The finish line is getting closer, but is still a long way off as there’s still more tidying up to do. Still. Always. And other things. An experienced frame-builder can clean up a lug in twenty minutes, apparently. It takes myself and Terry quite some considerable time longer to clean our respective joins. Bryan helps with the tidying of one of Terry’s joints and it’s both alarming and inspiring to see the confidence and efficiency with which he wields a large file in the most delicate of places to make a tube junction tidy and smooth. We carry on with our mincing about with tools and take our own sweet time. Lots of tea is drunk, my fingers are sore.
The final fix to my frame is the brake-bridge, there are normally standard measurements to follow when setting these in, but as I’m running track-ends that point is less certain and a compromise position has to be found. We fit a wheel with a suitable tyre, slot a mudguard in, fit a brake caliper to the bridge and judge the position by eye. Double double triple check, mark. Do some sums with sketches to work out how much to chop off each side of the brake bridge, do sums again, take into account the curve of the tube, check again. Over-compensate for ineptitude, cut and start filing. Once again nibble away and frequently offer the part up to the frame to check, make a note, file accordingly. It takes a while but definitely not as long as it would have done a week ago and the brake bridge is ready to braze in.
Being a thick piece of metal the bridge needs more heat than the tube, I’m aware of that, but I don’t target the flame enough on the bridge so I heat up both the bridge and the tube equally, causing the seat-stay to dangerously overheat. While that’s happening I’m not quick enough with the braze rod so Bryan gets concerned and quickly takes the torch from my hand. It would be a shame to fuck up now, that would be a frame, or a back end at least totally wasted. And a whole lot of time. He brazes in the whole brake-bridge and I feel quite sick and more than just a little helpless watching him do it from the sidelines. Bollocks. Every time I look at that brake bridge I’m going to be disappointed in myself.
Let’s try and move on from that shall we? Everything’s in place now with just the final little bits of tidying up to do. I’m given a power-tool to file down the top of the seat-clamp lug to save a bit of time and I manage to screw that up as well, carving down into the lug. It can be saved with a bit of delicate filing to make it look swoopy and arty and unique, yes, let’s say that. It’s a seat-lug with a custom swoosh to it, your bike doesn’t have that. This takes time, the time the power tool saved. I’m no handy man.
With everything as finished and as tidy as it can be for now there’s just the final frame prepping to do; cut the head tube straight and level with the big scary jagged toothed tool, chase the threads in the bottom-bracket, ream the seat-tube. There’s a satisfaction in using the proper tools for the job, combined with the slight fear that now’s really not the time to get it wrong, at all. I have a bit of a bottom-bracket thread rotation mind melt, which is unusual for me, but it all goes to plan, even the last minute addition of a mudguard mounting hole into the rear of the seat-tube and me drilling a hole by hand goes without a hitch, I wouldn’t have had the balls to do that a few days ago.
I could fuss about with all the finishing and tidying for a couple more days probably, but both I and Downland Cycles have a life to get back to, the whole thing has taken a lot longer than I was thinking. You have to work hard and put in the hours to make sure that you’ll get your frame done on time. Fit the stainless steel faces into the track ends and we’ll have to call that done.
I have a bicycle frame. Designed by me, with help. Made by me, with help. The proof will be in the riding though, there’s going to be no heavy expectation on the first pedal stroke there at all, oh no, but for now I’m quite happy to hang this up on the wall while final parts are being acquired and just look at it. I have made something.
Framebuilding isn’t necessarily Hard, but there is a lot to learn, and then there is craft and there is technique and there is knowledge, but if a cack-handed idiot like me can put some tubes together convincingly then anyone can. There is however a significant difference between someone that can build a frame and a frame-builder. I have made a bicycle frame, I could conceivably make you a bicycle frame if you wanted, but I ain’t no frame-builder. Once I’ve made, ooh, at least 100 frames then maybe I’d be confident in calling myself that and charging you good money for it. It’s a curious and wonderful mix of science, skill, experience and alchemy, and not everyone has all of that prowess stored in their armoury.
Would I build another frame? Tricky, I really don’t think I have the concentration and tool manipulation skills required, although over the week I discovered an appreciation for the metal, found a little bit of knack and technique and learnt a hell of a lot, so a healthy dose of practice might help, and Bryan said that his second frame was considerably easier than his first. With less fear taking over large and important parts of my brain I could channel the more detail obsessed currents of my synapses into my fingers and I reckon a second frame might turn out significantly better for me. Although deep down I know that I enjoy and rely on the randomness of chance and accident when doing things, neither aspects ideal when it comes to making a bike frame.
Would I come to Downland Cycles again? Most definitely. It’s almost a monastic retreat. There’s no mobile reception in this hidden corner of a Kentish valley, although there is full wifi if you’re desperate for outside contact, so a large portion of the world can be ignored unless you walk halfway up the hill for reception. As well as offering frame building Downland Cycles also have mechanics courses available for those just wanting to learn the basics all the way up to those wanting to become a pro level wrench. I could happily entertain plans to come back and learn how to build a wheel, or brush up on my mechanical skills and modernize them by learning about disc brakes and suspension, because I’ve still not got a 100% reliable understanding of either of those.
As an added bonus the riding around here is amazing, a maze of tiny and deserted country lanes, I went for a quick walk before supper one evening and got completely lost and had to cadge a lift back from a motorist, it’s that folded and twiddly. Bryan has a Garmin stuffed full of routes that you can plug and play with, want to tick off a 100 mile ride that has as much climbing as the famously tough Dragon Ride, he can let you do that if you want to squeeze it into a spare day.
If in your bike buying future you should decide to opt for a custom frame then you’re not paying enough for it, definitely, no matter whom you choose to put the tubes together in your favoured configeration. It’s not just posh plumbing sticking tubes together. The multitude of skills involved, the time taken, the love, dedication and attention to detail employed all add up to appreciably more than you’re being charged. That’s something that you’ll discover if you do this course; an appreciation for anyone that does this as a proper job, and not just the rush of shed hobbyists that seem to be popping up everywhere now that can tinker, play and charge artisan prices with their beards.
But if you are considering stumping up for a custom bike frame then I’d recommend saving a lot of time scrolling through websites and looking at pretty paint-jobs to decide upon your chosen builder and then longer on what colour scheme to choose and instead coming to Downland Cycles and doing it yourself. You’re not going to mess it up, Bryan is there to make sure it fits you, will raise an eyebrow at any of your quirky ideas and keep a quiet eye on you all the way through the build process. He’s not going to let a wonky gate of a bike leave his door. The level of achievement in building your own bike, for you, is somewhat larger than the ability to press ‘send’ on a bank transfer. You will have a bicycle that is truly and deeply yours rather than just your wallets.
To get the last mile home from the train station I ride my full carbon road bike, I have my duffel bag on my back and over my shoulder steadied by my left hand is a hand-built steel road frame. My hand built. It seems entirely appropriate.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.