Bits of advice for the aspiring framebuilder

Bits of advice for the aspiring framebuilder

I cruise various bicycle frame builder message boards and the frame builder’s Facebook page. I haven’t had any interest in posting there in a while but I did a lot in the past. The topics that get brought up are often topics that have been covered over and over so there isn’t much to offer in terms of new ideas to grapple with. I feed on learning and retyping the same words over and over do little for that.

One recent thread was typical. A newbie kid wants to become a professional framebuilder. The typical answers by the typical voices. So much bad advice. It’s almost a formula. I feel bad for the kids that get an overwhelming amount of well meaning (but misguided) advice when looking at this craft. So much support and ‘kudos’ but while it’s good to be supportive of people, don’t pass your own stupidity on to others under the guise of wisdom.

I don’t build many  bike frames these days. I never did it for a business, just for myself. I don’t like building bicycle frames. It kinda sucks. I like riding bikes a lot and I want them exactly how I want them. That’s why I started doing my thing in the first place. Back in the day, even my frame builder friends would refuse to build me what I wanted as it was ‘too different.’ In 1998, I had to design Independent Fabrication a disc dropout just so that I could get a bike with proper IS mounting (a brand new standard allowing me to use Shimano calipers instead of Hayes stay mount). When I do build a frame, it’s for a special reason. For me to ride, for a loved one, or a special project. I design parts for fancy frame companies as I love the little details that add up. I also teach eager students to design and build their own bicycle frames. I like those parts of the process. The building part is just entry level metal work.

I’ve been around a long time. From Fat City Cycles back in the day to today, getting crap carbon frames directly from China. I’ve done long rides and raced lots of different types of races. I’ve ridden in East Coast mud and rocks, Colorado & Utah peaks and slickrocks, and West Coast singletrack. I’ve got at least 80 chairlift days at Northstar and Whistler on downhill bikes and at least 10 organized social century rides. I’ve bike commuted to work in rain, in snow, and on the hottest of days. I even spent a year (winter, too) working as a bike messenger in Boston in 1990.

I’m also an expert motorcycle mechanic and rider. I’ve got thousands of hard sportbike miles under my belt. Countless hours in trail riding dirtbikes. Roadrace track days too. I’ve also got a bunch of modifications and parts I’ve designed for motorcycles on my bikes and posted to my site.

I also work and teach within a STEM program at a major US university. I’m around students all the time. I get where folks are at before they’ve entered the real world. This gives me a lot of perspective.

I’m not blustering or bragging. I’m just putting out that I have some experience with bikes and making things. Other people can ride are far better than I. Other wrenches can work faster than I. I’m just saying that I’ve done this stuff. I’ve been there and have been for a while. I’ve also been paying attention. I’ve made almost every mistake I could have. I have screwed things up so bad at times, I’ve been lucky to live, on the trail and in the shop. I’ve also really missed a lot of opportunities because I simply didn’t get it when I should have.

Let’s say I’ve established that I can be listened to on some level (without hours of reading on this site). Let’s get to some words of wisdom, so you can take advantage.

1. You have no idea what you are talking about. None of us do really. You have to get out there and really experience the disciplines in which you want to specialize. You need to do the long road rides and races. Lots of them…for years. You need to show up at the starting house at the DH race. You need to do lots of trail rides in the pouring rain. You need to get years of real honest riding experience under your belt just to start knowing what you are looking for or talking about. The majority of people building frames have very little experience to refer to when choosing how to design a particular bicycle. Even the good ones will have just a few seasons of hard riding (maybe) but then they typically morph into this frame building creature that isn’t really a rider and hasn’t been for a while. It’s only getting worse as the years go by. Hipsters become old school before they’ve skidded through their first rear tire. The folks in the cities are the worst.

The worst thing about all of this whole “actually riding of the bike” thing is that you have to keep building the riding experience. This sport is a moving target and the trends and reasons for particular designs change for reasons that are hard for outsiders to know about. I can’t even keep track of where we are going. I like mountain bikes. Sometimes, I’m ahead of the curve. Sometimes behind. Other times, I’m out in left field. Still, my best guess is typically better than most. I have to work so hard just to ‘get it.’ Why does one parameter change but not others. What’s a driving parameter and what’s a driven parameter?

2. Learn how to assemble a bicycle properly. You can skip the frame building thing if you find that off the shelf bikes are really good and the problem was really that you didn’t know how to put it together correctly. I’ve seen a lot of people get into building frames that didn’t have any idea how to put a bicycle together. LOTS! Some people that do it for ‘a living’ still don’t. Really. On the floor of NAHBS, even, I’ve seen cables routed wrong, wheels laced for rim brake when used for hub brake, and parts specs that wouldn’t get me out of the parking lot. There is a special art to putting a bicycle together so that it works perfectly as intended and requires very little service to keep going. Fancy paint and bottle openers don’t cut it when your bike shifts like shit.

Learn to put a bike together like it’s a real race bike (go to a national level race and see what they do there). Build it so that it can go through mud and dirt, crash and jumped back on, run for hours at a time, and never drop a chain or miss a shift. Build wheels well and correctly. Choose correct gearing for a race, rider, or terrain. Learn to center crank arms whenever you put them on, as a rule. Face stem bottoms. Prep tubeless rims with files. Belt sand housing ends.

Fit different riders to their frames in various disciplines. It’s amazing how many professional fitters don’t know how to fit a mountain bike, especially the ones that say they do. Be the person folks goes to when shopping for a new bike or when they need the fit. This is hard time but it informs you. You’re learning about the machine and the man and how they interact.

Learn that incredible bicycles can be put together very inexpensively as they are the result of a collection of good choices rather than amount of money spent. A $12,000 bike can ride like crap if put together like a commodity and a $1,500 bike can be a vision of performance when put together well and with wisdom and love. The difference will be just a pound or two.

To help illustrate the point of this post in a more symbolic way, here’s a nice image. My boxes of stems. I use these all the time. These aren’t even the ones mounted to one of my bikes or lent to a friend or sitting in another pile. These are the stems that I’ve saved and not discarded at swaps. These are really, really important. I have another box full of different seat posts. I use these all the time to make bikes work better for the people on them. This is important stuff to learn before building a frame from the ground up as most bikes these days are very well designed, compared to the junk we rode just 10 years ago.

stems

3. Measure every one of your current bikes and those you fit for others. If you are serious about frame building, then BikeCAD is the first tool to get, not the last. Every one of your personal bikes should be entered into CAD. This is where understanding frame design starts, with you looking at a collection of measurements on a page and making sense of it all. Just like a composer reading sheet music. You should be able to look at a print for a bike and make informed choices for stem and seat post swaps and rider position changes. Always asking yourself, what would I have done differently? You will ride these bikes after the change and see what the change actually does. Sometimes, it takes hours of riding to start noticing the effects. For instance, I have a horrible lower back and weak arms, so after a few hours of riding, I’ll feel quite different than I did at the start of a ride. I change my bike fits several times a year on each of my bikes. I also seem to be changing fit methodologies every 5 years or so. The current way I fit is pretty amazing. It only gets better and with models documenting changes I can actually learn from this process.

Here’s the print of a recent bike of mine:

 

You need to really understand and learn why we don’t like seeing plumb bobs but why we like scales. Learn that there is no such thing as “top tube length” or “effective top tube length” (really). Learn that ‘bb drop’ is a fixture adjustment, not a design parameter. There’s so much to learn about frame building simply by drawing the bikes you ride all the time. By swapping out stems and doing some testing. Honestly, this is where most of my time is spent; making my bikes work better for me and others. If you don’t understand bikes at this level, don’t bother going to the next.

4. Find people who know what they are talking about and who speak from real experience. The internet is a crazy thing. It’s a place where people who have no idea what they are talking about can be called experts, and experts be called fools. Sometimes, I’m amazed not just by what I read but that it’s believed. If someone on social media is giving you advise, look at their profile. Are these people really the experts they claim to be? A quick search of their photos or out-links will quickly establish what they are passionate about, rarely is it framebuilding as an expert. A hobbyist can only extend advice so far.

There are people out there that can speak to you about various parts of this craft. Some people know about fit and mechanics, another may know about engineering, another about craft, etc. Rarely does one person have a meaningful expertise in more than one area. Learn to listen to people and figure out where their expertise really lay. They aren’t going to tell you as they may not know.

I know a guy in the motorcycle industry that is a savant about making engines run powerfully. He’s incredible. I listen to everything he says about that. He’ll then start talking about suspension. He doesn’t know anything about suspension. I ignore what he says here. He will profess to know but he doesn’t. The key is that I know when he’s dispelling knowledge and when he is just a civilian. Know that about the people who are around you.

Find wise people and rely on them for advice!

5. Learn to work with metal. Building bicycle frames is easy from a metal working perspective. It is pretty simple tube joinery. You just need to learn to do basic welds and cut tubes. That is done at a local community college or vocational and trade school. (not from a framebuilder). Take classes at the ‘best’ school you can. Who teaches real professionals when they are starting out? When I was getting started in Boston (1990?) that was Wentworth Institute of Technology. Here in the Bay Area, it’s Laney College. You don’t want to have some stoned Burning Man bro at a ‘maker space’ give you lessons that are highly questionable. You want someone that knows how to do it right. Truly study the basics of gas and arc welding as well as machine tooling. Then, practice practice practice.

I highly recommend learning TIG welding. While gas welding and brazing are very useful at times, they are dead from an industrial point of view. Also, the investment you make in TIG welding can pay back in endless ways in other parts of your life. Learning fillet brazing and lug work is a waste outside of frame building. Look at your local job listings. Nobody is looking for a good brazer.

Regardless of whether you plan on brazing or welding, just learn to weld and take a real class. Practice making joint connections to perfection. Learn about safety and rigor. Ask lots of questions and learn as much as you can. These arts take time to learn and that is best done close to home and in your garage or basement. The better you are at welding (or whatever), the more challenging your frame designs can be.

6. UBI. United bicycle Institute is an awesome thing. I love what they are trying to do. I’ve known a few people that have worked there. Going there for a two week frame building class and coming home with a frame you built is a dream. Many people have made many frames after completing that class. The problem that most people have going into the class is that they go in totally unprepared.

Learn to connect metal well before going to the class. Take a class in welding at your local junior college or tech school (see point 5). 

Before you go, learn to draw a bicycle properly. As I discussed before, except now from a clean sheet of paper. This time you choose tubes. Sort out details. Think long and hard about the implications of each choice. Draw a road bike, a cross bike, and a mountain bike. Then do it again. What tubes should you use? What angles and distances? What is the purpose of each machine? What do other bikes on the market look like and why is yours different or the same? Draw up a bike for your 5’2″ girlfriend or 6’3″ bro. This can take weeks of time. At UBI, you will have one day (or whatever) to design your bike. That is simply not enough time to do a quality job. Showing up with a design that you have slaved over, vetted online and with others, and ready for critique at UBI will ensure that you end up with something worth riding and learning from. Something to be very proud of (instead of a jumble of regrets).

You want to go to UBI and learn as much as you can about building bicycle frames and take advantage of the experienced staff they have there. Learning to weld and designing a bike can be done at home. Learning to set jigs, use special tools, and understand framebuilding methodology can only be done in a special environment. The pressure will be off so your focus can be well placed.

7. Visit framebuilders. As many as you can. The ones around you. Take pictures of their shops. Look at the details. Ask them for advice, specifically, mistakes not to make. This is fun. Field trips, yo. Bring them lunch, buy them beer. Give them $40. Their time is worth something. Spend an hour but don’t waste their whole day. They are like snowflakes, not one is the same but only a few are really good.

8. Build some boring bikes. Forget about what you saw at NAHBS. Basic round tube bikes without any gingerbread will provide you a thorough learning platform for your first 6 bikes at least. Focus on geometry, meeting design goals, fitting different riders and their requirements. Buy cheap tubes and cast parts. Keep your costs down because if you are really learning, some of these bikes will really suck. That’s where you find the limit, by going past it. This is huge.

9. Document everything you do. Take photos of the process. Whatever you do. Take photos before and after paint. Learn how to capture what you want in an image. How to get good lighting and backgrounds. Learn to crop and process the image so it looks good. Most simple of all, get into the habit of getting images. You have a camera with you at all times, use it. I have fancy cameras and I have the junk on my phone. What makes the phone so good is that it’s always with me. You might not even think that any of this is important now, but in a conversation in a few years that image might just show exactly what you need shown.I’ve had many students that had to track down past projects to get photos. Many of mine are lost to history.

Document everything with a print and descriptions of what you are attempting to accomplish. Often, words can work to keep your focus on the target you want to meet. What do you want this thing to do? Did it do that? When it broke, how? Why? This is your portfolio, regardless of where you end up. This might even mean you getting that real internship or job.

10. Don’t go into business building bikes. It pays like shit. It’s very hard work. Your fingers will be ground raw and you will be forever dirty. $250 carbon fiber bikes are far better (and lighter) than anything you will ever make. There’s a ton of reasons not to make this a business. But if you love it, if you really have to bring these visions to life, and if you are so driven…then do it and don’t look back.

11. Don’t read the Talbot or Paterek books. These books are horrible and will set you back years. The information there is decades old and simply a waste of time. These books have done more damage to the craft than almost any single thing I can think of. Worse, the money you spend on what it says to do will be lost.  …and your bikes will turn out horrible.

On Mentors:

Being a mentor is not about being supportive. It’s not about answering questions. It’s not about making anybody feel good about themselves. It’s also not about pretending that you know what you are talking about (especially when you certainly don’t).

Being a mentor is about getting a person from one side of the abyss to the other. About making the journey possible if the journey needs to take place. It’s about finding a way to get them to either quit or move forward, so the student doesn’t embark where they have no business.. It is, at it’s core, about having the honesty and wisdom it takes to produce change in someone.

A mentor isn’t supposed to answer questions, s/he asks them. A mentor doesn’t defend, s/he makes the student fight.

A mentor can be kind or cruel.
A mentor can be smart or dumb (but always wise)
A mentor might never tell a student anything the student wants to hear.
A mentor might only meet a student once or be there all of his/her life.

A mentor chooses the student and a student chooses the mentor. Both must affirm in the right mind or it is a farce.