Three Levels of Robert Beckman Frame Execution

If you see one of my bicycle frames and it has my small signature on the top tube of the bicycle, it is a frame built to my current standards (fall 2012).  If it has a large signature on the down tube of the bike, it was built to a previous standard in the past and is not an Ultra-level or Signature-level frame that I built.

I build frames on three levels, now separated not by quality of execution but by the complexity of their details and the time it takes to build the frames.  Standard-Level frames are in general the simplest in their lug detailing, although they are created with hand-cut add-ons, and are generally far more complex and refined in their detailing than other lugged bicycle frames. Ultra-Level frames have elaborately hand-cut lugs that are always formed with lug add-ons or from lug blanks.   Signature-Level frames have even more highly refined lugs that are designed with such creative elements as stone or contrasting metal accents, and have stainless dropouts, fork tips and many other stainless frame fittings.

Three Levels of Frame Design and Construction

I feel that a custom frame should be something very special and unique.  To deliver the special level of refinement and elegance that I feel comfortable with I've come to the realization that I have to build all of my bicycle frames to the same standards as my Signature-level frames of today.  As a builder, especially given that building the very elaborately detailed frames that I build isn't exactly profitable, I have to be very satisfied with my own work.  To find satisfaction in the craftsmanship in all of my frames I have to execute them to a highly refined standard.  With this in mind I began, in the summer of 2012, to build my  Standard-Level frames to my own highest standards, which were once reserved only for my Signature frames.  This recent evolution in frame detailing means considerably more work on my part, but it is necessary.  I only want to build the very best of lugged frames.

A Standard-Level lug in the process of being created. I use a needle-point design as the standard lug design at this level of frame, but I vary it in its overall shape and length from bike to bike.
This is a Standard-Level lug that has an accent of Goldstone. The simple accent is about as far as I go in this level of frame as more elaborate designs are part of the Ultra frame design.

Much of the time-consuming work in building all of the frames for my bicycles is in prepping the lugs, fork crown and bottom bracket shell: thinning them, re-shaping them, blacksmithing them to fit tubes very accurately and filing and sanding them very systematically to produce a very crisp, sharp, elegant look in thin, and sometimes very thin, lugs.  Standard-Level frames have the simplest lugs in my line of frames, but by comparison with any other lugged bikes, they are generally quite complex.  Even though they are least involved among my own frames, they bear no resemblance to stock lugs or the lugs of other builders.  All of my frame's lugs, crown and shell go through an extensive creative transformation.  Standard-Level lugs don't have elaborate hand-cut shapes or inlays, but I still cut of the prominent lug points of each lug and I then weld or braze pieces of tubing to it.  Then the lug is carefully hand formed into a very  delicate, long needle-point lug design executed to the very highest of standards (the lug points vary in length from frame to frame, from about two inches to three inches.  Lug edges are thinned consistently to about .030 in. to create an elegant simplicity.

In Standard-Level frames the design of frame and its materials are chosen relative to a rider's body weight and the conditions in which the bike will be used.  Again, there is no difference in the frame materials chosen for a Standard-level frame and a Signature-level frame.  There is no difference in potential as it relates to performance.  The Standard-Level frames simply take less time to build and don't have some of the elaborate details and options of Ultra- and Signature-Level frames.

The Ultra-level frames are where a highly distinctive level of creativity and elaborate detailing begins for me and the individuals that purchase my bicycles.   Artfully and intricately crafted lug designs are a defining element of Ultra-Level frames.  In fact, when lugs are ready to be built into a frame they bear no resemblance to the stock lugs from which they were created.  I develop unique lugs in this frame level by welding or brazing tubing to stock lugs and then designing and hand cutting them to the shapes that I desire.  One pattern that I really like is the highly stylized arrowhead design that I have built for a number of customers, never duplicating the design from bike to bike, and always bringing individuality to its particular design.  In the Ultra-level frames I limit lug designs to those that do not include stone inlays or inlays of other materials.  I reserve such designs for the Signature frames.

An Ultra-Level lug being made for an Encore frame. Later, after this photo was taken, lug points were added to the front and rear of the head tube parts of the lug upon a request from the person for whom the frame was built.
Stylized arrowhead lugs formed from lug add-ons. I\'ve created many types of arrowhead patterns, varying them from frame to frame.

In many ways a frame is defined by its detailing and design.  In Ultra frames I refine detailing by adding stainless parts, that I create, to the frames and racks.  Custom stainless rack mounts, water bottle mounts, rack mounting system parts, lighting system mounts and other components are standard features in the Ultra-level frames.  Customized frame paint is available, as it is in all of my bicycles, in Ultra-Level frames as are racks that are painted to match or contrast with the paint scheme of the bicycle frame.   Like all of my bikes for touring, the Ultra-Level bikes feature frames, racks and panniers that are designed as a functional, complimentary unit in both terms of performance and quality.

The forward side of the lug for the Encore frame. It too has a hand-formed lug add-on that gives the lug design further dimension.
In the Ultra level I, upon request, will carry a lug design into the fork crown and the bottom bracket shell.

Base price of bicycles with Ultra-Level frames: $7777

To me, the most satisfying, and that reflect the best balance of form and function along with creative aesthetics in the bike frames and racks that I have custom-built, are among the Signature-Level bikes that I have created in recent years.  In many ways they represent the culmination of my own deep and enduring interest in bicycle design, the value of superb craftsmanship and in the importance of creative expression. 

Work on the Randonneur Lite 700 as its lugs are being properly cleaned up. Parrot Wing Jasper inlays will eventually go into the windows of the lugs.
Nearing the mid-way point in the building of the Eclipse 700 frame. This frame in particular required a tremendous amount of time in developing the complex lugs and stone accents.

As I have been working on this website during the past few months I've also been working on two interesting Signature-level bicycle frames.  One is a Randonneur Lite 700 for a customer in Minnesota in which the elongated, highly stylized lugs have inlays of Parrot Wing Jasper.  The other is an Eclipse 700 frame in which the thin, elegantly shaped asymmetrical lugs are accented with machined turquoise- and black-agate jewel work. 

The idea of using stone accents came from work on another frame in which brass was used as an accent. It was in working on the Eclipse 700 frame with the turquoise accents that I decided that I would never again duplicate a lug design.
Creating such bike frames is very satisfying to me, and knowing how superbly they will perform when they are built up as high-performance, fully integrated touring and hybrid performance bicycles, makes the work all that much more gratifying.  They will ultimately represent the ultimate in performance among paved-road touring and road bikes, respectively.  The touring frame will be matched with highly advanced and extremely lightweight Hummingbird racks and panniers, the careful custom selection of bicycle components and with extremely fast and efficient wheels built of components selected to match the rider's body weight and riding conditions.  Add all of that to very lightweight frame tubing and it becomes a beautiful high-performance combination.

I like working in metal, and I like metal accents as well as stone ones. I was asked to make a name plate that eventually went on the forward end of a beautifully painted Signature frame that was finished in a black pearl.
I had never built a frame for a blackbird before, but the name plate gave me the unique opportunity. It also gave me the opportunity to use soldering techniques that I learned in making fine jewelry. I've shown photos of arrowhead-shaped fork-crown extensions in this site. The name plate is from that frame.

My definition of a custom bicycle is one that is highly personalized, and one which is both beautiful to look at and beautiful to ride.  Its of a classic balance of creative form and creative function, and that is exactly what the Signature-Level frames and bicycles represent.  The Signature frames feature exotic and elegant lug work, with lugs delicately thinned in balance with their unique designs, and always accentuated with jewelry-like detailing created in metal or stone.  That's the beautiful-to-look-at and creative part of the frames.  Functionally, it's the careful selection of lightweight frame tubing coupled with all of the distinctive features of this level of frame that add up to the highly functional part of the frames outside of their design.  These features include stainless dropouts and fork tips of several designs.  Also standard are stainless steel rack mounts and stainless rack components as well as stainless steel lighting system components and stainless water bottle mounts. 

In Signature-Level frames the design of the three primary lugs is carried into the design of the fork crown, and upon request, into the design of the bottom bracket shell as well.  At this level of frame I try to make the creative design of the frame as interesting as possible.

The Randonneur Lite 700 after it had been finished. This particular frame was actually a cross between an Ultra- and Signature-Level bike in that it did not have stainless dropouts.
Another perspective of the Randonneur Lite. It ended up being a very, very fast touring bicycle as it was ultimately set up Hummingbird IFT front and rear racks and rear Hummingbird 14 IFT Solo panniers.

At the Signature level the painting of the frames is always customized, and this is the only level of frame and bicycle that I offer with specially designed racks with an elegant, show-quality, tri-chrome finish as an option.  The design, execution and finish of the Signature-Level frames and bicycles is very open to exotic possibilities.  It is the most adventurous type of frame that I build, and certainly the most fun and creative.  I should probably add that prices among this level of frame in particular are highly variable.  The more complex its overall design is, and the more intricate its detailing, the greater the value of the bike.

Base price of bicycles with Signature-Level frames: $8888

Lug Designs and Lug Thinning

What I have always seen as a performance advantage in steel-tubing bicycle frames, which are built with lugged-frame construction methods utilizing investment-cast lugs, is that the frames do not have to rely fully upon the tubing from which they are built to provide a desired level of stiffness and stability.  Lugs, bottom bracket shells and fork crowns can all be designed to create an extremely high level of stability and stiffness in the areas of frames in which tubes are adjoined.  These components provide an important degree of rigidity in bicycle frames.  Their unique structure opens up a world of possibilities in frame performance, especially as frame tubing advances in design and materials, and even to a greater degree if we see a day in which lug designs and materials evolve to take advantage of their own full potential.

I've also found that, through welding “add-ons” which are made of very rigid types of tubing, to cast lugs, bottom bracket shells and fork crowns, their rigidity can be increased.   And by increasing the mass in the joints of these components by building up brass brazing material at the joints, the rigidity of lugs can also be substantially increased.  When the rigidity of joints is increased, the stiffness and diameter of frame tubing may be decreased, and more “forgiving” types of tubing may be used in the design and construction of a frame.  By altering lugs, crowns and shells, as well as frame tubing, there is a unique process in the fine-tuning of the riding qualities of lugged bicycle frames that isn't similarly possible in most other types of frames.  Therefore, I don't see lugged bicycle frames as something “retro” or of the past, but as a unique opportunity in the future as builders become more creative and as materials advance.  

Lugs provide important structure, but equally important, especially to the builder that is creating highly customized frames, is that they play a very special part in the design of a bicycle frame that relates to aesthetics and creative expression.  As they can be greatly altered from their original form, they may provide in each bicycle frame a unique, individual design.  In lugged frames, unlike any other types of bicycle frames that are constructed using different methods of adjoining tubes (welding, fillet brazing), there is a long-standing tradition of craftsmanship and creativity that has evolved through the extensive customization of frame lugs.

These lugs have little in common with their original form as they have been very highly modified into new, and completely different shapes.
This lug started out as a clunky, and very stubby lug, but was transformed into a shape that was desired by one of my customers. This is a lug from an Ultra-Level frame and was created for an Encore model of bicycle.

Out of the box, the investment-cast lugs that most frame builders use today are fairly crude, and in this crude form, most often with very little or no alteration, they are used in the construction of production-level or mass-produced frames.  But in the custom building of frames lugs are sometimes altered, most often quite simply, but also very elaborately into some intricate shapes.  In the finest of custom frames, creative lug designs develop a sense of style and individuality.  And at the very highest levels of lugged-frame construction, crude lugs are eloquently transformed, through very careful, systematic thinning, reshaping, and the hand forming of lug add-ons or lug blanks, into highly refined statements of craftsmanship and creative expression. 

Some builders claim that the thinning of frame lugs, fork crowns and bottom bracket shells can undermine the structural integrity of these frame components.  They are absolutely correct.  But they are also incorrect.  When the edges of lugs are very carefully thinned and the lug joints, where much of the critical structural mass is in a lug, are left untouched, extremely little alteration in a lug's structure may take place.

Personally, I take a number of different approaches to thinning lugs, always keeping an eye on minimizing structural changes in lug rigidity.  I often make lug edges very thin but at the same time I concentrate on tapering the thinning so that it remains as close to lug edges as possible.  Rarely do I take any material out of lug joints where structure is so critical.  Also, I vary the thicknesses of the edges of lugs, fork crowns and bottom bracket shells relative to the overall design of each bike.  For instance, if I am building a bicycle frame for a heavy rider I'll thin the lugs a bit differently than I would for a rider that weighs 140 pounds.

I've heard various reasons that other builders thin lugs, but in my own work it always gets down to pure aesthetics.  Lugged bicycle frames can definitely be objects of beauty and I'm quite focused upon making frames that not only perform as well as possible within their range of design and materials, but that also display a highly refined, elegant appearance.  Part of the pleasure of owning a lugged frame can be in enjoying creative design, so I place a high degree of importance in the part of frame building that revolves around creative expression.  Within the realm of fine craftsmanship, lug thinning is paramount in refining the somewhat heavy, crude, uninspired appearance often common to stock lugs.  Lug thinning is just one part of a refinement process in building finely crafted frames that transforms mundane frame components into objects that have more than just a structural function.

This fork crown, straight out of the box, has a .050" to .058" thickness at its edges. Any bicycle builder with even less than average brazing skills, can braze a crown like this, nearly asleep, all day long with good results. Because it's so thick at the edges, sloppy brazing is much more difficult to detect, especially if it is covered with heavy filler/primers and lots of paint when it is finished.
This is the same crown after it has been altered. I have varied its thickness at the edges on purpose, so that it is now between .025" and .035" and very sharp. Normally, the blade sockets in this type of crown fit fork blades horribly so the sockets have to be hammered to fit the blades and then the crown has to be very carefully brazed and edge filed. When this crown is finished it will have a very sharp, crisp appearance that will look nothing like the original. And in the end, there will be 10 or 20 times more work than if it were just executed in its original form.

Lugs, fork crowns and bottom brackets basically go through an extensive metamorphosis before they are brazed into one of my frames.  Thinning lugs, crowns and shells is just one of the many aspects of craftsmanship that separate custom bicycles from production-level frames.  Thinning lugs takes a lot of time and that's why it is a step in frame building that is generally omitted from the process, but that is an essential part of the of building all of my frames.  So, long before I braze any frame I very carefully and systematically thin lugs, crowns and bottom bracket shells.  Investment cast lugs range in thickness at their edges from about .045" up to about .070" in some fork crowns.  That's way too thick and much to clunky-looking as far as I'm concerned.  Lug edges that are .035" or more simply look too heavy and unrefined to me.   Consequently, I generally thin and taper lugs these days to about .030 at their edges.  When I desire to minimize the heaviness in their appearance, as in especially long points, or to create an even more refined look in parts of lugs, I'll reduce their edges to .025".  When I'm thinning lugs I often check their thickness with a caliper or micrometer as I'm working through the process to maintain a reasonably consistent measure at edges.

Thinning lugs is not difficult as it's just a matter of developing a routine of filing lug surfaces and edges consistently, but it is pretty time-consuming.  The thinner lugs are, the more difficult it is to maintain the extreme sharp, crisp look at lug edges that I desire as they are brazed and painted.  When lug edges are .025" or even .020" there is extremely little margin for error or impatience in brazing frames.  The very careful blacksmithing of lugs, when they are quite thin, is critical in developing an extremely close lug-to-tube fit, as no fillet of brazing material (silver) can be left at lug edges.  So, when lug thinning is executed in a highly delicate and exacting manner, it takes a significant amount of time (many extra hours and sometimes even days in exotic lugs) to prepare such frames for painting.  And then the frames have to be very thinly painted to maintain the crisp look of the lugs.  To me, it's always worth the hours and days of effort in a frame.

The Finish Quality of Lugs and Paint

When lugs are very thin at their edges, they must be very carefully brazed and then edge-filed to retain their sharpness and clarity when they are painted.  Any fillet of silver that is built up, no matter how small, along the edge of the lugs has to be removed.  Even when frames are brazed in an extremely clean manner, many hours of edge filing is necessary to keep the vertical edge of lugs free of silver that diminishes their visual crispness and to maintain a 90-degree angle in the edge relative to the flat surface of the lug.  Filing is only half of the process though.  After filing, all of the small filing marks must very carefully sanded out (I use very, very fine files and 240-grit paper) so that they will not appear when the frame is painted. 

This is a custom-designed fork crown that was made for a frame for a customer in Saudi Arabia. The needle-point blade-socket design matches the three main lugs of the bike. It's point is very thin (about .025") and has very sharp, square edges. So far, it's well executed, but not well enough to be painted well with some types of paints.
It is edge-filed reasonably well, and was sanded with 180-grit paper. Normally, this would be far better work than most builders ever execute, but it will require more filing, sanding with a finer grit and even polishing when some types of paints are applied to ensure that the work remains crisp and sharp.

Sometimes, careful sanding is simply not enough in lugs with very thin edges that have to be painted with a very thin layer of paint.  In the case of some paints, especially those which are light in color, nearly translucent and that have little body, the lugs and tubes must be polished to eliminate all sanding marks even when fine finish paper is used (I've certainly have learned the hard way).  Edge filing and sanding is a delicate, very time-consuming process that is an essential part of lugged-frame building that separates ordinary production-level frames and many very well-made frames from those of the highest level of custom-frame building.  The thinner the lugs of a frame are executed, the more critical it becomes.  Because it takes a lot of time and is ridiculously tedious work, it is an aspect of frame building that is very uncommonly executed. 

I'll never forget the time when I asked a frame builder, whose work I have admired, what he thought of the level of execution in the work of a very well-known, highly respected frame builder that we both know.  His assessment was quite to the point: “it's not too bad for industrial-grade work.”  I was a bit surprised at his appraisal, but I also knew exactly what he meant.  Very few frames are exceptionally well executed and finished.

From the time that I got serious about cycling more than 40 years ago, I've been around and have been inspired by, custom-lugged bike frames.  It wasn't until the 1980s that I first saw a frame of truly exceptional execution and since that time I've seen very few.  I've seen some well-crafted frames, but highly exceptional ones that are uniquely detailed are rare.  It takes a special dedication to produce the exceptional.  In my view the exceptional frames fall into a couple of categories: ones that display an exceptional level of work, technically, and those that are exceptional technically but that also have an exceptional level of creative design.

For a person looking simply for a bicycle as a tool, there's nothing wrong with this type of frame-building work. For a production bike it's actually well executed in some ways. But the lug is not squared-up and is very rounded at its edges. It is very thick and not even remotely consistent in its thickness. The lug is very blunt and no attempt has been made to change its out-of-the box form or clean up its lines. There is no edge filing, although it is cleanly brazed. The frame is heavily painted. The seat post clamp has a screw protruding through it on what should be the "blind side."
This Standard-Level frame is executed pretty well. The lug edges are relatively thin, squared-up and have been edge-filed. The binder screw in the integrated-fastback seat-cluster design is executed as unobtrusively as is functionally possible. The paint is thin. Overall, the craftsmanship creates a crisp appearance and is well executed, but there is always room for improvement.

As far as lug work goes, what I look for in exceptionally well-built frames is ultra-clean workmanship.  I admire very crisp, thin lug work with very sharp, squared-up edges in which  the lug surfaces are quite flat leading up to lug edges to accentuate their sharpness.  I also prefer lugs that have no visible (when frames are painted) brazing material along their edges.  I know from experience that it takes a certain amount of diligence to blacksmith and braze lugs so that very little silver is left against raw lug edges, especially in highly detailed lug shapes.  If frames with thin lugs are not brazed and cleaned up exceptionally well, lugs will lose their sharpness and definition when they are painted (and they must also be painted very carefully).  Exceptional frames are so cleanly brazed and finished that they appear to have a complete absence of silver along the edges of lugs, crowns and shells.  Then, when creative designs are added to the process, the outcome can be quite a pleasure to behold.

The more elaborately frames are detailed, the more difficult they are to paint.  As most steel bicycle frames are welded and crudely crafted, the pressure to paint them well is low.  The same is true of almost all lugged frames.  Most lugged frames are just braze-and-blast frames with thick lugs that are devoid of most aspects of hand-built craftsmanship.  Such frames are very commonly painted, first using very heavy primer/fillers to smooth-out rough workmanship and then are heavily painted.  The combination of thick primer/fillers and generous amounts of paint produces an end product in which the sharpness of lugs is obscured.  Such paint jobs at their worst make frames look as though they are vinyl dipped.

Painting lugged frames with thin lugs is a unique process as it requires that the frames are well-prepped by the builder and painted with special care by a painter.  There is extremely little margin for error.  Even small errors in prep easily show through the paint, and if too much paint and primer are applied by the painter the sharpness of lugs is obliterated and paint can also easily sag on lug surfaces.  Finding a balance between enough paint (the paint simply has to be quite thin on the lugs) and way too much is a delicate process that requires teamwork between the builder and the painter.  In the past 15 years I've worked with 15 different painters in an attempt to find someone that can paint my frames.  A couple of those painters were very good.  There are some painters that are absolutely masterful in their abilities, but those painters are of a very rare breed.  Most bicycle frame painters do little more than apply a color to a frame. 

These days I'm working with Eric Dungey here in Oregon as he is dedicated to finding the balance in the prep work and the application of paint to show the craftsmanship of my frames clearly while at the same time giving them the protective finish that they require.  He's a thoughtful person that cares about what he is doing and has some uncommon skills as a painter.  My guess is that things will just keep getting better as he paints more of my frames, which is not an easy task.

There is still a lot of work that must be done on the seat cluster of this frame so that it may be painted well to maintain the crispness of detail in its craftsmanship. The pin holes in the silver will be filled and I can see in the photo that a lot of filing and clean-up sanding was still out in front of me.

If you take a close look at some of the photographs in this site of frame details on unpainted frames you'll see lots of imperfections in the lugs, fork crowns and bottom bracket shells which appear after they have been media blasted before painting.  I've left those imperfections for you to see.  The obvious ones are the pits and pin holes in the brazing material on the surfaces of lugs.  It's Eric's job to see that they are all puttied and carefully and finely sanded.  My job is to clean up my own mess.  One such mess is in a photograph of the rear side of the seat stays in a Randonneur Lite 700 frame.  Just above the right stay in the photograph you'll see that I've gotten into the surface of the lug a little too much and there is a very slight depression.  On a frame that would be painted with even a moderate amount of paint and a filler/primer, that depression would easily be smoothed over as would pin holes in the silver brazing material.  On a well-crafted frame with thin paint it will show up as a major mistake so it has to be smoothed out before the frame is painted.  There are many spots on the unpainted lugs of the Randonneur Lite frame in which there is a significant amount of edge filing that is still required.  As clean as the workmanship appears it is not up to a standard that is required in top-flight frames.  My point is that the level of accuracy required in the work of well-executed frames, which are to be painted equally well, is very high and it may easily take five times longer to accomplish than in production-level lugged bicycle frames.  Coupled with exotic lug designs, the required time to build a lugged frame can easily be ten times greater.

Currently all of my Standard- and Ultra-level frames are painted with a single color, but many options are available.  Depending on the design of lugs, Signature-level frames may be painted with a single color or a second color may be used as a contrast, such as in the head tube or the painting of racks.  In general, I like paint to be relatively simple.  To me, there can be a clash between finely executed lugs and busy paint jobs so I try to have frames painted tastefully and on the simple side.  However, I do not limit any of my frames to a single color and always am open to my customer's own particular tastes.  There are many ways to paint bicycle frames.  But there is a limit.  I can absolutely guarantee that none of my frames will ever be painted with pin striping along lug edges, but that is about the only detail of bike paint that I find offensive.  So, while the sky is not the limit, I'm always open to suggestions.