Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Are we learning the art of framebuilding?

So that's the question.

It's been a bit amusing to watch the interaction on some of the more prominent frame building web sites in regard to how "new" builders learn the craft while the "old" guard fervently protect their adament beliefs.

What's the point of contention, you may ask?
The crux is...How does one go about learning the craft of building hand made bicycle frames.

See, a lot of the established builders have been blessed (a point that I strongly believe) with the opportunity to learn from an established master in an apprentice role. These present craftsman seized a rare moment in time when another was willing to share and guide the development of another. Techniques, tips, and dare I say secrets, were passed on in an environment that spawned growth and mastery. Experience earned through years of trial and error was given to the new assistant, expediating the opportunity for self reliance under a watchful eye. The value of such an education is difficult to qualify.

Flash forward to today...the cycling market went through some rough years where a lot of these small production shops have since closed there doors. Builders that have survived have done so by scaling back manpower, production, and financial exposure. Most operate independant one man shops with tight budgets and are protective of the freedom to self schedule and pace the work environment. This necessary down scaling has almost eliminated the ability to host an untalented apprentice who places time demands and attention away from the workload, requiring a greater emphasis on instruction.

So where can someone go to learn the craft? Often the answer is a formalized abbreviated course such as the one offered by United Bicycle Institute or Doug Fattics small group instruction. Such courses are an excellent introduction to the methods utilized to put together some tubing into a frame, but in no way certify you as a practioner of fabrication.

Here's where the crux emerges....the old school say's "Such courses expose the student to the process, they do not assist with mastery...only a long term relationship/work experience can do that"

The newbies say "How am I suppose to learn this stuff if I can't get a job anywhere, this is the next best thing."

Most of this has been a rhetoric review for those that browse the forums, but now I'm ready to get to my point.

I constantly have individuals emailing, calling, and stopping by wanting to know how to learn the craft of framebuilding. Most are ready to attend a class, may have even purchased their first tubeset, but have no idea how to go about it. This is what I typically suggest...

Put the tubes/lugs/rod/torch/dreams of riding your own frame in a week away and take a deep breath because what I am about to propose will take you on a journey of focus and execution and when you are done, you will not even have a frame to show off.

To truly learn the art of framebuilding, build a fixture first.

I know, it's not sexy, but there is no better way to fully understand bicycle design and fabrication.

The process of designing a fixture demands that you fully understand how a frame is put together, how all the parts interact and the physical relationships between them. A fixture must establish those relationships and be exacting to the highest tolerance. As if that was not hard enough, an excellent fixture design is variable, allowing for frame sizes from silly small to Amazon Women tall, and wheel sizes from circus tiny to Bigwheel big. Accuracy and repeatability are key.

In addition to accommodating a varied build profile, you must think through the fabrication process and design the fixuture so that it enhances your access and ease of construction, rather than impede it. Have you left sufficient access for all joints, does the fixture allow for easy rotation, multiple positions, and welding/brazing in the jig? Do you have sufficient set off to get into the backside of all the joints? Not an easy task to accomplish.

These are all considerations that force you to fully understand bicycle design and fabrication before ever picking up a file or torch. By the end of the process, you'll have thoroughly disected the design, fabrication process, and gained invaluable skills in metal craft. Armed with this knowledge and experience, you have set yourself up with a far greater skill set than someone who chose to build without a fixture or purchased one.

It is unfortunate that in most's desire to come to the end product, they cheat themselves of a process that affords an opportunity to learn so much that will facilitate a more enjoyable and efficient building experience.

You can buy a can not buy the knowledge and experience that fabricating one will afford you.

Want to be a builder?

Be ravinous in reading, focused and detail oriented, methodical in exacting repitition, and of utmost importance, be an advocate for yourself.
Oh, and build yourself a fixture. :^)




steve garro said...

i don't know about anyone else, but i find the fixture pretty damn sexy! steve.

Dave A said...

Ah man that is such cool advice.

I am thinking about building my own frames. I have an 'A' grade qualification in Technical drawing (old school style using 3 grades of pencil and A1 paper). It just seems crushingly obvious that this would be the next step. Hell if you can't build a what you call a 'fixture' then can you really expect to build a bike frame?

Thanks for the advice :)