Trial By Fire

Cy­clist spends two weeks at the Bi­cy­cle Academy in Som­er­set to see if even the most in­ex­pe­ri­enced crafts­man can re­ally be­come a frame­builder

Cyclist - - Contents - Words PETE MUIR Pho­tog­ra­phy ADAM GASSON

Ever fan­cied be­ing a frame­builder? Cy­clist heads to the Bi­cy­cle Academy to see if just any­one can be­come a mas­ter crafts­man

The brass rod wa­vers in my hand as I try to di­rect it into the mil­lime­tre gap be­tween the noz­zle of the braz­ing torch and the steel tubes that will, one day, be­come my new bike. I men­tally run through the check­list from my braz­ing tu­to­ri­als, aware that if I spend too much time think­ing about the process I’m likely to over­heat the metal and dam­age it.

Tilt the flame, an­gle it into the join be­tween the two tubes, a lit­tle bit more on the thicker tube to even out the tem­per­a­ture. Wait… not too soon with the brass rod or it won’t melt. Hold it steady, gen­tly tease it into the join, wait… wait for it to give… there. Now move! Bring the torch round a touch, don’t let it raise up, watch how the brass pools, spread­ing at the edges – not too much – now add some more brass quickly, move again, dab again, hold the flame steady.

‘Good,’ says Tom, who has been mon­i­tor­ing my progress. I step back, heart pump­ing, eyes aching, and in­spect my hand­i­work. So far I’ve man­aged to com­plete about two inches of braz­ing work on the junc­tion be­tween the head tube and top tube and al­ready I’m ex­hausted. Tom re­leases the frame from the vice and ro­tates it through a few de­grees, and asks me if I’m ready to con­tinue. I will have to re­peat this process sev­eral more times just to join these two tubes to­gether, and we haven’t even got to the fid­dly stuff around the bot­tom bracket yet.

I’m start­ing to re­think my pre­con­cep­tions about what it takes to be­come a frame­builder.

Back to school

Like many peo­ple who work in an of­fice, I have of­ten dreamed about jack­ing it all in and mov­ing to the coun­try­side, where I will while away my days cre­at­ing ob­jects of beauty in my ar­ti­san work­shop, a ra­dio on in the back­ground and a lazy dog asleep in the cor­ner. For me, the main ob­sta­cle to re­al­is­ing this dream is my ut­ter in­ep­ti­tude at all things prac­ti­cal. I can’t hang a pic­ture with­out ac­ci­den­tally punch­ing a hole through to the neigh­bours’ liv­ing room. The last time I built any kind of ve­hi­cle it was out of Lego, so I don’t fancy my chances of be­com­ing a cel­e­brated bi­cy­cle frame­builder any time soon.

An­drew Den­ham, a for­mer en­gi­neer in the oil in­dus­try and founder of the Bi­cy­cle Academy in Som­er­set, as­sures me he can teach me ev­ery­thing I need to take those first steps to­wards my dream, should I de­cide to pur­sue it. He be­lieves that bike frame­build­ing has be­come un­nec­es­sar­ily shrouded in mys­tique and his aim is to de­mys­tify the process, dis­till­ing it into a for­mat that can be ex­plained, taught and un­der­stood.

‘Mak­ing a frame is in part the phys­i­cal process of mea­sur­ing, mark­ing, cut­ting, shap­ing and join­ing the tubes to­gether, and those things are not par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing. If you go into any in­dus­trial es­tate you’ll find peo­ple do­ing things like that ev­ery day, but they’re not cel­e­brated in cof­fee ta­ble books,’ he says, al­though that’s not to un­der­mine the skill it takes to cre­ate a great frame.

‘Mak­ing a frame that has any kind of value is about un­der­pin­ning the de­sign and hav­ing an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of how you can re­fine its ride qual­i­ties and fit, and how you can work the

The last time I built a ve­hi­cle it was out of Lego, so I don’t fancy my chances of be­com­ing a cel­e­brated bi­cy­cle frame­builder any time soon

ma­te­rial to get the most from it. The rea­son I set up the Bi­cy­cle Academy was that no­body was re­ally mak­ing any ef­fort to com­mu­ni­cate those bits of in­for­ma­tion.’

The Bi­cy­cle Academy isn’t the only place where peo­ple can go to learn how to make a bike, but Den­ham be­lieves too many other cour­ses have tu­tors who may be highly ex­pe­ri­enced frame­builders but are less adept at ex­plain­ing what it is they ac­tu­ally do.

‘With many frame­builders the process has be­come so in­grained it’s ef­fec­tively a case of mus­cle mem­ory. They can pro­duce won­der­ful re­sults but they are un­able to ar­tic­u­late how they do it to other peo­ple, which is why they tend to per­pet­u­ate this idea that you only be­come good at it when you have done it for many years.’

This em­pha­sis on teach­ing the prin­ci­ples of frame­build­ing – rather than sim­ply go­ing

through the mo­tions of con­struct­ing a frame – is why the Bi­cy­cle Academy course is two weeks long, with much of the time spent in the class­room rather than just at the work­bench.

Most of day two is spent with Den­ham, learn­ing about braz­ing the­ory. He proves to be a pas­sion­ate and ar­tic­u­late teacher, bring­ing sci­en­tific clar­ity to a sub­ject of­ten con­sid­ered to be a dark art re­stricted to mas­ter builders.

There are only two pupils in the class­room – my­self and Jean-philippe, who has come over from Bel­gium to do the course – and we learn about the dif­fer­ent weld­ing and braz­ing meth­ods, types of fillers, flame speeds and tem­per­a­tures, flux, fil­let shapes and depths, cap­il­lary ac­tion, stress ris­ers and how heat af­fects steel.

On other days we are given lessons in bike de­sign, ge­om­e­try and struc­ture by Tom Sturdy, who is not only a frame­builder him­self but also has a back­ground in aerospace en­gi­neer­ing, holds a mas­ters in biome­chan­ics and is a for­mer pro­fes­sional triath­lete. By the end of the classes my head is spin­ning with con­cepts like Young’s mod­u­lus, me­chan­i­cal trail, yield strengths and hip ro­ta­tion. We have dis­cussed the vari­ables that af­fect bike han­dling and ar­gued about the rel­a­tive mer­its of frame stiff­ness (I fi­nally un­der­stand why alu­minium bikes tend to feel harsher than steel, de­spite steel be­ing three times stiffer than alu­minium).

All I have to do now is put this knowl­edge into prac­tice, prefer­ably with­out slic­ing off any of my limbs or burn­ing down the work­shop.

If at first you don’t suc­ceed…

My plan is to build a road bike frame that I am grandiosely de­scrib­ing as ‘mod­ern clas­sic’. That is, the ge­om­e­try is fairly tra­di­tional but it will be made from over­sized Colum­bus Life tub­ing to keep it light and stiff by steel bike stan­dards. In my mind it will look like some­thing that could have been cre­ated by Pe­goretti, and passers-by will swoon over its re­fine­ment and el­e­gance.

Jean-philippe, by con­trast, in­tends to pro­duce a rugged moun­tain bike with a belt drive, which re­quires some com­plex plan­ning, in­clud­ing the re­moval of a chunk of chain­stay to ac­com­mo­date the disc brake ro­tors, and a split­ter in the seat­stay to al­low the fit­ting of the belt.

For­tu­nately for Jean-philippe, his job re­quires him to Tig-weld in­dus­trial work­benches, so he’s al­ready com­fort­able with the braz­ing torch. I, mean­while, have never done any­thing like this be­fore, which is why a large pro­por­tion of our time on the course is spent prac­tis­ing braz­ing over and over again, un­der the watch­ful eye of Sturdy and fel­low frame­builder Jake Rusby.

My first at­tempts are ris­i­ble. We’ve been told to make a ‘stack of coins’ on a flat metal sur­face by cre­at­ing small cir­cu­lar pools of brass that over­lap each other to form a long fil­let, but by

A large pro­por­tion of our time on the course is spent prac­tis­ing braz­ing over and over again. My first at­tempts are ris­i­ble

the end my brass stack looks more like a worm that has been fought over by two birds.

Equally tricky is mitring tube ends with a curved file so that they form a per­fect fit with other tubes. Each swipe of the file re­moves a tiny amount of metal, chang­ing the shape of the mitre by mi­nus­cule de­grees. It’s a time­con­sum­ing and in­fu­ri­at­ing process: take a few strokes with the file, re­move the tube from the vice, line it up with its part­ner, check for gaps, re­turn it to the vice, take a cou­ple more strokes, re­move from the vice… now the gaps are on the other side. Re­peat again and again un­til you either have a pleas­ingly air­tight seal or you have filed away so much ma­te­rial that the tube is now too short and needs to be thrown away.

It will be sev­eral days be­fore we’re let loose on the tubes that will make our bikes, and I’m thank­ful for the time to prac­tise the tech­niques and dis­cuss all the el­e­ments of the fi­nal frame that need to be con­sid­ered. What type of bot­tom bracket should I be us­ing? Do I want bosses for mud­guards? What kind of seat clamp do I want? Should I go for a braze-on de­railleur hanger?

I find the whole process fas­ci­nat­ing. By work­ing on my own bike, I have a bet­ter in­sight into which as­pects are fixed by ne­ces­sity and which can be ma­nip­u­lated to my own pref­er­ences. I have a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the skill and ef­fort re­quired, and my eyes have been opened to many of the myths and fal­la­cies that sur­round frame­build­ing.

As Den­ham puts it, ‘Mak­ing a bi­cy­cle is ab­so­lutely a process. It’s not an art. It’s not about what mu­sic you lis­ten to or whether you’ve got the right beard. Our mo­ti­va­tion here isn’t to di­min­ish the value that’s as­so­ci­ated with frame­build­ing, I just want to de­mys­tify it, to stop it be­com­ing this im­pen­e­tra­ble, revered thing.’

Bi­cy­cle shaped ob­ject

It’s the end of the first week be­fore I fi­nally be­gin work on the bike proper. My cho­sen Colum­bus tube­set sits shiny and pris­tine on the work­bench, and I am ner­vous about mak­ing the first cuts into the steel.

The tubes are butted – thicker at the ends than the mid­dle – so it’s im­por­tant to con­sider how much to re­move from each end be­fore wield­ing the hack­saw. I mea­sure the tube wall thick­nesses us­ing the bril­liantly named ‘buttchecker’, then mark the tube for cut­ting. Then

I metic­u­lously mitre and mea­sure all the tubes, and it be­gins to form the shape of a bi­cy­cle frame

I mea­sure it again. Then I get Jake to mea­sure it. Then I do it once more for luck. Fi­nally I pluck up the courage to slice into the pre­cious metal.

Over the next few days, I metic­u­lously mitre and mea­sure all the tubes, and it be­gins to form the shape of a bi­cy­cle frame in the jig. I braze the dropouts into the rear stays, teas­ing the filler around the spa­ces with the flame. I check groupset man­u­als to en­sure there will be no is­sues with clear­ances. I drill breather holes in the tubes in prepa­ra­tion for braz­ing. And each day ends with more fil­let braz­ing prac­tice.

By now I’m get­ting the hang of it. I’m still far from ex­pert, but el­e­ments of it have be­come nat­u­ral enough that I can fo­cus on the im­por­tant stuff: the height and an­gle of the flame; watch­ing the filler to see it flow into the root be­fore dab­bing the rod; feel­ing it shift ever so slightly in my fin­gers as a tiny amount melts into the pool; gaug­ing the depth and width of the fil­let, and mov­ing at just the right speed to keep the pool liq­uid with­out burn­ing the filler.

All the prac­tice pays off. I man­age to suc­cess­fully braze all the tubes to­gether, and by the fi­nal day of the course I am in pos­ses­sion of a hand­some bi­cy­cle frame that I can say, with a cer­tain amount of pride, I have made my­self. The ques­tion now is whether I could take the skills I have learned on­wards to be­come a gen­uine ar­ti­san frame­builder in my coun­try work­shop?

I be­lieve the an­swer is yes. It would take a lot more learn­ing, a lot of ex­tra prac­tice and many more frames be­fore I would put my name to

one, but the es­sen­tials are there to get started should I want to. But would I want to?

I’ve dis­cov­ered that frame­build­ing is cer­tainly not the leisurely pur­suit I’d en­vi­sioned in my of­fice-bound day­dreams. It re­quires pa­tience and fo­cus, with many la­bo­ri­ous, repet­i­tive tasks. It can be stress­ful and frus­trat­ing, and that’s be­fore you start deal­ing with awk­ward cus­tomers. I de­cide I will need to give my fu­ture plans more con­sid­er­a­tion, per­haps while rid­ing my new bike into work each day.

Be­fore I can ride my bike, how­ever, I need to get it painted, and I’d like to smooth back the fil­lets to give it that pol­ished, pro­fes­sional fin­ish. Tom demon­strates how to scrape back the hard­ened brass with a flat blade and emery pa­per, and I give it a go. It seems to take a very long time to do even a small patch.

‘Yes,’ says Den­ham as he sips his tea. ‘To do the whole frame will take about 40 hours.’

Ah. That work­shop in the coun­try seems fur­ther away than ever. Pete Muir is still edi­tor of Cy­clist

It can be stress­ful and frus­trat­ing, and that’s be­fore you start deal­ing with awk­ward cus­tomers

Above: Mea­sure and mea­sure again. Lin­ing up chain­stays on these printed scales al­lows the builder to check for tyre and chain­ring clear­ance long be­fore a wheel is slot­ted into place

The Bi­cy­cle Academy is not just a teach­ing fa­cil­ity – many for­mer pupils re­turn to use the work­shop to con­tinue their frame­build­ing ca­reers

Right: Cy­clist looks for chinks of day­light be­tween mitred tubes. Per­fec­tion is unattain­able – the tar­get is ‘fit for pur­pose’

Above right: No self-re­spect­ing frame­build­ing work­shop would be com­plete with­out a dog ly­ing con­tent­edly in the cor­ner

Above: Cy­clist plays with fire, aim­ing to bal­ance the many vari­ables that can af­fect the qual­ity of a braze, in­clud­ing flame speed, dis­tance, an­gle and tim­ing

Right: A bucket of dis­carded prac­tice pieces looks like a failed at­tempt at mod­ern sculp­ture

Back to school: tu­tor Tom Sturdy talks through the process of cap­il­lary braz­ing dropouts into chain­stays

Be­low: Cy­clist prac­tises braz­ing tech­niques over and over again on short sec­tions of tub­ing

The Bi­cy­cle Academy aims to de­mys­tify fil­let braz­ing by tak­ing a sci­en­tific ap­proach to a process that has be­come revered as an art­form

Above: Check­ing for frame align­ment. The beauty of steel is that it can be mus­cled into po­si­tion to make it mil­lime­tre-per­fect

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