Andy Newlands has a great workshop in a nice part of Portland, and also is the US representative for the Italian bike fixture & tool manufacturer Marchetti – I had a look around yesterday..
Andy is a very hospitable man; as well as inviting me out to a great dinner party the other night, I was also given a tour around some of the local sights in Portland. Tomorrow he’s going to drive me to some more workshop tours in Portland, including Chris King. Check out Andy’s website here:
Andy also founded the only framebuilders’ non profit trade group on the planet; the Oregon Bicycle Constructors Association (OBCA) in 2007:
And here’s a link to the Oregon Handmade Bicycle Show, run by the OBCA:
Ok, it’s getting late now. Good night.
Today I drove to Holliston, just outside Boston to visit Mike Flanigan at ANT Bikes .
Mike started building frames at Fat City Cycles in 1983, where he became skilled in Tig welding and painting. Fat City was sold in 1994, and Flanigan and six others started an employee-owned company, Independent Fabrication (custom-built factory-made bikes).
Mike went his own way in 2001, following his environmental sensibilities to specialize in utility bikes and roadsters with racks.
Mike explained some tig welding basics to me – the filler rod is generally used once, and no double pass needed. The double pass technique is used with titanium mainly for aesthetic reasons, but also helps to seal the argon gas.
It’s more difficult for the new frame builder to get started with Tig welding than with brazing, but Tig welding is easier to master. Brazing is the complete opposite as it is easy to start but very difficult to master.
It can cost $4-5,000 for a good tig welding machine, but a useable machine can be bought for $2,000.
Cheaper tig machines don’t have the same arc stabilization as the more expensive machines.
A 3-phase setup is probably the best.
Mike has recently switched to a low voltage machine to give him greater flexibility in where he can work.
Tig welded frames can be completed much more quickly than brazed frames. Machining and tacking is much faster.
Mike adopted his own niche early on in the style of bikes that he makes, and due to his level of experience, he can make a very high quality bike much faster than many builders, although Mike ackowldeges that the skills gap is narrowing with the amount of classes and tools available .
Here are the photo’s I took during my visit:
Mike is now offering frame building courses which include fixtures in the price.
Thanks Mike for talking to me after I turned up late due to getting slightly lost in the Holliston backwoods, especially when you had to be somewhere else.
Tomorrow morning I fly to Portland Oregon, city of frame builders. I’ll be meeting Andy Newlands of Strawberry Cyclesport, Mitch Pryor of Map Bicycles, getting a Chris King factory tour and having a snoop round United Bicycle Institute. Don’t miss it..
Today I drove out to Lyme, Connecticut to meet with one of my favourite frame builders, Peter Weigle. Peter came to England in the early 1970′s to work at Witcomb Cycles in London, a few months after Richard Sachs arrived there.
Here are some pictures from the workshop visit:
I asked Peter what it felt like to have played such a big part in the revival and popularization of the randonneur bicycle – he replied that it felt very special, especially as he was becoming slightly disillusioned with making road racing bikes, which he felt were becoming very generic and mainly in the Italian or classic English style, when he started to get hooked on the French style randonneur bikes, borne partly out of his collection of fenders from bikes of this type. This renaissance of interest in the randonneur bikes began in about 2003. He explained to me how these bikes, as well as being very elegant and having graceful, balanced lines and exquisite racks that sit perfectly in harmony with the rest of the bike, they are extremely practical, as they owe their heritage to a time when the riders of these machines would not own a car, and so they had to be used in all weathers and for carrying small loads on all types of road surface.
Peter described how they are fast enough for him to keep up with friends on high-end road bikes (Peter does come from a racing background..), and they are very stable on descents and over poor roads or loose surfaces.
I put this question to Peter: Are vision, taste and style as important as the hand skills required in custom frame building? Peter replied “Without question”. To Peter, proportion, lines and balance are key factors. Peter’s customers often enjoy being part of the process of buying and ordering his bikes, sometimes having discussions at weekend meetings.
Peter and I spoke about other aspects of bicycle making, equipment and also about the importance of different types of bike shows.
I made some notes to write up in my report when I return to the UK.
I was really glad that I got to meet Peter as I greatly admire his work.
Today I met Marty, Greg and Brad at Geekhouse who spoke to me openly about launching and running a modern bike company.
Geekhouse aim their bikes at a young, modern urban demographic, making mainly track, road, cyclo-cross, mountain and touring bikes.
A sense of fun is always present in both their web presence and their bikes, with lots of bright colours. Geekhouse began in 2002/3, when Marty, who has worked in bike shops since the age of 16, started out by designing dirt jump bikes on napkins, and then enlisted the help of a friendly mechanical engineer. The bikes were firstly outsourced to a US company, and then to Taiwan. This meant long development times, bulk orders, transport times and inventory hassles.
Marty liked bikes by Fat City, Merlin and Independent Fabrication, so approached one of “Indy Fab”‘s founders, Mike Flanigan when he wanted someone to teach him how to build frames. It was important to Marty that his teacher was connected to the lineage of these Boston-based bike builders that he respected. The trouble was, Mike said no, he didn’t teach frame building. Undeterred, Marty thought outside of the box and later took a broken frame to Mike to get his foot in the door. Marty’s bike store experience was sales-only, and so he didn’t have any hands-on skills to offer, but Mike told Marty that he could use his book-keeping skills, so this was what Marty traded for being shown the skills of frame building.
Geekhouse were able to capitalise on the fixed gear scene, taking influences for their aesthetic and colours from the bmx scene.
Marty gave me the following advice and lessons from his own experiences:
- Bond with your target market – it’s important to have a story about how you came to build bikes.
- Choose a name – Marty was a bike geek, really into bikes and bike parts; in his own words, they were a “bunch of geeks in a garage”.
- Talk to everyone, treat everyone the same, regardless of age, experience or knowledge.
- You have to have a logo and a font that you stick to and repeat.
- Your website is your retail store – Geekhouse sell 90% of their bikes by email.
- Blog- communicate stories and make regular updates. You must demonstrate consistency and that you will be there tomorrow, but also show progression.
- Include any interested people on a mailing list. Most people are looking for information at least for a while every day.
- The internet allows the smaller frame builders to exist – the recent growth in numbers of builders is all due to the internet. (Geekhouse are now selling to Indonesia, and are also being counterfeited in the far east).
- Take awesome studio pictures of your bikes. Include all information on your website.
- Think of other ways to promote your bikes – Geekhouse now have a cyclo-cross team.
- Try to have a unique aspect – whether it be colour, machined parts, carved lugs, curved or super-light tubing.
- Talk to as many people as possible – never stop talking, emailing, giving out cards and custom-building mailing lists for different groups of people based on their interests.
- Find a good website guy if you’re not orientated that way yourself.
- The best marketing is building something great, taking photographs, then sending them to other blogs, etc – go “fishing” and see if you can catch more business.
- Bike shows can be important – Geekhouse put in a lot of effort to their shows and they’re always really successful.
- Ask open-ended questions to people you want to talk to, and always have business cards. After a bike show, the orders tend to come in a few weeks later.
- Be prepared for the worst-case scenario – you will sell less bikes than you think you will, so keep a safety margin.
- Bookkeeping – learn to prioritize outgoings to maximize cash flow.
Here are some pictures from Geekhouse’s open house event:
Marty also kindly gave me directions to Seven Cycles, where I got a full tour and run-through of the workshop from Karl Borne, and then I cycled over to Marty’s other friends at Independent Fabrication where I bagged another factory tour and took lots more pictures. It was encouraging and inspiring to see these companies thriving and expanding.
The next visit on my trip will be Peter Weigle in Lyme, Connecticut.
I had a great tour of the Serotta Factory in Saratoga Springs NY yesterday, even though I got a little lost and arrived late.
I was very impressed to hear (and see) that they make everything themselves, even having their own carbon fibre tubing production facility at Poway, Calfornia, Serotta Composites.
The only thing they don’t do in-house is anodize the seat-collars.
Here are the pictures from my visit:
With metal frames, rear triangles are tacked first, then the alignment is checked, then welded completely and alignment checked again.
Serrotta have a very extensive & high quality painting facility. There are 5 automotive-stye paint booths:
1. Bonding booth – stays, etc are cured here.
2. Paint mixing – computerized system calculates amounts of paint to minimize wastage.
3. Spray booth with circulatory underfloor ventilation.
4. Spray booth with circulatory underfloor ventilation.
5. Drying booth – sealed from painting booths to prevent dust ingress.
WORKSHOP TOUR: INDEPENDENT FABRICATION.
Marty at Geekhouse told me how to find “Indy Fab” on a commercial estate in Boston. They were about to move 60 miles north to New Hampshire to new premises when I visited. Most of the employees will move with the company.
The company was started in 1995 by Mike Flanigan, Jeff Bucholz and Lloyd Graves.
Custom bikes began in about 2000, and the company was then employee-owned. In 2008 Gary Smith bought the majority of the company.
There have been as many as 20 employees in the past, but now there are about 10.
Indy Fab makes steel, titanium and carbon frames, but also uses a blend of materials on some frames, eg carbon and titanium. They are well known for hardtail mountain bikes, but now make approximately 50% road bikes and 50% mtbs.
Some cross bikes are also made by the company.
Every bike is custom built over an 8-10 week turnaround period.
Here are the pictures:
Well, I just had a great chat with Richard Sachs at his workshop in a very quiet part of Warwick, Massachusetts.
If anyone could give me advice it’s Richard, as he’s an accomplished and successful frame builder with decades of experience.
Richard started building frames in the US after returning from England where he apprenticed with Witcomb Cycles in the early 1970′s. Upon his return to the US, he began making frames for Witcomb USA, and then set up on his own.
During my visit, Richard explained how his unconventional career path began when he didn’t get a bike mechanic job he saw advertised (he only intended to work there for a few months before concentrating on becoming a writer), and then, almost out of spite he wrote to several frame builders in England, partly to prove that he could transcend that role . Witcomb replied, inviting him to come over to England, and welcomed him into the fold almost as a family member.
Richard remains part of the racing community to this day, which plays an important part in promoting his bikes. The latest manifestation of this is his cyclo-cross team. Richard was working on his team bike frames when I visited him.
We spoke about the history of the industry, and how the trade was more viable previously. Good bikes had to be sourced from a frame builder, especially for racing. The rise of mountain bikes triggered new production technologies, and when the mountain bike market slowed down, the bigger companies applied these technologies to making road bikes. Frame builders were dying out by the mid 1980′s.
I spoke to Richard about the realities of working as a frame builder today. He gave me the following advice:
- Don’t romanticise, think of it as a business, not a craft.
- Don’t sell at too low a price just to get things moving and frames made.
- If possible, don’t start as a frame builder without frame building experience – try to work at a bike factory, where you will gain much more experience, possibly in several areas of construction. You will likely be given more responsibility over time, and then, after maybe hundreds of frames later, you can take your skills to your own shop.
- Deposits are to secure a place in the frame builder’s queue, and shouldn’t be thought of as income.
-Clearly determine your market – you are competing against the Treks and Cannondales of this world.
-Invest in a workshop first.
- People skills can be more difficult than frame building skills.
I asked Richard how important it is to establish a brand identity – He replied “Good frames come first, but talking online is very important, and extra merchandise has provided more revenue streams”.
When I asked what was the most difficult part in running a frame building business, Richard told me that it was the administration of a high volume of incoming orders, with the accompanying requirement to be accommodating and gracious to everyone, regardless of how much correspondence each person in the queue demands.
I spoke to Richard about his equipment, noting that the shop wasn’t full of machines like some of the people I had visited previously on my trip. Richard uses no powered machinery – a hangover from his Witcomb days, where there were no machines, and even the drill was hand-powered. “Manual labour, muscle memory and hand-eye co-ordination can be just as good and quick with experience” he argued, describing machinery as unnecessary for him.
Richard’s frame jig is made by Bicycle Machinery, and apart from a few other small fixtures in the workshop, it looks almost lonely in the shop, surrounded only by benches, hand tools and lugs.
Here are some pictures from the shop:
I rounded up my meeting by asking whether Richard thought that frame building has a bright future in the US, and he expressed concern that he thought a saturation point has been reached in the number of frame builders in America, but he was more optimistic about the UK.
Looks like we’d better get our fingers out chaps..
Next stop, a factory tour at Serotta Custom Bicycles, Saratoga Springs, NY.
I hired a car in Boston and drove about 6 hours north to Sedgewick, Maine, to visit Jeff Buchholz of Sputnik Tool. Jeff has built his own workshop, and I was really impressed to see that his finely-made fixtures and tools are all made in-house by him alone on a lathe, a Bridgeport milling machine, and only recently, a CNC Millport milling machine.
When I met Drew at Engin Cycles in Philadelphia he had a lot of praise for Jeff’s tools, and Drew knows a thing or two about tools..
Jeff showed me some work in progress, and I took some pictures:
Jeff talked to me about how he used to work at Fat City Cycles and Independent Fabrication, but is mostly self-taught with regard to machining. He struck out on his own when his previous role became more managerial, and he wanted to work with his hands.
Sputnik ships equipment globally, and I was impressed how Jeff didn’t dress things up in marketing spiel, he just makes purposeful, straightforward quality tooling.
Here are some fixture parts awaiting machining:
I really like the fact that Sputnik Tool makes great equipment by one man in his own shop. Moose sometimes stroll past the window next to the blueberry field.
These tools will save a lot of frame builders time and money. I half-jokingly suggested that due to the weight of some of the bigger fixtures, maybe Jeff could licence production in Europe, where many of his customers are based. Jeff replied that the whole point for him was that he enjoys making things himself.
I was sold.
Drew has concentrated his time on getting his frame building process right, and then having the best machines and fixtures for the job. One horizontal milling machine is used only for tube mitring, and so has the table bolted in place so that the mitring fixture is always dead-centre around its pivot point. The fixture has interchangeable butt-stops of different sizes, which represent the different tubing sizes. This way, the tube length can be measured very accurately.
Drew explained that horizontal milling machines are very useful for mitring tubes, and are very accurate. He showed me a German-made horizontal machine made by Deckel that he said was extremely accurate, and also came with a detachable vertical milling head.
Drew showed me his own design fork fixture, which he made himself. It can measure from the brake hole in the crown, or the crown race seat. Everything moved very well and smoothly, with no sloppy fit anywhere.
To find the exact point of the edge, the width of the edge-finder is then halved to find the centre point of the milling spindle (a parallel bar is used in the machine vice next to the workpiece to give a convenient extended edge).
The exact centre line of the workpiece can now be calculated by halving the measured width of the piece, then moving the table by this distance exactly with the graduated handwheel.
In this case, the piece was a stem/steerer binder made from 4130 chro-moly, which had to be mitred to fit on the stem, and slotted along the centreline to allow it to open and close. A hole saw was put into the milling machine to cut the mitre into the now-centred binder. The mitre was then cut,
..and cleaned up with an end-mill:
The central binder slot was cut with a slotting saw on a horizontal milling machine; the distance from the edge to the centre noted and transposed from the previous exercise.
Drew also showed me his unicrown fork fixture, designed to hold the blades very precisely and in phase with each other. Drew only uses straight fork blades with his road and cyclo-cross bikes.
Next, Drew showed me a newly Tig-welded mountain bike fork, with two cross-pieces between the steerer and the straight blades. There are many angles to be considered when mitring and constructing this type of fork, and Drew showed me a very clever fixture he had just developed for mitring the component tubes.
Here are some more pictures from the Engin Cycles workshop:
Drew takes his alignment datum from the head-tube, not the bottom bracket shell face, and also incorporates seat tube clamps into the surface table, machined specifically for each tube size to retain the centreline with relation to the head tube.
All dummy axles are marked with a centreline to check the centring of the rear triangle with a surface gauge.
Drew defended his stance on owning multiple machine tools by explaining that they were of good quality, and would last longer than the rest of his life.
I also met Simon Firth, a British ex-pat that actually used to work for the same courier company as me in London. Small world. Simon has built frames for Bilenky for years, but is now working with Drew at Wissahickon for 3 days a week, and working on his own frames and equipment the rest of the time. I also had the pleasure of seeing his first frame build under his own new marque, Hanford.
I tagged along with Simon and Joel, who works at Via Bicycle (The Hanford frame was built for him) to a swap meet in Brooklyn, where the bike was going to be shown to the local bike aficionados.
The next day, I rode up to North 2nd St to visit Bilenky Cycles, where I spoke to Stephen Bilenky about his company and took some more pictures:
Stephen Bilenky started building bike frames in 1984. He is largely self-taught, but had lots of vocational training at an agricultural college where he was taught shop skills, repairs and fabrication. He also took more vocational post-college courses in welding and brazing.
Stephen did study under Jim Gittins for a time, who at one time built under contract for Condor amongst others.
Stephen said that 85% of the information needed to start out can now be found on the internet.
There were 5 employees at work at the time of my visit.
Bilenky make fillet-brazed, lugged and Tig welded steel frames, and also some titanium frames.
A CAD program is used to design the frames, and the tubing is cut and mitred by machine. The frames are built using fixtures made by Anvil Bikeworks. Bilenky also undertakes all kinds of frame repairs.
Frame fit is worked out using body measurements, a size cycle or the customer’s current bike.
Bilenky produces between 100 and 150 bikes per year, depending on the type and level of customisation, as the build-time can vary greatly.
Several years ago, Bilenky decided to focus on tandem frames, and as the market was small, they became well-known in this specialised field. This helped the business to grow.
Pre-internet, Bilenky relied on articles in magazines and word of mouth for marketing. Bilenky’s bicycles were reviewed by Bicycling magazine twice in the 1980′s, and also in the 90′s.
Nowadays, Bilenky relies mainly on internet promotion, but shows are also important.
The local Philadelphia market is not particularly strong, so the main market is national and international. At the time of my visit, two frames were being built for customers in Denmark, and another was being built for someone in Japan.
Stephen explained that the company did not get online until 1998, and before that he would receive letters from people interested in his bikes, and reminisced that the only other form of communication was the telephone. I asked Stephen whether he thought an increase in the number of apprenticeships would benefit the industry, or whether he thought it could potentially increase competition too much. He replied that individual frame builders tend to make their own market, so increasing numbers would most likely benefit the industry as a whole, rather than increase competition.
Here are some pictures from around the workshop:
So not only do I get the chance to visit some great frame builders in the US, but I actually get to STAY at SquareBuilt. I am a lucky boy.
Lance Mercado started building bikes back in 2003 after studying at UBI in Oregon. He now has a very well-equipped workshop in the basement of his apartment on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, and specializes in urban-style custom frames, whether they be single speed, track, road frames or polo bikes. As I write this, Lance is designing a bike for a very small person, with a 650 front wheel and curved top tube. Lance really enjoys making any bike that’s a challenge, for instance freestyle bikes, or where the customer gives Lance the task of designing the right frame for a very specific job.
Take a look at this amazing video of Lance and his co-builder Alex making (and powder coating, then building up) a frame in just 9 hours (opens in new tab):
BikeCAD software comes in handy.
I watched Lance working on a frame. He decided to use lugs. Sometimes, when Lance uses lugs, he’ll cut the lug in half with a small cutting wheel, put the two halves on the respective tube, and then brass braze in the middle. The advantages with this method are that the lug doesn’t have to be manipulated to fit exactly to the angle required, and the points of the lugs can be made to lie against the tubes more easily. It is also easier to see the close fit of the mitre between the two tubes, and to make sure that they are pushed right against each other.
This time, Lance has decided to only use one half of the lug, and have it transitioning smoothly from a lug on one tube to a fillet braze on the other.
Next, Lance fillet brazes the adjoining tubes to the head tube,
Then any excess brass is filed back to smooth out the transition.
The fillets can be cleaned up further with an air-powered Dynafile.
Here are some more shots from around SquareBuilt’s workshop:
More pictures from around the workshop:
Lance took me to the Bamboo Bike Studio today, where we met Greg and Fence.
They have been making bike frame here from Jersey bamboo, which grows locally in gardens and is seen almost as a weed, although now their bamboo comes from Yucatan. Fence told me how Yucatan bamboo actually has a lower carbon footprint, despite the transport distance to New York because of the solar treatment of the bamboo from this area.
Previously, they used high density foam for the bottom bracket area and other areas such as the head tube and seat cluster area, but have now started to use balsa wood.
Their goal is to make a 100% biodegradable bike frame within 5 years. There are currently people in Brazil working on organic epoxys.
The best species of bamboo to use is apparently “Phyllostauctus Strictus”, native to Asia, otherwise known as “iron bamboo”.
It only takes 3 years to grow a piece of bamboo big enough for frame tubes.
The Bamboo Studio have made a frame from start to finish in 6 hours. The epoxy really needs 12 hours to cure though.
The current bamboo supplier can provide enough bamboo tubes for 70 frames per month.
It was great to see this kind of sustainable and biodegradable industry going on, and with passionate people behind it. I’m sure bamboo bikes have a bright future.
The Bamboo Bike studio are now offering a self-build kit, starting at $496. It includes a flat particle board jig. What are you waiting for?
My next post will be about SquareBuilt Cycles.