Archive for the ‘Handmade’ Category

Steel Is Real

April 22, 2009

In 2007, Wired magazine (among others) noted the resurgence in steel bikes in an article titled Cycling Purists Rejoice: Steel is Back.  Now, two years and trade shows later, the question remains: has steel finally “arrived”?

Truth be told, steel never actually went away.  But it’s market share sure did.

What has changed in the last 20 years is the inclusion of other worthwhile framebuilding materials.  As widely discussed, and beyond the scope of this article, each frame material (or combination thereof) has a it’s own positive and negative attributes.  Make a brave stand for your preferred frame material(s) on one of the more popular online cycling forums and you’ll see what I mean.

However, there is one important thing that separates steel from the competition … it remains to be the choice of artisan framebuilders.  Here are a few visuals to emphasize the point:

  • Ellis Cycles — Dave Wages might be the “new kid”, but he’s been on the block for a while.
  • Cicli Polito — Award winning handcrafted steel by Dan Polito.
  • Vanilla Bicycles — Sacha Whites’ instant legacy.

As you may already know, none of the three builders above fit into the stereotypical “retro-grouch” archetype.  Rather, they (and others like Sam Whittingham of Naked Bicycle and Design) are young, hip, savvy, and likely to write a blog or two.  More to the point, these steel bikes are a youthful stand against the bike mass-ufacturers — a symbol of individuality and appreciation of hands-on craftsmanship.  This movement against the mainstream is what has really spurred the revival in steel … especially lugged steel bikes.

The other somewhat obvious contributor to steel’s “comeback” is the fixie (fixed gear) factor.  Prior to the development of the specialty niche fixies, like Milwaukee Bike’s Bruiser, the common fixie was a used lugged steel bike with horizontal dropouts.  In other words, the vintage steel bike made the perfect platform for an affordable urban bike that could take some abuse, provide simple transportation, and allow the Mission Hipster a platform for self expression.

Of course, the growing popularity of these handmade steel and simple transport bikes is not lost on the major manufacturers.  So in an effort to expand this “new” market niche, the manufacturers have gone back to what originally brought their success … steel bikes.  The reason for the latency into the market is the slow churning cogs of mass production.  Tim Jackson, the brand manager of Masi Bicycles recently wrote / blogged / Facebooked / Tweeted that Masi already wrapped up their 2010 model line-up specifications before the 2009’s even hit the stores.  Obviously, having to anticipate trends, production, and materials almost two years in advance is a tough task.

That said, Urban Velo recently published a brief list of commonly available steel road bikes.  When combining this list with the hundreds of a custom frame builders, and the hundreds of thousands of vintage steel bikes still on the road, it is reasonable to speculate that steel still dominates the bike industry.

Three other highlights that may, depending on who you ask, contribute to the allure of steel:

  • Early versions of carbon fiber bikes are literally “coming unglued”.  Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done about frames like this, but thankfully the industry has improved and refined the carbon frame construction process.
  • Steel is both repairable and less likely to have a catastrophic failure.  Using my personal steel commuter bike as an example, I have crashed it hard AND (I can’t believe that I am admitting this) I have driven my car into garage while the bike was still attached to the roof rack.  Sure the frame has a small ding in the top tube … but I have ridden it 1000’s of miles since.
  • Steel manufacturing techniques and materials continue to improve and evolve.  While other materials currently receive more coverage from the cycling media, the makers of steel haven’t been dormant.

Steel is a great medium for creating bicycles … it is plentiful, affordable, easily welded, stunning in the right hands, and has a handcrafted appeal like Grandma’s apple pie.  Contrary to the opening statement of this article, steel has never really been in a “comeback” position, rather it has simply lost some of the mainstream spotlight.  But like anything worthwhile, consumers will eventually eschew the latest-and-greatest in favor of the time-tested favorite.

Bryan @ Renaissance Bikes bio coming..

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Rogue Wheels Profile: The Pofahl 36″er

April 20, 2009

The first time I became aware of a 36 inch wheeled bicycle was back around 2002 when I saw a picture of a Coker cruiser. That was pretty much a novelty bike. I didn’t really think anything more about that. However, in 2006 when Ben Witt of Milltown Cycles told me he was designing one, I was floored. He was adamant that he thought the concept would be more than just a curiousity, and his enthusiasm for the project got me really excited about it too. Then, in 2007 at the annual dealer open house at Quality Bicycle Products I saw it, and rode it. It was as I said at the time, “the most grin inducing bike I have ever ridden.” That still holds true today, and now that very bike, painted red now, is at The Cyclist for some ride testing.

Designed by Ben Witt, brazed by Mike Pofahl. The 36"er!
Designed by Ben Witt, brazed by Mike Pofahl. The 36″er!

I’ll be putting some miles on this bike and along the way I will detail out some of the specifics that go into making a bike like this. I’ll also give you some answers as to what this sort of rig is good at, and what it isn’t good at. I’ll have other rider’s reactions to taking it out. I will also be using it on a variety of surfaces ranging from pavement commutes, gravel road rides, and even some mild singletrack.

One thing that it is excellent at: making you smile when you ride it! This bike is pure fun, and you can take that to the bank! Stay tuned for more on the specifics of this particular 36″er and more on 36″ers in general here on The Cyclist.

Handmade Bicycles : The Series

April 3, 2009

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 1 – The Custom Frame Experience

Part 2 – Chosing Materials and Builders

Part 3 – Meet the Steel Frame Builders

Part 4 – Meet the Aluminum Frame Builders

Part 5 – Meet the Titanium Frame Builders

Part 6 – The Fit

Part 7 – The Fit Part II

Handmade Bicycles: The Custom Experience- The Fit Part II

March 24, 2009

<em>Editor’s Note: Now that we have met some builders, Grannygear gets to the nuts and bolts of a custom build, starting with….The fit.</em>

Last article, we met the builder of choice for our mock build of a 29er, steel softail frameset. I laid out a bit of my preferences and what I was looking for in general terms. Now it is time to put measuring tape to bike, put the numbers down on paper and see where we are coming from. Sharp eyes will notice the crash damage that I am sporting. Yes, even old guys fall down. Even sharper eyes will notice the prototype rear shock on the Lev. Inspired by the fork offset test that Guitar Ted did recently, I decided to test the relative shock absorbsion qualities of various woods. Currently I am testing Pine, next is Oak, then Birch or Ash, depending on the relative humidity. I will say that Pine is stiff, yet compliant, responsive yet stable with a rising rate of 100%.

We also will take some pictures that will be provided along with the measurements and pass it all on to Doug at Curtlo Cycles. The idea is to show how my current bikes are set up, how I look on the bike(s), and give Doug some scale to refer to. We began with pics showing me on each bike, two different pedal positions, and then took out the tape and filled in the numbers of key points on the bikes.

Here is the Lev:

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And here are the key points we measured:

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A: Saddle Height 1 – center of seat to center of bottom bracket = 30.25”

B: Saddle offset – how far behind the bottom bracket the saddle sits = 3”

C: Saddle Height 2 – from ground to saddle top, perpendicular to ground = 42.5”

D: Bar Height – ground to center of bar at stem clamp = 41.5”

E: Reach – nose of saddle to center of h-bar at stem clamp = 22.25” to 22.5” depending on how you measure it.

F: Saddle length – center of rails to nose = 6”

The saddle is a WTB Pure V, the stem is a Bontrager 100mm, 7* rise. The h-bar is an Easton Monkey Lite XC low rise.
Running the Reba at 100mm of travel gives me a slack angle set of 70* HT and 72* ST.

The Karate Monkey got the same treatment:

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A: Saddle Height 1 – center of seat to center of bottom bracket = 30.5” (allows for sag in suspension seatpost)

B: Saddle offset – how far behind the bottom bracket the saddle sits = 4”

C: Saddle Height 2 – from ground to saddle top, perpendicular to ground = 41.25”

D: Bar Height – ground to center of bar at stem clamp = 40.5”

E: Reach – nose of saddle to center of h-bar at stem clamp = 22.5” to 22.75” depending on how you measure it.

F: Saddle length – center of rails to nose = 6”

The saddle is a WTB Pure V, the stem is an Easton 110mm, 6* rise. The h-bar is an Easton Monkey Lite XC high rise.
Running the RST fork at 80mm of travel gives me a factory angle set of 72* HT and 73* ST.

I also took a pic of each saddle to show where it was located on the seatpost rails. Notice that I have the saddle all the way back on the no-offset Thomson post (the 72* angle of the Lev helps here) and all the way forward on the very offset Thudbuster and I still cannot get them the same as far as saddle fore-aft to bottom bracket center.

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I also measured KOPS on both bikes to demonstrate where the knee is located over the pedal spindle. As you can see on the Lev, the knee is slightly ahead of the green line (pedal spindle center).

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 On the KM, I am slightly behind the pedal spindle.

We then measured the inseam on my finely tuned body by placing a book in the crotch and measuring from the top of the book to the ground. It was 34”.

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 This should be a good beginning to getting a bike built to fit my needs. Stay tuned as the dialogue continues between builder and client on the path to the handmade bicycle experience.

Handmade Bicycles: The Custom Experience- The Fit

March 23, 2009

Editor’s Note: Now that we have met some builders, Grannygear gets to the nuts and bolts of a custom build, starting with….The fit.

Over the last few articles, we have looked at the why’s and what’s of custom frames. We have heard from some of the best in the biz, whether it was in steel, aluminum, titanium or all three. So now the next step is obvious. We need to pick ourselves a frame builder and get fit for a custom ride.

To choose the builder, I listened to my own advice. I knew I wanted to replace the Karate Monkey as my SS ride. I wanted to stay in steel as far as the frame material. I wanted to choose a builder that I felt comfortable with. Fortunately, I have a friendly relationship with a one man shop that has been working in steel for a long time. In fact I have owned several of his frames over the years going back to the early 90s. He knows how I ride and where I ride. He is the obvious choice for me, but I will mention that if I had not had this rabbit in the hat, among the builders we highlighted, I would have picked Waltworks as a builder of choice, at least as far as being most aligned with my preferences on build philosophy.

 

 

 

 

Doug Curtiss of  Curtlo Cycles, now a resident of Washington state, was a local So Cal guy. I have spent many an hour hanging around the ‘barn’ where he built the bikes and more time than that pedaling a result of his torch work down some local trail.

So, I already have an advantage going into the process of determining the perfect ride for me. And with that part over and done with, we will get this party started. I spoke to Doug and he agreed to do this mostly by email so we would have a written record for the article. However, we spent a bit of time on the phone discussing various thoughts on what I was looking for in the next bike. We are specifically looking at a singlespeed, geared capable, steel, softtail 29er.

 

 

 

 

I am coming from the Karate Monkey as a point of reference. I have been riding it for quite some time, first in a 1×9 geared configuration, and lately as a pure SS. It is a very capable frame, very versatile, tough as nails, and affordable. It is also pretty heavy, kinda’ short between the wheels, less than beautiful as far as frame shape/asthetics, and has poor standover. It has a L frame (21”) it has a 24.25” effective top tube and a short headtube. I ended up with 1” of spacers under the stem, a 6* rise 110mm stem, and 1.5” rise bars to get the relationship right. I also am not such a fan of the 72* head tube angle when paired with the 45mm offset of today’s newer suspension forks. It is just a bit touchy for me and for where I ride. I also prefer a shorter stem, 100mm max, and 90mm is fine too.

So what would I be looking for in a custom frame as far as the end result?

Well obviously the right fit. Based on the measurements taken from my existing bikes and measurements of my own body dimensions, and, factoring in my preferences formed over years of riding, Doug will come up with frame dimensions to suit the circumstances. I am liking longish top tubes these days.

The right attributes. I am not trying to get all racy here. This will be a raceable, but comfy, all day type of package. Where I ride, it is typically wide open and liberally covered with loose, rutted, techy-ish stuff, fast fire roads, etc. No dancing through the Alders for me. So, while Doug will be the ultimate say, I am suggesting a slightly less than typical 72* head tube angle to be used with a 80mm suspension fork, perhaps a 100mm. We shall see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Softtail anyone? I am not young. Even though the 29” wheels mute trail chatter, I would like a bit more cush if I can get it, so, I will take advantage of a feature that Doug builds, that being a softail frame with around ¾” of rear flex/travel. The goal is to be able to ditch the Thudbuster and run a carbon or Ti seatpost as well and be happy. Above is a pic of Doug’s personal ride. His has S&S couplers, an Action Tec front fork, and a Roloff rear hub on Paragon sliding dropouts. Trick. Doug is a big guy, so that bike looks like a 26er in scale. I think that is something like 26” toptube on there.

So that is about it. I want the normal things that folks want out of a custom frame: a correct fit, a certain handling result, and a type of design that is out of the norm for the production built bike, a steel softail. In the next article we will be showing how we measure the existing bikes I ride, measure me, and take that and add input to the builder as far as my preferences, dreams, goals and aspirations. Basically, I wanna’ be a star! Ordering a custom frame should make you feel special, since it is, perhaps for the first time when buying a bike, all about you!

Hang on, it is about to get fun as we break out the tape measure and plumb line in our quest for the custom frame experience.

Handmade Bicycles: The Custom Experience- Meet The Titanium Builders

March 22, 2009

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.

We continue our series on the Custom Framebuilder Experience with a talk with two of the premier builders in Titanium, the uber-metal.

The Titanium Guys:

The Master – Kent Eriksen of Kent Eriksen Cycles.

“I definitely test the rides I make.”

 

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

 Kent: I am Kent Eriksen, the ARRP member of framebuilders. I have been working on bikes since 1975, building frames since 1980    founding Moots Cycles. I actually made the first NORBA National winning bike ridden by Steve Tilford in 1983. My own racing history  includes many races at the NORBA national level (4th place in 1984), and in the past several years as an endurance and elite master racer all over North America. I definitely test the rides I make.

 TC: Who is your typical customer?

 Kent: Typical customers include avid cyclists. Riders who race, riders who simply ride, and avid cyclists who want a performance          

oriented bike.

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

Kent: We guarantee our bike fit. To maximize the comfort and performance from a bike, a custom fit is paramount. Everyone a certain height is not necessary a certain weight or strength. Our selection of tubes ensures the best performing frame based on a rider’s size and ability. Stock frames can miss the mark for many riders, so custom can be the way to go. As a custom builder, I have been able to introduce new wheel sizes, innovative geometries and…in fact, I made the first 29er for 52 mm tires and the first 650B for fat tires, both off road standards today.

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

Kent: Rideability. Titanium is the strongest, lightest most efficient metal for us to work with. We like its rideability. It absorbs shock, transfers energy, wears like no other and lasts forever. No need for paint, it is easy to maintain.

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?

Kent: I talk to them. I am the one who works with the customer. Then I scramble their brains with all the options. Finally I make a drawing or two based on all the information and we work through revisions to a final design. I use BikeCAD and Anvil jigs to obtain the perfect geometry. I am also involved in the entire process of the frame fabrication.

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?

Kent: We make our deadlines. We do not over-promise, and are very efficient with our time. We do not rely on email, rather we do spend a lot of time on the phone. We have a small, dedicated staff that focuses on the customer and the details.

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

Kent: I ride. I like to ride nice bikes.

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?

Kent: 29ers were absolutely good for our business, especially in the hardtail and full rigid frames. However, fast on the rise are 650b frames.

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

Kent: Our future is never solid, but we are busy now and truly focus on customer service. People want to get an experience out of their dollar, we give them that.

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

Kent: Give me call, let’s talk bikes!

 Kent Eriksen

Eriksen Website

 

 

 

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 The New Guy  – Scott Quiring.

“My typical customer is a discerning type of bicycle rider.” 

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

Scott: My name is Scott Quiring. I have been building, starting for others, since the early 90’s and have had my own business Quiring Cycles LLC. for the last 10 years. I have raced extensively in the the last 20 years including a stint on the Bianchi team in the mid 90’s, primarily on the dirt but road also. I won a few races over the years and I have sponsored the Bell’s Brewery Team here in MI with bikes the last 3 years and am building this year’s team bikes now.  

TC:  Who is your typical customer?

Scott: My typical customer is a discerning type of bicycle rider.

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

Scott: Most of my clients are buying custom to get something that they can’t find in stock bikes, whether it’s fit, function or form.  

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

Scott: I build in all the above including Stainless Steel and Carbon Fiber as each has particular attributes to offer. I have become proficient enough working with these materials and have the proper sources of supply located so that I can do so comfortably and there are customers out there looking for a variety of bikes.

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?

Scott: Lot’s of time on the phone and answering emails.

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?

Scott: Hard work. I am not perfect but I do the best I can.

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

Scott: I ride.

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?

Scott: 90% of my orders are 29″ers but I will build to any wheel size for Dirt, MonsterX, Cyclocross and Road. The latest trend is that the price of materials is going up by the day and my prices must reflect that in order to keep the doors open. Flexibility is key.

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

Scott: Hard work and lean manufacturing with a bit of prescience.

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

Scott: It is a misconception that Ti is more environmentally responsible than other materials. 80% of the material cost of Ti is attributed to the manufacturing process which takes a lot of energy. I work in Ti and all the other materials to suit the needs of my customers and find that having a variety of price points and options available keeps my card full. All my finish work is done in-house including paint and etched finishes. Not having to send out frames to get this done greatly reduces my production time.

I also introduced the QBall frame and fork with sliding dropouts of my own design 3 years ago. The bike is all CroMo steel and available more readily and affordably to someone that is on the fence with custom. 

Scott

Quiring Cycles website

Handmade Bicycles: The Custom Experience- Meet The Steel Frame Builders

March 20, 2009

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.

Walt

Waltworks Website
Waltworks Blog

Handmade Bicycles: The Custom Frame Experience- Choosing Materials And Builders

March 19, 2009

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 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, <em>ad-nearly-infinitum</em>. 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 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 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, <em>cuz this is a bit like a marriage relationship</em> (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. <em>Or not</em>. 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.

Handmade Bicycles: The Custom Frame Experience

March 18, 2009

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 one: Off-the-rack: It’s a pretty good deal.

Every cyclist begins somewhere, usually at the beginning. Makes sense that way. Typically, a beginner cyclist walks into a local bike shop and buys a production bike from a major or minor manufacturer. It is considered an off-the-rack purchase, like buying a pre-tailored suit. In other words, the new bike is like all the others of its brand and model, only the size varies in a few key areas. Take for example, the make believe brand of scooters, Viking Cycles. They offer the discerning customer the newest model to hit the dirt, the Thor’s Hammer hardtail 29er. All of the Hammers have the same components and are the same color. Some will be longer and taller to fit larger riders. Some will be shorter and smaller to fit smaller riders, and so on. That is pretty much it as far as differences between the frame sizes. The frame tubes will most likely be the same in the shape, diameter of the tubes, etc. In some cases, in the range of sizes the angles built into the frame may vary such as seat tube angle and head tube angle but that is not always so.

And you know what? This approach works pretty well most of the time. It allows for cost savings to the bike manufacturer in that models are not too varied and tubing cuts, welding fixtures, and parts ordering are easy to forecast and set up. It works for the bike shop as they can offer a reasonable selection of sizes and have them readily available for sale. It works well for the bike buyer as the manufacturers typically do a pretty good job of spec’ing out the bikes. And, since the new rider has not the information or skills to design their own bikes, the hard work is done for them.

But, there exists an alternative to the ‘a few sizes fit all’ approach: The custom bike builder. Usually, by this we mean just the frame, not the whole bike, but that is out there as well. A custom builder offers his or her services as an option for those cyclists who need or desire a bike uniquely suited to their needs. You can get almost anything done within reason.

So, why a custom bike frame? If this off-the-rack bike works so well, why even offer the choice? It will almost certainly:

-Cost more than a preassembled bike, unless you are shopping at the high end of the off-the-rack spectrum, then it may not.

-Take longer to get once you order it. Off-the-rack is sitting at the bike shop or in a warehouse.

-Involves lots of decisions on your part…who do you want to have build the frame, how will you use it, what do you want out of it, etc.

Over the next few articles, we will delve into the realm of the custom bike frame. We will look at the possible reasons for choosing that route then we will ask questions of some of the best folks in the trade and listen to what they have to say and ask them why they do what they do. We picked builders who work in steel, Ti, aluminum, or perhaps all three. Some are established masters, some are the talented newcomers and no two are alike. You will want to hear what they have to say. Then, we will pick one builder and do a work-up for a custom frame order, going through the process of deciding how it should be built, the fit, etc, and then we will show the final result on paper.

Stay tuned, as we dive headfirst into the realm of torches, benders, files, welding rods and friendly shop dogs…the world of the small, custom builder.