Not all that long ago, most high quality road bikes were custom built to order by your local frame builder. Times have changed and today most are produced on a mass scale in the Far East where advances in manufacturing and production processes have seen all types of road bikes become both more affordable and more technologically advanced than ever before.
That doesn't mean that people don't want custom produced handbuilt bikes any more. Far from it. In recent years there has been a dramatic resurgence in the number of custom builders in the UK and other countries, and while most still work in steel there are also artisan builders working in titanium, aluminium, and carbon too. We're going to look at some of the best working today.
There's no denying that most production road bikes sold these days are are well designed, well made and competitively priced and specced. That's why your local bike shop doesn't build its own frames any more, but there's still a place for the custom builder. If you've got particular needs in terms of sizing or geometry that aren't met by the mass market then custom is the way to go and, of course, it's also the option for those that want to stand out from the mass produced crowd.
Most of us don't need a custom built bike. A properly set-up off-the-peg machine can be made to fit very well. Of course, 'need' is only a very small part of the equation when it comes to justifying having a bike made just for you.
Despite the decline of the bike shop frame builder, there are still a healthy number of frame builders, old and young, making frames, by hand and to order, in the traditional way. Some of the established names like Brian Rourke have been working for decades. In the last five years there's been a noticeable increase of younger framebuilders picking up the welding torch and reviving the nearly lost art of frame building. If shows like Bespoked Bristol and the North American Handmade Bicycle Show are anything to go by, demand for their work is increasing.
A custom handbuilt frame is a thing of personalised beauty: built to order and to your exact specifications, and made one at a time. Whatever the material, It’s usually a slow process, with the meticulous work meaning that some framebuilders produce just a couple of dozen frames a year. You have a dialogue with the frame builder from conception to completion, and you might have a say in every minute detail. If all goes well, through their experience you can have a frame so purely personal to you that it's your perfect bike.
Back in the 80s, when custom handbuilt frames were common for racing cyclists, steel was the material of choice. The advent of mass production saw aluminium become the dominant material, because it's easier to mass-produce a light frame from aluminium. Carbon fibre and titanium, however, don't lend themselves to such mass production techniques and even frames that are produced in high numbers are to a large degree handbuilt. The making of a carbon frame has not yet been fully automated. The individual layers still need to be laid by hand into the mould and the way that is done will have a significant effect on how the finished bike rides.
There's no doubt that steel is still the material of choice of most custom frame builders - although there's plenty of variation in the ways that they stick it together to make a bike: lugged, TIG welded or fillet brazed. Some of the bigger builders offer both standard build and custom frames - that goes for carbon-fibre frames too from the likes of Parlee and Legend. So in a way there's handbuilt on a huge scale and handbuilt on a personal scale. They both have their merits.
So if you’re craving a handmade frame with that custom touch, just what are your options? We’ve rounded up a small handful to give you an indication of the current choice, including specialists in both steel and carbon fibre.
Former Enigma man Mark Reilly gives this relatively new company its name, but he's not alone. Carbon specialist Neil FitzGerald looks after the firm's composite creations while graphic and product designer Damon Fisher makes sure they look good. Reilly makes frames in a wide variety of steel alloys, as well as titanium and carbon fibre.
Usually just referred to as Sarto, this Italian father-and-son outfit is run by Antonio and Enrico Sarto and has been making custom frames since 1950. They've become prominent in recent years as a specialist in very light, very expensive carbon fibre frames, and they also make frames for other manufacturers. Sarto specialises in tube-to-tube manufacturing, allowing virtually unlimited customisation.
Saffron Frameworks was founded in 2009 by Matthew Sowter. Like many of the new-generation custom buildersframebuilders, he solely works with steel. Sowter has won various awards over the years, testament to the quality of his workmanship. As a result of his growing reputation and the popularity for going custom, there's a long waiting list to get a Saffron frame.
The motto of this Portland, Oregon cyclo-cross and road specialist is "Designed to be raced the shit out of", which is admirably to the point, if a bit clunky. There's nothing clunky about their clean, tidy aluminium and steel bikes, though.
It sounds like someone's name, but this Italian outfit's brand actually stands for High Energy Race Sport History. They started in 2009 with a bike shop in Riva Del Garda and now offer a range of custom carbon road bikes, using tube-to-tube construction to allow fine-tuning of the geometry.
Demon Frameworks is one of the the UK’s youngest frame builders, starting up just four years ago. Set up by Tom Warmerdam in Southampton, the brand is among the new wave of young British builders. Pictured is the Manhattan, one of his signature frames. The lugs, dropouts and fork crown are all lovingly handcrafted. Demon's work has been recognised with awards, including the 'Best Road' prize at the North American Handbuilt Bike Show this year.
Well known in the 1980s and '90s in the UK for their innovative frames and specialist components for tandems and mountain bikes, Peter Bird and Robert Wade are hand-making frames again after a 12 year break. Back in the day, they were the world's youngest Reynolds 753-approved frame builders.
From her workshop in London, Caren Hartley has forged a formidable reputation as one the UK's most meticulous builders. A former sculptor and jeweller, she turned her skills and attention to detail to bicycles after becoming disenchanted with the art scene; that world's loss in cycling's gain.
Well established as one of the finest producers of titanium frames (and a few steel ones) in the UK, Engima are passionate about craftsmanship and have been actively trying to bring back the nearly lost art of frame building. Alongside a nice range of production steel and titanium frames, Enigma can produce handbuilt titanium and steel frames at their East Sussex facility.
Another of the new wave of young British framebuilders reviving the tradition of handbuilt frames is BMXer turned framebuilder Ricky Feather. He launched Feather Cycles a few years ago in North Yorkshire. From there has been building exquisite head turning frames with beautiful hand carved lugs. He's self taught and currently builds around 25 frames a year, and is in demand. He's co-author of new book called Made in England, a lavish celebration of British framebuilders.
Based in Livingston, Scotland, Shand have been handbuilding frames since 2003. They have launched several interesting bikes since then, including a disc-equipped cyclocross model. They specialise in handbuilt steel frames but now also offer a couple of production frames, with several sizes available.
Liz Colebrook started, as so many framebuilders do, as a mechanic before picking up a brazing torch and setting up Beaumont Bicycle at the beginning of 2016. But she has also worked as an occupational therapist and has a special interest in keeping people cycling whose ability has been affected by a reduced range of movement.
As well as classic diamond frames, Colebrook crafts beautifully-made and thought-out step-through frames like the one above, which won a prize in the 'Outstanding Design' category at the 2016 Bespoked handbuilt bicycle show in Bristol.
Burls is the work of Justin Burls, a self taught framebuilder with a background in engineering. He's not immune to a custom challenge and has built some interesting bikes in his time, including a tandem. He'll custom handbuild a steel frame from his Harwich base. He also offers bespoke titanium frames which are made in Russia.
Brian has been building frames in Stoke-on-Trent since 1972 and has been a popular choice with racing cyclists over the years. Rourke bikes have been ridden to success in national and world cycling events. Perhaps most famously, Nicole Cooke rode a Rourke frame in the world junior road race championships in 2000. Rourke builds in steel and usually fillet brazes or TIG welds his frames. The wraparound seatstay design is a signature design element.
I first met Ira Ryan on the inaugural Cent Cols Challenge, and discovered an intensely passionate and driven individual. He was incredibly strong on the bike too. He has been making frames from his Portland, Oregon base for several years. Since he started in 2005, Ira has focused on bicycles as a tool for discovery with an emphasis on durability, and many of his builds are sturdy yet light touring bikes. The Randoneer is a classic built for long distance rides.
Independent Fabrication BIkes started life in 1995 from the remnants of mountain bike company Fat City Cycles. It’s a small company staffed by passionate people and they produce some of the nicest frames you’ll ever set eyes on. Their paint finishes are some of the neatest around. Models like the Crown Jewel, Club Racer, SSR, Corvid, Planet Cross, XS, and most recently the Ti Factory Lightweight, have become modern day classics lusted after by cyclists in the know. They work with carbon fibre, titanium, steel, stainless steel, and in some cases a mix of several materials.
Bob Parlee started making carbon fibre frames over a decade ago and the brand has since become one of the most desirable out there. Parlee only deal in carbon and they're at the forefront of carbon frame design. With an eye to the future, their new Z-Zero is being offered with disc brakes.
Nick Crumpton runs his frame building business from Austin, Texas. He specialises in carbon fibre and he doesn’t build many frames a year: about 40 or so. Every measurement, every angle, every tube, is tailored towards the needs of each customer. The build process involves precision cutting of the tubes, bonding them together and wrapping the joints with strips of carbon, all by hand. It’s a labour intensive process.
Legend handbuild their range of carbon, titanium and steel from their Italian factory and offer a full range of custom options. You can choose the geometry, the tube specifications and the paint colour. There are very few Italian frame builders around these days and while the Legend brand hasn't been around for long, there’s a lot of expertise behind the bikes, and they’re clearly passionate about building frames by hand.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.