Friday, November 10, 2017

You are going to die with those lugs

In my shop as in just about every frame builders shop are materials and fittings . Most of these bits will wind up in frames over time but there are things in boxes that could be considered " Pieces for projects in the future ". These are materials that we as builders seem to accumulate with the idea that at some future time there will be an occasion to use these parts in some sort of pet project. As for me, I started out on the hunt for cool lugs, bottom bracket shells and fork crowns with the idea that I would attempt to build rolling works of art-not as a profession but as a sideline, a part time hobby.

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.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Frankly, sir....you know nothing of my work.....

Nobody really wants to see how sausage is made, at least if it is something you are planning on eating. The truth of bicycle frame building is that there's so much stuff involved in the job that is pretty removed from the actual construction of the frame. These tasks, although important wind up being sources of frustration for builders. The thought is : " Hey, I'll learn how to build bicycle frames....then I can do that for a living ." If only.......
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.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Old as dirt

Time goes by at what seems to be a crazy rate. It doesn't seem that long ago when I was moving into my 'new' shop-that was over 20 years ago. I'm working all the time, buried in tasks that I try to execute as good as I can on that given day, all the while thinking of goals for the day-the week-the year.....some of them are reasonable goals but some of them are a bit unrealistic. When there's only one person in the shop to do all the various operations the amount of productivity is limited. These limits have seriously been pushed for the last decade or so. This has come at a cost: Work that had to be re-done , days where time was spent correcting mistakes, wear and tear to the body and mind....etc. All the while the clock does not stop-the years race on.
           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.