Cycle of perfection

By Nick Wright

As the handmade bicycle industry grows, so too does fabrication quality

June 2012 - When searching for a bicycle, most people head to the local shop, test ride a few options and decide on a bike. Riders looking for a customized bike often work with a custom fabricator, who builds to fit and function. But bespoke frame builders aren’t always down the street.

Some of the most impressive bicycle fabrication can be found at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. It’s a relatively young event—the first show in Houston was held in 2005. This past March, Sacramento, Calif., hosted the 2012 installment.

Don Walker, owner of Don Walker Cycles, Buckner, Ky., and founder of NAHBS, says many frame builders started off as welders, engineers and fabricators from assorted experiences.

“I started off as an aircraft structural mechanic,” he says. “One thing is for sure, bicycles have to be a passion for you to pursue building regardless of your background.”

Bikes at NAHBS are awarded by broad category, such as best mountain bike, down to fabrication methods such as best fillet or weld.

Judges recognized one-man shop Bishop Bikes, Baltimore, for best lugged construction, best fillet construction, and best steel frame. For the best fillets he laid on a road bike, owner Chris Bishop joined a hexagonal-shaped down tube with a round head tube. He says the most challenging part is during the finishing process, because he has to make the fillet blend with tubes that can be 0.65 mm thin. The risk of puncturing a tube is too costly.

“It’s like surgery,” he says, noting he only makes about 15 bikes a year. “You can’t hit that tube at all.”

The allure of a custom bike, which can be more expensive and take longer to make than a production option, is control over bigger aspects like sizing and frame material down to the minutiae of adding small features like braze-ons. Braze-ons allow attachment of accessories like fenders, racks and cable guides.

Black Sheep Bikes, Fort Collins, Colo., received the award for best TIG weld on its titanium “fat bike,” an increasingly popular style of all-terrain bike with cartoonishly large tires.

Titanium is particularly hard to weld because it must be done in an oxygen-free environment, says Todd Heath, Black Sheep production manager. Continually pumping argon gas through the frame keeps oxygen from corrupting molten titanium. The welder who assembled the fat bike has done about 7,000 frames. Finishing alone took about 12 hours, broken up over a few days.

“Because [titanium] is usually left raw, welds are kind of the the first thing people look for with titanium bikes,” Heath says.


Tough tubing
While steel is associated traditionally with handmade bicycles, builders are fabricating frames from other metals and materials. More and more titanium bikes appear at NAHBS each year, says Walker. A few builders work with aluminum or carbon fiber, which is more common on production imports from large manufacturers.

“Stainless seems to be the latest craze with tubing being made by three or four manufacturers,” he says. KVA Stainless and Reynolds are a few of the companies producing stainless steel tubes.

Sam Whittingham, founder of Naked Bicycles, Quadra Island, British Columbia, is among builders working with stainless steel. Naked appeared at this year’s NAHBS, as well as several in the past.

He says working with stainless is similar to higher-end steels, such as True Temper S3 tubing, a light-weight, high-strength steel, as far as cutting and forming. During welding, it needs to be back-purged, like titanium. To create organic curves characteristic of Naked’s bikes, he typically hand-bends tubing. But for one project, the stainless was so tough, he had to jump on top of it to create a bend.

“For real tight bends, I’ve got a couple mandrel benders. Again, that’s by hand, but I draw it over an internal and external mandrel,” Whittingham says. “The long curves are done on a roller bender.”

In less than 10 years since the first NAHBS, the quality of fabrication is the noticeable industry trend, according to Walker. The market for handmade frames will thrive as builders continually outdo themselves as TIG welds get tighter, lug shorelines get crisper and fillets smoother.

“You can get what you want with a builder and the craftsmanship is top notch, which means the bike is of the highest quality,” he says. “Also, it’s the relationship you build with the person making your bike. He’s the guy that’s the most important part of this process.” FFJ


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