June 6, 2007

Framebuilding misconceptions

Sarah is working late, and I’m done entering receipts into the computer, so I thought I’d do a little rant on the various misconceptions the bike-buying public seems to have about framebuilders and framebuilding. I’m just going to tackle one tonight, maybe I’ll have some more to add soon.

Myth: Great welding skill translates into great framebuilding, and American welders are more skilled than their Taiwanese/Chinese/whatever counterparts.

The reality here is that making a safe, functional bike frame does not require you to be a master welder (in the sense that you would pass a bunch of tests to be licensed by the state). Very few bike builders are certified welders. Furthermore, being a great welder has almost nothing to do with being a good builder – it’s sort of like saying that having good hand-eye coordination with a pencil will make you a great artist. Is welding well and quickly necessary to be a good framebuilder? Yes. Is it _sufficient_ to make you a good framebuilder? No.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of welders in foreign countries who work exclusively on bicycles, who have welded orders of magnitude more frames than I ever will, day in and day out. They are, by all reasonable standards, BETTER WELDERS than I, or any other small framebuilder. This does not mean that they’ve ever so much as thrown a leg over a bicycle, or that the frame that they weld together was properly mitered and prepared, well designed, or will ride well. I, and many other small framebuilders, on the other hand, spend a lot of mental effort on *designing* good bikes, and while our welding skills might only be “good enough”, the end result is infinitely better to ride. When you buy a custom bicycle, you are paying for the design experience and skil of the builder – nice welds are just a bonus!

As an aside, framebuilders spend very little of their time welding – it takes me about half an hour or 45 minutes to do all the welds on a bike frame. The construction of the frame, from talking with the customer, doing a design, building, powdercoating, shipping, and doing billing and taxes, not to mention general maintenance of the shop and ordering supplies takes more like 10-15 hours – meaning that I’m only spending about 5% of my time with the TIG torch in hand. So when you picture me hard at work, you’d be closer to the truth if you think of me hunched in front of a computer or a stack of tax forms, not blazing away with a torch.