March 26, 2009

Framebuilders and filthy lucre

So we all know (hopefully) that building bike frames isn’t a path to riches. Amazing fame, maybe. Lines of coke off your surface plate, maybe. Hummers in the back of an Escalade from a fine cougar after yoga, definitely.

Er, wait. What was I talking about?

Oh. Money. There’s an ongoing debate in the framebuilding world about how much money one should charge. On one side are the crusty veterans (well, not all of them, but many) who probably feel a bit threatened by the youngsters who are willing to work for just enough to pay the beef jerky and pinto beans bill. These folks say we all need to charge $2000 or more, that every lug should be polished for at least 5 hours, and that anyone who makes more than 5 frames a year is a hack.

On the other side are the always-changing crop of semi-amateurs, newbies, and the occasional suffering fool who thinks he’s a framebuilding monk. These folks charge $500 for a frame, make less than minimum wage, and can’t understand why anyone would charge more. Their roommates who work at Orange Julius have to help cover their rent every month, but they keep it real by putting a lot of cool spoke cards on their stable of fixies.

Clearly, I’m exaggerating. But it’s a real debate amongst framebuilders. As you’d expect, more experienced builders charge more than less experienced ones, and lug builders generally charge more than TIG, etc, etc.

My feeling is that you need to charge enough to live a decent life. Handbuilding bicycle frames is an old-school (anachronistic, even) way of building what is, for most folks, a luxury item. We’re like the Amish of 2-wheeled recreation!

So for $1100 or so (and yes, that’ll creep up as materials get more expensive and such) I can work a reasonable schedule, pay for my food and housing, go on vacation every once in a while, and save a few bucks. Folks who hang out a shingle and *don’t* really intend to make a profit (or haven’t done their homework to figure out what price will allow them to make one) are really hurting the folks who do this for a living to some extent, and when their businesses go under, they make us all look bad.

So bottom line, if you’re going to be a framebuilder, sit down and do your homework before you start. If you’re not capable of figuring out what your materials and overhead will cost, and how much time you’ll need to spend on a frame, you’re not ready to make bikes for money. Being a pro framebuilder is at least as much about being a savvy businessman as being a good welder.