Thursday, November 23, 2017
Back to the story. I mention the shows because at more than one of these shows I was approached by a man, probably in his 70's who took some very ornate and ancient looking lugs out of a little bag and showed them to me. He asked me how much I would charge to build a bike with them. He looked at me as if he were offering me the opportunity of a lifetime-he really was presenting these lugs as some sort of holy grail of frame building and that it would be a tremendous opportunity for me to have the task of using said lugs to build a frame, as if the lugs would make the frame a masterpiece. I was not able to come up with a price so off the old man went with his lugs.
Years passed and at another show the same man presented me with the same lugs and the same offer-at the time I wondered how long this man had been walking the aisles of bike shows with this one set of lugs. I also wondered where he got them and when. Evidently the old man never heard what he wanted to hear from me or any other builders regarding his prized set of lugs. I'm not sure that they ever got used at all......I wonder what happened to the old man and his lugs.
The whole situation he presented was kind of destined to go nowhere as a set of lugs might work for a certain frame and not for most others. The old man was fairly short, maybe about 5'5"-5'6". Making a frame for him would involve bending the crap out of those ornate old lugs to get the proper angles for a smaller frame. This would no doubt be difficult and time consuming. There's also no guarantee that the lugs would look perfect when all the modifications are done, at least in my hands.....and my hands have been doing this kind of work since 1978 ! Essentially, there's no way I could give an accurate estimate on building a frame with a set of lugs that I have no experience with and also don't know the angles and tolerances of. This is why I could not come up with the words that would make the old man trust me to build his dream bike with his prized set of antique lugs.
While I build welded frames about 99% of the time, I do offer lugged frames and have probably built around 250-300 in my career. Pricing these frames is tricky but I can do it as long as I know what I am working with in terms of materials. When I go out of the comfort zone the cost of the project gets much harder to quantify. For this reason , my collection of older lugs has been gathering dust for decades. I'm not anxious to interrupt the flow of productive work to do a vanity project-yes, that's a pretty cold word for it but in my shop that's what it would be. It is unlikely that I would be able to do the job I want to do with these older lugs and still get anything close to a living wage.
When I am old enough to collect social security and if I don't die before my house is paid off I will be in a position to attempt to build some frames with these old parts. It is doubtful that the old man with his lugs will ever look me up again to build his dream bike but at this time I am the old man with not just one set of old lugs but with many. I could just leave these antiques for the next generation to build with but I have this odd feeling- with my connection to the era when some of these lugs were new, I have a duty to use them. This is a sentimental notion and really does not speak to who I have been as a builder for a very long time-kind of like people riding in the Eroica on bikes they lusted after as teenagers but don't use as their weekly go-to bikes. It's not logical and it is not meant to be-it is only another trip to a romanticized fuzzy memory of sorts- one that may very well remain a memory and not take shape as an actuality in the present.
Posted by swiggco world at 10:54 AM
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