road and I have been commuting to work on the bike several days a week. I might have about 100 miles on it so far and plan to do the 85 mile version of the Eroica California this spring. It has been many years since I have ridden a bike that was not made in my shop-in this case I am doing it gladly and for what I think are very valid reasons. # 1, it rides great. # 2, I feel lucky to finally have it after all these years. # 3, there are things on this frame that I have never figured out how to do and it humbles me. # 4, Bruce has ceased making frames - I'm riding something that is unlikely to be built again. #5, Here is a bike that in my opinion ( along with a number of other US builders efforts ) really shows superior quality to many of the European highly sought after collectable bikes .
There are other builders who have pushed the quality and attention to detail envelope further-Roland Della Santa, Peter Weigel, Mark Nobliette, Peter Johnson, Mark Dinucci, Richard Sachs- all of these builders and others that followed raised the bar on how cleanly and impeccably a bicycle frame could be constructed. All of these builders distinguished themselves with stellar work. For one reason in my mind, Bruce stands alone. He not only built with stunning quality in terms of finish and ride, he created original distinctive artistic statements in his lug work-it was never overdone and the artistic component never got in the way of the utility of the bike. I am proud to have one of his bikes and feel very lucky to have been able to build a small run of bike frames with him.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

You are going to die with those lugs, Pt. II

I would be remiss in not telling the rest of the story of the previous post. Over the years I have displayed at bicycle trade shows- Interbike, NAHBS, Portland Manifest and some local Nor-Cal 'Meet your maker' pop-up parking lot shows. For the most part these shows are more of a social thing for me-I don't wind up writing orders but it is good to be present and show custom bike people that you still are in effect. 2017 was a year where I didn't participate in any show and 2018 is likely to be the same.....when you are as busy as I am the time just isn't there. I'll miss seeing my frame builder buddies out there.
Back to the story. I mention the shows because at more than one of these shows I was approached by a man, probably in his 70's who took some very ornate and ancient looking lugs out of a little bag and showed them to me. He asked me how much I would charge to build a bike with them. He looked at me as if he were offering me the opportunity of a lifetime-he really was presenting these lugs as some sort of holy grail of frame building and that it would be a tremendous opportunity for me to have the task of using said lugs to build a frame, as if the lugs would make the frame a masterpiece. I was not able to come up with a price so off the old man went with his lugs.
Years passed and at another show the same man presented me with the same lugs and the same offer-at the time I wondered how long this man had been walking the aisles of bike shows with this one set of lugs. I also wondered where he got them and when. Evidently the old man never heard what he wanted to hear from me or any other builders regarding his prized set of lugs. I'm not sure that they ever got used at all......I wonder what happened to the old man and his lugs.
The whole situation he presented was kind of destined to go nowhere as a set of lugs might work for a certain frame and not for most others. The old man was fairly short, maybe about 5'5"-5'6". Making a frame for him would involve bending the crap out of those ornate old lugs to get the proper angles for a smaller frame. This would no doubt be difficult and time consuming. There's also no guarantee that the lugs would look perfect when all the modifications are done, at least in my hands.....and my hands have been doing this kind of work since 1978 ! Essentially, there's no way I could give an accurate estimate on building a frame with a set of lugs that I have no experience with and also don't know the angles and tolerances of. This is why I could not come up with the words that would make the old man trust me to build his dream bike with his prized set of antique lugs.
While I build welded frames about 99% of the time, I do offer lugged frames and have probably built around 250-300 in my career. Pricing these frames is tricky but I can do it as long as I know what I am working with in terms of materials. When I go out of the comfort zone the cost of the project gets much harder to quantify. For this reason , my collection of older lugs has been gathering dust for decades. I'm not anxious to interrupt the flow of productive work to do a vanity project-yes, that's a pretty cold word for it but in my shop that's what it would be. It is unlikely that I would be able to do the job I want to do with these older lugs and still get anything close to a living wage.
When I am old enough to collect social security and if I don't die before my house is paid off I will be in a position to attempt to build some frames with these old parts. It is doubtful that the old man with his lugs will ever look me up again to build his dream bike but at this time I am the old man with not just one set of old lugs but with many. I could just leave these antiques for the next generation to build with but I have this odd feeling- with my connection to the era when some of these lugs were new, I have a duty to use them. This is a sentimental notion and really does not speak to who I have been as a builder for a very long time-kind of like people riding in the Eroica on bikes they lusted after as teenagers but don't use as their weekly go-to bikes. It's not logical and it is not meant to be-it is only another trip to a romanticized fuzzy memory of sorts- one that may very well remain a memory and not take shape as an actuality in the present.

Friday, November 10, 2017

You are going to die with those lugs

In my shop as in just about every frame builders shop are materials and fittings . Most of these bits will wind up in frames over time but there are things in boxes that could be considered " Pieces for projects in the future ". These are materials that we as builders seem to accumulate with the idea that at some future time there will be an occasion to use these parts in some sort of pet project. As for me, I started out on the hunt for cool lugs, bottom bracket shells and fork crowns with the idea that I would attempt to build rolling works of art-not as a profession but as a sideline, a part time hobby.

Back in the late '70's finding any good materials to build bicycle frames with was not easy. There were only a few US sources for tubing , lugs and dropouts. These sources were very small outfits with little or no advertising budgets-to find these sources one had to find a frame builder or bicycle shop who knew who the sources were. There was no internet and not much of a bicycle culture and almost no bike building culture at all. My very first materials were garnered from a company called "Proteus Designs". Proteus was run out of a bicycle shop in Maryland and they not only sold frame tube sets but they also published a frame builders handbook with the author credit going to a Dr. Paul Proteus- a non-existant character. The book was most likely written by a few of the shop staff who did build frames and likely had done a bit of research on the subject.
The other sources for materials back in the beginning were other builders-some who were active and some who were quitting. To this day nearly 40 years along I still get materials from builders who call it quits. I have accumulated much of this stuff and some of the lugs are older than me. The stuff that doesn't fall in my lap from other builders is mostly stuff that I sought out thinking that I wanted to build a magnum opus - a real over-the-top masterpiece some day. I would need some really special and rare bits for such a monumental project.
Here it is, 2017 and I have some boxes of old lugs and fork crowns- many of these I have had since 1980. One would think that maybe it could be time to face the possibility that the likely hood of these parts ever finding use in my shop highly unlikely. That thought did not keep me from buying yet another ancient set of lugs last week-the ones in the photo. I purchased these ornate lugs from a builder who is ending his career-that builder is Bruce Gordon. He was selling off his entire inventory of tools, jigs, bikes, parts and frame building materials. It is what we will all have to do as builders eventually. Bruce had some really fine sets of lugs out on a work bench but this particular set caught my eye. There was an ancient crumpled note in the bag with the lugs. It stated: " Thanks for your prompt payment. I hope that you find a good frame builder ". This makes me think that Bruce bought these lugs before he had ever built a frame. That would put the purchase date some time in the early '70's, about the time I was in high school.
So- what am I to do with these and all the other old bits from frame builders of the past ? What makes me think that I am going to do with this stuff that all the other builders never got around to ? I'm sure that more than one person came into Bruce's shop and upon seeing those lugs said " You are going to die with those lugs ". Well, are not going to die with those lugs- you can thank me for that. I am likely the one who is going to die with those lugs.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Frankly, know nothing of my work.....

Nobody really wants to see how sausage is made, at least if it is something you are planning on eating. The truth of bicycle frame building is that there's so much stuff involved in the job that is pretty removed from the actual construction of the frame. These tasks, although important wind up being sources of frustration for builders. The thought is : " Hey, I'll learn how to build bicycle frames....then I can do that for a living ." If only.......
Any lively hood in the self-employed sense involves running a business. Most builders ( Myself among them ) do not know crap about running a successful business. I don't care what your skill level with a torch, files, machinery......whatever-if you can't figure out the business end you will fail. Learning how to take a craft and turn it into something that pays all the bills and then some is pretty difficult. Making frame building into a real living is statistically nearly impossible. Even if one has all the shop skills and has a good idea how to interact with customers there's no guarantee that customers will come your way. There are so many factors that come into play when a person is seeking to establish an identity as a builder/entity/brand.
Initially there is a buzz about the next new builder and with that initial excitement there can be customers in the form of friends, family and maybe some folks that see the work at one of the various shows. This 'new builder buzz' is fleeting to say the least. After the first wave of customers the real work starts and the real questions come up:
What should I charge ?
What should I specialize in ?
How can I distinguish myself from all the other builders ?
How do I deal with a warranty issue ?
How do I keep everyone happy ?
How do I not go insane ?
How do I not get discouraged ?
When will the work load be consistent ?

I started my business full time nearly 30 years ago and I still ask myself some of these questions. I also look at my daily work and want it to be better than what I see.......what I see. Once the paint is on it is doubtful that anyone would notice the stuff I'm getting all hot and bothered about. That's the eternal torment of this work-it is also the eternal challenge of this work and it is what keeps it from ever , ever getting boring. It's funny that the thing that drives me crazy about this craft is exactly what keeps me coming back every morning to do it again and again.
So....from behind the curtain I can tell you a bit how this particular custom frame 'sausage' is made.
#1. There is a sense of duty to whoever is going to wind up with the frame.....a hope that the end result will be something that the customer bonds with and enriches his/her life with.
#2. Knowing that not all days are the same and it is impossible to be at one's best at all times, it is however possible to try to do one's best at all times. Fatigue and dull hacksaw blades can effect this, along with body aches and pains, blood sugar levels , mood swings.........but you do have to be the best that you can on that given day.
#3. Being willing to take responsibility for what you have built-I know that this is a really tough one for some folks but hey-if you screw up you need to admit it and deal with it.
#4 . Knowing when to say no. Saying yes can get you in a whole lot more shit than saying no. I'm still learning this one on a weekly basis .
#5 . Figuring out what you need to be paid in order to sustain your operation. For much of my professional life I have failed miserably at this. I have made up for it in part by overworking, selling off personal property and not taking vacations. In my opinion that is no way to live......but it is how I have lived until a few years ago.
#6 . Not copping an attitude. Frame builders for some part have been notoriously negative....and why not ?  With the unscripted and unschooled lifestyle that is the world of the frame builder being such a precarious way to make a living, it is not surprising that most get discouraged. Many don't last and the ones that do can be pretty bitter.
#7. Keeping your name out there. This is so important......just putting up a blog or having a website isn't nearly enough to keep people aware that you exist. Social media, bike events at the grassroots level and larger events do help but the builder himself/herself has to show up and be present. One has to walk the walk-if you like to ride the bike, ride the bike ! Get out there and ride with people-create events that are fun-not just about marketing....more about what all of us who cycle are drawn to.

There are many other aspects of the daily grind I could talk about but there's only so much that I feel I want to open up about. When you have spent as much time as I have doing this craft it has become a very personal thing-an identity to a large degree. For better or worse , this is what I do and hopefully will continue to do- as long as I have the ability. When I was growing up my father was very dismissive about nearly everything I wanted to do with my life. I literally had to move hundreds of miles away to be able to attempt to follow any ambition I had. I came to Santa Cruz to start a life of my own- the bikes I build are a statement to that move I made forty years ago. Maybe that is the identity of my craft-defying the odds, defying a parent, just giving a middle finger to anyone or any thing trying to steer my life in a direction I didn't want to go. -That is probably the main ingredient in the sausage.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Old as dirt

Time goes by at what seems to be a crazy rate. It doesn't seem that long ago when I was moving into my 'new' shop-that was over 20 years ago. I'm working all the time, buried in tasks that I try to execute as good as I can on that given day, all the while thinking of goals for the day-the week-the year.....some of them are reasonable goals but some of them are a bit unrealistic. When there's only one person in the shop to do all the various operations the amount of productivity is limited. These limits have seriously been pushed for the last decade or so. This has come at a cost: Work that had to be re-done , days where time was spent correcting mistakes, wear and tear to the body and mind....etc. All the while the clock does not stop-the years race on.
           So I am coming up to a fairly significant milestone, the 40th anniversary of the very first frame that I built back in June, 1978. I still have the frame and ride it on a rare occasion. Mostly , it just hangs from a very high hook in the shop-there to be pointed out to people visiting so they can see where I started. Just this week I put a photo up on a frame builder's facebook group of the first bike as other builders had been doing the same. While we all share the love of creating bicycle frames we have not shared the same path for the most part. Most people who have built a frame or two have not toiled masochistically at the craft for years attempting to earn a living so I find myself in a very small group of persistent , perhaps foolish folks making a life of this craft. Back in 1978 I could not have envisioned this vortex that I have created around my daily labors.
           So.......what am I to do with this 40th anniversary not much more than a year away ? In the past I built a really fancy fixed gear road bike to mark the 25th anniversary. For the 30th I think that I built a fillet brazed frame for a customer. For the 35th I built a lugged road frame and really went to town thinning the lugs in the late '70's American frame builder style. This was also done for a customer. But the 40th......this will be a milestone that I never imagined I would see. If I stay healthy and don't kill myself on a bike ride I will have a 40 year conundrum on my hands. There's no real pressure for me to do anything at all but I do feel that I should make something in the shop that speaks to what I have learned and what I care most about-even if nobody else does. I do believe I have a plan: I will make a frame, fork and stem that will be built for long-day comfort. This bike will be assembled and ridden from my home here in Santa Cruz down the length of California to where I grew up- West Los Angeles. Not the longest trip I have ridden but the longest in quite a long time.
            So , here is what I envision : Touring bike, sort of.....( I don't and never have owned one..) with some pretty big tires, maybe 650x38. Geometry template will likely be a Rene Herse that a good friend rode by the shop last year-I did a very complete analysis of the geometry and wrote all the pertinent numbers down. I might even braze this thing rather than weld it-hey.....I'm not getting paid for it so I might as well build something that really has to be 'crafted' in the old labor-intensive style of my beginnings. I might even make a rack......stranger things have been built in my shop.
             So-why am I wasting your time writing about this ? If you are totally bored, I do apologize and completely understand. This is something I have to care about and I don't expect anyone else to join my one-man parade. 40 years of doing this may not be that important in the big world of accomplishments but for me it is pretty much all I did-save for annoying people with my guitar for a few years. I have devoted an unreasonable amount of time to this craft but honestly, it was easier than I am making it sound. I didn't have to go to school to learn the craft-frame building is a school in itself. You either learn or build shit. I have built me some shit.....and I know it. Everyone starts somewhere and getting proficient is not a given in this craft. 40 years I have been hammering away at cutting and joining metal, hoping to get where I want to be as a craftsman-problem is, the better I get the more I realize that I still have far to go-maybe not as far as I did a decade ago but the goal posts seem to move further away every year. I can't ever hope to be perfect, I can't ever expect to be flawless. What I do hope for is to build bikes that not only make my customers smile, they might get a smile out of me-I could finish a weld and think : "Damn......didn't know that I would ever be able to make it look that good !".  Of course, months later I could look at the same weld and think : "Boy, glad I can do better than that now !". You see, dissatisfaction is one of the main forces behind constant and vigilant attempts to improve as a builder. In June of 2018 I will unveil the latest edition of the product of 40 years of dissatisfaction and ride it south to the city I left gladly when I had not yet built a frame. I hope I make it.