Sunday, September 27, 2015

How Much Should a Handbuilt Bicycle Cost?

As someone who promotes the idea of handmade bicycles and related products, I sometimes get questions from readers regarding various aspects of the custom framebuilding industry. At the forefront of this are questions about pricing. How much should a handbuilt bicycle frame cost? Which builders offer a "better value?" How do tubing choices affect pricing? One reader, in fact, has recently asked how much money he could expect to save by supplying his own tubing.

I was reminded of that yesterday, when a local woman - having admired a rather elaborate hat I had knitted for a mutual friend - asked how much such a hat would cost, were she to order one just like it for herself. I gave her the figure ($50), knocking a bit off the usual price out of good will. This was met with visible shock. "Oh," she said, politely, after regaining her composure. "Well, I suppose the yarn must be expensive!"

"Actually, it's more about the time it takes to do the work."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, think of it this way: What would you consider a fair hourly wage to pay someone for knitting? Now take that number and multiply it by 6 - the number of hours it took me to knit that hat. And that's before factoring in the costs of yarn..."

"Hm!" the woman seemed genuinely surprised by this approach to pricing. "I suppose when you put it that way, your cost is quite reasonable... you are asking only a fraction of what you ought to be."

Reasonable or not, the subject of ordering a hat was promptly dropped. Because, as with bicycle frames and other handmade items, people seem to have a difficult time accepting an hourly wage-based model of pricing when judging what the item "ought to" cost.

Bringing this back to the custom bicycle industry, I've been told by several builders that potential customers are far more ready to accept that a bicycle frame is "expensive" because it is made of exquisite high-end tubing and is finished with fancy paint, than because it took 50+ hours of manual labour to complete.

It's an interesting bias that seems to result from the abstractification of the "handmade" concept. The term has become synonymous with "folksy," "nice," or "luxurious," depending on the context, losing in the process the full implication of its actual meaning: which is that a single person (who, presumably needs to live, eat, and pay rent) dedicated X number of their waking hours to making the object in question. How else can the cost of such an object be determined but on an hourly wage basis?

In the post-industrial age we live in, making certain things one at a time by hand is extremely inefficient and can never, ever be financially competitive with automated production models. Clothing is one example of this. And while I'm not sure where precisely framebuilding falls on the spectrum, if you ask any builder active today - even the "successful" ones - they will tell you it is next to impossible to earn minimum wage handbuilding custom bicycle frames. Customers will simply not pay the prices they'd need to be charging.

So when considering how much a handmade bicycle ought to cost, consider first how many hours it takes the builder to make it. Then multiply by the hourly wage you feel your builder of choice deserves. Finally, add the costs of supplies (which will be marginal in comparison) and overhead. Armed with the figure you arrive at, chances are you will be pleasantly surprised by the figure the builder actually quotes you! Now, isn't it nice to get a bargain?

78 comments:

  1. Background first; I have an Independent Fabrication Single Speed Commuter very well Kitted out and I have an hourly wage job.

    You are not stating the other half of the equation, what the market or individual is willing to pay for the handmade bike. Both considerations need to meet to create a sale. As with any market, the seller/builder needs to show added value to their customer base as to why they should pay more for this handmade creating vs an off the shelf bike. Individuality, fit, beauty are high on the list.

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  2. Much of the cost of a custom frame comes from the time it takes to work out all the issues of making somthing unique. Welding is not such a rare skill, but designing a frame with proper clearance, cutting miters, aligning fixtures, tacking, ajusting alignment, finish work, brazing small parts and facing is incredibly time consuming if you have to reset everything each time. If you build 10 identical frames in a row then each step goes way faster.

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  3. When I was ordering my custom frame 2 years ago I supplied my own tubing to the builder. It was vintage tubing I had been holding onto for years. I did not expect nor ask for a discount.

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  4. In a perfect world, I would buy everything from small businesses where each item is made by hand. However, it is not economically feasible for me or most people. So we prioritize, and set special value on certain things. I just purchased a new-to-me Bike Friday, 2003 model, and the fit and finish is gorgeous. Objectively, it might well have been worth the nearly $1500 for a new model, but competing expenses put it lower on the priority list. For less than half that price, it's a bargain and one that will give me joy for years. However, a more moderate price on a new unit might have meant another sale for the builders rather than a transaction between riders for a used bike. Unfortunately, the originators get nothing from the secondary market. Something to consider when setting prices...

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    1. It may well be that the $1500 price for the new bike is about as low a price that Bike Friday can charge and still turn a profit.

      I have heard ( and know a few) makers of bespoke goods who will buy back their products in order to keep second hand resale prices high.

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  5. The least expensive part of my custom bike was the frame and fork. It was the components, build, and shipping which took the final price into the stratosphere! What did I get for my money? A bike designed for my needs, one which fits like a glove, that I can ride all day w/o discomfort, some satisfaction that I know who did it and believing in their vision also was important. As a fine artist I know, well, the issues you describe. It's a paupers life. What pisses me off is when some take advantage of, or game, the system and get their stuff for next to nothing or heavily discounted. I'm a terrible capitalist.

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  6. Another question is how much should a buyer fiddle with the process of the frame builder? I think sometimes a buyer might think, 'it's my money and this is how I want it' without really having the expertise or experience to know what's what. It's all so complicated.

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  7. The 800lb Gorilla-In-The-Room wants to know: Who's paying cash, and who's putting it on plastic? Who saved for it over 2-3 years? Who worked overtime, took a second job, or sold-off the baseball cards/Hummel figurines/etc? Who decided to make getting that handmade bicycle a choice between it or _______. And, who already has one (or two, or more), but just has to have yet-another, making it that much more difficult for the rest of us to own one.

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    1. I may be misinterpreting the gorilla, but what I think I'm hearing is that you think people with dispensable income are driving up the price of custom bicycles by paying for them at the current market value. I can assure you that the craftspeople who are building the bikes in question,for the most part, are not inflating their prices to the highest bidders threshold. They are generally deflating the cost to reach the most customers they can afford to. Having said that, there are builders who have such high demand they are allowed to function outside the norm and raise their prices until their workload slows to a manageable flow. I can think of fewer than 6 builders though that have obtained that level of success. The majority are quietly plying their trade trying to make a living, not a killing.

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    2. I thank those people who can afford 2 or 3 custom bicycles, since their business will hopefully keep some of the builders I'm considering in business for the next 3-5 years until I'm financially stable enough to pay for a custom frame.

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  8. Out of a certain rhetorical curiosity: apparently my custom Seven was worth its weight in silver, approximately. (I'm not pulling off all the stuff I've added later to see what it weighs stripped-down to what it had on it when I bought it.)

    More generally, it cost about twice what a bike of similar materials and components but non-custom would have, which seemed both fair and reasonable enough to my pocketbook to buy it, and I have 100% no regrets.

    The problem I run into when/if people ask is more that people have no concept of what decent bikes cost these days, and thus are starting at the wrong point ($100 has not gotten you a decent bike since the 70's, people!) when scaling up to custom-built pricing. Also the issue that people get huffy about slower riders riding nice bikes, to which I say thpppppppbbbbbt. I saved a ton of money going car-free, which can be a real hassle some times, and I'll spend a chunk of that on bikes if I want to, so there.

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    1. With regard to handbuilt bikes, bespoke suits, pedigree pets, and other custom items; the opinion of others may be discounted. It's simply a matter of different priorities (or jealousy).

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    2. "the issue that people get huffy about slower riders riding nice bikes"

      The idea that one has to get fast in order to "deserve" a nice bicycle is baffling, when applied outside a racing context. Thppppppbt indeed.

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    3. Hear, hear. There is often a secret worry (on the part of the potential custom-order customer) that somehow you need to "deserve" it, that you must be "good enough". No one seems to think I shouldn't have it (and if they are thinking it, they're not saying... and I'm not asking) but it took awhile before *I* believed that I should. This, even though I knew full well that I needed a custom bike for fit reasons, otherwise pain was going to force me to stop cycling altogether.

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    4. I wondered, too, 'Do I deserve such an expensive purchase?' After all I'm an artist and can barely afford supplies, food, and rent. Many eyebrows were raised when friends found out I paid a large sum for a fitting session and then a bike to be made from that session. Like Rebecca, if I did not do it I'd be riding in constant pain, so it made sense. Also the cost savings from not driving and maintaining a car made it a no brainer. So I went hog wild and supported small and ethical industries for all the components. It wasn't cheap with regard to the upfront cost but the payoff was worth it. It's been four years and I can cycle hours at a time without pain, it makes me happy, and the savings from not owning or operating a car more than paid for it all. It has nothing to do with going fast. Is it an indulgence? For some of us, not at all. .

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  9. The more Frame Builders I meet and get to know the less attractive that line of work appears, especially for the classic one man shop turning out true custom bikes for discerning cyclists.

    Lots of customers are trying to stretch a budget that isn't quite enough and others have big budgets but even bigger expectations. If you haven't been doing it for a generation and don't have the reputation of being at the absolute top of the heap, your biggest challenge seems to be helping the customer feel like they got what they wanted while still charging enough to keep the lights on and some milk in the fridge.

    Even the big established shops like Mercian and Seven (at two widely separated points on the spectrum) seem to put as much emphasis on "selling their brand" as they do on building your bike. It can make you cynical as a customer when those two forces conflict but it's probably their best defense against the likelihood of a buyer ending up feeling disappointed since at least some of them want the undefinable magic that is a Mercian or a Seven in particular, as much or more than they want a custom bike in general. If you had your heart set on a specific Iconic brand than you might be a bit easier to make happy than if you chose so and so because you were hoping to save a bit and then there was something you ended up unsatisfied with that now isn't made up for by saving $200.

    I had a Mercian built a few years ago and really like it, but they talked me into a 60cm instead of the 62 I wanted and it came with a beautiful deep sparkly purple finish instead of the Dark Blue I wanted. I ended up happy with it because it really is the traditional British bike I wanted from one of the great Iconic British builders but it was a year before I could look at that bike and not feel frustrated. It rides exactly as I hoped and I ride the wheels off it so I'm happy enough in spite of the lurid purple. I really really wish it was a 62 though. I didn't make a huge fuss about it at the time because I knew in my heart when I ordered it that there are too many things that can be overlooked or misunderstood when someone endeavors to make you something as sophisticated as a custom frame and there is an entire ocean between the parties so while my hopes were high for perfection I was reasonably certain it wouldn't be. I also know that no one at Mercian is killing it financially.

    I only own a couple of really top quality things, my best bikes and a French Horn I haven't played in forever, and the rest of my stuff ranges from pretty good to horrible crap. I hope the people that made all of that stuff live as well as I do...

    Spindizzy



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    1. "shops ...seem to put as much emphasis on "selling their brand" as they do on building your bike. It can make you cynical as a customer"

      This goes back to the point I was making about what the hypothetical "average customer" will/ will not accept as justifying the cost of their frame. The builders are pressured into cultivating an aura of mystique/hype/desirability around their brand, as that is the only way to command the prices that will cover their actual work hours and overhead.

      Of course how good a builder is at the marketing end of things is entirely separate from how good they are at the making end of things. Something worth paying careful attention to as a customer.

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    2. i think spinndizzy puts the finger on a typical dilemma of custom made. my experience with saville row suits is not completely dissimilar. you enter with shinning eyes and great expectations and leave with something that requires some good effort to fall in love with. we all love the personal touch. but when you are in the hands of just some amazing craftsman, this personal touch can sometimes be too much. you discuss the thing. two souls meet in the adventure of creating, but if they are not fully synchronized, the result can easily feel the part. everybody who ever built a house together with an architect also knows what i am talking about. for the sake of great results it is sometimes better to surrender. buy something of the rack. you already know it is fantastic. or go into the painful process of finding the right partner and getting accustomed to each other. and then, step by step, built the perfect thing together. more often than not it will still be not perfect. now you either throw it away or you develop supreme storytelling abilities to console yourself and to make others massively jealous of your one of a kind super perfect super bike.

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    3. "when you are in the hands of just some amazing craftsman, this personal touch can sometimes be too much. you discuss the thing. two souls meet in the adventure of creating, but if they are not fully synchronized, the result can easily feel the part."

      This reflects my own experience with custom frames and other bespoke goods.

      Interestingly, when I lived in Vienna, Austria, the culture of tailoring there was more casual and this took the pressure off. No souls meeting. No "this shall be a precious heirloom" mentality. If you wanted a nice suit for work that fit well and came in a colour/fabric you liked, you went to the local tailor (chances were, one lived within a 2 block radius from your house) and in 2 weeks you would have one, no storytelling abilities required to cope with it!

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    4. i know what you mean. vienna tailoring culture makes for a very good point. i am still crazy for clothes. even more so as the vast majority in the markets today is so poorly made. just last week i bought another fully EU produced blazer by one of my favorite suppliers and was meditating over its intrinsic qualities. so much better than any globally sourced and process optimized hackett or polo ralph lauren. there is an integrity in products made by a family business that has been in a trade for generations. so much culture and experience went into these things over the years. so much accumulated experience into every detail. integrity. and you can see it and feel it because the thing just works. simple and honest. compare this to the average high street merchandise and you clearly see what i mean.
      your vienna tailor provides you with something that works. there is a certain utilitarian aspect in the foreground that limits the design choices. and this utilitarian aspect is also a social one. it will work in the office, it will work at the ball. your tailor knows, much better than you do, what is expected. so you leave it to him like everybody else does too. saville row works in the same way when the necessary social context is provided, prestigious boarding schools, government jobs, etc... without that social context you enter with those shinny eyes and great expectations of social elevation and other wonders and your adventure is almost 100% doomed to fail from the very first second.
      when it comes to custom made true happiness better walks the pass of surrender than the lofty stairs of elevation. and then you can just as well buy off the rack. as long as the thing is made with all the knowledge and care that would have also gone into fine bespoke. craftsmanship matters. limitations can be bliss.

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  10. There is a local builder (whose identity I will not divulge until he finishes my forthcoming project who is well regarded among the cognoscenti and whose work I know pretty well from several custom racks and frame alterations. He is building me a "road bike for dirt" -- basically a 29er with sport touring geometry -- with front and rear custom racks for .... drumroll, fireworks, cheerleaders and pompoms: $1,200. With single color powdercoat of good quality, as I know from the massive re-customization + f/r racks, of a custom Rivendell that he recently completed for me. He has a day job, of course, and, a friendly and low key individual, sweats no sweat when I press him about his almost nugatory prices.

    OTOH, if I were to buy my custom Rivendell framesets today, they'd cost at least $3,500 before components.

    I write resumes, LinkedIn profiles, bios, cover letters, and do other business writing. I charge a mid level professional who hopes to make at least $60K a year, $800 for a resume that will take me up to 10 hours to craft, including administrative work. That is mid-level; I do contract work for a better established resume business that charges almost $1K for the same work. Often, when I quote my prices, clients gulp and disappear, before I can tell them that my product will very probably get them a yearly salary that is quite a bit more than I can hope for in yearly compensation. (OTOH, I don't have to do their jobs.)

    Ananda Coomaraswamy, the well known metaphysician and scholar of traditional western and eastern art and symbolism, said that one would be a far more effective patron of the arts by commissioning 1 or 2 good suits from a tailor, instead of half a dozen ready made ones, than by donating to the orchestra and hosting fundraisers. His writing was, among other things, a defense of traditional craftsmanship against the manufacture for profit that was even in his lifetime (1877-1847) destroying the east's traditional arts.

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    1. The going hourly rate for consulting in my former field of work was $75-150/hr. Few clients ever balked at these rates or attempted to bargain; these were accepted industry figures. The typical hourly rate for handmade goods seems to be about 10% of this, and people still feel the work is too expensive. Puts things in perspective for anyone contemplating a career as a bicycle builder!

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    2. My 'output' isn't handicraft work, it's researching, problem-solving and advising in a very niche area of expertise. The similarity to making things by hand lies in the fact that every piece of work I do is tailored to the individual client and is unique to them. My gross salary is about 15% of what my company charges out for my work. And our overheads are low. :(

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    3. It's not Jeff Lyon by chance, is it? I've seen his name here and there as a confirmed master with cut-rate prices.

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  11. On the topic of knitting... My mom wanted wool gloves. If you look on Etsy for wool gloves, all the ones with full fingers are made overseas, and the "local" ones are all fingerless with just a thumb hole. Labor rates...

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    1. Heh very true. Full fingered gloves are probably the most thankless items to hand knit. They take more time to make than an average sweater. But people think of them as "just gloves" and most would not be willing to pay their worth.

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    2. I concur- second glove syndrome is far worse than second sock or mitten. I knitted a pair of gloves once, and the tedium of making ten tiny tubes for each finger! They were a gift, and a few years later he lost them, so there went all of that work. I buy all of my gloves now :)

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  12. Is there a difference between knitting and building a frame? I know how to knit and use my time on the bus, or waiting for kids, to do just that and make many simple items which I mostly give away. I also make quilts which are very time consuming but unique and would never be able to sell them if the price tag included a livable wage. . Some things are easy to do and don't require much thought or special skill, one doesn't have to be in the moment while doing it…Is that the same with frame building by hand?

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    1. Historically, women's hand craft has been undervalued precisely because of the idea that it does not require much thought or special skill compared to "mens work." It's an attitude that I hope we can move past one day.

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    2. Can of worms topic, Dana. I am glad Anon 8:14 enjoys making simple hand knit items in her spare time and giving them to friends. There are hobby builders who do the same with bicycle frames.

      My own experience with knitting, is that it depends on how complicated or intricate the work is. There are some stitches/designs/items that can be executed "mindlessly," others that require paying careful attention and make multitasking impossible. Working from someone else's pattern as opposed to designing a garment from scratch yourself makes a difference as well, as does making generic items vs tailoring them to someone's specific proportions.

      Framebuilding is a very different process from knitting. But having observed the way some builders work, I would say there are gaps of time in between various steps that, if the person is super-organised and efficient, can be used for multitasking as well. In fact several builders I know of are stay at home dads precisely for this reason.

      Tying this back to the subject of hourly fees: when I calculate mine, I take things like multitasking into consideration (i.e. I do not count it as a full hour of work if I am working on something else at the same time as doing this work). I assume others figure it the same.

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    3. Anon 8:14 here and I'm very much a straight guy who simply enjoys making things. My main gig is a painter(artist) which is very hard and stressful and I can either drink my stress away or knit ;) I'm shaking my head with regard to this topic because setting prices for paintings is an even bigger can of worms. Meanwhile many assholes get paid huge piles of money for …. aw, don't get me started! Back to knitting.

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    4. Some builders are stay at home moms, too. Just sayin' …. ;) Shouldn't we keep gender out of it?

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    5. I knit complex lace, and not only is no one willing to pay the cost of such work, no one is even willing to put in the time to learn to do it. I know because I offer free lessons, just to keep the craft alive. People are accustomed to free, or almost free, beauty and/or good quality. Rather than feel resentful about not getting what a piece of lace is worth, I only give it as a gift, to whom I please. I get the pleasure of making it, the virtue of giving it, and no resentment against those who don't understand what it is to put 100 hours into a project.

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    6. Anon 8:14 and 3:32 - Oh my, I must have not had my coffee when I wrote that comment. My apologies. And speaking of male knitters, anyone interested in learning some new stitches check out the Stitch a Day blog. Good stuff; clear tutorials.

      Anon 7:39 - Oh how I wish you were local to me. I am teaching myself lace knitting and would appreciate beyond words to have a human teacher. I do know a couple of local ladies who can do it, but neither is able to teach it. It is a real skill to teach a craft like that. I hope someone interested will come along to whom you'll be able to pass it on.

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    7. Just keep trying and you will master it. It is easy if you look at lace as individual stitches and skills, and not get overwhelmed with The Big Picture. After all, you built your own bicycle frame step by step.

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  13. So, this is a market economy question, yes or no? We should all be paid a living wage for our hours of work, after all it's about work and dignity, right? I wish.

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  14. I don't know how much a hand built bike should cost. I do know that when my wife purchased one in 1982 it was doable with her wages as a waitress, and mine as a busboy. Three years ago I bought mine and our wages haven't changed that much but the prices certainly have! It took me several years to save for this purchase. No regrets, but it ain't easy!

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  15. Veloria wrote: "In the post-industrial age we live in, making certain things one at a time by hand is extremely inefficient and can never, ever be financially competitive with automated production models."

    I'm not sure I would say never, ever. The vaunted efficiencies of industrial production are made possible mostly because of cheap energy pricing, cheap labor, and externalized costs. The reason much of the West is "post industrial" and shopping China/Amazon is because companies can get cheaper labor elsewhere, and energy has been cheap and abundant enough to ship raw resources and finished products back and forth across the globe. Other countries do even less to control external costs, particularly the pollution generated during each step of manufacture. Just look at the environmental degradation caused by mining for bauxite, and the large amounts of energy needed to turn that into aluminum. If companies were forced to pay every step of the way for the externalities, custom frames, local small-scale organic food, and lovely hand-knit headwear would start to look like a pretty good deal. Assuming of course that the iron ore was mined reasonably close by and turned into steel at a local plant with stringent environmental controls, the farm used no-till practices and minimal use of tractors and other machinery, and the knitter got his yarn from sheep down the road whose fleece was shorn and carded and dyed and spun locally.

    Now that we are coming up against the limits to growth, many of these "advantages" of industry will no longer work the way they once did. It may not be that far into the foreseeable future that you are knitting a drawer full of sweaters in exchange for a bicycle (which may be created mostly from re-used tubing.) That's if the zombies don't get you. Obviously.

    Economics can be a real rabbit hole.

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    1. True, but see my "certain things" clause : )

      How, for instance, would you imagine items such as the full fingered hand knitted gloves mentioned by Dan above (which I estimate would take 10+ hours for a super-skilled, fast knitter to make), being competitive with their factory-made counterparts?

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    2. What I was trying to allude to above was that, some day, at a certain point in industrial civilization, the decline of which is gathering steam every passing day, there will be fewer and fewer factory-made counterparts to compete with. If factory-made hand knit full fingered gloves (phew) are no longer available, it will come down to what the need is for knitted full-finger gloves, and who has the resources to pay for them.

      Right now "home made" goods are perhaps seen as a bit twee or precious by many, even those who imbibe the koolaid. The name "Etsy" itself kind of reeks of it (and really that site now mostly sells decorative, useless junk, competing with the massive flood of tchotchkes that pour from Chinese factories). Artisanal, hand-crafted, custom, organic heirloom, etc.--it's mostly for folks with a bit of disposable income lying around. But, eventually, out of necessity, that will start to change.

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    3. There's still a huge difference between mass production of products in the US and hand building of the same products in the US. Division of labor and the ability to spread overhead and capital expenditures are what make mass production so effective at reducing the cost of manufactured goods. The current drive to mass production in "low cost" countries is a minor change compared to the replacement of hand work with production.

      Hand work is not coming back as a major source of goods. It is too expensive and will continue to be.

      Mental work on the other hand is far more difficult to break into individual actions that can be standardized. (examples I have seen above are resume writing, commercial photography, varieties of consulting). Reasonable per hour rates can still be charged for these kinds of work.

      Everyone likes the idea of hand made goods, but other than in certain high-dollar luxury niches, they are an anachronism.

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  16. Your point about materials is apt. I make jewelry and find that customers place almost no value on the work itself. They judge the piece based almost exclusively on the metals and stones used. As a result I must work exclusively with expensive precious metals and stones, allowing me to charge a markup that will compensate for my time. That is how it goes.

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  17. I've seen that some frame builders in the UK (like Tom Donhou) have branched out into creating a range of stock frames. If you have a family, it really does seem difficult to make a living just doing custom frames and if you want to grow the business, you need to create a product.

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    1. Enigma have done the same. Custom frames are built onsite by one framebuilder (with another guy mitreing tubes and another guy highly specialised in all the finishes) but the bread and butter is the supply of stock sized frames built for them in Taiwan. And if they're super honest, they're not keen on building complete bikes (and so offer a very limited range of build specifications), no doubt because of the time suck involved in dealing with customers' deliberations and u-turns.

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    2. In the US, lots of builders do this as well, or at least attempt to. Worth checking out: MAP Cycles, Jeff Lyons, Boulder Bicycles, just to name a few.

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  18. To justify the cost, I wish that I could see the builder's work firsthand. Since this usually not possible, it comes down to other things like reputation & maybe a back & forth thru email? At some point it's not a question : Is this going to be a good bike? It's a transaction unique in our times, a leap of faith (unless you have gobs of money that is). Convincing your partner-in-life that the expense is worth it is only possible if oneself has satisfied the healthy skeptical impulse.

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  19. When I think about questions like how much should a custom bicycle frame cost, I usually end up wondering if it would be different in a world where there weren't 7 or 8 billion people and only a small fraction of them buying whatever it is we're discussing .

    Some of the resources we use for special things that we treat ourselves to, including the labor resource to produce them, must affect the way in which resources get allocated for things like bicycles for working people in other parts of the world, or the wiring and roofs for their houses. I know I'm thinking too much when I'm thinking about that stuff because the answer might be un-knowable, but I would like to think the small craftsperson making fewer but better things on our side of the planet is removing some of the pressure on the resources on the other side. If that's true than I think we should all try to replace some of our cheap mass produced stuff with things made especially for us that will last much longer and just do without some of the other stuff. But if that's not the effect than I'm not sure how I really feel about buying things like handmade frames(or making and selling custom racks like I do myself when there are nice ones for sale at a 3rd the price in every bikeshop). I don't want to feel like a "Taker" any more than necessary...

    This might seem WAY off the subject but for some of us there's a little of this concern in every question like this.

    Spindizzy

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    1. "This might seem WAY off the subject but for some of us there's a little of this concern in every question like this."

      Yes, there is. Thank you for articulating it so well.

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  20. Just to take up the other side of the argument for a moment: frames built by automated means are perfectly good; superior in some ways to hand built frames. Hand built bicycles are a pretty good example of a "Veblen good" -- as Thorstein Veblen explained, the perceived value comes not from the quality, but from the demonstration that the purchaser can afford to pay for the human effort needed to build it, has the taste to select it, and the sense of style to spend money on a bicycle instead of, say, an expensive car or jewelry.

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  21. You promote the idea of handmade and I get it, there's some satisfaction in knowing that a garment one is wearing is tailored to them (at least one hopes) and it's also nice to support the local economy. If I do purchase something handmade it's because I've seen it, touched, tried it, even if I don't know (yet) the maker personally. This begs a concern, which is selling over the internet. It's impersonal, it's everything I dislike about purchasing items. More times than not I'm disappointed, my expectations are not satisfied. When exchange works on that level I care much less about how or who made the product. I care about where and enjoy the tactile process of choosing it. Sadly, no one could survive with this model. Many who makes things have second incomes to support their efforts. For those who don't it's survival of the fittest and very few survive. I have a custom bike because I've never fit comfortably on off the shelf bikes, despite my best efforts, and since it's my main transportation it made economic sense. I avoided the big names, the flashy, the ones selling an image, and found the quiet, passionate, personable one who made it all work. Yes, it was expensive. If the same bike could be made in the same customized way by a machine at half the cost -- truth be told -- i'd probably go that route. We're all odd and full of contradictions sometimes.

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  22. I don't know why folks are shocked at the price of a hand built bike. Prices are usually on the builders website. Don't they price them appropriately in order to stay in business? The question is why should someone buy a hand built bike? Is it worth the wait and expense? That's a personal thing I guess.

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  23. It's funny, new artwork just went up at my local coffee shop. Really good stuff and I'm overhearing lots of raves by customers. The prices and tags have yet to be posted and when they are I'm sure the reaction will be the same, 'damn, i love these but can't justify those prices'… It's an ongoing issue, isn't it?

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  24. And to think, for the price of a disposable (in the sense that with this type of bike one always needs the latest and greatest) carbon bike, one could get a handmade bike to enjoy for a long time.

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  25. In a Simplistic sense I don't think it's a good idea to think of frame building (even 'Hand built" frames) in a strictly by the hour basis. True one guy making one frame is gonna take forever! OK, if it's a side job and he's not 100% focused on it, but if he's building full time he (or she) is going to have to find ways to simplify tasks and do certain things in a more or less "standard way" Now every time you standardize something, the process become decidedly less "custom" So then the question is How Custom is Custom? or How Custom is your hand built bike?
    At some point you are going to pay for originality and reputation. There are builders who don't turn on the light switch unless they have a commission while others turn out Stock or Standard models; both may be hand made (aren't all steel bikes more or less handmade (not counting Dept. Store bikes)?), but one will cost considerably more then the other.
    In the end it's a value judgment. "am I OK with paying this($) for that?" Which is part of the reason most frame builders don't quote you a price on a frame/bike by the number of hours spent, but on a finished project.
    As a person who spends his days calculating manufacturing costs and his "free time" building and fixing things, I can say that many times when a craftsman builds something there is a certain amount of indulgence that comes into play; they try things or add artistic flourishes to satisfy themselves and sometimes just contemplate things for a while; there's no real way to put a dollar figure to that! That's the difference between an Artist and a Technician. This is especially true when that technique or process then goes into the next project and the one after that!
    -masmojo

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  26. Sadly, many custom frame builders have gone on to other professions because the profit margin simply isn't there. There's an old joke about farming that seems to apply to frame building as well. Q: How do you accumulate $1 million as a custom framebuilder? A: Start with $2 million.

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  27. I'd love to see some hand built bikes by readers of this blog…Please devote a post to all your readers who ride these machines, complete with photos of the product and reasons as to why they find value in purchasing and/or riding them.Testimonials are always enjoyable. My first custom was built by a guy who also built his own machinery which used no electricity! He had to pedal in order to make his tools buzz. I'll go out of my way to support builders like that. With Seven or Co-Motion and others, I'm glad they're there, but that's a different idea of handmade. Mostly, I want to see folks on bikes, period. Making them part of their everyday experience, but there's always a market for a unique machine and the brave who make them. Kudos.

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    1. Great request and I had hoped by now that a few other readers would have responded...
      Here's the story of my custom Enigma: http://velovoice.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/custom
      And the story of my bike fit issues and musings, which are inextricably linked: http://velovoice.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Bike%20Fit

      Would really like to see/hear others' experiences!

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  28. Maybe I don't need shoes but I actually find them quite functional. Should I contact a local shoemaker or just go to a shoe store and buy whatever suits my needs at the moment? How many pairs of shoes do you own? The reasons we buy things are varied and conflicting. Hand built bikes should reflect the costs of production. Ah, but some things are subsidized, damn! It's so fricking complicated!!!! We all navigate it and let the buyer beware.

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    1. @Anon Just came back to this post and saw your comment - made me think of musings written by a friend of mine on exactly that topic: http://growingthingsandmakingthings.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/new-shoes.html

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  29. I'm an adjunct lecturer at a local private university and it's the same story, what can we get out of you and how much should we pay? It's sad and getting worse. How can we make change happen?

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  30. I like the way you have framed the topic (sorry, that was unintentional). I agree with the statement above that so much of the complete bike is of manufactured parts adding up, and so much of production builds are about bang-for-the-buck use of components, that this is almost as much about a la carte purchasing as custom purchasing. As someone who is unlikely to be able to budget for a custom frame any time soon but who has looked at enough frames by Mitch Pryor and others to see what an artist can do, I have thought about this as a kind of parlor game. There is the connoisseur element, of having something well crafted with attention to detail, and the potential for making something suited to a very particular type of riding. And there is the amount of riding experience over time that would be required to know enough about one's needs to dictate or seek guidance on every decision. And then there is the possibility that one has proportions that are unusual or atypical, such that one's ideal geometry would never be available in any production bike. Ultimately it's a bit like what Louis Armstrong said about jazz: "If you have to ask, you'll never know." In other words, if one is asking the question of how much value one will get from a custom frame and fork, one probably hasn't ridden enough and will probably be able to make do with a production model. It is not so much about "earning the right" as it is having the discernment only a whole lot of riding can bring.

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  31. I can appreciate the angle of this piece, but when you buy customer, it must be the case that you are buying:
    (a) a bicycle; or
    (b) some goodwill feeling from having supported some chosen individual

    Some folks just want a bicycle...

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    1. Leaving aside for now that Option B is not the only reason to get a handbuild bicycle, fact is that no one has to go the custom/handmade route unless they want to. My point is that in the event we do want a handmade item, our expectations of cost should reasonably reflect the way the product is made.

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  32. Buying a custom frame bike is more than a commercial transaction and in my view is not evidence of conspicuous consumption.

    For some, it harks back to that childhood birthday or Christmas tree with that first bicycle with the ribbons on it... new, shiny, special; a complex machine that goes fast. Gifts for children are very different than for adults. For many children, it is such a special day in a so-far-short life; as one is perhaps a thousand or 1,500 days old. It's that glow in the stomach on first seeing it, jumping with excitement, can't wait to show it to friends, frustration if there is a foot of snow outside, but never mind summer will come soon enough. It is not the pursuit of happiness, it's the experience of it. That first bike brings freedom, creates adventure; it is riding with friends to places adults don't know about. And usually, it all ends with puberty or not long after when life gets a lot more complicated. By that sad time that first bike is old, dented, rusted and probably gets tossed in the garage, basement or tip.

    Fast forward a quarter-century or more, and after dipping ones toe back into bicycling and getting hooked, one becomes a bikie and embraces the bicycle culture whole hog, as they say. Cheap bike yields to better bike; better bike to Velouria's recommendations on lovelybike, and eventually that childhood excitement becomes a commission of the perfect bike... the bespoke, custom, built-for-me bicycle that is almost as perfect as bike number one, those many decades ago.

    Personally, I've never bought a custom-made bike, so this is not an autobiography, but for those who do, I see it as much emotional as rational. And it is a nice emotional, sort of a non-consumer act in an overly-consumption-ridden world.

    What is a fair price to pay? Somehow, it seems to me that those who ask Velouria such questions are probably the wrong people to buy bespoke. The answer is thousands, but probably not tens of thousands (€.$,£), and I cite that range only to set newbie expectations so as to not embarrass said newbie who perhaps was missing a digit in their expectation of what is fair. No, supplying the tubes does not mean cheaper; it means participation... knowing the difference between Columbus and Dedacciai and caring enough to seek out that stash covered in dust in a little shop in Verona that could only be bought with a half bottle of 1983 Avignonesi Vin Santo di Montepulciano.

    Seems to me that when one goes for bespoke, it's about a relationship - patronising a master of the art and buying a commissioned work of art. The questions should not be price, but discernment. How good is the builder? How well do they understand the complex relationship of materials, geometry and assembly. How bespoke will it be? Will I meet new friends who also ride bespoke so we can talk about details the ordinary person would never notice?

    As for global guilt where half the world lives on less than a dollar a day, introducing that reality into this blog seems more like guilt-tripping than a helpful comment. The world's inequities are not caused by bespoke bike makers or their clients. Poor people who cannot afford a bike or a roof over their head are products of a planet that has monetised almost everything, creating haves and have-nots.

    Those of us reading this blog are able to afford computers and internet access are members of the “have-countries”, who live in a reality that is completely different than that of the have-nots. We're not happier for it, and one day perhaps humanity will mature enough to move beyond the systems we live in now, but for now, let the joy of commissioning a bespoke bicycle be the simple joy it is. Let us encourage those with the money and the memories of their first bike to patronise the custom bike builder and leave it at that.

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    1. Certainly this may be the case for many.

      In my experience - (11 custom commissions over the last few years) - the decision to go custom was informed primarily by curiosity. I get to wondering how certain elements, geometries and parts might work together. When all the wondering gets the better of me, I reach out to see if there is someone who may be able to put my whack ideas into motion.

      This approach does not always work out from your perspective. On six occasions it took me only one or two rides to realize maybe my notion was not for me anyway. So I wound up donating the bikes to people who needed a bike or for local charity auctions. Of the remaining five, one I let go I really wish I did not. Another was run over by a truck while parked in front of a coffee shop on a sidewalk near many pedestrians.

      Curiously, the oldest of the three customs I still have is an '80s style Italian road bike made by Tom Kellogg of Spectrum bikes - a designer who emphatically does not cater to whimsical fancies of eccentrics.

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  33. My mother was a skilled knitter. She made gloves. A pair took one to two hours. She was not a fast knitter. Gloves are a bit intricate but there are not all that many stitches. The last pair she made, before arthritis and the tremors of old age took over were done in a much finer gauge yarn than a home knitter would ordinarily use. They were in two colors. They were carefully fitted to my hands. There was an elaborate figure on the back of the hand and a small cable up each finger. Those gloves took an evening, about three hours.

    Mom was good enough she was frequently asked to knit for money and a few times she assented. She did better than minimum wage but could not have made a living. I have seen fast knitters. Hobbyists and working knitters are worlds apart.

    Fast framebuilders as Tom Ritchey or Bernard Carre can make two frames a day. Carre did three or four a day when doing production work for Gitane and Lejeune. Norman Taylor could build a complete custom tandem frame in a day, complete with custom racks. Those builders were not making ordinary frames. They were making masterpieces and legends. A fifty hour frame from an artist like Weigle or di Nucci or Bishop may be something a few riders want and want to pay for. Fifty hours is not needed to build a frame.

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    1. Interesting about your mother's glove-knitting times. I come from a family of proficient knitters (mother, and grandmothers on both sides), was myself taught to knit at age 4, and have known a few pro knitters over the years. To knit a pair of full fingered gloves in 3 hours seems highly unusual to me. I'd love to have seen your mother in action, and I wonder what method she used. There are effective speed-knitting techniques, but even they are of limited usefulness when it comes to certain fussy items that require a lot of turning and finishing work - ff gloves being a prime example of that.

      The most time-efficient framebuilders seem to be those who build made-to-measure frames to their own specs, rather than "custom" frames as such. Anecdoto-statistically, customers tend to be more satisfied with the former as well.

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    2. Would anyone ever make a pair of gloves if it took ten hours? All I can say is that Mom was fond of the fancy stitches and after a time the sort of manipulations you mention went along at the same rhythm and tempo as the click of the needles. Definitely she never paid any attention to such as speed-knitting.

      Some people are just fast workers. They are there in any trade. Not every frame builder needs to be as fast as Tom Ritchey. Richard Sachs builds relatively slowly and it works for him and his clients. He has needed to do an extraordinary level of self-promotion over the decades to get people to pay for his slow builds.

      Norman Taylor was very fast and could be accused of building made-to-measure and doing the same frame again and again. I wonder if you are familiar with the Taylor Rough Stuff frame? Made for a client who wanted to haul heavy photo equipment over the moor. A pro nature photographer. The Rough Stuff was created in 1953 and is the first mountain bike. Last made in 1998. The design basically never changed because Norman got it right the first time. Compare that to the wild gyrations of the production MTB business. There are times when a custom builder is well worth the price of admission.

      Back in '53 you could still build 650B wheels with Mephisto wood filled rims, which totally beats suspension in my book.

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  34. I have a custom bike Friday, but also a Brompton, a custom Seven (mountain hardtail) and a custom (but for someone else) Mercian), but also a stock Rivendell mixte. The important thing for me is to buy high quality products made in a democracy whenever possible. I can't pretend that I need a bike to be bespoke in order to fit me well. But I love all these bikes for what where they can take me ...and how.

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  35. You asked a question but I've yet to see the answer. So, how much should a handbuilt bicycle cost?…. Really! ... What are the determining factors? Was I ripped off when making my purchase? Is it all about an hourly wage? Is this a difference between an hourly wage and a living wage? It gets confusing, quickly. Should it be much more simple? I need answers!!

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    1. You'll never know if you were ripped off unless the builder's price structure is completely transparent.

      Here's an example: My local builder - whose shop is down the street from where I live - charges a base price of $3100 for a frame. He builds and also paints the frames in-house. He's very talented, got a good pedigree and has been at it for a long time. If he completes 4 a month that's $148K/yr or $77.5/hr if it takes 40 hrs to build one.

      To a member of the meritocracy that might look like a fair price but my hourly wage as a bicycle mechanic is $12 so to me it's astronomical and smacks of exploitation - a ripoff.

      He sees himself as a artisan-specialist with deep knowledge of bicycle design and construction who prices his services within the wage range of the skilled trades. This appeals to his target audience of desk-bound professionals.

      So, you most likely paid less than you would if you had to pay a doctor's hourly fee if that makes you feel better.

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    2. Your take assumes the builder's only cost is personal wages.

      In fact the builder has to pay for work space (either rent or property taxes - sometimes both), power, tools, maintenance, components, marketing etc. In addition, the builder likely has to pay third parties such as accountants, lawyers, book keepers, shippers to address various needs of the business. As an hourly worker, you have to concern yourself with none of these costs. Only after all those payments are out of the way can the builder then address personal needs such as health and life insurance, retirement and finally personal wages.

      A small business bringing in only $148k a year is not getting any one reach. Certainly is not exploitation. Your employer would have to be earning well beyond that amount, or you would not be getting $12.00 an hour. So maybe you and your shop should stop ripping off people.

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    3. Handbuilt is rather a misnomer when it comes to bicycles. Almost all high-end bicycles, are in some degree handbuilt. Certainly if one buys an expensive carbon frame it will certainly be handbuilt, each frame laid up by hand. Any bike with lugs, will be handbuilt, even if identical to its cousins. A Colnago Master is a handbuilt frame, it is not a custom frame. Yes there have been for a long time semi robotically produced frames, but surprisingly few. Schwinn was one of the first companies to try auto-welded, lugless frames on a production line.

      "Bespoke" is the appropriate word here, or "custom" frames. And even that can be tricky, no great builder is going to make a ridiculous frame, so even custom has more to do with paint, lug choices, and little to do with stay length and head angles.

      What you get from the great builders like Richard Sachs, is great care on each frame. Correct temperatures, careful alignment, beautiful finish, and a knowledge of what works, as far as tubing choices, and frame design. But a steel frame is builder is still bound by certain time tested methods which cannot be ignored, for one frame or 20.

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  36. When I ordered my custom-made frame here in Seattle, the retailer was a local shop that performed the fitting and discussed component option--and the all-important color scheme. The shop represented the Canadian builder Marinoni. Yes it was an expensive purchase, but since it was my commuter vehicle, I compared the expense to purchasing, fueling, insuring, parking, and servicing a car, even a crappy one. With that context in mind, I gladly paid the price. It took about 4 months for the frame to arrive, and I committed to saving for it in that time. The frame cost a bit less than the rest of the stuff needed to ride it away, including hand-built wheels, one of which I still roll on, now 14 years later.

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  37. Anon 12:30,

    Your wage might be $12 USD/hour, but will cost the business north of $18 USD/ hour, if your employer is paying all the taxes.
    Here in the US, self-employment taxes can exceed 50 percent of earnings. Overhead might be, say, $1.5k a month, and you have to pay your vendors. Now, does that framebuilder still seem like he's greedy?

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  38. Lots of interesting remarks concerning what for me has been a life long career...by choice I hasten to add, but I now find this 'framebuilding' thing bewildering in so much as whilst the trade is picking up following what looked like the demise of steel frames due to carbon etc its going the other way and is its almost becoming 'trendy' and 'hip' to become a frame builder......there's a lot of newcomers coming into the trade who are going to be disappointed when they discover just how hard it is to make a decent living.
    When I started framebuilding in 1971 it was expected of me to produce 4 to 5 frames a week, that's a frame a day completed and ready for paint, nowadays I take much longer to complete a frame such is the demand for lets say a higher degree of 'expertise'. Of course prices have risen for the cost of a frame but so have the cost of raw materials.......how many customers know the cost of a set of 953 tubing and the cost of 55% silver rods!.....in reality we ought to charging much more than what we do for our frames, but you have to be realistic on what folk will actually pay, even though they don't seem to mind paying another £1000 on top of that for a carbon frame that's taken a fraction of the time to produce!
    To put things into perspective, I suppose I have a fairly well know reputation among the framebuilding fraternity having 44 years continuous years in framebuilding for one of the UK's best know company's......yet my salary is about £6000 per year less than the 'average local wage'...[not including London wages] .....refuge collectors get more than what I do!
    I build frames because I love building frames, its not for the money

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  39. Yes, the price is a bargain :)

    I think we need to differentiate "Custom" from "Handmade". Custom takes a inordinate amount of communication, which eats a lot of shop time as well as extra fabrication time. Handmade is just the hours it takes to make something nice, on a production basis [stock sizes and colors], but made one at a time.

    Overhead cost is a big one. Every builder has a different take on that with a home shop or commercial space and if they spend to promote themselves etc...most people in this business will end up only making about $10,00 to $40,000 a year and often go into debt. Wages at a full time production shop are $10 to $20 an hour [most about $12 to $15]. So this is still a labor of love, no matter how much the bike cost in the end.

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  40. One of my goals is a custom touring bicycle. And the only reason is because none of the off-the-rack bikes fit. I paid a hefty chunk of change for a fitting, and it was worth it to know that I wasn't imagining things, I really am going to have to go custom. (Unless you know of a touring bike with a 48cm seat tube and 49.5 top tube!) Every touring bike I've tried puts my shoulders (which have an old injury) in near-excruciating pain on long days, and I love touring so much!

    If I could buy a touring bike off the rack that fit I would in a heartbeat. Instead I have a lot of saving to do.

    Regarding paying what the labor is worth: Several years ago I knit a 13-foot-scarf, a screen-accurate replica of one from the older days of the show Doctor Who. An acquaintance kept pestering me to sell it to him. I had to point out--I'm a slow knitter and that scarf took me 80 hours. Minimum wage in Oregon is $9 and change. You do the math.

    He ended up buying one from someone on etsy who either has a knitting machine or completely undervalues their labor.

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