First let’s define small custom frame builder, there are three basic types of manufacturers that are commonly referred to as “custom”:
Custom Brand – these are the large well know high-end bikes brands that are commonly referred to as custom even though the majority of their production has very limited or no actual custom element in the frame. Their custom refers most often to parts, which may be custom selected depending on the dealer. Examples would be DeRosa, Colnalgo and Litespeed.
Custom Manufacturer – Custom manufacturers are smaller companies that sell through bikes shops. They do offer custom frames but you have little to no direct contact with the company and no one person builds your frame. Examples are Independent Fabrication, Serotta and Seven.
Small Custom Builder – A small custom builder can best be described as a one or two person shop. The frame is built for you specifically and you deal directly with the person that will be fabricating it.
This guide is intended for those that have decided to go directly to a Small Custom Builder.
Choosing a builder may feel overwhelming. It’s mind-boggling how many small custom builders there are. It seems that in the last four our five years the decision is becoming even more difficult. Builders are coming out of the woodwork. Thanks to the Internet, anyone with a logo, a buddy that does websites and a good painter can look and feel like a “real” frame builder, even though they may have only a couple dozen frames under their belt.
Here is a little guide to help you muddle through the process of choosing a builder:
Rather then trying to pick a builder out of the plethora of choices it’s easiest to start by eliminating the builders that don’t fit your needs.
Process of elimination
Decide what type of frame you want. Is it going to be a road, cross, touring or MTB. If it’s a MTB is it going to be a single speed or 29er? Once you have decided you can eliminate all the builders that don’t build those types of frames.
The next choice might be less obvious but this is the choice that will really narrow your options. Do you want traditional brazed steel, or are you interested in more contemporary TIG welded steel, Ti or aluminum? Here is why I ask: Builders fall into two categories, those that do lug and fillet brazed frames and those that TIG weld. The brazed guys can probably TIG weld and the TIG guys can probably braze but these are areas of specialization and you should go with a builder that specializes in the process you prefer. So you ask; how do I know which I prefer?
Brazing and TIG welding are of equivalent practical value. Meaning both will have the same strength and durability as long as a builder with experience does them correctly. The choice is aesthetic and monetary. Fillet brazed frames are more expensive than TIG because they require more finish work and in the case of lugged frames more prep work. TIG frames take less time to build and are typically a bit less expensive as a result. Lug frames are usually restricted to certain frame types because the lugs are only available in certain socket sizes and angles. TIG and Fillet has infinite flexibly and Ti and aluminum can only be TIG welded. So if the frame you want is aluminum or Ti you can eliminate all the Brazed construction builders, if you want classic lugged steel you can eliminate all the TIG builders. You choose, here are some images of the different types of joints to compare (all are steel).
|TIG painted||Lug Painted||Fillet Painted|
|TIG unpainted||Lug unpainted||Fillet unpainted|
Once that decision is made the budget is next. Within each category custom frame prices can cover a wide range. With custom frames you really get what you pay for. Typically newer less experienced frames builders will enter the market at a low price in order to build their brand and keep enough work flowing through their business to stay busy and get practice. The less experienced builders may also have a “real job” and are building part time on weekends and evenings from home. The more experienced builders work full-time during business hours have enough work to stay busy and charge what they need in order to earn a living and stay in business. While there are a lot of good framebuilders in the market there are only a couple dozen that can really be considered “Top Pro’s”. So what is the practical difference to you the paying customer? What do you get for your money?
First is quality design. More experienced builders have sold designed and built thousands of frames and go through the process every day. They have seen almost every type of situation and know what it takes to fit and select the appropriate geometry and tubes in order to produce exactly the qualities you want in your frame. They can help you understand your priorities and help make choices when trade-offs exist. In this department there is absolutely no substitute for experience.
The second area that the higher price of the more experienced builder is realized is quality of construction. Frame building is an art and a craft. The experienced framebuilder understands the nuances that can only be learned through years of doing something. Once a frame is covered with a pretty paint job you may not be able to see the elements that really set apart a frame built by the top builders from those built by less experienced builders. Aside from design, experienced builders get the spec’s right, their joining is flawless without any overheating or distortion and they don’t depend on cold-setting (bending) a frame to achieve final alignment. The more experienced builders do not depend on hours of finish work to clean up the frame and make it look good and don’t depend on the painter to cover their workmanship. What this means to you is a frame that is straight, accurate, beautiful and one that will last a lifetime.
Another important key distinction of an established pro builder is fiscal stability. An experienced builder will be there in the long run if you need them. If there is a problem they have the means to address it. They are also carry liability insurance which is very costly and something a lot of part time and newer builders cannot afford.
So now you’ve eliminated all the builders that don’t build the type of frame you want. You’ve eliminated the builders who don’t do the construction method you want. You’ve also eliminated the builders that are not in your price category. By this time you should be left with about a half dozen builders. It’s time to pick up the phone!
Ask questions, ask about the frame you want, ask about their philosophy ask them why you should pick them, do they have a guarantee? Are they insured? How long have they been in business or how many frames have they made? Once you’ve asked all the questions you can think of, it’s time to distinguish between them for more subjective reasons. Who do you feel comfortable with? Who is listening to you and understands what you’re looking for. Do you feel confident with them? Are they organized, accessible and responsive? Do you like their style? These are qualities you’ll want to consider. Typically you’ll like one or two more than the rest. If it’s one your choice is made. If it’s two keep asking questions.
Once you’ve made your choice it’s time to take the plunge. Making the commitment is the hardest part but there is no way around it. Eventually if you’re going to make the purchase you’ll have to make the commitment and pay the deposit. From that point forward the builder will take you by the hand and lead you through the process (see Strong Frames order process here). Once the choice is made it’s very easy. When all is said and done you’ll have a bike that is unique to you and exactly what you wanted.
Good luck and remember the process should be fun and you should make a friend in the builder. Also you should learn a lot! If this is your first custom bike you will learn about yourself, your priorities and have a better understanding of the sport in general. Even though the waiting may be hard it’s worth it.