Friday, May 8, 2009

Frame Class, The Skinny

Poser poses some great questions, so, with the distance of a week, I'll take a shot at answering.

Do you feel confident that you could actually make serviceable frames with this class? I'll know for sure after I've ridden my frame and see how it holds up. Assuming it holds up, I'd say yes, one could make serviceable frames with this class. The second frame will take longer and be more frustrating, because the instructors gave me a lot of guidance, and saved me from making mistakes about every 5 minutes; without them, I'll be making mistakes and backtracking. However, at least with lug brazing, I came to recognize a good joint by the end of the class. With some tools and fixtures, and attention to process and technique, I expect the second frame will be possible.

Do you think a serious frame builder should have some time working/apprenticing with an experienced frame builder for a period of time before he/she is ready to produce frames for the general public? My understanding is that opportunities to apprentice with a framebuilder, or work in a production frame shop, are getting harder and harder to come by. However, there are builders who've taken the course and gone on to make a go of it without apprenticing.

What would you say the necessary tools would be for someone who wants to do this?

  • drafting tools. Having an accurate scale design is critical.
  • welding equipment (e.g., gas welder for brazing)
  • fork blade mandrel, for bending fork blades
  • frame jig
  • fork and chainstay fixtures, dummy axles
  • machine mill for mitering and slotting tubes
  • alignment measuring tools
  • frame prep tools (e.g., bottom bracket chaser/facer, head tube reamer/facer, crown race cutter)
  • solid work bench, and vise (more so than is needed for most bike repair)
  • assorted blocks for holding tubes in vise
  • Vernier calipers, tape measure
  • files and other hand tools

Is it cost prohibitive to set up a hobby shop for frame building? The tool setup I described above, which is what we used at UBI, would cost $20-30K (just a frame jig can cost $3,500; a decent mill, $10,000). However, if it's a hobby, there are places one can cut corners, and save money at the expense of time:

  • Tubes can be mitered and slotted by hand. It's tedious, but possible -- I did some of my tubes and slots by hand, some by machine.
  • Although I haven't tried it, and can't attest to it, I'm told it's possible to build without a frame jig, using a very precisely flat table.
  • Frame prep can be done by your LBS.
  • You can use a pre-built fork, and just focus on building the frame

Or would plunking down the necessary change for the tools to have a decent shop only be justified by a business? Oddly enough, the answer to this question may lie in tax law. In some circumstances, the layout for tools can be deducted if the shop is set up as a business, even if it's not making money. So the net cost can be lower than the price of the tools. Worth looking into.

Very curious to see where you go with this... I'm taking the slow boat. Even though I'm eager to build my second, third, tenth &c frame, I'm going to go with a minimal tool investment, and work on technique. When my technique is developed enough so I can estimate how much time I'd save with more tools, then I'll decide whether to go for the more expensive tools.

I believe time is one of the key determinants of whether one can make it as a pro framebuilder. If you take the going price for a custom steel frame, subtract the price of materials, consumables (gas, flux, silver, brass), electricity, depreciation on tools, rent, and factor in costs of doing business like licensing, advertising, liability insurance, it doesn't leave a hell of a lot of margin on a single frame. How many hours of labor, at a living wage (including benefits) can one afford to put into a single frame? I understand that solo pro framebuilders turn out on the order of 200-250 frames a year.

One thing I have to admit is that my heat-joining technique is poor. I haven't been publicizing that the TIG seminar I took after the framebuilding course showed up some serious problems for me. Ron, the instructor, spent a great deal of one-on-one time with me, but by the end of the two days, I was still blowing holes in my practice tubes. (This is not the outcome I wanted, but may have been the best outcome possible, given my limitations. The course had a different value than the one I anticipated, but it was valuable nevertheless.)

It may be my eyesight, it may be poor eye-to-hand coordination. Lugged brazing, done at a temperature below the melt point of steel, is nominally more forgiving, but when I ride my bike, I may find that I so over-heated the tubes in my joins that they're compromised.

But I'm optimistic. I love the craft, and I have a long time to practice, learn and improve.

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