Bicycle frame making
The hand-building of bespoke bicycle frames.
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||19th century|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||15-20|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
||6-10 as a sideline to their main business, i.e. bicycle shop or similar.|
|Current no. of trainees||1-5|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
||Up to 15|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
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 three 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 high quality steel alloys and 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 no more than around 25 established frame building businesses with a good reputation. These are usually one person businesses, with most makers in their 40/50s and a tranche of builders (perhaps 6-8) in their mid-30s.
- Brazing using brass/bronze either with pre-made lugs or fillet brazing and filling the joint smooth.
- The same techniques using silver solder, although this requires much more skill and experience.
- Use of hand tools to make the mitred joints (although these can be machined) and use of hand tools (files) to finish the frame.
- Polish stainless steel parts and tubing.
- Fashioning parts and make fitments from scratch.
- Measuring and assessing size and design for a customer.
- Designing the bicycle frame and in most cases designing a complete bicycle to suit a customer’s needs and use by selecting the correct equipment.
- Designing the paint schemes and overall aesthetic.
- Polishing thin walled tubing (very few practitioners)
- Lug cutting (no practitioners)
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Size of market: based on research and figures of tubing and frame parts sales (from suppliers to the builders) over the past two years, there are only around 450 bespoke frames being made per year – so the market is quite small in that sector. There are probably another 1,000-1,200 (total) being made by larger companies – these may be made to order but not bespoke.
Training issues: no one is training people to become professional frame builders – the market is too small to make this sustainable.
Training issues: there are week long courses where people build themselves a frame with no intention of doing it commercially. 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.
Training issues: there are some courses that claim to be aimed at making people professionals, which are being run by makers who have never built frames commercially or run a professional bicycle business. These don’t cover advanced techniques using stainless steel and silver solder that a professional would require. They also make claims for some of their techniques such as ‘fillet brazing that doesn’t need filling’, which is not a feasible technique for bespoke building and only suited to mass production or cheap frames.
Dilution of skills: people can do a frame building course, make a couple of frames and call themselves a frame builder. People focus on how they think a bike should be designed (with no prior knowledge or understanding) rather than using knowledge, experience and skills to tailor it 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.
Market issues: the industry is extremely reputation driven. The average cost of a bespoke bike is £5,000, 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 (25 bikes at £5,000 each) to get a minimum living wage – and it is very hard for a newcomer to get that many orders. It is very difficult to make enough money as a frame builder – and many people have to diversify or quit.
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 given 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 one of the biggest dangers 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
- Peter Bird and Robert Wade (Swallow Bespoke)
- Feather Cycles
- Saffron Frame Works
- Demon Frame Works
- Hartley Cycles / Isen Workshop
- Curtis Bikes
- Field Cycles
- Invicta Custom
- Tom Donhou
- Starling Cycles
- Ted James – also makes parts for other builders
- Longstaff Cycles
- Paulus Quiros
- Lee Cooper – only builds for trade customers
Businesses employing two or more makers:
- Pashley Cycles – mass production
- Shand Cycles – semi production
- Enigma – semi production
- Bob Jackson Cycles
- Hewitt Cycles
- Brian Rourke Cycles
There are several options to learn frame building:
- Downland Cycles in Canterbury, Kent – have been established for over 20 years and offer various course options and have the experience and knowledge (including working with stainless steel) to train people to become frame builders and work in the cycle industry.
- Bicycles by Design / Swallow Bespoke, Coalport, Shropshire – developed frame building courses in 1993 as the industry went into decline. They have over 37 years of frame building and industry experience and knowledge. The founder Peter Bird is a Master Goldsmith who trained business partner Robert Wade – both were awarded ‘Reynolds 753 approved builders’ (the industries only ever frame building qualification) in the 1980s. Although courses tend to be tailored for clients building their own frame for the experience (20 1:1 courses per year), advanced courses can be offered for those wanting to progress and learn more complicated techniques and progress in the industry. Currently they have 1 trainee frame builder working for them.
- Dave Yates Cycles – Dave is semi-retired and may still offer the occasional course. He was a prolific builder in the 1980s and took on frame courses in 1998. He is very knowledgeable and skilled industry person who originally trained as metalwork teacher.