Friday, November 10, 2017
Back in the late '70's finding any good materials to build bicycle frames with was not easy. There were only a few US sources for tubing , lugs and dropouts. These sources were very small outfits with little or no advertising budgets-to find these sources one had to find a frame builder or bicycle shop who knew who the sources were. There was no internet and not much of a bicycle culture and almost no bike building culture at all. My very first materials were garnered from a company called "Proteus Designs". Proteus was run out of a bicycle shop in Maryland and they not only sold frame tube sets but they also published a frame builders handbook with the author credit going to a Dr. Paul Proteus- a non-existant character. The book was most likely written by a few of the shop staff who did build frames and likely had done a bit of research on the subject.
The other sources for materials back in the beginning were other builders-some who were active and some who were quitting. To this day nearly 40 years along I still get materials from builders who call it quits. I have accumulated much of this stuff and some of the lugs are older than me. The stuff that doesn't fall in my lap from other builders is mostly stuff that I sought out thinking that I wanted to build a magnum opus - a real over-the-top masterpiece some day. I would need some really special and rare bits for such a monumental project.
Here it is, 2017 and I have some boxes of old lugs and fork crowns- many of these I have had since 1980. One would think that maybe it could be time to face the possibility that the likely hood of these parts ever finding use in my shop highly unlikely. That thought did not keep me from buying yet another ancient set of lugs last week-the ones in the photo. I purchased these ornate lugs from a builder who is ending his career-that builder is Bruce Gordon. He was selling off his entire inventory of tools, jigs, bikes, parts and frame building materials. It is what we will all have to do as builders eventually. Bruce had some really fine sets of lugs out on a work bench but this particular set caught my eye. There was an ancient crumpled note in the bag with the lugs. It stated: " Thanks for your prompt payment. I hope that you find a good frame builder ". This makes me think that Bruce bought these lugs before he had ever built a frame. That would put the purchase date some time in the early '70's, about the time I was in high school.
So- what am I to do with these and all the other old bits from frame builders of the past ? What makes me think that I am going to do with this stuff that all the other builders never got around to ? I'm sure that more than one person came into Bruce's shop and upon seeing those lugs said " You are going to die with those lugs ". Well, Bruce......you are not going to die with those lugs- you can thank me for that. I am likely the one who is going to die with those lugs.
Posted by swiggco world at 9:09 PM
Monday, July 10, 2017
Any lively hood in the self-employed sense involves running a business. Most builders ( Myself among them ) do not know crap about running a successful business. I don't care what your skill level with a torch, files, machinery......whatever-if you can't figure out the business end you will fail. Learning how to take a craft and turn it into something that pays all the bills and then some is pretty difficult. Making frame building into a real living is statistically nearly impossible. Even if one has all the shop skills and has a good idea how to interact with customers there's no guarantee that customers will come your way. There are so many factors that come into play when a person is seeking to establish an identity as a builder/entity/brand.
Initially there is a buzz about the next new builder and with that initial excitement there can be customers in the form of friends, family and maybe some folks that see the work at one of the various shows. This 'new builder buzz' is fleeting to say the least. After the first wave of customers the real work starts and the real questions come up:
What should I charge ?
What should I specialize in ?
How can I distinguish myself from all the other builders ?
How do I deal with a warranty issue ?
How do I keep everyone happy ?
How do I not go insane ?
How do I not get discouraged ?
When will the work load be consistent ?
I started my business full time nearly 30 years ago and I still ask myself some of these questions. I also look at my daily work and want it to be better than what I see.......what I see. Once the paint is on it is doubtful that anyone would notice the stuff I'm getting all hot and bothered about. That's the eternal torment of this work-it is also the eternal challenge of this work and it is what keeps it from ever , ever getting boring. It's funny that the thing that drives me crazy about this craft is exactly what keeps me coming back every morning to do it again and again.
So....from behind the curtain I can tell you a bit how this particular custom frame 'sausage' is made.
#1. There is a sense of duty to whoever is going to wind up with the frame.....a hope that the end result will be something that the customer bonds with and enriches his/her life with.
#2. Knowing that not all days are the same and it is impossible to be at one's best at all times, it is however possible to try to do one's best at all times. Fatigue and dull hacksaw blades can effect this, along with body aches and pains, blood sugar levels , mood swings.........but you do have to be the best that you can on that given day.
#3. Being willing to take responsibility for what you have built-I know that this is a really tough one for some folks but hey-if you screw up you need to admit it and deal with it.
#4 . Knowing when to say no. Saying yes can get you in a whole lot more shit than saying no. I'm still learning this one on a weekly basis .
#5 . Figuring out what you need to be paid in order to sustain your operation. For much of my professional life I have failed miserably at this. I have made up for it in part by overworking, selling off personal property and not taking vacations. In my opinion that is no way to live......but it is how I have lived until a few years ago.
#6 . Not copping an attitude. Frame builders for some part have been notoriously negative....and why not ? With the unscripted and unschooled lifestyle that is the world of the frame builder being such a precarious way to make a living, it is not surprising that most get discouraged. Many don't last and the ones that do can be pretty bitter.
#7. Keeping your name out there. This is so important......just putting up a blog or having a website isn't nearly enough to keep people aware that you exist. Social media, bike events at the grassroots level and larger events do help but the builder himself/herself has to show up and be present. One has to walk the walk-if you like to ride the bike, ride the bike ! Get out there and ride with people-create events that are fun-not just about marketing....more about what all of us who cycle are drawn to.
There are many other aspects of the daily grind I could talk about but there's only so much that I feel I want to open up about. When you have spent as much time as I have doing this craft it has become a very personal thing-an identity to a large degree. For better or worse , this is what I do and hopefully will continue to do- as long as I have the ability. When I was growing up my father was very dismissive about nearly everything I wanted to do with my life. I literally had to move hundreds of miles away to be able to attempt to follow any ambition I had. I came to Santa Cruz to start a life of my own- the bikes I build are a statement to that move I made forty years ago. Maybe that is the identity of my craft-defying the odds, defying a parent, just giving a middle finger to anyone or any thing trying to steer my life in a direction I didn't want to go. -That is probably the main ingredient in the sausage.
Posted by swiggco world at 10:47 PM
Saturday, February 4, 2017
So I am coming up to a fairly significant milestone, the 40th anniversary of the very first frame that I built back in June, 1978. I still have the frame and ride it on a rare occasion. Mostly , it just hangs from a very high hook in the shop-there to be pointed out to people visiting so they can see where I started. Just this week I put a photo up on a frame builder's facebook group of the first bike as other builders had been doing the same. While we all share the love of creating bicycle frames we have not shared the same path for the most part. Most people who have built a frame or two have not toiled masochistically at the craft for years attempting to earn a living so I find myself in a very small group of persistent , perhaps foolish folks making a life of this craft. Back in 1978 I could not have envisioned this vortex that I have created around my daily labors.
So.......what am I to do with this 40th anniversary not much more than a year away ? In the past I built a really fancy fixed gear road bike to mark the 25th anniversary. For the 30th I think that I built a fillet brazed frame for a customer. For the 35th I built a lugged road frame and really went to town thinning the lugs in the late '70's American frame builder style. This was also done for a customer. But the 40th......this will be a milestone that I never imagined I would see. If I stay healthy and don't kill myself on a bike ride I will have a 40 year conundrum on my hands. There's no real pressure for me to do anything at all but I do feel that I should make something in the shop that speaks to what I have learned and what I care most about-even if nobody else does. I do believe I have a plan: I will make a frame, fork and stem that will be built for long-day comfort. This bike will be assembled and ridden from my home here in Santa Cruz down the length of California to where I grew up- West Los Angeles. Not the longest trip I have ridden but the longest in quite a long time.
So , here is what I envision : Touring bike, sort of.....( I don't and never have owned one..) with some pretty big tires, maybe 650x38. Geometry template will likely be a Rene Herse that a good friend rode by the shop last year-I did a very complete analysis of the geometry and wrote all the pertinent numbers down. I might even braze this thing rather than weld it-hey.....I'm not getting paid for it so I might as well build something that really has to be 'crafted' in the old labor-intensive style of my beginnings. I might even make a rack......stranger things have been built in my shop.
So-why am I wasting your time writing about this ? If you are totally bored, I do apologize and completely understand. This is something I have to care about and I don't expect anyone else to join my one-man parade. 40 years of doing this may not be that important in the big world of accomplishments but for me it is pretty much all I did-save for annoying people with my guitar for a few years. I have devoted an unreasonable amount of time to this craft but honestly, it was easier than I am making it sound. I didn't have to go to school to learn the craft-frame building is a school in itself. You either learn or build shit. I have built me some shit.....and I know it. Everyone starts somewhere and getting proficient is not a given in this craft. 40 years I have been hammering away at cutting and joining metal, hoping to get where I want to be as a craftsman-problem is, the better I get the more I realize that I still have far to go-maybe not as far as I did a decade ago but the goal posts seem to move further away every year. I can't ever hope to be perfect, I can't ever expect to be flawless. What I do hope for is to build bikes that not only make my customers smile, they might get a smile out of me-I could finish a weld and think : "Damn......didn't know that I would ever be able to make it look that good !". Of course, months later I could look at the same weld and think : "Boy, glad I can do better than that now !". You see, dissatisfaction is one of the main forces behind constant and vigilant attempts to improve as a builder. In June of 2018 I will unveil the latest edition of the product of 40 years of dissatisfaction and ride it south to the city I left gladly when I had not yet built a frame. I hope I make it.
Posted by swiggco world at 1:40 PM
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
As a place to come to every day to make the dollars that fly out of my hands and into the hands of others I could have picked many worse places. Just like my customers have chosen me and they could have chosen worse. Conversely, they could have chosen better......not sure why they didn't but heck......it might be one of the things that was never meant to be understood. Perhaps things like this can only be misunderstood to make for balance in the forces of the custom bike universe. Maybe some folks shop by price, some by reputation-some just like what they see on the internet and go by that. Whatever way it works for the consumer is alright with me. I know that there are a lot of forums online where the plusses and minuses of builders are discussed-it is better if I never see any of these. The praise would make me uncomfortable and the ridicule would make me lose sleep. I guess it is better if I remain ignorant.
Now I get to the kernel of what this is all about : Your frame if it is built by me.....it will be the very best frame I can build at that particular time. That said, not all days are the same and some days may totally suck. This does not mean that the frame I build on that day will suck but it does mean that on another day I might have done better. This is what a sole proprietorship has to weather-the ebb and flow of suckitutde. Yes.....that isn't a real word , but here in the 6th largest economy on the planet I feel that we have license to create language that speaks to the moment. I might tell a customer that on a given day I was 'in the groove' with the welder or some other aspect of the build process. I generally don't tell folks when things were defeating and futile-we all have days like that but when you are building something that someone has been waiting for and has a lot of anticipation associated with the product , a bad day in the shop really can make one feel rotten on many levels. I, like other builders battle this on a daily basis.
This week started out pretty bad-I had several frame projects that needed attention......some needed a lot of attention . These issues will indeed be addressed by me and I will see that I make up for whatever problems the end user had with what I built. -Yes, I will admit it.....sometimes you don't nail it on the first try. It always amazes me how much I nailed it on the first try in years past but now I am 61 years old and there isn't the same level of energy there as before. I am still doing the same work load that I did in my 40's....actually more. It is unrealistic to think that when one is only a few years away from getting medicare that the ability to bust out 9-10 solid hours of cutting and welding metal a day will be the same as twenty years before.
I am just about an hours work from finishing frame number 90 for the year. I might hit 100 before the new year-this would be four more frames than last year. Do I need to make this many in a year ? Are my customers pressuring me ? Am I going to go broke if I don't ? -The answer to all these questions is no. There is no outside pressure for the most part-it is all internal and it does not serve the customer of myself to yield to it constantly. It is for this reason that I have made the decision ( If I can actually hold myself back ) to bring the annual frame total down a bit. I feel that it is of utmost importance that the work I do in the shop be on an upward trajectory quality wise, not necessarily number wise. I do have a fairly long list of builds but it is well under a year so I'm not in danger of customers dying from old age before they get their frame .
So, why the hurry ? Why the 100 frame goal ? What is up with that, anyway ? -If I knew the answer I would know the solution. I can only guess that the solution is to slow down a bit and try not to make mistakes from going too fast. -Yes, I said it......I have made mistakes. I fix them , of course...but still, it takes time and it can put a strain on the relationship between myself and the people who put their trust in me to build them something worth waiting for. If it is worth waiting for then waiting a bit longer won't be much of a problem. It is most likely more a problem for me-the restraint to work at a pace that yields the best possible result all the time. Trust me, I am working on it...........it is a life's work.
Posted by swiggco world at 9:25 PM
Sunday, June 26, 2016
In short, I think that single speeding was a logical thing for dirt riders to embrace.....well, at least some of them-as the lack of complication to the bike and the caveman style of riding was appealing. The 'Eroica' road events seem to embrace this 'turn back the clock' rejection of the latest technology and presumably focus on the simplicity of just running what you got and making the best of it. I want to give props out to Rick Hunter, Mike Ferrentino, Eric Richter, Pat Schott, Hilary Daniels, Steve Garro and all the early proponents of single speeding everywhere.
Posted by swiggco world at 7:12 PM
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
It was early last week that I and anyone who was paying attention got informed that True Temper as a company would cease making tubing for building bicycle frames. While there are several other sources for steel tubing to make bike frames , none of them are made in the US like True Temper. Also, there are no other tubing companies that offer the catalog of unique and durable tubes that True Temper proudly made in the US. There are steel tubes in the True Temper catalog that represent the highest level of engineering available for bike builders. There are also some tubes that the other manufacturers don't seem to make- i.e. , shit that doesn't break hardly ever. I'm not saying that the other companies make crap-they really don't.......it's just that they make stuff that is less durable for harder uses such as 29ers and the like.
O.K., now that we know that in nine months that True Temper is shutting down it's bicycle division we need to assess their reasons ( or stated reasons..) for doing so. We have been told in writing that the bicycle division has not been profitable and that the company will shift it's steel resources fully into golf products. As I see it, they are dumping cycling, an 'everyman' sport in favor of golf, largely a sport for the privileged ( I used to golf several times a week when it was a lot more affordable). Sure, custom bikes are not an 'everyman' product but I don't fully buy the whole " the bicycle division was not profitable enough " line. True Temper tubing prices have been under market for at least a decade-I am sure if they raised the prices the tubing would still be a good value and would still sell. I guess that they didn't bother thinking about a price adjustment. True Temper probably never bothered to do a detailed cost analysis as someone high up the food chain in the company decided to do away with the cycling division no matter what.
Back when I decided to go full time with my frame building I became aware of True Temper and started buying their tubing to make MTB frames. This was 1988 and I, and True Temper had a lot to learn about bicycle frames. After about a year and a half I decided that the tubes from True Temper lacked the quality control of some of the other offerings . With this realization I decided to switch brands and went to Tange, a high quality Japanese made steel. It was not for many years that I came back to True Temper but when I did, it was because they, True Temper had done the hard work of making their product better than just about anyone else at the time. Engineering and experience and probably a good deal of expense had yielded a level of steel that had not existed for bicycle builders.
This brings me to the thought-what a waste to take all that time and effort developing such an excellent product and toss it all away. The loss of these tubes will be a problem for me as a builder but not something I can't deal with-as I said before, there are other places to get tubing from. The people who will really be hurt are the builders that rely exclusively in True Temper for their materials and don't really have an alternative. The re-seller that sells to the builders will take a huge hit as the True Temper tubes were their main product. Now they will have lost the product that was their main source of income. Other people who will get the shaft ( as in golf club shaft ) are any of the few folks at True Temper who were in the cycling division. Essentially , a lot of people are going to get fucked by this.
So, who will benefit ? My thought is that there's a handful of people on some board of directors who will get bonuses and pats on the back for saving the parent corporation money by eliminating this insignificant department and its products. After all, the free market allows for this and actually encourages people at the top to do whatever it takes to make as much profit as possible. These people's strong suit is just that-making more profit. They have nothing in common with the people who saw the need for better steel bicycle tubing and did the hard work to make it happen. Those people with the passion for the bicycle are most likely long gone. They have been replaced by people who are not willing to do the work or have the knowhow to create a product-the new people don't have any connection to any product. They are only connected to balance sheets. Should I be more understanding and applaud their ability to make money by eliminating a product that made a real difference to people in my trade ? Sure, they have the right to do whatever they want with their company. While I do understand this I do not like it one bit. This is just another example of how the free market can be far from free-there is a cost when things like this happen and it isn't seen on balance sheets.
The people in charge of this elimination of the bicycle division of True Temper might not see what the cost to the craft of frame building will be as they are not likely to bother looking. The cost will be seen in the coming years as people who depended on this company will have to figure out what to do with their lives- after giving money to and putting their trust into a company that ultimately let them down.
R.I.P , True Temper bicycle steel.
Posted by swiggco world at 10:18 PM
Saturday, March 12, 2016
In 1976 I began my life in the bicycle business as the lowest wrench at what was then Harry's Hollywood Schwinn. My dream was to work full-time in a bike shop and this was the first job I had that fit that descripion . I have finished two years of college and was pretty determined not to go back-all I wanted now was to immerse myself in bicycles 24-7. Getting an education at the shop as to what was a good bicycle started within days of my arrival. The head mechanic Salvador Contreras had been a road racer in Mexico and was a career bicycle mechanic.
In the shop we mostly had bikes in the mid-price ranges as the fancy bikes didn't sell at Harry's Hollywood Schwinn. They sold like hotcakes a few miles away at a couple of other shops that were known for that. If I wanted to see high end racing bikes I would have to look in shops other than where I worked.
With some of the info from Salvador and from some magazines I ventured out to all the top L.A. bicycle shops in search of a good racing frame that I could afford. I looked for weeks but everything I saw was twice as much money as I could afford, that was until on day I went into a shop in Santa Monica and saw a Colnago Super for $ 195 with a Campagnolo headset. The frame was that incredible orange and looked to be in very good condition. I asked the salesperson to take it off the hook so that I could check it out. He did but cautioned me that the frame might be too big. It was indeed a 59cm and I would have been much more comfortable on a 56.
Knowing that the frame was a bit big was not enough of a deterrent to keep me from asking if I could put it on lay-away for three weeks. Reluctantly , the salesperson agreed and I put down all the money I had in my pocket to hold the frame. Here it was, my dream bike frame in the color I wanted and the very brand that Salvador had told me was the one to buy. So what if it was a bit tall.....for the price I would make it work.
Three weeks later I came to the shop and paid the balance on the Colnago. For the next few weeks I would cull all the best parts in my tiny collection and seek out whatever I was missing to get the bike on the road. It took about a month but soon I was seated upon the big orange Colnago with a big smile on my face.......no, I could not afford silk tires or the matching jersey, hat, chairing, seat post and stem-but hey, I had the frame and that's what counted......or so I thought.
Within a couple more months I left L.A. and Harry's Hollywood Schwinn and made my way up to Santa Cruz, my new home. Once there I had to find another full time bike shop gig but I was sure that my resume and my bright orange Colnago would make me look a bit more serious than the average schmuck looking for a job. My sister had already circulated my boss's recommendation letter and my work resume to a few shops in Santa Cruz so all that was left for me to do was to make appointments and see if anyone would hire me. I rode the Colnago to all these appointments, of course.
The first place I went was the Bicycle Trip, a very well regarded service oriented shop. The owner talked to me and glanced at my gleaming bike. " That's a pretty fancy bike ya got there..." were his words and said that he had no openings at that time. I went about two miles to the next shop-the Bicycle Center-a high end boutique store with all the fancy goodies from Europe gacing the showcases and walls. This time I was in luck-the boss said " You are a Schwinn mechanic so you have a high qualification ." ( that was really a stretch , truth be told ) He also said " That's a really beautiful bike you have, son ." So there it was......he was impressed enough with my bike to hire me.
So there I was in Santa Cruz, working in the fanciest shop for a decent wage, riding my Colnago all over the hills on mornings and weekends. At this time the Colnago was beginning to educate me into proper bicycle fit-the bike was doing this by being unruly on off-camber downhills and also by making my lower back scream during hard rides and races. I was getting a bit self conscious about the fit of the bike to the point that I raised the seat post enough so that it looked proper. This of course was too high for my legs and I had to pedal on my tip-toes and probably looked like a complete idiot on the group rides. This didn't matter to me as this was my Colnago-I had arrived ! I had the right bike-so what if it was a bad fit and beginning to cripple me.......I was sold-at least for awhile.
The Bicycle Center was blessed with three walls of frames hanging up on display-many of them from Europe but some were made by local builders - Bruce Gordon, Albert Eisentraut, Keith Lippy and the like. I looked at all these frames and thought: " What if I had a frame that really fit me......would my back stop hurting ? Would I stop crashing so much and getting dropped in races ? " I made it my job to find this out. First I had to get a frame .......this was not to be as I was pretty broke , having moved to Santa Cruz with only enough money for one months rent. What I did have was enough money for a tube set to build a frame. No matter that I had never built one-I knew that I was going to learn how and hopefully wind up with a frame built for me, by me. That was the last frontier for a bicycle mechanic after all......learn how the damn thing is actually made !
I didn't really nail the fit on the first try but by my 4th frame I had built a frame with a 54.5 seat tube and 56.5 top tube. Don't ask me how I came up with those numbers......must have talked to a few people including my boss-those were the numbers and after about 200 hours I had my new frame. I had no time or money to get it properly painted so I just rattle canned it black in the driveway and the next day it was assembled and in the back of my V.W. bug driving up to the Tassajara road race.
This was to be the first real ride on the bike I had built-a Cat. 4 road race with about 95 other racers that was only about 20 miles with one fairly significant climb in the middle.
I spent about a half an hour riding the bike around, warming up and getting all the bugs out before the gun went off. I barely made the start , getting to the back of the pack and immediately rocketing through to the front. I was warmed up and the rest apparently were not. The race went about 10 miles when there was a huge pile up involving about 15 people. Five riders were ahead of the crash but the rest of us were behind it or in it, hopelessly delayed by the bodies blocking the road. At this point I heard someone yell : " Go Go Go !!" and I got through the mess and chased on my own up the beginning of the big climb. Within minutes I had joined the leaders and realized that I was the only rider from behind the crash to do so.
The leaders were running a double pace-line, all of us knowing that prizes went down to the top six so everyone was in the money. Once we got to the top of the climb the group broke up as the two strongest riders rode away into a strong head wind and away from the group. I chased on my own but could not bridge up and was caught by the other three riders behind me. We arrived at the finish and I sprinted from the back to take third place. This was a shock to me as I had never been anywhere near the front of any race, let alone in a position to sprint for a prize. The winner came up to me and told me that I had ridden an excellent race , something I never thought I was capable of on the ill-fitting Colnago. The other thing I noticed was after the race my back did not hurt in the least.....this was also new.
Here I was , someone who had placed in the top-3 and had animated the start of the race and I had done so on a spray painted black bike with no decals, no chrome , no identification.......and I had built it myself. This opened my eyes.........maybe the fit was much more important than the decal, the paint, the hype and even the price. I had built this frame for under $ 50.00 . Sure, I had spent about 200 hours on it but I had no power tools, no jigs and little know-how. How the hell was I able to make a bike that outperformed the Colnago in nearly every way ? It was very simple: The Colnago was not made for me....it was someone else's bike all the while......it just took me a couple of years to figure that out. Not long after that I said goodbye to my orange Colnago for good-I sold it to someone about 6'1" who really fit it a lot better than I. What I learned was that it doesn't matter what someone tells you about a bike. What matters is how you feel on the bike when you are riding. If it doesn't hold you back but it totally looks like hell , it just might be the best bike on earth.
Posted by swiggco world at 3:12 PM