Thoughts on the Execution of Custom Bicycles

Construction Quality

When I was way back in my early twenties and purchasing my first custom-built bicycles, what defined a custom bicycle at that time is very different from what it is today in the minds of many.  Back in the 1970s a custom-built bicycle was defined through the work of the very best builders, by a much higher level of quality and craftsmanship than the level of quality that was to be found in production-level bikes produced by, or for, the major brands of bicycles (Raleigh, Trek, Schwinn, Univega, Fuji, Bianchi etc.) at the time.  The expectation of many consumers of custom-built bicycles was that they would be purchasing something that was much more refined than a production-level frame or bicycle.  In touring bicycles it also meant that many frame builders (Merz, Gordon, Braxton, Laing etc.) would build their own custom-made racks, and sometimes pannier/rack systems, that were an attempt to provide bicycles a much higher level of quality and performance than the production-level products that were currently on the market.  During the 1970s and 1980s the very best of the American builders of custom-built bicycle frames, of lugged- or fillet-brazed construction, produced a level of execution that went so far beyond the quality level of mass-produced bicycle frames that they, at least in my experience, essentially made a complete joke of the junk that was being offered by larger manufacturers.  There was an immense gap in quality between the very best custom-built bicycles and those built by the mass manufacturers, or by those offered by “custom” builders that did not produce true custom bicycles (Colnago, Masi, Schwinn Paramount etc.) that found their way to the hands of American customers.

That has all changed.  The evolution of frame design and materials (aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber etc.) that picked up speed in the 1970s and early 1980s led to a transformation in frame construction techniques.  The rough, unfinished welding of frames, once considered unthinkable as an acceptable process for building frames, changed everything.  It became at first commonplace, and then ubiquitous to such a degree that other production techniques have become rare in steel, aluminum and titanium frames.  Welding, as an extremely profitable, quickly executed, crude industrial process that is so widespread, opened up the door, quite necessarily, to the re-defining (downwardly)of quality and craftsmanship standards in bicycle frames.  We are now in an era of quality without craftsmanship (or a totally redefined sense of craftsmanship) or finish in which a bicycle frame can be executed to the lowest construction standards and still be regarded as being well-made as long as it doesn't fall apart in use.  It seems absurd to me and I can't change it, so I simply aspire to a different and more realistic standard in which refined craftsmanship and finish, following a centuries-old tradition in metal working, play an integral role in defining quality.  I personally look at welding, as a building process, as being necessary in the building of inexpensive production bicycle frames.  I personally don't see welding as a viable part of custom building.  As a custom builder, dedicating a significant part of my life to my work, why would I want to produce a level of quality that is no better than that which may be found in factory-built bicycles that cost $300?  I don't want to do something badly just to make money.

As a custom builder it is my responsibility to consumers to offer products that represent a very different level of quality, design and performance than may be found in mass-produced products.  Consequently, as a builder of bicycle frames and touring racks of steel tubing I'll never produce TIG-welded frames or racks.  To me, such products do not represent custom quality.  I will also never build touring bikes that incorporate other brands of racks and panniers that are poorly designed and that are built to an extremely low standard of quality and performance.  It is my goal as a builder to work to expand upon the highest standards of design, detailing, quality, performance and the aesthetic values that were initiated by a small number of the very best of the American frame builders in the 1970s and 1980s.

I've heard a lot of “custom” frame builders express that they don't want to spend their lives filing lugs or fillets.  And I've heard a lot of builders of steel frames say that they want be able to use any configuration of tubing or design in the building of their bike frames that is possible.  To the former it means that they have only the option of TIG-welding frames, and to the latter it defines that they may only TIG-weld or fillet braze frames.  My options, considering that I don't recognize TIG-welding as an acceptable technique for custom-quality frames, is either fillet brazing or by building frames with lugs.  At this stage in my tenure as a builder, and at my age (I'm kind of in the home stretch), I want to make every frame and bike count, so I prefer the aesthetics of lugs over the versatility of designs available in fillet-brazed frames.  And I greatly value the possibilities in creative expression in lugs, to the ease  with which fillet-brazed frames may be built, by comparison to absolutely top-flight lugged frames.  Fillet frames are a lot less time-consuming to build, and in some ways much easier, but I still greatly prefer the aesthetic possibilities of building frames with lugs (although I admire and greatly value masterfully crafted fillet frames).

As I don't build competition bikes I'm not looking to eliminate every possible gram from each of my frames.  And, in the overall design of a frame, there is a lot more to performance than in just chipping away at grams.  But if I were building competition bikes I probably would not be building lugged-steel frames.  However, that's not what I do.  Within the narrow range of bike frame designs that I create, lugs are a very viable, if not-so-easy option.  For any builder it's somewhat difficult to build extremely well with lugs, and it can have some limitations design-wise, but to achieve my goals in terms of overall frame design and aesthetics, it works extremely well.  Given the wealth of options in terms of creative expression, it is the only choice for me currently.

I've never seen bicycles simply or strictly as tools of performance.  Performance always comes first, and in view of the fact that I've taken the design of touring racks, panniers and bikes in directions nobody else has ever dreamed of, I place a very high value on performance.  But I also value craftsmanship and creativity, and as I have limited time, by virtue of my age, to build frames I've dedicated myself to the very unique blend of highly expressive form and highly evolved function that I'm building today.  I'm fully aware of the simple fact that there are limitations in performance potential in competition bikes of lugged, steel-tube construction.  It is also abundantly clear to me that, given given the extreme amount of time it takes to build exceptional lugged frames, and given what is available to builders today in terms of components (lugs, fork crowns, bottom bracket shells) for lugged frames, there is very limited commercial viability in building with lugs.  But, for me and anyone else dedicated to building products that reflect a unique blend of performance and craftsmanship, it remains as one of the two options available to the builders of quality steel frames.

Show Bikes and Low Bikes

During the 1970s and 1980s I traveled to Europe and to many parts of the United States to visit dozens of custom frame builders.  One thing that has always stuck with me, after speaking at length with a number of builders, is that one mentioned to me that he sometimes spent more than 100 hours in building a single frame.  At the time I just didn't see how it was possible to spend that much time building a bicycle frame.  Another old-school builder told me that he did not consider the work on one of his frames to be finished if it needed to be painted, to cover or smooth-out even the small irregularities in the craftsmanship of the frame.

At the very opposite end of the quality/time spectrum, which is now the far-more-common end of frame building, was quite eloquently defined to me when I was searching for a builder to build Sakkit frames in the late 1990s.  In my journey in search of a quality builder I spoke with many that were building TIG-welded frames and that wanted to weld, as opposed to using lugged-frame construction methods in the Sakkit bike frames.  Somewhat amazingly, a few builders mentioned that they had gotten the production time on their stock TIG-welded frames down to three hours.  I'll never forget one conversation I had with a famous builder about his frames, that were not among those that he imported, but that were frames built in his shop.  I mentioned that he couldn't possibly be spending much more than three hours on his own welded-steel frames.  His defensive reaction, in light of how long it takes well-crafted frames to be built, was somewhat humorous: “no way, those frames take four hours to build.”

Production-welded bicycle frames can be built in a few short hours, but amazingly, most are really built in a few minutes.  Bike frames (most are welded) that are built under contract in factories in Asia, in which laborers are often paid pennies per hour, represent by our own monetary standards in the United States, frames that are economically but not literally, built in a few minutes.  In “money” minutes, they are almost built for free.  In our own country, most production-level steel frames that are TIG-welded, even ones that are referred to as “custom” frames by a number of builders, are built in hours.  Some individual “custom” builders of TIG-welded frames, especially those building a single frame at at a time, of individual designs for individual customers, may spend many more hours on a frame.  In extreme contrast, the very highest-caliber fillet-brazed frames can take days to build, especially if they are built in unique, individual designs for each customer, and to exceptional standards.  Fillet frames vary widely in the quality of their level of craftsmanship and execution, but by nature few can be built both quickly and to a high standard.

And still, on another completely different level, are frames built to the highest standards of lugged-frame construction.  Lugged frames vary much more widely in quality and the time it takes to build them than in fillet-brazed frames.  Production-level lugged frames can be built in a day, and in a high-production, factory-built atmosphere, in much less time.  At the other end of the spectrum, virtually all of the Signature frames that I build literally take weeks to build (I'm currently working on six as I'm writing this).  Even the most simple frames that I build today, and they are not at all simple by any comparative measure, take much more than a week to build.  The process of hand cutting and forming lugs, fork crowns, bottom bracket shells, and other components to the highest standard simply takes a lot of time.  And no matter how carefully frames are brazed, there is still a lot of cleanup on the other end of the time-consuming process of hand-building a frame.  A special level of craftsmanship simply takes a special level of time. The very, very best of the frame builders that I have known often take weeks to build some of their most elaborate bike frames.  And none charge a price that is remotely commensurate with the level of time or quality of their products. 

I've often heard of some creative lugged-frame bicycles as being referred to as “art” or “show” bikes, and all lugged bikes built with steel tubing these days being lumped together into the category of “retro” bikes.  I think that it's important to dispel such notions.  Even though there is a sense of composition and a thematic element within design motifs in the lugs, fork crowns and bottom bracket shells of some of my frames, I don't connect my work, or the work of any other builders, with art.  When bicycles are placed within the spectrum of art it is so easy to look at them as falling well outside the range and domain of everyday bicycles.  But they are everyday bikes, they may just happen to be executed very, very well and in a highly creative manner.

When seen as art, bicycles can be completely overlooked in relation to their performance characteristics, which can at the same time be very exceptional.  But perhaps most importantly, when bicycles are referred to, or referenced as art or as “show” bikes, it can very effectively and completely remove them from any direct comparison with other bicycles, most of which are very cheaply and very roughly built these days.   And, certainly in a lot of circles, I think that that's the whole idea.  It places really well crafted bikes out of a line of comparison with crudely made bikes that are abundantly ordinary, but that are nonetheless quite expensive while taking very little time to build.  Realistically, I think that it's quite important in fairness to consumers and builders alike, to make direct comparisons.  It's a good way of both exposing and helping to dispel the notion that when frames are built in the most industrial and profitable manner that they can be labeled as quality frames.  It's a contradiction.  And then there's the “retro” tag.

I personally don't see anything that is remotely “retro” about well-executed lugged bikes.  They're very uncommon these days, but not because they can't perform superbly.  Within the bicycle industry they are seen as being “retro” because they aren't viable, economically, in any way.  They are certainly “retro” in the new economics of non-domestic mass production.  In an industry bent on extracting every possible penny of profit in the production of bicycles, frames that are phenomenally labor-intensive, and very difficult to build in a production setting, have absolutely no value.  Consequently, they are not going to fit into any corporate mass-production scheme, large or small, or even among individual builders either, when it really gets down to it. Whether it is by the measure of the costs of materials, flexibility in range of designs or the ease of manufacturing, lugged bicycles fall abysmally short in the race to extract the greatest amount of profit from the least amount of effort in building bicycle frames.  Consequently, the practice of building lugged bicycle frames has been abandoned within the bicycle industry.  It's that simple.

Ironically, I see bicycles with finely executed, imaginative, good old lugged frames and steel tubing not as art or as being “retro” in any way, but generally as a wonderful and unique blend of form and function, and in their most inspired form a combination of exceptional performance and aesthetic and creative possibilities.  In many ways they represent the absolute pinnacle of bicycle frames.  I can see quite clearly why they have been cast aside as a totally useless product within an industry, but as a unique blend of exceptional riding characteristics for the non top-flight racer and of inspired creativity, they are absolutely the premier bicycle frame.  As a builder, I want to provide a premier opportunity to my customers.  I don't build bicycles for bicycle racers.  I build bicycles for bicycle riders, riders that are among the other 99-plus percent of cyclists.  And, as part of the larger group, there is an great opportunity to find a bicycle that is truly special to both ride and to enjoy simply in terms of the beauty it may reflect, within the lugged-frame cycles that have been overlooked within an industry as being much too difficult to build and woefully unprofitable.