Sunday, May 19, 2013
Awhile ago , the main supplier of aluminum tubing for U.S. builders ran out of large customers and ceased to produce the material you see in the frame above. After manufacturing tubing in the U.S. for twenty-odd years, the company decided to move production to Taiwan where some large customers still existed. Within a few years, the aforementioned customers decided ( or the market at large decided ) to go to molded carbon fiber for the bulk of bicycle frames for the world market. When this happened , the company that produced aluminum tubing had lost the bulk of its customer base and ceased production altogeter.
As a builder who relies on having access to good aluminum, I took the step of buying as much of the soon-to-be-extinct material as I could afford. Some of this was from the U.S. company , some from the Taiwan operation and some from manufacturers ceasing business. The tubing in the frame in the photo is my very last set of GX-2 flared scandium that I had been saving for myself. The tubes had been sitting on a shelf for several years when I got an email from a distant customer requesting a 'Team Carbon' road frame , just like the one I had personally been riding for the last eight years. I decided that this customer who had ordered a steel frame two years earlier needed the tubes more than I did so I took the order and got ready to build the frame. This would be the last frame of this kind to roll out of my shop....ever.
This is where it gets interesting-that is, if you are still interested enough to read on. To complete this frame I would use this tubing but I also needed a full carbon rear stay kit so I got on the phone and started calling suppliers. I tried all the suppliers I knew of who might stock this kit but nobody in the U.S. had one-and nobody really was interested in carrying them any more. I decided to try international sources and luckily a company in the U.K. had most of the kit in stock-I would have to scrounge a couple of small parts but the bulk of what I needed was available. A bit later I was able to source the rest of the small parts and constructed the frame.
The path that the materials for this frame took to get to me is pretty amazing. The tubing was made for the U.S. manufacturer in Taiwan . The carbon kit was manufactured in Taiwan for an Italian company who in turn sold it to the supplier in the U.K. and then eventually to me here in the U.S. Here's the punch line-the customer for this frame lives in Taiwan, not that far from where all the materials for his frame originated from. The aluminum will wind up making two trips across the Pacific ocean. The carbon kit will wind up literally circumnavigating the earth. Up until this frame I had never thought of where the pieces of a bicycle frame might go travel on their respective journeys between from birth to frame and eventually to the customer. This one tops them all. The ultimate carbon footprint.
Posted by swiggco world at 7:16 PM
Sunday, March 3, 2013
So, seeing as I did not exhibit at or even attend the show, how can I have any valid view of it ? Well, I have exhibited at four shows, did seminars at three of them and even put bands together for two of them. I have been on the inside as well as the outside of this show and I can appreciate it for what it is. The problem for me is that it isn't the place where someone like myself will get any kind of return for missing work that justifies the expense and time associated with being at the show. This is tough as I want to be there, want to see the great work and hang out with my framebuilder buddies. The problem is that I also want to have happy customers and maybe have money for a vacation that does not involve sitting in a convention center for several days.....it's really not a vacation-it is serious hard work for the most part.
A very real issue is my own personal aesthetic of what a bicycle is-this aesthetic does not move me in the direction of trying to out-bling my fellow builders with remarkable labor-intensive flourishes on my frames. It is safe to say that I will never win any trophies at one of these shows. My attempts at artful frames have been barely noticed in a field of superior entries-I'll admit that I am not the guy who should build you that rolling piece of art. Rolling pieces of art are what the show is all about, after all. There are bikes in the show that activate something in people that causes them to want to possess the stuff they are seeing. Aquisition.........collecting.......being in the exclusive club that has a rare item of beauty. The bike show in this respect is no different from the Concours d' elegance in Carmel, California......a fancy car show. The cars are brought to the show in trailers.....for gods sake, you wouldn't want to put any miles on a priceless investment, would you ?
This brings me to what I hope my frames conjure up in folks who happen to see them: The urge to want to see how they ride-experience the feel of the bike in the corners, up and down hills-into a nasty headwind-careening across an icy corner in sub-freezing weather-hitting a long sweeping turn on a downhill at 50 plus m.p.h. -or simply riding down the tracks to get to the farmer's market on Saturday. My greatest hope is that upon seeing the bike , a person would think : " I wonder how much fun I could have on that thing... " There are no thoughts about paint, decals or finely filed lugs-it's all about the ride.
While other builders were preparing for the show I was involved in something completely different. I spent the first few days of February in Louisville, Kentucky working in the pit for a few racers at the cyclocross masters worlds competition. My work mainly consisted of scraping frozen mud off of bicycles during the race. This was done in sub-freezing temperatures with primitive implements and very little time. The work was crazy, humbling and a dose of hard reality of what happens in a world class event in harsh winter conditions. This was not working in my shop in Santa Cruz in 60 degree weather- trying to put the finishing touches on a bike that would hopefully earn me a big-ass bowling trophy to take home-this was doing my best to help riders, some that weren't on my team or even riding on one of my bikes.
While my focus and personal approach to frame building does not really fit in the mode of 'Artisan frame builder' I am not ruling out being at the show in the future. The show is something that did not exist for the first twenty years of my career , so I am really thankful that it exists. One thing that I do realize is that my venue for promoting my work is not in these shows but out where the ice is being scraped off of frames at the side of the race course-it is on the roads and dirt paths all over the world where people ride bikes rather than drive cars-the proof in the validity of what I do is a bike in motion, not static in some display. I can have a booth and talk all day for the duration of the show but you will only really know my bikes if you ride them......you will only know me if you ride them........after that I am sure you can asses my skills or lack thereof with authority and absolute certainty, a kind of certainty that cannot be arrived at by merely viewing a bike upon a stand.
Posted by swiggco world at 10:07 PM
Friday, December 21, 2012
When I post my frames on my shop blog , I often show them unpainted. I do this for two reasons: # 1, In some cases I am pretty proud how the frame in the photo turned out.....at least by my standards. # 2, I really think that it is the best policy for people to see what my work looks like without the magic of paint. This is not because I think my frames are soooooo bitchen-it is so one can see the workmanship and decide if I am the right guy for the job.I.E.,If you don't like my welds, don't shake my tree, and all that. Don't get me wrong, I'm never totally happy with the quality of my work-I always am trying to do better. It is that insane insecurity that results ideally in an ever improving product. I tell folks that the longer you wait, the better I get at my job.
This brings me to the tiny imperfections that drive myself and probably a lot of other builders to scowl, become eccentric, drink a lot , go into lengthy depressions , or just let out a few choice curse words in the shop. These are the things that the painter makes invisible.......sometimes.
# 1. Little annoying dent caused by a falling tool or a mis-aligned tube holder. One can fill such dents with solder or bronze-even tig weld.....trouble is they are sometimes hard to see before the frame is painted.
#2. Excessive filing in a rear dropout to get the wheel to center. I don't care how much you spent on your jig....some times shit happens. You just hope it isn't a huge steamer in this case.
#3. Seat slot off center.......pretty much my signature. I do it on a machine, I follow some really consistant guidelines........hell, I'm just not perfect !
#4. Brake bridge isn't level. I did some work for another builder about 20 years ago.....really brilliant guy. He said that he could always tell if I had done the bridges on the frames......his were more crooked than mine-serious compliment , I thought........
#5. Cable stops are crooked or not placed symmetrically. This is really nit-picking but hey, it doesn't look right.
#6. Serial number is stamped crookedly. Yeah, but who cares ? If you spent a few grand on the frame you might......
#7. Decals are a bit crooked. I would like to blame this one on the painter but it is usually my fault. Good thing my decals are pretty uneven to start with !
#8. Weld goes a bit off course. The welding cable gets a bit heavy late in the day and can yank your hand a bit off the chosen path. It gets worse when you get old like me.
All of the above offenses are really minor and generally have no effect on the fit,ride or durability of the frame. In fact , the faults outlined above are a product of human error......absolute proof that you are in posession of a real hand-built item-the genuine article. The little imperfections ? ......I call them ; " The mark of the master." The tell-tale evidence of the hand of the craftsman -shaky at times but always striving for perfection. Maybe none of us will ever get there.....to the summit of complete flawless unassailable sublime and timeless quintessance.........or whatever wet-dream shiny "Aw,hell......ain't never seen nothin' so peeeerfect in all my days!" We slip, make a file mark, get a little impatient with a procedure and, well.......there you have it-the friggin' mark of the master. Yeah, we do our best to hide it - in most cases you'll never know it's there. That is for us to remember and grapple with on a weekly basis.......it is what could possibly keep us honest and remind us that being focused on the task at hand has its benefits.
Posted by swiggco world at 9:05 PM
Thursday, November 22, 2012
Shortly after the last NAHMBS I got the idea for a guideline for the next show bike-I had intended to do a second annual 'Ficticious bike show awards' but was so busy during the show at my own booth that I had no time to walk the show and see what it was I had intended to write about. So, with those circumstances you will all have to settle for this: The 2012 Show Bike guidelines, at least how I see it. The categories will each have a set of standards, each more 'exclusive' and prestigious than the last.
Builder's waiting list:
1. Builder has a 3 month waiting list.
2. Builder has a 1 year waiting list
3. Builder has a 3 year waiting list
4. Builder has a 6 year waiting list.
5. Builder's list is now closed.
6. Builder's list was never opened.
1. Painted on logo
2. Hand painted on logo
3. Acid etched logo in tube
4. Stainless logo soldered onto frame
5. Removed material from tube in shape of logo
6. Neon logo
7. Small r.c. blimp with logo on side orbiting show bike
Sales points as to exclusivity of show bike:
1. Limited edition of only 5 frames
2. This frame would max out your credit card
3. Taking out a second mortgage would be needed to fund this frame purchase
4. Selling testicle would be needed to purchase this frame
5. Selling one kidney would be needed to purchase this frame
6. Selling both kidnleys would be needed to purchase this frame
1. This frame would be good for anyone
2. This frame would be good for almost anyone
3. This is a luxury item for special people only
4. This is a luxury item for one special person or less
Method of construction:
1. Hand brazed with an oxy-acetylene torch
2. Brazed with mapp gas
3. Hearth brazed with rendered fat from free-range chickens
4. Brazed with methane extracted from the anus of free range livestock
Materials selected for construction:
1. Good steel
2. The best steel
3. The very best steel
4. Slightly better than the very best steel
5. N.O.S. cryogenically stored steel previously owned by a succession of deceased framebuilders who never got around to using it to build a frame
Seat attachment style:
1. Brazed binder with fully adjustable polished seatpost
2. Seatmast with 2 c.m. of adjustment
3. Seatmast with 1 c.m. of adjustment
4. Saddle welded to seat mast ( no adjustment)
5. Bibshorts stitched to saddle welded to seatmast ( less than no adjustment )
With these guidelines, one can only begin to imagine what kind of incredible artistry will be gracing the halls of the next handmade bike show. Ideally, you won't be able to afford it and if all goes to plan, you wouldn't be able to ride it.......that, in bike show talk is a masterpiece.
Posted by swiggco world at 2:18 PM
Monday, August 27, 2012
Paying for the vise was the easy part. Carrying it out of the flea market to my car was not so easy. I'm not sure what the vise weighed but it was so heavy I probably had to stop about six times before making it to the parking lot. I was lucky that someone was there to help me with the hulking Wilton and within an hour I had it back home. When I bolted onto my workbench I soon found out that my flimsy bench needed to be anchored to the wall of the garage. Then I found out that the garage was not all that solid as well. All of this didn't matter as I wasn't going to be removing stuck freewheels or bending rebar.....I was going to be building frames. I felt like I had been given a really great gift.....the vise of my dreams.
This old vise as done much duty in the twenty-six years since I parted with that $ 35 at the flea market. The vise has followed me through several moves and has held about 2,000 frame in its tired old jaws. People who come to my shop always notice the vise and are subjected to my story of how I got it and how little I paid for it. I wouldn't say that it is the centerpiece of the shop but I think I would have a really difficult time without it.
In spite of the importance of this vise and how much I depend on it daily, it does get the occasional beating. Beating, you say ? But why ? what did that poor vise do to deserve a beating ? This brings me to the most recent and savage vise-beating episode. I was in the process of building a run of nine frames immediately after returning from two idyllic weeks in Ashland , Oregon teaching at U.B.I. I had been really stressed before leaving for Ashland and was very ready to leave my shop. Upon returning I found that everything I had been stressed about was still there-now two weeks further behind schedule.
Picture me at the vise, struggling with bending a bridge tube, attempting to get a nice radius purely for aesthetics. In walks a perfectly nice person with two rather ugly small repairs for me to look at. This person has no idea of the nearly thirty frames on order and how hopelessly behind schedule I am getting.We start the conversation about the repairs-I'm telling the customer that I can't work on the frames for about a month. He's fine with that and we continue talking, all the while I'm wresling with this bending form that won't stay in my Wilton vise. I'm trying to bend this cro-moly tube while attempting to be polite to this customer and the vise isn't holding the bending form and it keeps slipping. I tighten the vise with my whole 156 lbs. The form still slips. I re-tighten the vise, this time beating on the handle with a huge rubber mallet-all the while politely talking with the customer. The bending form slips for about the fifth time and I take the piece of tubing and beat the living shit out of the vise for about thirty seconds. I look at the customer-he looks back at me, blankly. I just start laughing and the customer starts laughing as well.
After I say goodbye to the customer and apologize for the outburst ( Which he said was not surprising as he had worked in bicycle shops as well and had encountered similar frustrations ) I began to think about the vise. This was a really tough and mighty vise, yet it was not holding onto the work . I opened up the jaws and looked. The jaws were worn smooth.....over the years I had used the vise so much I had worn out the jaws and didn't notice-I didn't notice because I was too busy being stressed about getting the work done on time. Someone might say: " How could you be stressed ? You do what you want all day long! " That is mostly true but there is also the reality that the stuff I do all day long does exactly what it wants do as well.......to me ! If it wants to inspire me, it does. If it wants to humiliate me, it does. If it wants to drive me to beating a vise in front of a customer, why not ? It might be entertaining. If it wants to show me that I am really in need of a schooling , it will provide that for me at any time with little or no notice.
Once I realized that the jaws were worn smooth I figured out that I would have to position the work differently so that I could use my leverage in such a way that would not catapult the whole mess onto the shop floor. Within a few minutes I had a beautifully radius'd bridge which I mitered and welded onto what is perhaps the most cleanly welded frame of my career. Maybe beating on the vise is a useless and possibly damaging waste of time.......or perhaps it is the merely storm before the calm.
Posted by swiggco world at 10:13 PM
Saturday, July 7, 2012
# 1, A bike magazine I really like and have read pretty much since its first copy printed an article about carbon frame repair. I approve of carbon frame repair and am glad that some folks are finally doing it-I'm especially glad that it is not me who is doing it. What I read that got my attention was that someone who was in the business of fixing carbon bikes said that it was easier and less expensive than fixing aluminum or steel frames. I thought to myself , how can that be true ? As far as I can tell, it isn't true for a few reasons.
I can re-weld a broken dropout on a steel frame for $ 40-50 ........how much would one of these carbon repair places charge to do the same work ? It is my understanding that carbon frame repair isn't cheap and it really shouldn't be , considering all the steps and precautions needed to work with the stuff without poisoning yourself. I will agree that tig welding is difficult, but not for someone who does it a lot -and that is most likely the kind of person who would be repairing a steel or aluminum frame. Someone with welding and/or brazing can execute a simple repair in very little time, resulting in a relatively low cost job.
#2. The second thing I observed were some gigantic container ships arriving and leaving the port of Oakland. I was staying at a hotel that had a good view of the port and all the goings on. I thought about the practice of a particular big-box store that filled these container ships with raw materials and shipped the stuff to China where it would presumably be made into products. These products would be loaded onto container ships and sent back to the USA with goods for Americans to purchase. The irony is that these cheaply produced items are used for a short time until we either break them or grow tired of them. What happens next is that the items wind up for the most part in landfills that are presently overflowing.
Let's see what this container ship flotilla does, at least in my opinion:
#1. It sends manufacturing to China that used to be done here.
#2. It causes a waste of fuel and is not good for the environment.
#3. It encourages our society to accept crappy goods that fail soon as the norm , rather than providing us with goods that are lasting valuable posessions.
#4. It creates an artificially low price for everything so that anything that is well made becomes unaffordable.
#5. It leaves us with jobs at the big box stores and other low-skill trades in place of the now non-existent manufacturing jobs.
#6. It creates wealth for the owner of these big-box enterprises to buy our politicians and further erode our democracy.
#7. Had enough ? -Think about it.........most of us are riding bikes from China. Most of us are wearing clothes from China as well. Look at all the goods in your house and you'll see how really pervasive offshoring of manufacturing is. How do I tie this into the carbon bike repair article ? It's not a reach, really. The sacrifice of our domestic bike manufacturing over the last 30 years is a very high price to pay for cheap ( and many of them are not cheap..) carbon fiber bikes from China. All the negatives we get from importing so much stuff is also a high price to pay.
While I do applaud the folks repairing these carbon bikes, the great bulk of which are not made in the USA-I firmly believe that the statement in the article that carbon bikes are cheaper and easier to repair is complete and utter crap.......just as I believe that cheap goods at the big box stores will eventually be our ruin as a free society. We have become a people that is all into 'aquisition' for a temporary fix , rather than getting something that one will use for a long time.I really hope some day we will all wake up and figure out that we are not getting any kind of bargain in this transaction.
Posted by swiggco world at 5:09 PM
Thursday, June 7, 2012
When I was building frames out of Bontrager leftovers it was mainly to use stuff that would have been destined for the scrap heap and also provide some industry folks with really cheap handbuilt steel frames. The word go out and all sorts of requests came in , all the while I'm supposedly building Rock Lobsters at twice the price.It was an odd time- filling orders for both frames and for awhile thinking that it was a pretty good thing....that was until I started getting low on the easy to work with materials in the Bontrager heap and had to dig through the boxes to find the tubes that weren't too bent, rusted , had holes drilled off center or cut too short. At this point I felt that the time I was spending looking through this pile of old , rusty metal was a total time toilet-especially in view of how little I was charging for these 'Nontrager' frames.
I started getting odd requests: " Hey, could you make a Nontrager disc-brake MTB for a 120 mm shock with Breezer dropouts?" -Of course not....Bontragers came with proprietary dropouts and never were made for 120 mm shocks or disc brakes. I got request for all sorts of Bastard-trager monstrosities , none of which I agreed to build. Funny though- none of the folks wanting these oddball frames were asking me to build a Rock Lobster, the bike that I normally build and could have easily made to their specifications.
After building over 100 of the Nontrager frames I got the idea that a lot of the folks buying them were not willing to pay for what I normally built. Naturally, I started to get a bit tired fulfilling these Bontrager devotees wishes and decided to make a clean break from the rusty scrap heap and get back to what I really had been devoted to all along.....my bikes.I gave away the remaining tubes to another builder , keeping only a small stash for myself.
Fast forward to this week: I got a request to repair a Bontrager CX frame with a cracked chainstay. I agreed to fix it and started to look through my last remaining few tubes from the original stash. What I found was a small pile of totally rusty garbage, not suited for building or repairing anything. I luckily had a chanstay from the stash in another tube shelf in my shop that was exactly what I needed and fixed the frame. The customer was really happy and seemed to be a super good guy. Even though I had done a decent job, saved the frame and made somebody happy, I still felt a bit worn down....then it came-an email with a similar request about a Bontrager frame with a cracked stay. I emailed the person back and said I would look though my tubing to see if I had the tube to complete the repair. I got an email reply asking if I had enough tubes to make a complete frame......not one of mine but another Bontrager. I said no and wrote sarcastically that I had been known to build frames under another brand name-Rock Lobster.
This gets to my point. I am really tired of people asking me to build Bontragers, Nontragers.....any tragers. I'll admit-Keith is definitely a legend in the bike world and for better or worse, I am not. What I am is someone who has devoted a really big part of my life trying to constantly improve my bikes....Rock Lobsters-have you heard of them ? Yes......I'm pissed, and why shouldn't I be ? Imagine people emailing Keith Bontrager asking him to build Rock Lobsters ? Or calling up Bruce Gordon and asking him to build a Vanilla ? Or emailing Colnago asking them to make a frigging Bob Jackson ? I know that the requests I got for Nontragers have come from good meaning folks for the most part.....real fans of bikes they can no longer get from the original source. It's the reason wax museums exist-also why some people insist that Jim Morrison is still alive and that Elvis is hiding somewhere drinking a milkshake , alive and well.
My advice to well meaning folks looking for their Bontrager fix : Craigslist......ebay......yard sales....flea markets.......just not me ! Want a Rock Lobster ? -I can help you there, just as I have been doing since 1978.
Posted by swiggco world at 11:32 PM