The hand-building of bespoke bicycle frames.
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||19th century|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
|Current no. of trainees||1-5|
|Current no. of skilled craftspeople||21-50 (perhaps about 30?)|
|Current total no. of craftspeople||21-50 (perhaps about 30?)|
The first two-wheeled vehicles were developed circa 1820, and the chain-driven bicycle as we know it today was developed around 1885.
The bicycle frame features a truss consisting of two triangles – one at the front and one at the rear – known as a ‘diamond frame’. The front triangle consists of the head tube, top tube, down tube, and seat tube, and thre rear triangle consists of the seat tube and paired chain stays and seat stays. High-strength, low-weight materials have always been favoured for the frames. Alloy steels were used from the 1930s, and by the 1980s aluminium was widely used in place of steel. Today, carbon fibre is a popular material. Other, more unusual, materials include titanium, advanced alloys, and bamboo. The majority of bespoke hand-built frames are made from stainless steel.
Historically, there had been local frame builders in most towns in the UK. By the mid-1980s there were 150-200 frame builders still operating, although most were older and on the verge of retiring. By the late-1980s, the bicycle industry had changed dramatically with the introduction of cheap imports from Taiwan/China which finished off many of the remaining frame builders, and by the early-1990s the craft had all but disappeared with no more than a dozen makers left, usually those with an individual name/reputation rather than the local town frame builders. Today there are probably 25-30 established frame building business with a good reputation. These are usually one person businesses, with most makers in their 50s and 60s and a small tranche of builders (perhaps 4-5) in their mid-30s who are taking the craft forward.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Training issues: no one is training people to become professional frame builders. There are week long courses where people will build themselves a bike with no intention of doing it for anyone else. It is very difficult for an existing business to take on an apprentice because frame building is a very specialist skill and most people don’t have the necessary basic skills, such as metalworking, and it would take too long to train someone from scratch.
Dilution of skills: people will do a frame building course, make a couple of frames and call themselves a frame builder. People focus on the manufacturing technique rather than tailoring to the customer and what they want. Much of the skill of frame building lies in assessing what the client wants both practically and aesthetically, identifying the best material to do it and then building the frame – this takes time and experience. This dilution of skills is becoming a big issue in the industry. However, most don’t last more than a couple of years. Furthermore, you have to be very skilled to work in stainless steel (the top material for hand-built frames), which most dabblers aren’t.
Dilution of skills: it’s very easy to make a business look professional, while the person running the business is still essentially a novice. The skills don’t always match the appearance of the finished bike, as new makers don’t have the depth of understanding that comes from years of experience.
Market issues: the industry is extremely reputation driven. The average cost of a bespoke bike is £5000, which means that most customers will seek an established frame builder with a good reputation, rather than someone new to the craft. The frame builder needs a minimum annual turnover of about £120K (26 bikes at £5000 each) to get a minimum living wage – and it is very hard for a newcomer to get that many orders. Very difficult to make enough money as a frame builder – and many people have to diversify or quit.
Business issues: Lots of people start off building frames for friends and family and try to start up as a business, but not many last.
Business issues: Not easy to make a living solely as a frame maker – need to be a good business person as well.
Issues relating to passing on a business: many frame builders are individuals and the name is the business – this makes it very hard to pass a business on as a going concern.
Lack of an industry standard: because the craft is about building bespoke and one-off frames, there is no standard to work to – which means people are able to sell work that isn’t to a good standard.
Safety issues: a lot of the amateurs don’t have public liability insurance.
Changing tastes: At the moment, both cycling and making things with your hands are very fashionable – so the biggest danger to the craft is changing fashion/taste.
- The Bicycle Association of Great Britain is the UK trade association for big bicycle manufacture but there is currently no support organisation for bespoke frame builders.
Craftspeople currently known
There are two frame building schools – Bicycle Academy in Frome, Somerset and Downland Cycles in Canterbury, Kent – which are training people to become frame builders, rather than just teaching them how to build a frame.