Philadelphia Excursion

I took the Chinatown bus to Philadelphia on Thursday, then cycled up Germantown Avenue to the lovely Chestnut Hill area where I found the Wissahickon Cyclery, with the Engin Cycles workshop behind it.

Wissahickon bike store front.

Engin workshop sign

 Engin Cycle Works is a very well-equipped frame building workshop behind Wissahickon Cyclery, owned and run by Drew Guldalian.  Drew has been running the bike shop for 16 years, and started to build frames 7 years ago. Drew has tried many commercially available jigs and fixtures, but has not been totally satisfied with the accuracy of them, so has begun to make his own. Drew owns several milling machines, lathes and fixtures, and explained how they all have a valid purpose.

The Engin workshop.

The man behind the machines - Drew Guldalian.

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.

Tube mitring fixture.

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.

Deckel name plate.

Deckel milling machine.

Vertical milling head for Deckel mill.

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.

The Engin fork fixture.

Close up view.


Fork jig detail showing brake hole mounting point and v-block steerer clamp.

Next, I was shown a tool that Drew uses when milling his fixtures, an “edge-finder”.

Drew explains the importance of using an edge finder when precision machining. This one is disassembled. If I remember correctly, the conical pointed part is to find the centre point of a hole.

 He explained how this is essential when making precision equipment. The edge-finder is held in the headstock of the milling machine and spun.

The edge finder in action. A parallel is held in the machine vice next to the workpiece to give an extended edge to take a measurement from.

It can be seen to wobble around its centre on its own built-in spring. When it comes close to the edge of the piece and touches it, it can be seen to wobble less. When the edge-finder moves closer to the edge, the wobbling stops, and when it is right at the edge, the sprung edge-finder kicks out slightly.

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,

Centrally milled binder.

..and cleaned up with an end-mill:

Cleaning up the cut with an endmill.

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.

Preparing to slot the binder centrally on a horizontal mill.

Taking the cut.

Binder held in position on stem.


The stem is held in a stem jig, ready to be welded.

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.

Unicrown fork jig. The fork blades are held at the bottom on cones, before the dropouts are added.

The tops of the blades are clamped down to keep the blades in phase.

Fixture detail.

 There was also a large selection of Diacro tubing benders in the workshop, each one set up for a specific tubing size and task, and marked and graduated for each desired bend radius. This is all part of Drew’s striving toward his mantra of accuracy, consistency, repeatability and speed.

Diacro tubing benders.

Bender closeup

Bender graduations.

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.

Mountain bike fork detail. Several different angles must be considered with this type of fork.

Here are some more pictures from the Engin Cycles workshop:

Frame in a Sputnik Tool frame jig. I liked the way the angle graduations are moved further outward than with other jigs of this type, thus making them further apart and easier to read and fine-tune.

Carefully bent stays.

Rear view of frame.Frame number stamping press

Frame number stamping press


The press in action on a bottom bracket shell. Bearing cups or machined equivalents are inserted to prevent distortion of the shell.

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.

Surface table.

All dummy axles are marked with a centreline to check the centring of the rear triangle with a surface gauge.

Centre line on dummy axle.

A measuring gauge made by Drew.

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.

Here are some pictures of a finished Engin Frame that I took during my visit:

Painted touring frame.

Complete with matching fenders.

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.

The birth of a legend - The first Hanford frame is built up at Via Bicycle, an amazing bike shop in Philadelphia.

A proper bike shop.

Lots of bikes..

Hanford Headbadge

Simon shows me a classic old frame from the depths of Via Bicycle's many treasures.

Ephgrave badge - they were made in Clapton, London E5, where I currently live.

Ephgrave headbadge, showing that it was made in Clapton, E5.

Upstairs at Via Bicycle. Too much to write about here.

 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.

At the bike "swap meet" in Brooklyn, or cycle jumble as we call it in the UK.

The bike attracted a lot of interest. Not surprisingly.

Hanford number 1 from another angle.

I went for a ride to a local eatery/pub with Simon, Joel and some other bike enthusiasts, including the Brooks Saddles rep. Brooks are doing a storming trade in the US, and I saw them everywhere.

Simon showed me the beginnings of a frame jig he was making at Engin. This was the BB post.

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:

Bilenky Bikes door.

Stephen Bilenky

 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:

Bilenky Bikes workshop

Lots of frames.

Masked and primed frames.


Enormous Milwaukee Mill

Painted frames

Stephen discusses paint with an employee.

Tandem frames.


Tandem frame in an Anvil frame jig.

Next stop will be Boston to pick up the rental car.  First stop on the road trip will be Sputnik Tool in Maine.



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.

Finished frames on the wall.

Squarebuilt's basement shop

Lance brazing with brass

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):

Waterjet-cut SquareBuilt headbadge.

Made by hand in Brooklyn

Made to measure..

BikeCAD software comes in handy.

BikeCAD can make things easier to visualise.

..rules of the workshop

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.

Cutting a lug into 2 parts.

Lug cut in two.

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.

Two half-lugs brazed to the head tube .

Taking the temperature of the head tube with an infra-red thermometer. No more burnt hands!

..Then matching it to the water temperature so the flux can soak off without quenching the steel.

Head tube in water

Next, Lance fillet brazes the adjoining tubes to the head tube,

Fillet brazing to the front triangle (it's tacked in a frame jig first).

Then any excess brass is filed back to smooth out the transition.

Filing the fillets with a round file.

The fillets can be cleaned up further with an air-powered Dynafile.

Here are some more shots from around SquareBuilt’s workshop:

Checking alignment with a flat surface and a surface gauge (the heat can cause distortion of the tubing alignment).

Lance built his sandblasting booth himself. A whole frame can fit through the door on the end.

Plug-in track ends in position on the jig to test fit.

The bike starts to take shape.

More pictures from around the workshop:

Alignment surface with bottom bracket clamp and fork steerer clamp.

Fork blade bender

Powder coating booth

Lance prints out mitre templates for the seat stays.

The templates are then wrapped around the stays and ground/filed back to the line.

Stays are then put in the frame on the jig to test the fit.

A big compressor powers the sandblaster and air tools.

Lance is in turn powered by coffee..

Lance showed me this saddle rail clamp that's designed for brazing directly onto the seat tube, so a seat post is not needed. Just make sure you get the height right.

Powder pots in various colours

Tubing storage

A nice silver-brazed fork.

The Bamboo Bike Studio, Red Hook, New York

Lance took me to the Bamboo Bike Studio today, where we met Greg and Fence.

Greg and Fence. They are happy.

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.

Bamboo tubes

and more bamboo

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.

Balsa wood BB area

Head tube

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.

frame in jig

Dropout detail

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.

Frames, frames, frames.

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.

Finished bike

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.

Biking Around Brooklyn..

After waking up on Lance at SquareBuilt’s very comfortable couch, I made a call to Johnny Coast to ask if I could come and snoop around his workshop around the back of Troutman Street, and he kindly agreed.  I really like Johnny’s classic style of frame building ( ).

Here’s what I saw:

Outside Johnny Coast's workshop


Johnny in his shop.

 Johnny has been making bike frames for about 7 years now.  Learning the basics of welding and using a torch from his hot-rodder father from the age of 12,  Johnny had a good grounding in metalwork, and when he decided he wanted to make bikes he went to study at United Bicycle Institute (UBI) in Portland, Oregon.

Johnny also studied stem building with Yamaguchi in Rifle, Colorado, where he learned to fillet braze, then he started building in his own workshop, which he shares with fellow frame builder Seth Rothko.
 Johnny specializes in the classic lugged steel/chromoly style of bike frame, mainly road, randonneur, track and touring frames. 
For a time, Johnny built custom frames for Velo Orange, and he also makes custom stems and racks.  

Nice Coast headbadge


A work in progress on Johnny's bench.


Johnny shows me his grandfather's toolbox, now used for making frames that blow me away.


Part of a rack is carefully filed, held in a vice with soft copper jaw faces.


Johnny Coast's workshop. Great things happen here.


 Next, I met up with Lance again back at his place, and we jumped on our bikes  to head over to his friend Thomas Callahan at Horse Cycles
I had to pedal furiously on the Brompton to keep up with Lance’s urban steed!
Thomas started building frames in 2006, and builds mainly road bikes, urban bikes and city bikes, using lugged construction.  Thomas is self-taught, but also learned things from other builders such as Johnny Coast and Jamie Swan.

Inside the Horse workshop, although they call a workshop a shop here. They call a shop a store.


Thomas takes it easy. This man is content in his work.


Thomas showed me his Anvil mitre fixture. It turns on a rotary table. Here it's set up on a horizontal milling machine. I was impressed by the compactness of the setup, and Thomas said he was really pleased with it.


A very nice fillet-brazed handlebar-stem.


I liked this part-chromed lugged frame by Horse. The customer was a girl who wanted the paint to match her lipstick!


More frames

Thomas showed us his new paintbooth. He has a stand that can clamp the frame at the bottom bracket, so that he can walk all around the frame whilst spraying.



..and more Horse bikes


 Next, Lance and I rode off to see his friend Billy at a Brooklyn bike shop, where downstairs in the basement he had a small workshop. Billy’s bikes go under the name “Coarse” (it’s just a happy coincidence that it rhymes with horse!):

Billy at Coarse Steel

It was interesting to see what could be done in a small space like this.  Years ago in the US and the UK, many good bike shops had a frame builder on site.

Small oxy-acetylene rig.


Small workshop in the rear basement of a bike shop.


Coarse logo

Bringhelli BB & seat tube alignment fixture


Bringhelli fork fixture

STILL TO COME:  I talk with Lance Mercado at SquareBuilt Cycles about his bikes and working as a frame builder in Brooklyn. Don’t miss it!

ALSO: Possible trip to a bamboo bike maker, and possible trip to Philadelphia to visit more frame builders… Stay tuned.

New York City

So after staying at Michael’s house in Chicago, I got the bus to Chicago O’Hare airport and checked in.

United Airlines charged me a $100 handling fee for the Brompton, even though it was in something the size of a suitcase and my only checked luggage. And after their baggage department expressly told me that there would be no charge when I called them, and they didn’t charge me when I came into the US via 2 flights with them. Oh well.

It costs $100 to put this on a conveyor belt.

I got to NYC with the Brompton with no problems,  and take the subway to Brooklyn.  I’m staying with the very hospitable maker of lovely bikes that is Lance Mercado of SquareBuilt.

Day 5 of Doug Fattic’s Frame Building Course

Here are some pics from today’s efforts in the workshop..

My front triangle in the Doug Fattic frame jig!

Tacking the main tubes in place with brass.

I've tacked the tubes to hold them all in place so I can take the front triangle out of the jig and finish fillet brazing.

The down tube is tacked into the BB shell with silver.

My first ever fillet braze..

I had to keep turning the frame in the vice so that the molten brass would sit in the crease of the mitre, and not run off.

Filing an 8 degree mitre in the chainstay where it will enter the BB shell. the H tool is in the dropout below the vice to help me file straight at 90 degrees.

Checking post-braze frame alignment/twist with a surface gauge on the table..


Close-up of the plate on the surface table, another treasure from Johnny Berry's Manchester workshop. Now in Niles, Michigan.

Made in Chelmsford.

A lighter surface table, made of aluminium. This can be moved by humans.

a trip to the supermarket at lunchtime..

I ordered this BB shell from Ceeway, UK, and took it to the USA. I had to file the chainstay sockets to let the stays move up a bit and achieve my desired BB drop. The surface rust is only a very thin layer - caused by soaking off the flux in hot water after brazing. It's honest American rust..

Using a "T tool" to hold the chainstays at the desired position and spacing. The stays can be cold set left and right....

..and then a Park alignment tool can be used to check that the dropouts are centred.

A well-trued wheel is used to fine-tune the rear end.

The fillets look nice after a buzz with the Dynafile.

Herbie shows me how to hold a seat binder in position for tacking.

Seatstay held in place with a heavy weight and rubber bands.

Doug doin' his thing.

Yeah, I know, I'll put them on..

Next stop New York City.  Hope to see you there.

Day 4 on Doug Fattic’s Frame Building Course

Here are some pictures from a very long day with Doug Fattic, Herbie Helm and my fellow student, Bill:

Crisp BB shoreline

Fork crown brazed to steerer, now to braze dropouts into fork blades.

This is how we made 'em.

Loading up the plug-in dropouts with bits of silver.

Doug sets up the fork blades for brazing.

After "sweating" the joint with a flame.

Time for the shoeshine sanding with emery strips.

Luvly Jubbly

Getting the seat tube aligned with a surface gauge. We listen for a tick in two places as it just scrapes over the top.

Doug sets up the Nova fork bender.

Measuring the rake with a ruler, a "123 block" and the corner of Doug's jig.

When both fork blades match the desired rake, we cut the blades squarely to the right length, allowing for the tyre radius & mudguard clearance, and put them into the Anvil fork jig.

Doug gives us a brazing demo.

I gave my fork crown some blacksmithing to improve the fit with a brass hammer. Brass doesn't mark the steel as much as it's softer.

Herbie Helm showing us brass brazing of the rear dropouts.

fork crown after brazing.

Brass brazing

Blob it on..

..Then file it back to a scalloped finish.

Herbie teaching me some brass tricks.

I learned a lot from Herbie today. He is one calm and patient man.

Doug shows us how he brazes top eyes onto seat stays.

Here the silver has been flowed from inside.

Fillet brazing with brass.

Nice smooth fillet.

Doug uses a part of a frame to demonstrate how he positions and moves things when brazing with lugs, and how he progresses around the lug. Bill and I took lots of notes.

Well, it’s 1.25 am here, So I’m turning in now.  Stay tuned Y’all!