My 50th birthday was looming. As any keen cyclist will immediately identify, this presents the perfect opportunity for purchasing another, fantastically expensive bike, under cover of a significant lifetime milestone. I wanted something special and bespoke, so started thinking abut a custom frame and my own choice of components; but then it struck me, I had already built up one bike from scratch so the next logical step was to go the whole hog and make the frame myself. So started the process where, by the end, I hoped to be the proud owner of my own hand-made bicycle . . . made by me!
The first step was to do some research into hand-made frames. Not so long ago practically every town in England had its own bicycle framebuilder; then, with the advent of mass-produced frames made in the far east, the practice all but died out by the turn of the 21st century, except for a handful of well-known makers. However, in the last ten years there has been a resurgence in hand-built bicycles in the UK (Souter and Feather, 2012; Bespoked 2013) ironically led by an upsurge of interest in the USA, where many of the builders originally apprenticed in England and who then took the skills home - so we are now learning from them. The upside of this is that there is a a great deal of information to be found on the internet, and some builders now offer framebuilding courses where you can spend a week building your own steel frame.
The start of my journey
First, I checked out some framebuilding courses. These offer several advantages: an expert shows you what to do; the design of the frame geometry and sourcing of raw materials is taken care of; you benefit from using a well equipped workshop and frame jig for alignment; and you should end up with an acceptable frame at the end. I nearly signed up for one, but on reflection it seemed a bit like cheating . . . plus they are pretty expensive. So I looked into it a bit further and discovered that it might be possible to build a steel frame without resort to expensive equipment. I owned a shed, how difficult could it be . . .
This records my journey on the way to building my own steel, lugged bicycle frame, from gound zero. I do not claim to be an expert; this is just what I have discovered by my own research so I have tried to present it in as factual a way as possible, referenced to the original sources. At the time of writing I have still not built my frame, but hopefully I can keep one step ahead of this blog!
Let's start by outlining the major steps:
- Frame geometry - choosing the correct geometry for the purpose to which the bike will be put.
- Frame fit - matching the frame size to your body measurements.
- Sourcing components - tubesets, lugs and braze-ons are available only from selected outlets, and some tubesets are more difficult to obtain than others.
- Design - preparing the design drawing for the frame.
- Preparing the tubes - cutting the tubes to the correct length, mitering the ends, ensuring a good fit in the lugs.
- Alignment - ensuring that the subassemblies that constitute the frame are aligned correctly; this must be checked at various stages throughout the process.
- Brazing - joining the tubes together by capillary brazing them into the lugs; there is more than one way of doing this.
- Finishing - inevitably, inexperience results in a frame which requires a considerable amount of sanding and filing to cleanup the brazed joints.
- Painting - you can do this yourself but the most durable finish will be achieved by a professional paint job.
There are many resources, in books and on the web, which provide 95 % of the information which you will need. In particular, there are several books which are essential. The Paterek Manual (Paterek, 1985; Paterek, 2004) is widely regarded as the most comprehensive resource, and the author has made the 1st Edition freely available on his website (www.timpaterek.com). The latest edition is obviously more up-to-date and there are also several DVDs on technique by the same author, though beginning framebuildes may find the level of detail in the book off-putting. Other freely available books include those by Talbot (Talbot, 1984) and Proteus (1975); these are quite dated, but because most of the principles of building a lugged steel bicyle have not changed in the last 100 years they contain much useful and relevent information and have the merit of being much shorter. Perhaps the best resource I have come across for the beginner is the guide by Chimonas (2010), who describes a step-by-step approach which does not require expensive tooling or the use of jigs.
Another excellent resource is the internet, where there are a number of web-forums specifically for framebuilding, and where expert framebuilders give their advice freely. Three of these which I have found useful are Velocipede Salon (Velocipede, 2013), Bike Forums (Bike Forums, 2013) and the Framebuilders Collective (Framebuilders, 2013).
In practice I have decided to use the Chimonas book as a basic guide supplemented by specific techniques picked up from the other books and the various framebuilding forums.
In Part 2, I will discuss what I have learned about frame geometry.
Bespoked Bristol (2013), The UK Handmade Bicycle Show. Available at www.bespokedbristol.co.uk [accessed 29/08/2013].
Bike Forums (2013), Frame Builders Forum. Available at www.bikeforums.net/forumdisplay.php/229-Framebuilders [Accessed 29/08/2013].
Chimonas, M.R. (2010), Lugged Bicycle Frame Construction, Createspace, USA.
Framebuilders Collective (2013). Available at http://www.framebuilderscollective.org/. [Accessed 29/08/2013].
Paterek, T. (1985, 2004), The Paterek Manual for Bicycle Framebuilders, Framebuilders Guild, USA. Available at www.timpaterek.com [accessed 28/08/13].
Proteus, P. (1975), The Proteus Framebuilding Book, Proteus Design Inc., USA.
Souter, M. And Feather, R. (2012), Made in England: the Artisans behind the handbuilt Bicycle, Push Projects, Lewes, UK.
Talbot, R.P. (1984), Designing and Building your own Frameset, The Manet Guild, USA.
Velocipede Salon (2013), VSalon Frame Forum. Available at http://www.velocipedesalon.com/forum/f10/ [ accessed 29/08/2013].