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Bicycle frame making

The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Bicycle frame making

 

The hand-building of bespoke, brazed bicycle frames.

 

Status Endangered
Historic area of significance UK
Area currently practised UK
Origin in the UK 19th century
Current no. of professionals (main income) 11-20 makers making their main income (see ‘Other information’)
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
11-20
Current no. of trainees See ‘Other information’
Current total no. serious amateur makers
6-10
Current total no. of leisure makers
Up to 15

 

History

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. Frame builders today are usually one person businesses, with most makers in their 40/50s and some in their mid-30s.

The shape of the frame making trade in the UK is still changing. In addition to the established frame builders there are a large number of start-ups springing up in response to an increasing interest in cycling. Some of these are making some innovative new designs using unusual materials.

 

Techniques

  • 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.
  • TIG welding
  • Use of different materials – carbon, titanium, exotic materials like wood and bamboo etc.

 

Local forms

 

Sub-crafts

  • 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: there are no formal training opportunities available in bicycle making and few businesses have the capacity or resources to take on trainees. There are a number of short courses available where people build themselves a frame and some masterclasses for those who wish to develop their skills. Training in advanced and specialist skills can be difficult to access.
  • Business skills: there is very little training available for those who want to start a bicycle making company and some have difficulty in marketing their products and communicating effectively with clients. It is very challenging to develop a sustainable bicycle making business from scratch due to high start-up costs and the high retail value of the finished product. Many bicycle makers have to diversify or make other products to generate a living wage.
  • 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.
  • Availability of raw materials: In early 2021, bicycle making businesses were reporting supply chain issues with sourcing stainless steel tubing. If this continues to be a problem it could have an ongoing impact on manufacturing.

 

Support organisations

 

Craftspeople currently known

 

Other information

The Bespoked show is a European show of bicycle makers, both full and part time. In 2023 the show will be held in Dresden.

There are a lot of bicycle makers who are making on a part-time basis alongside another income stream. Many of these will have an ambition to become full-time makers although not all will realise that ambition. The show also showcases new entrants to the bicycle market and those using innovative materials and designs.

There are several options to learn frame building:

 

  • Bicycles by Design / Swallow Bespoke, Shropshire – have been running courses since 1993. The two trainers are both professional frame builders and make bespoke frames commercially. Although courses tend to be tailored for clients building their own frame for the experience, advanced courses can be offered for those wanting to progress and learn more complicated techniques and progress in the industry.
  • 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.
  • Ellis Briggs Cycles – offers frame building courses

 

References