Handmade Bicycles: The Custom Experience- Meet The Steel Frame 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. In these e-mailed interviews, you will learn a lot about some of the best frame builders in three different materials.

Part three: Meet the guys behind the workbench.

In this next section of our custom frame builders article, we presented several of the premier guys in the biz a series of questions about what they do and why. Some work in steel, some Ti, some aluminum, some more than one. Some are long time builders and some represent the new blood.

How did I choose them for our article? I had a few guidelines in mind when I started:

-I wanted them to have been in business for 5 years. I made a couple of slight adjustments in this, but the point I was getting to was 5 years is a reasonable survival rate for a business and by then, word of mouth should be out there be it good or bad.

-They did not have to be a 29er specialist, but they had to at least speak the language of big wheels if it makes sense for the client.

-I listened to what the public recommended. I spent time on some web forums and when the question was asked, “Which builder to go with?” I noted the answers. Many times I knew the rep of the builder from the very cool, innovative stuff they were doing. For instance the Siren Song and Ted Wojcik’s Monkey Butt project.

-They had to have a website that actually was helpful. Many had a blog. I cannot tolerate a non-presence on the net. Makes no sense to me unless you just want local orders from all your buddies.

-They had to be able to communicate with me. All the builders represented here answered the phone, either an employee/associate, or the builder themselves. The one exception emailed me back in 2 days. Good enough.

I know there are tons of talented frame builders that I did not consider. Sorry if I ignored your favorite torch-meister.

So grab a coffee and a donut from the box on the workbench, shoo the shop dog off of the couch and sit a spell.

The Steel Guys:

The Master – Ted Wojcik of Ted Wojcik Custom Bicycles.

“…I love to make things.”

The Cyclist – So, who are you? Please introduce yourself. 

Ted – My name is Ted Wojcik, I have been building bicycle frames since 1981. I was an Aviation Machinist Mate in the Navy from 1966-1970, working on jet turbine engines and helicopter transmission systems. I then spent the next 10 years racing and building competition motorcycles for some of the best shops in New England. I have made frames for Ruthie Matthes, Bobby Julich, and others who raced for Team Ritchey in the early 90’s as well as doing tons of prototype work for a number of major bicycle companies. I have made somewhere around 3000 mtn and road frames.

TC:   Who is your typical customer? 

Ted: My typical customer has changed a great deal over the years. When I started building, it was lugged road frames ordered by riders who wanted the prestige of a custom made frame or who had a fitting requirement that wasn’t being met by production frames. When I started making off-road frames, the production stuff just kinda’ sucked. Tom Ritchey worked with Tange to draw some really revolutionary mtn. bike tubing and the difference in the ride of a quality hand made frame became apparent. Off-road bicycling was growing and when riders became committed to the sport, they bought a hand made frame and outfitted it with a custom selected group of components.

TC: Why custom? Why not just an off-the-rack bike? They work well, don’t they?

Ted: My opinion here is that a “Custom Frame Shop” should make custom frames. Production bikes are very good and are quite affordable. To stay in business, a custom builder has to offer something better with details simply not offered in a production frame. It is amazing to me that a lot of riders don’t realize that a custom shop makes frames to order to customer spec, not just frames on a rack waiting for delivery. As I see it, there has been a change in what defines a great frame. For the most part today, our product info comes from the internet. The popularity of print has declined and therefore the revenue for magazines has declined as well. A lot of the experienced writers have left for greener pastures and the opinions of well the known experts has been replaced by forums and WEB sites fed by a variety of individuals, some with a lot of riding experience and some with a lot of internet experience. The image of what makes a great frame is no longer clear cut. Much misinformation about materials, geometry, and joining methods exists and in many of the forums it is being talked about as gospel. Also, the information is dynamic. That is, it is continually changing and opinions are formed based on when and who is posting. I have concerns about how much any information on the internet is taken as valuable.

TC: Why did you choose the particular medium to work with, be it steel, Ti, or aluminum?

Ted: I like steel for a number of reasons. One, a frame builder is limited by the materials available to him/her. The stock list for steel is by far the most prolific. And no matter what, a steel frame is the standard by which all others are compared. The “Super Steels”, such as, Columbus Niobium-XCR, Reynolds 853-953, and True-Temper Platinum-S-3 have given the experienced builder an almost unlimited choice of tubes and configurations to create a frame simply not available from any production source.

TC: I know it is a complicated procedure in many ways, but how do you approach the challenge of assessing the needs of your customers? How does that process work?

Ted: Listen! A skilled builder needs to find out what the rider is looking for and turn that information into a finished bike. I prefer to deal with the more experienced rider. That makes my job easier. Let’s face it, no matter what, it is the legs that make the bike go and in many cases the newer rider has unrealistic expectations of what a new bike can do for him/her. I rely on experience and rider input to come up with a bike to make my client happy. The other feature often overlooked in a handmade frame is the quality of the build. The skill level in the welding, finish, and alignment is the signature of the builder. This might not necessarily increase the performance of the bike, but it does help justify the cost. The difference between a Bic and a Zippo. They are both up to the job, but one comes with a pride of ownership.

TC: Let’s get this out of the way. The biggest knock against the small builder is the often shabby track record of missed deadlines, poor communication, etc. How do you run your business to avoid those issues?

Ted: The reputations of custom shops could be better, but when ordering from a Master Builder, the client must remember that he is just one person. I had plans and personnel in place at one time to make a lot of frames. I wasn’t happy with the product. Most of my customers want a frame made by me and not an apprentice. The bike industry supply line is seldom as we would like it. Importers bring product in a few times a year and sometimes there is a delay in materials/parts to complete the build on schedule. I also take the time to build the frame to my standards, and not the calendar. The more frame orders I get the longer the wait. I don’t really think that there is a way to deal with this. I do the best I can. Road frame clients are far more willing to wait than off-road clients. A custom frame shop is a business where quality is the priority and not profit.

TC: How do stay passionate about bikes? What keeps you stoked?

Ted: I stay passionate about bikes because I love to make things. It is one of my creative outlets. I also do work on race cars, aircraft, and motorcycles. That is my makeup. I try to make every frame better than the last.

TC:  Twenty Niners gave the custom builder a boost, what do you see as being the latest trend? Are 29″ers still a strong seller?  

Ted: 29ers have stimulated the hardtail orders, but they aren’t for everyone. They will be a major part of the custom shop for a while until geometry preferences solidify. Once that happens, cookie cutter bikes will be everywhere. 27.5″ wheeled bikes provide an alternative for shorter legs to try bigger wheels. It is also possible to design a frame to use either 27.5″ or 26″ wheels. This makes a very versatile bike. I don’t like using bent top tubes or seat tube braces going to the top tube to give increased stand over height. This prevents using the really high end, short butted, air hardening steels that give the lively, light ride that gave birth to the boutique mtn. frame shops to begin with.

TC: What do you feel is the future of the custom builder especially now, in very challenging times?

Ted: I don’t know what the future holds. It seems as the years have gone by, the small shops have done the innovations, and the major manufacturers have capitalized on these innovations, but today mountain bike design is more market driven than technology driven. The big manufacturers can afford to make changes every year to keep the enthusiasm in new purchases. I guess the best thing to do is make all kinds of bikes and not just one type at a quality level not possible with mass production.

TC: Anything else you want to say? Future plans, goals, visions, final words of wisdom to folks considering a frame build?

Ted: The use of new wheel sizes adds an interesting change to off-road bikes. 29 inch wheels are simply too large for riders with short legs, so 27.5″ wheels give another option to those who have legs a bit shorter than Andre the Giant. As long as fork, tire, and rim manufacturers feel that it is worth while to continue to produce the needed components, these options will keep adventure and variety in the maturing mountain bike market. Most of the experimentation and work to hone these designs will be done by custom shops. When the demand grows to be big enough to justify the investment by large companies to offer these bikes, the work will be done. The decline in cross country racing has softened the demand for pure performance. I think most riders now make less demands on light weight and the focus on racing. Bikes made for long trail rides and comfort are the norm today. Quick, accurate, point and shoot steering that was once demanded by the experienced racer in now not considered a necessary attribute of the custom frame. Fashion seems as important as function today, but the custom builder can accommodate the wants of any client. There will be a need for custom builders for some time to come. Cycling is a career for only a handful of individuals, so have fun and enjoy it. This is not a bad place to spend money.
Thanks for the opportunity,
Ted Wojcik

Ted Wojcik Website
 The New Guy-  Walt Wehner, Waltworks Custom Bicycles.

“I won’t sell something I wouldn’t ride myself.”

 The CyclistSo, who are you? Please introduce yourself.

Walt – Well, since I’m sure nobody really wants my life story, suffice to say that I fell into framebuilding (professionally) after doing some frames for myself and friends/family for fun, and after I lost my “real” job in 2004.

I’ve enjoyed tinkering with bikes (and riding them, of course) since my first mountain biking experience (yes, there was a girl involved, and yes, it ended with me covered with blood) since 1998 or so. I raced 3 or 4 seasons as a pro XC racer, right about when the term “pro” started to not mean much anymore (ie, right about when sponsors stopped actually paying “pros”). I’m not honestly sure if that experience is helpful to me as a builder, but I certainly know what doesn’t work after breaking lots of parts and bikes over the years. I’ve also dabbled in motocross and enduro motorcycle racing, as well as a bit of DH on the bike. The only kind of bike I don’t own is a road bike.

As a builder, I never expected to be selling bikes, and I really never expected to be selling them on anything but a part-time/semi-hobby basis, but I’ve had a waitlist the entire time I’ve been in business, something which was a very pleasant surprise.

Otherwise, long walks on the beach, sunsets, kittens, you know. I love geeky science fiction in any form, rock climbing, and cooking cheapskate-gourmet food.

TC:  Who is your typical customer? 

Walt: Late 20’s to 30’s, sometimes a kid or two, often coming from a production bike they liked pretty well but wanted to personalize or tweak to get a little more out of it. I also get the off-the-wall jobs that involve really weird wheel sizes or configurations, touring and travel bikes, and bikes for really big or small folks who can’t find something that will fit.

TC:  Why custom? Why not just an off-the-rack bike? They work well, don’t they?

Walt: The selection of off-the-rack bikes is great these days, and for 90% of the riders out there, it’s all they’ll ever need. A custom bike is clearly a luxury item to almost anyone, unless you’re 6’10” or really weirdly shaped.

I think there are decent reasons, though, for going with a custom bike.

-You get exactly what you want, and a personal stake in the process of building the bike. This can be pretty fun – you’ll learn a lot about what happens with bike geometry, how different variables affect the ride, what tradeoffs exist, etc. I’m not the type to just throw a set of numbers at someone and pressure them to sign off- I like to talk (sometimes for hours) about every aspect of the build with the customer. This generally means that the end user isn’t going to get tripped up finding out that the part they want to bolt on won’t work, or that the steering is too twitchy for their local trails, or whatever. You can think of a custom builder as a super-geeky friend who will steer you to what you really need, without throwing too much marketing hype or attitude in your face.

-You get a very good warranty. Mine is a lifetime warranty, many other custom builders offer the same. Many production frames are only really intended to last a few years before being replaced, and they often only have a year or two of warranty protection.

-A complete custom bike is often as inexpensive, or even less expensive. A production bike with, say, full XTR and nice stuff will run you $4k+. Same for a custom bike, in many cases. Shimano and other manufacturers offer parts kits to small builders at subsidized rates, and we can pass those savings on to you. At the high end, custom really isn’t significantly more expensive (and in some cases, it’s cheaper) than production. Plus you get to custom pick your parts, rather than being stuck with whatever some product manager decided to spec at Interbike last year.

-You support US (at least for your US readers – there are of course custom builders in other countries) craftsmen and women. For some folks this doesn’t matter, but all things being equal, many people like the idea of actually buying something from a guy (or gal) in his shop, then maybe meeting them out for a ride (or a drink). In other words, buying something from a real, accessible person you can talk to anytime you want has value for some people. Without getting too political, we spend way too much money on cheap imported junk in this country, and I think everyone can see now what some of the consequences are.

TC: Why did you choose the particular medium to work with, be it steel, Ti, or aluminum?

Walt: Ok, here I’m going to geek out a bit. I’m not a fan of how aluminum rides (but I know many folks like it fine) so I’ll leave it out of the question. Aluminum just isn’t my thing.

Steel and ti are both awesome materials. They hold up well, ride well, look cool, etc. Ti has some advantages (a little weight, corrosion resistance) that steel doesn’t. So why do I build exclusively with steel?

Simple. Bang for the buck. I can offer a really nice steel frame that weighs ~4# for a normal sized rider, and won’t rust significantly for 10+ years if it’s even vaguely taken care of for around $1000. An equivalent custom titanium frame will run $2-3k. That frame will be half a pound lighter and won’t rust (though stuff can seize to it in many instances). So essentially you’re paying an extra $1000-2000 for 200 grams of weight and a little less maintenance. To me, that’s not worth it – you can save that kind of weight quite easily with parts (or drinking a little less beer) at a fraction of the cost, and putting framesaver in your steel frame is really not much of a chore.

So if you’ve got $3k to spend, you can have a ti frame with $500 worth of parts, or a steel frame with $2k worth. Which do you think is going to ride better and work reliably? Once you hit $5k+, ti starts to make a lot of sense, but for many folks, that’s too much money for a bike.

So bottom line, ti is great if you want to spend BIG bucks. Steel is great too, and the minor disadvantages are far outweighed by the lower cost. For most of us, I think steel makes more sense for a bicycle frame.

I won’t sell something I wouldn’t ride myself, and I wouldn’t build myself an aluminum or ti frame (because I don’t like the former, and I don’t want to spend the money on the latter), so I don’t offer them to customers either.

TC: I know it is a complicated procedure in many ways, but how do you approach the challenge of assessing the needs of your customers? How does that process work?

Walt: It’s much more of an art than a science. Some folks know exactly what they want, down to the smallest detail, some know very little except how they want the bike to ride, and some really don’t know at all and are looking for me to provide a sort of roadmap to get them to where they want to be. And of course, some people have unreasonable expectations or ideas that won’t work, which is always hard because I want them to be happy with the end result – and sometimes that means talking them out of what they think is a really good idea.

I usually get two kinds of info. One is measurements (of the persons body and of the various bikes they own) – that’s pretty straightforward stuff. Inseam, reach, stem length, etc, etc.

The more interesting and useful part is the qualitative side, where I ask things about how they like their current bikes, what they want to change, what kind of rides they want to do, and what kind of feeling they want to get from their new bike. I aim to find out something about the person’s personality, if possible, as well as their riding habits, so that we can make informed decisions about what configuration and geometry might work best.

So I guess to answer your question, it’s a marriage of numbers and words, science and soul – Bert and Ernie, really. It’s a little different every time I do it.

TC:  Let’s get this out of the way. The biggest knock against the small builder is the often shabby track record of missed deadlines, poor communication, etc. How do you run your business to avoid those issues?

Walt: I try to be easy to reach via email or cell phone, and I keep my blog and website updated to reflect my progress in building bikes and who’s on the waitlist. I also try to underpromise and overdeliver – I’m generally slightly ahead of schedule with deliveries. I also make sure to ask up front if there’s a specific event or other deadline I need to be aware of. Some folks really aren’t in a big hurry, others have a specific date in mind, and if you get that figured out up front, everyone is happier.

I do struggle with saying “no” to people – especially when it costs me a sale, but I’d rather have fewer sales and happy riders than lots of sales and lots of complaints.

Honestly, I think the problem has been overstated a bit by the echo chamber that is the internet and MTBR in particular. There are a couple of cases in recent years of builders completely and spectacularly flaking out, but there are probably close to 100 full time framebuilders in the US, and the vast majority are happily plugging along and meeting their deadlines. Every industry has companies and individuals that do a poor job or fail to get stuff done in a timely fashion, and those folks don’t tend to last long – the marketplace sorts these things out pretty quickly. Of course, that’s not much consolation if you’ve got a bike that broke and the company doesn’t exist anymore, but that happens on a regular basis with production frame companies too. I don’t see it as an endemic problem in the custom frame business.

TC: How do you stay passionate about bikes? What keeps you stoked?

Walt: Riding them, a LOT. I get burned out on talking about bikes (especially since my circle of friends is very bike-oriented) but I never get tired of riding them. If I’m ever not psyched in the shop, I’ll go out and ride hard for an hour or two and invariably be back at it, mentally refreshed, when I’m done.

TC: Twenty Niners gave the custom builder a boost, what do you see as being the latest trend? Are 29″ers still a strong seller?

Walt: 29ers definitely launched quite a few builders (including me) because the mass-market offerings were few and far between in the early part of the decade. Lots of folks who really didn’t need or want a custom bike ended up with one because they literally didn’t have any other option for a decent 29er frame.

That era is over. There are dozens (at least) of mass-produced 29er frames out there now (the last figure I heard is that they’re 15-20% of the high end mountain bike market), including most of the popular niche types. So the party is over for small builders and 29ers – at least to the extent that anyone who hangs out a shingle can sell 29ers like crazy.

29″ wheel bikes are probably 75% of my sales currently, and I’ve built over 200. So they’re still very much my bread and butter, but I also do more and more touring bikes, cross bikes, and full suspension bikes these days.

As for the latest trend, I’m hopeful that it will be purchasing a bike for the long haul, with a long-term warranty, and not buying into a new batch of hype every season, but I’m not all that confident – after all, the companies doing best right now are Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. I hope that people will start looking for a bike that will last them 5 or 10 years, and then actually keep it for that long. We’ll see. There are lots of new things all the time (650b, Hammerschmidt, etc) but I don’t see anything game-changing on the immediate horizon, just lots of minor success stories for good products.

Here’s a crazy prediction: battery/ultracapacitor technology will get good enough, and cheap enough, in the next 5 years that the next big thing will be a marriage of dirtbike and mountain bike technology with an electric drive – 80 pound bikes that can handle any terrain, go for hours, and survive serious abuse, all without noise, smoke, or hassle. Mountain biking has been moving in the motorcycle direction for a long time – more and more travel, slacker angles, and more and more bikes that *can* be ridden uphill but really only shine on the DH. Adding an electric drive and doing away with the human power (I know, purists are howling) is the next logical step. Lots of people want to pedal up, but there’s a huge group that would love something like that, but don’t want a full-on dirtbike and all the hassle it entails. .

I can tell you that I’ll be building something along those lines as soon as I see a battery technology that makes it worthwhile.

Of course, there’s a good chance that I’ve forgotten to take my meds and am completely nuts here, too.

TC: What do you feel is the future of the custom builder especially now, in very challenging times?

Walt: Half of them will be out of business. A lot of folks who should not have been in the business started building bikes in the last few years, and a lot of even the established builders are not great at running a business (even if they’re great at working with metal). Many people also took out loans or mortgaged the house a second time to get started and those folks are all going to go under.

Of course, custom builders aren’t the only ones in this situation – a big chunk of the bike industry in general will probably go belly up. The last decade has been good for a lot of people, but there are a lot of operations out there that aren’t being run well – hard times will unmask them over the next couple of years.

From my perspective, things aren’t too bad. I have low (no) overhead since I work out of a small shop on my property (ie, no rent) and even with only intermittent work, I’ll be fine. I also do a lot of repair work and general welding on both bikes and non-bike items, and I anticipate that repairing and restoring an older bike will be a popular option for the next few years. And in many ways, that’s a good thing. Maybe one of the lessons we all need to learn is that value is remembered long after price is forgotten – buy something really good the first time, then keep it forever. That’s my goal in selling frames – to provide a long-term value, not just this year’s trendy/disposable thing.

TC: Anything else you want to say? Future plans, goals, visions, final words of wisdom to folks considering a frame build?

Walt: Look beyond the bottom line and, if you’re in the market for a bike, ask potential builders lots of questions. If the answers don’t make sense, ask again. You should approach this like you’d approach finding a new doctor or hiring a personal trainer – you want someone you really get along with, who you trust to keep your best interests in mind. That’s not always the cheapest option in the short term, but it’s a good strategy in the long run.


Waltworks Website
Waltworks Blog


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