Monday, January 24, 2011

Getting a Custom Bicycle, Part II: Choosing a Framebuilder

[Mike Flanigan of ANT Bikes, Holliston, MA]

Last year, I began what was meant to be a series of posts about ordering a custom bicycle frame. Overwhelmed by the topic, I stopped after the first one. But with an additional year of experience under my belt, with the deep winter chill we're having, and with an increasing number of readers ordering custom bicycles, this seems like a good time to resurrect the series. To start from the beginning, please read "Getting a Custom Bicycle, Part I: Why?" But if you already know that you want a custom frame and are hunting around for a framebuilder, I offer some ideas on finding the right one:

[Insignia on a Peter Mooney bike, Belmont, MA]

1. Avoid the "Who is the best?" mentality
To start with, I would like to note that I do not believe there exists such a creature as "the best" framebuilder. I have my obvious favourites, but that's all they are: my favourites. It does not matter how many Handmade Bicycle Show awards a framebuilder has won and how many blogs feature them. That stuff says very little about whether they are right for you, and I am afraid that those who rely on the big name/ new hottest thing factor in selecting the person who will build their frame, are setting themselves up for disappointment. There are many different types of bicycles and different types of cyclists out there. To me, what it's really about is finding a good three-way match between yourself, the framebuilder, and the type of bike you are looking for. So, when I receive emails asking me whom I believe to be "the best" framebuilder, all I can say is that's just not the way I would approach it.

[Bryan Hollingsworth of Royal H. Cycles, Somerville, MA]

2. Decide what kind of bike you want first
While I am not saying that you need to know all the minute details in advance, I think it is good to at least have a solid idea of what type of bicycle you want: racing vs mountain vs commuter, diamond vs step-through vs mixte, lugged steel vs welded vs carbon fiber, and so forth. Those are fundamental categories that ideally would be already formed in your mind before you seek out framebuilders. If you ask a builder, you may be surprised to learn how common it is for a customer who initially asked for one type of bike, to grow unsure about their choice over time, or to change their mind dramatically. When that happens, it will most likely create glitches in the framebuilding process - some of which may be resolvable, while others may not. But more importantly, it can mean that the framebuilder you chose initially may no longer even be the right person to make your bicycle. Which brings me to the next point...

[Armando Quiros of Quiros Custom Frames, Natick, MA]

2. Pick the best (hu)man for the job
Most framebuilders specialise in a particular type of frame (racing, touring, transportation...) or a particular type of construction (lugged, welded, fillet brazed...). And even the ones who can make "any kind of bike you want" are, more often than not, better at one type than at another, and have more experience in one type than another. If you are looking specifically for a lugged bicycle, it makes sense to pick a framebuilder who specialises in lugged steel and not in TIG-welding. If you are looking for a sturdy, step-through transportation bicycle, it makes sense to go to someone who has done plenty of them before and is familiar with all the challenges they entail - not to someone who mainly builds racing bikes. This is why it's helpful to take the time to do some research on the various framebuilders you are considering.

One thing to keep in mind, is that even knowing that you want a "touring bike" or a "transportation bike" is not enough, as these terms are subjective and different framebuilders have different understandings of what they mean. To some, a "transportation bike" means a diamond frame fixed gear bicycle, with some fenders and 28mm tires instead of the "normal" 20mm. To others, it means a step-through frame, upright handlebars, a basket, and enormous balloon tires. Don't take it for granted that your vision of these things will correspond to the framebuilder's vision. Get to know the framebuilder's design philosophy and aesthetic first.

In that context, I would also not be shy about contacting previous customers if you see that they have the type of bike you want (for example, if you find their flickr pictures when searching for a particular framebuilder). People usually love to discuss their custom bikes and will probably be pleased to hear from you. Contacting them may help you determine whether their bike is typical of the framebuilder's work, and how pleased they are with the result. This type of feedback, especially from multiple customers, can be as helpful as the information on the framebuilder's website.

[Marty and Brad of Geekhouse Bikes, Boston, MA]

3. Listen to your instincts
Just as with jobs, universities, and potential romantic partners, a framebuilder can appear to be the perfect one for you "on paper," but in reality things might not work out between the two of you. Of course, the opposite can also be true: Going by their reputation or description, you would not think the framebuilder is a good match for you, but upon personal interaction it just "feels right." Either way, I am a believer in listening to your instincts. If you get a "bad vibe" from the framebuilder or if you feel like you are having trouble communicating with them, I would see that as a red flag - even if you had already decided that they were "perfect." You need to feel comfortable with the framebuilder and to feel wanted as a customer, in order for everything to work out in your best interest. If it doesn't seem right, start over and look for someone else (before you place an order, of course).

As usual, boiling something down to a handful of key points results in an oversimplification of the topic, and that is definitely what I've done here. Finding the right person to build your custom frame is not easy - especially if you are looking for something like a classic transportation bike, or a true randonneuring bike - which are still fairly rare offerings. Hopefully, these points can serve as a starting point for your own research into which framebuilder is right for you. There are many excellent ones around.

29 comments:

  1. As one currently going through the process of ordering a custom bicycle, I can attest to the veracity of this post. It took me near 6 months to find the builder I am using, after many close calls with almost giving up and buying a pre-built bike frame instead. Now that I have sent in the deposit and the frame's components have been ordered, I am glad I waited and found what I expect to be the perfect match. So, for what it's worth, I agree with what has been said wholeheartedly, and wish the best of luck and patience to those who are thinking about ordering a custom-built bicycle.

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  2. This goes against our gotta have it now society, but...ride for years. Figure out what suits you. Ride all kinds of bikes. Ride friends' similarly-sized customs. Ride the expensive ones collecting dust on the sales floor. Ride mostly stock.

    Or pull the trigger now before it's too late.
    Jim

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  3. Utterly unrelated comment, so no need to publish this, but did you ever get a sewing machine for Xmas as planned...it being stay-inside-and-do-something-creative weather to my mind. I've developed a bit of an obsession with Swiss design circa 1930s/40s...which led to hunting down the Elna Grasshopper. It does not have the cult following (or price) of the Singer featherweights, but if one likes form to follow function, it is a thing of beauty.

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  4. Atlantic - Yes, I just haven't found any way to tie it in with the themes here : )

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  5. FWIW, the second photo does not show Peter Mooney's headbadge -- given the proximity of the tire and the braze-on I venture a guess that that's the seat-tube, not the head tube, and therefore not a headbadge...

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  6. You are right of course; I've changed the wording to insignia. It is the same emblem as the headbadge and initially I was going to use this picture.

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  7. Im going the the process right now- my first custom built frameset. Discussion with the builder started with priorities of the bicycle's use, what am I looking for, and the builders input. I thought it was a simple as build me up a super cool bike- but they thankfully wanted my input and offered up some great ideas, but left me thinking about tubing choices, lug selection, brake mounting, threadless or threaded fork, custom racks and stem, or pre-mades. But after narrowing it down, it sounds like I am going to have the bike of my dreams. Perfect for Paris-Brest-Paris this summer!

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  8. Just design or adapt some cycling garb and voila! instant segue. New sewing machine can be just visible on left half of photo...

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  9. Atlantic - I am trying to figure out how to sew gussets into the crotches of some of my old pants. If I am successful, I will have cycling pants to share with the world... though somehow I doubt it : )

    bikeville - PBP! Oh I am envious ..... How much practice have you had?

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  10. Sigh! At my age the opportunity ,and the money, have passed me by for ordering a custom bike but I wish all who can the thrill of riding a bike built just for you!!

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  11. Velouria, I rode in it 4 years ago, but did not complete. I did all the qualifying rides 4 years ago without a problem too, this year I am actually training for it, and really looking forward to completing and then spending my remaining time enjoying the Parisian life.

    I am riding my first 200k qualifying ride in a couple weeks, I assume much like your area up north, it has been hard to train this time of the year in Philly because of the weather. But my mind is set and I am doing it. If you would like, I will let you know the progress of my bike and rides. I will take pictures, of course.

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  12. Someday....


    In the mean time, I agree with Atlantic, I love my 1964 Elna sewing machine! That thing was built to last!

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  13. bikeville - Yes please, I'd like that. I wish I could do it this year, but I'll have to live vicariously though others!

    Walt - On no... This makes me want to build you a nice, yellow bike.

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  14. Velouria said...
    "Walt - On no... This makes me want to build you a nice, yellow bike."

    An interesting bit of levity ! :))

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  15. Well - I want people be happy on their own terms, not to listen to my dogma : ) If you want a yellow bike, than that's what I'd make you. But I digress!

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  16. You have hit the nail on the proverbial head so to speak. I am going through the process and there is more to it than I imagined initially. But, with help from someone very knowledgeable and patient with my endless questions, things are moving right along. I'm really excited. A stainless steel frame with... well I'll wait until I can show a few pics. Yahoo!!

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  17. My dream bike is a Sweetpea. *sigh* She even does mixtes, although they're the kind with the single top tube that turns into two at the seat stay.

    I have a friend who got a Sweetpea and loves it. The bikes fit beautifully and, well, are just beautiful!

    She even makes cyclocross bikes!

    Clearly, I need to win the lottery or something.

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  18. The nice thing about Sweetpea - and other builders, including Mercian and ANT - is that they have pre-determined models you can choose from. This is not only less work from scratch for the builder (which lowers the price somewhat), but also allows those customers who are unsure about the details of what they want less room for error/miscommunication.

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  19. I look forward to the day I am financially able to order a custom bicycle, and Velouria, your area is nothing short of incredibly talented builders.
    Until then I will continue to tweak on the small collection I already possess.
    ........in addition, when I was 13 my grandmother gave both my sister and I singer featherweights she owned and when a friend and I began a clothing business in my early 20's that was my only machine, I since got an Elma and then babylock serger, but may my singer and I never part ways.....

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  20. After my second custom frame I have come to the conclusion they are terrible value for money. If you cannot get a mass-produced frame to fit then it is your only option, but if you are one of the 95% of the population who can, then I suggest going to a bicycle fitting service. That will help you pick the right stem length and angle and saddle height and position for you. You can then get a custom paint job to make the bike 'yours'. Even cheaper/greener is to reuse an old frame you buy from ebay.

    Far better value is a pair of custom made shoes. Nothing to do with cycling but a pair of hand made shoes will last for decades and for the 10 hours a day you'll wear them your feet will thank you.

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  21. Mike - I wear through shoes like it's nobody's business, and a shoe has not yet been born that I will not destroy in 2-3 years!

    But regarding custom frames: I agree with you to a point. I get the sense that many who order custom frames end up being unhappy, and would have been happier with a production frame. And the reasons for that usually have to do with the customer not being entirely sure of what they want/need and the framebuilder not being able to tease it out of them.

    However, needing or wanting a custom frame is not just about fit. Sometimes, the kind of bike you want is jus not available - either new or vintage, which is when going custom is worth it.

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  22. The biggest issue with anything custom is that one is not able to try it out first. So it is an enormous leap into the dark. Even if you and your custom frame builder are in accord, if you are designing something that does not exist (and frankly, if it does exist, as Mike McL notes--why would you get a custom bike??) so all the angles/choices/etc are really theoretical. And changes to one angle or height completely change how the body is used. So it is not that easy to predict unless you are having something (fairly) predictable made.

    And then it depends on the sort of person you are. I suspect that very detail oriented maximisers will be able to find endless fault or second guess all the choices after the fact, whereas persons who tend to be satisficers will probably love their bikes as they are not worried about what they might have done differently. Ironically, these people would probably also be most happy with a non-custom bike.

    Certainly a high risk activity--financially, time-wise and emotionally. Not to mention when it is stolen.

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  23. Anon - Unless you are a German speaker and using "when" to mean "if," I don't think that getting a custom frame stolen is an inevitability. If anything, it's possibly less likely than getting a big name mass produced frame stolen, simply because a thief will probably not know who the heck this Peter Mooney or Bob Jackson guy is. My Royal H mixte looks so convincingly like an "old crappy girl's 10 speed" (someone in Boston once asked me why I'd order a custom frame that resembled one), that thieves probably spit at it as they walk by. I have still not been able to let it out of my sight, mind you, but that is my impression.

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  24. I once had a nice racing bike from a well-respected American custom builder. I would recommend that builder's work to anyone. But, as Velouria and others have said, that builder, like any other, concentrates on certain kinds of bikes and has his own ideas about what a bike would be. After I stopped racing (and dressing as if I still were), I wanted something else in my ride. And, quite frankly, as I got older, I tired of bikes (and parts) that looked like someone's art-school projects, some gone horribly wrong!

    The fact that I now have three custom Mercians should be taken as an indication of their quality and ride. But anyone who goes to them should realize they are very traditional British builders--one of the last of their kind. If you want a radical design or something that would look right in a room full of strobe lights with techno music blaring in the background, you probably won't get it from them.

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  25. The process sounds pretty much like selecting an artist for a custom portrait, because it is. A hundred years ago, before Henry Ford, there were no such thing as mass produced goods. People worked with artisans to get what they wanted - clothes, wagons, furniture, anything. This kind of relationship is now so rare, that we write and read to find out what it is... except for one arena - hair style. Anybody go to Supercuts and find themselves satisfied? Anybody go to a boutique salon and find dissatisfaction? Reverse? That's all we're talking about.

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  26. I can kind of agree with Mike about custom frames being not the most economical thing, akin to maybe buying a new car off the showroom floor.

    He is definitely right about fit and being properly fitted to a preexisting bicycle. So many people are ill fitted on their bikes and would enjoying cycling more if the their saddle was raised a little, or maybe a shorter stem, etc.

    I reasoned that for a long time. I collect and deal in rare old parts. I could buy an amazing French randonneur bike for less than what a custom frameset would cost and it would retain, if not gain value, where as a new custom frame is going to lose value once built up and ridden, to a certain degree.

    Personally I wanted a nice light randonneuring bike, steel, with beautiful lugs, and also wanted to treat myself. Oh, and couplers for traveling. Sure I could have found something to fit and retrofitted it with couplers, but I have never owned a new bicycle before, so why not, and having someone personally make something for you is such an awesome feeling.
    (disclosure, I'm having a Bilenky built for me)

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  27. bikeville - I don't think that you, or me, or Justine, or anyone else who has ordered 1 or 10 custom frames should have to justify it or apologise for it. The world is full of choices for how and where to spend one's hard earned money, and the idea of what is a "better value" is highly subjective.

    Is buying a painting a worse "value" than buying a poster? I mean, you put them both on a wall and they are perfectly good for looking at, so why spend $1,000+ when you can spend $10? Seems ridiculous!

    Buying a custom frame is about getting a unique bicycle made to your measurements and specifications. But it is also about the now-rare experience of having something bespoke. It is about learning all you can from the process and from the framebuilder. And it is about supporting a craft that would not exist if everyone thought about spending the least possible amount of money only.

    I am not saying that everybody "needs" to go out and buy custom frames. They don't. But neither does it make sense to judge those who do it on the basis of monetary value alone.

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  28. I think it's very generous of Mike up there to say that 95% of people can get a stock frame. I'm 5'3" and about the only bikes I can even stand over are either step-through cruisers or higher-end WSD racing bikes. The average height for women in the US is 5'4".

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  29. http://www.peterwhitecycles.com/fitting.htm

    I thought this might be of interest, I've used this advice, and I am in no way an expert, but it has worked pretty well for me. I'm also not saying this is an alternative to having a custom frame built for you. I know it's something I can't see being able to afford anywhere in the near future. So maybe if you are in the same monetary position as me, it can help you too. All bicycles I own have been older, "vintage" (I find myself hating that word more and more) either lucky finds, trades, or economy buys. Where as this is probably known to most of the experts who comment here, maybe it'll help the novices like me to get an idea in basic bike fitting. Please don't bother commenting to tell me if this advice is wrong or not. I don't care, because it has helped me in my own personal cycling experience.

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