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Bespoked bristol bike show: 11 things I’ve learned about custom bikes

I’m here at the Bespoked Bristol Bike Show, in um, Bristol! What a buzz! the characters on show, the bikes on show, the technology on show; it’s full to the brim and everybody’s loving it! I’ve been impressed with how forthcoming people are to talk, to chin wag about bikes and about the artisan nature of bespoke/custom bike building. The best thing about it is that the people you’re talking to are the builders, the artisans themselves and they’re all knowledgeable and impressive. There are no sales people, no front of houses, just the people you really want to chat with! I’ve just moved from stand to stand talking about frames and components and wheels and materials and paintjobs and geometry, it is really fantastic. I’ve been trying to learn what it’s like to actually be a builder of bikes (clearly since I have a desire to do this more myself), and whether there’s anything I can learn from these guys who are doing it already: living the dream! Here’s what I’ve learned, as a top ten, now eleven, in no particular order:
1) it takes anywhere from 2 days (the gurus at Roberts) to 7 days (some of the newcomers to the game) to build a frame from start to finish. Clearly it depends on tubes, joining methods, finishing requirements, ability, amount of caffeine in the system etc.
2) the really impressive frame builders are not just able to braze up a beaut, but are customer focused: bike fitting, sizing, experience driven gurus who have a genuine understanding of what it takes to make a bike that fits and feels like it is an extension of your digits and rear end.
3) you don’t need to use a full oxyacetylene setup (ie don’t need seriously dangerous acetylene around the house) to braze up frames, even with brass as a joiner, jot just silver which requires less heat. If you’re a newcomer on a budget you can actually use oxygen (large cannister which costs about £80 and will last about 2 frames) and propane (small cannister which costs about £40 and lasts about 5 frames).
4) stainless steel is now 100 years old. The stainless steel frames with a matt finish and fillet brazing (or lugs) look a treat: I think the best. They’re like the titanium frames, just so clean and simple. Fact: the next frame I make (a road frame for my wife!) will be a stainless fillet brazed bombshell. I was chatting with Jay from Colourbolt who showed me a polished stainless beauty, it looked chrome plated it was that shiny. He estimates it took about 20hours just to polish it up to get that level of finish. Personally I’m a fan of the matt finish, but you can’t deny that the effort and finish is impressive.
5) that the traditional method of “pinning” tubes/lugs together before tacking and brazing isn’t used so much these days. This is a process involving drilling a small (2mm) hole through the tube/lug (or tube/lug/tube at the top of the seat stays), then pinning all the elements together with a 2.5mm mild steel pin to hold it all in place, before you tack it together with the heat. The idea is you have a frame all set up ready to go, before you apply any heat: genius!
6) the biggest tip I got from Adrian the Roberts framebuilder (who clearly I revere!), was to check the frame as you build. I guess this is akin to a component level electronics test used for electronics goods, where they check all the small components/sub circuits before testing the whole thing all in place. A great tip since the last thing you want is to go round the frame entirely and find it warped or misaligned only to have to try to pull it into place as an entire frame afterwards. Apparently this is not fun!
7) Reynolds do sell small quantities of tubesets to low number builders (like me!) but only over a minimum order of £150/£250 (I heard 2 values mentioned). They also do have a simple but useful stress calculator (an FEA programme) for framebuilders that they have made available to frame builders for free. I’m keen to try this one out!
8) bike fitting (either as part of the frame designing process or as a standalone process) can take up to 4 hours and costs approx £200 (I realise there are many different approaches to this but from the few I spoke to about this, but this seems about the middle ground).
9) hand mades wheels last longer than robot made wheels, and typically take a wheel builder an hour to lace up and get ready. This hour is broken down into 10 minutes lacing, and 50 minutes of spoke nipple manipulation, tweaking, stress relieving, honing. Brilliant: clearly the hand making process using feel and intuition (which is one of the most satisfying mechanical processes I’ve ever done!) is where the difference is. If you’ve ever seen one of those robots building wheels though you’ll realise the competition is tough. I guess it’s like teaching, or driving: wheel building does need the human touch and the best results can’t be delivered by machines alone. Thanks go to Jon from Just Riding Along for taking the time to chat with me in such detail about the wheel building process.
10) according to Ian from Field Cycles (in Sheffield) you really do need a lathe and 3 axis milling machine at your disposal to make frames properly, especially in Titanium (backed up by Mark th master builder from Enigma – who actually says you only really need those things for titanium, he recommends starting with a vice and a file to really get back to roots before building up). You don’t even really need to invest in a frame building jig to start with, because with the mill you can make your own jig! Steve from Cofa Engineering is happy to make up a jig though, at a much lower cost than the US big names. For about £750 you’ll get a fully adjustable Aluminium frame building jig, they can even customise it for you if you have special requirements. Ted James and Matt Teague both have been using jigs from Cofa and give them the thumbs up.
11) You can now get many of the components needed to make a bike right here in the UK (although not all are actually made in the UK, most are!). Reynolds sell good tubes (and do in fact sell in small quantities!), Hope make great headsets, stems, rims and other components, Brooks make the best saddles, Royce make gorgeous hubs, USE design seatposts and lights and other bits, and there’s Middleburn who make crankets! I had a good chat with UK based Matthew Starey from Middleburn who told me all about how they hot forge their cranks and machine chainrings and spiders and how their PTFE coating on their chainrings will outlast any other big name chainrings (backed up by Californian Paul from Paul Component Engineering, who makes a good variety of bits, breaks, levers, etc). Matthew even said I may be able (he didn’t wholly commit…yet) to take a group of students around their factory for a tour of the facilities! I think there’s a bike building factory roadshow in the pipelines there… and a niche to try to make some cassettes and rear/front mechs to try to complete the set.

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