Handmade Bicycles: The Custom Experience- Choosing Materials And Builders

Editor’s Note: In this series, Grannygear introduces us to some custom frame builders and takes a closer look at the process of making and delivering a custom, handmade bicycle to a customer.

Part 2: The Who, What, Why, Where and When of a custom framenot necessarily in that order.

Why: In the first part of our series I pointed out that a production, ‘off-the-rack’ bike works very well as a viable path to cycling happiness and bliss. So why go the custom route? Well, there are several main reasons that I can think of:

-You are very tall, very short, or have odd body dimensions such as short legs/ long torso, long legs/short arms, etc.

-You have specific needs that a production bike does not meet, such as a certain touring set-up with integrated racks.

-You have been riding enough years to want a very specific set of handling characteristics derived from specific angles, fork offset, frame material choice, etc. and no production bike quite gets there.

-You just want one because you want one. Nothing wrong with that. There is a certain cache’ that goes along with a custom frame.

When: There is some timing involved in the frame buying process. There will always be a wait for the frame since it is being built from scratch…duh…but the time from the first contact between builder and client and the date of frame completion varies a great deal. For a hot builder much in demand, the wait can be a year before you see a frame. The lesson here is do not put yourself (and the builder) in the position of having a drop-dead date that HAS to be met or your trip of a lifetime, racing season, goals for the year, etc, will be ruined. That will just add to the stress level and perhaps cause some very bad blood if things go late. Remember, many of these guys are one man shops. Anything can happen.

What: You will need to decide what you want your bike frame made from. As well, you will need to know, and this is obvious, what kind of frame you want: Cyclocross, road, mountain, geared, singlespeed, rigid, FS, etc. For our purposes in this article, we will be headed towards a 29er hardtail singlespeed. But what should it be made of? There are three main players: Steel, titanium and aluminum.

Steel Steel frame

Steel is by far the most popular material for small shops to work with. There are lots of choices in tubing diameters, butting (the wall thickness of the tube will change over its length), shapes, strengths, ad-nearly-infinitum. This allows for tons of options as far as how the bike will look and perform. Steel is easy to weld/braze and manipulate, requires little prep work, paints or powdercoats well, and, in the hands of a skilled artisan, can produce a fabulous and long lasting ride. It is easy to repair as well. The bad? It rusts and it is not as light as aluminum or as chi-chi as titanium. In my opinion, steel is the standard all other materials are compared to.

Titanium Titanium frame

Titanium is the next material most used by custom shops. Ti is very sexy, lasts nearly forever, is known for a compliant and smooth ride (although that depends a lot on tubing selection), and has a lot of bling if that matters to ya’. It is notoriously hard to produce the raw tubing and it is hard to machine, manipulate, and weld the finished product so it is a big step up the ladder of skill for any frame builder wanting to build in Ti. In fact, a poorly constructed Ti frame is likely to fail rather quickly, usually from bad welding practices. The biggest hit against Ti is the cost. All that difficulty in the process from getting the raw tubing made to the last bit of hand work on the final frameset takes a ton of time and resources and you will pay for that. Beware of a very cheap Ti frame (typically an off-the-rack frameset). Assuming that the build quality is decent, it may not be any lighter or ride any better than a high end, custom steel frame despite the equivalent cost. However, any frame that is truly custom and Ti will likely not be cheap or a compromise in materials and design.

Aluminum Aluminum frame

Aluminum is the final material we will look at. Very common in off-the-rack bikes, it is not as widely used in custom builds. Aluminum is often considered to be the king of light AND stiff. It is very easy to build a light and fast feeling aluminum frame. But, it is much harder to make an aluminum frame that is light, stiff, rides smoothly, and will last. Aluminum is not considered to be an especially forgiving ride and often is favored by riders looking for certain performance characteristic such as a racy, stiff pedaling and solid feeling ride. As with any of the choices, the tubing selection and build approach can affect this quite a bit. A high end aluminum frame can ride nicer than a cheap steel frame. Aluminum has a shorter fatigue cycle than either steel or Ti so a good builder takes this into account when he lays out the design. A custom aluminum bike is a real lightweight weapon and has the potential to be a fast, smooth, stiff and nice piece, but it will take skill to get all of that in there.

Where: Where the builder actually resides is not that terribly important, but there are some considerations worth talking about. If I was an East Coast rider and my riding was best served by a bike built to deal with roots, boulders, quick transitions on tree lined narrow trails, etc, I would look for a builder who cut his teeth in that world and was building for that type of riding. Can a Colorado or California builder make a frame that performs well at Pisgah? Sure he can, but you may need to be a bit more specific as to what you want to get that certain result.

Who: Ah, here is the crux move. Once you have a good idea of what you want and why, it comes to choosing the right builder. This is not to be taken lightly, cuz this is a bit like a marriage relationship (without the perks). Both parties will need to communicate, there will be promises made, expectations will be high, there may need to be compromises and there is a financial commitment. So, here are a few bullet points to consider:

Do your homework first. A lot of the best info you will get about a custom builder will be word of mouth from happy customers. If you hear over and over again how great they were to work with, how they listened to the customer and made wise suggestions, they were on schedule, kept them informed along the way, etc, that is a good thing. What is the biggest knock against the custom builder? Lack of communication and/or over promising and under delivering.

Many builders have a niche or certain passion for a style or technique. Maybe they love a lugged frame or they have thousands of miles on touring bikes. Like that classic cruiser style? Some builders like it too. Perhaps they are a dedicated 29er singlespeeder. If that aligns with your focus as well, this can help.

If you are tall, a tall builder is not a bad idea and vice versa for a smaller person. The bell curve will prove this to not be a big deal, but it is something to think about.

Do you like them? There will be an initial conversation and continuing dialog between the two of you. If the builder is arrogant or seems indifferent, you may have just got them on a bad day or it may be a warning sign. In fact, if you can’t even get them on the phone or to answer an email, do you want to hand them your money and hope it all works out? Maybe not.

Do they have tenure? There are guys that have been building frames for more years than I have been riding them. That type of experience is hard to beat. On the other hand, someone who just hung up his frame builder’s shingle may be cutting his baby teeth on your frame. Or not. Often the newcomers are the guys that are innovating the most while the ‘old guard’ may be sitting around hand filing the perfect lug. Something to consider, in any case.

The last thing that I think is important, you may think otherwise, is the bike builder’s presence in the cycling world, both real and virtual (on-line). Are they involved in the local cycling scene? How about the internet? Is there a blog, website, etc that is up to date and accurate? I realize that many builders may not be computer guys or see the need for a strong on-line presence, but really…if I cannot go to the web for most of the answers I need about a company or product, I wonder what the person selling whatever it is must be thinking.

In the next sets of articles we will invite several frame builders to the table to answer some questions about their craft. Some will be wise old masters of the torch, some will be relative newcomers, but all will have been chosen as fine examples of someone you may want to consider for your next build. Stay tuned as we continue into the world of the custom bike experience.


No Responses to “Handmade Bicycles: The Custom Experience- Choosing Materials And Builders”

  1. GreenLightGo Says:

    Another great series of articles – thanks GT!

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