Custom built frames: The choice, from steel to carbon
If you want a custom frame there's a growing band of framebuilders. David Arthur takes a look at some of the best
Not all that long ago, most 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 bikeshop 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 Chas Roberts and 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 easer to scale up the manufacturing process. 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.
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. www.demonframeworks.com
Swallow Handmade Frames
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. www.bicycles-by-design.co.uk
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. Mark Reilly has 25 years of experience building frames. 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. http://feathercycles.blogspot.co.uk
Croydon-based Roberts have been a go-to frame builder for London cyclists for more than 50 years. Frame builder Chas, who took over from his father Charlie, started brazing at the tender age of 14 and has been building frames for the past 35 years. That’s a lot of experience. They built some of the first British mountain bikes and offer production off-the-shelf frames as well. www.robertscycles.com
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. www.shandcycles.com
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. www.burls.co.uk
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. www.rourke.biz
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. www.iraryancycles.com
IF BIkes started life in 1995 from the remants 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. www.parleecycles.com
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. www.crumptoncycles.com
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. www.legend-bikes.com