Building a frame from the ground up is a serious challenge and going from dreaming about it to actually cutting tubes and welding or brazing them together takes a real leap of faith. This story, written by SRAM Road PR Specialist, Daniel Slusser tells how he made this leap and built his first frame with some help from his friends.
“Just start wrecking tubes.” That’s what Todd Ingermanson of Black Cat told me at the North American Handmade bike show (NAHBS) in 2008 when I asked him how to get started as a framebuilder. While I admired the punk rock ethos that statement embodied, the thought of wrecking a tube was a bit overwhelming for me at the time. So I let my fear of failure, and lack of funds required for tuition at a proper framebuilding school, prevent me from building my first frame for another eight years.
During those eight years I attended some framebuilding seminars at handmade bike shows, read framebuilding forums online, experimented with framebuilding programs that allowed me to mock up virtual bikes, and practiced grinding and sculpting old bike parts into new shapes. I even took welding and machining courses at the local university, but I never wrecked a single tube.
After watching a friend of mine build three disc brake cyclocross frames on his own over the past year, with absolutely no professional instruction and very limited TIG welding experience, it got the wheels turning in my mind. Meanwhile, SRAM was in the process of field testing SRAM RED® eTap® HRD, a product that could make framebuilding quite a bit easier for a beginner. Building a bike using dropouts that had built-in disc brake tabs plus just a few braze-ons for the rear brake hose made the thought of building a frame much easier to stomach. Plus, the appeal of creating an eTap specific frame that was clean and simple made the whole enterprise incredibly appealing.
One of Todd Ingermanson's Black Cats on display at NAHBS 2016.
A few weeks after hatching the idea I was at NAHBS 2016 and I went by the Black Cat booth to talk to Todd again. While chatting with him I couldn’t stop thinking about his invitation eight years ago to start wrecking tubes. So one week after returning home I had a shiny new oversized Columbus Zona tubeset from Nova Cycle Supply in my hands just begging to be wrecked.
I am an apartment dweller, so I repurposed my kitchen table and back porch as my workspace for the next two months. After making a full-size drawing of the frame, I cut and coped the tubes with simple hand tools like saws and files along with basic power tools – a bench grinder, a belt sander, and a Dremel. The full sized drawing allowed me to check the tubes for proper fitment as I worked. This bilaminate faux lug for the top tube was my one complicated flourish.
Although I had always planned on fillet brazing my frame, when I started work on it I had no clear plan for how or where I was going to braze the frame together, as I didn’t own a torch or have a safe place to operate one. I just crossed my fingers that some opportunity would present itself. Maybe the local MakerSpace would work for me, or some friends would let me use their equipment. It turned out the gamble paid off thanks to my friend, Brook.
Brook is an amateur framebuilder and fellow SRAMmie based in Chicago that has taken a few framebuilding courses, including a two-week long course at UBI. At NAHBS she said she’d be happy to help me build a frame if I lived in the same city as her, but I’m based out of SRAM’s San Luis Obispo, California office. To my good fortune, a few weeks after NAHBS, SRAM asked me to travel to Chicago for some meetings, so I packed up my tubes and took them with me and brazed them together with Brook in the evenings. An incredibly patient teacher, Brook walked me through the whole process while graciously allowing me to use her frame jig, torch, and unequivocally punk rock workspace in an abandoned book bindery bathroom. Brook was such a kind host that she even stocked the mini fridge with my favorite beverage, ginger beer.
A week later my frame was nearly done. I just needed to braze on the seatstays and rear brake hose guides. I also had to dimple the chainstays to clear the crank arms and chainrings, something I hadn’t planned on, even though a framebuilder buddy specifically warned me about this. Live and learn.
Using borrowed torches from friends, I finished up the frame in two more brazing sessions. Because this was my first frame, I found that I had to do a lot of touch up work on all of my front triangle fillets. It meant having to essentially braze the frame twice. All that heat doesn’t bode well for the frame’s longevity, but a first frame pretty much always amounts to a practice round. I was wrecking tubes after all… Thankfully a framebuilding friend in SLO came through with more coaching to get me through the process safely. Thanks, Tyler. Another friend and fellow SRAMmie, Dave helped me get the stays dimpled properly.
With the frame brazed together, the next steps were to file down the fillets and get the bike painted. The tedious but strangely meditative filing process took me about two weeks to complete. Before painting, I checked the frame alignment for the last time (you have to check it at a few points throughout the frame building process) and found that the rear end was off by a couple millimeters. The rear wheel sat off to the drive side, and the top of the wheel leaned slightly toward the drive side as well. Carefully filing half a millimeter off of the drive side dropout and re-dishing the wheel a couple of millimeters got it lined up perfectly with the seat tube. To keep costs down and make the bike completely handmade, I decided to rattle can it with gloss black paint accented with hand-applied gold leaf. It was all going according to plan until I went to clear coat it. When the clear hit the color coat the paint started to crackle and rise in places. It was a major disappointment, but again, this was a learning exercise and making mistakes is part of that.
After prepping the frame for assembly, which included reaming the seat tube, reaming and facing the headtube, and chasing and facing the bottom bracket, the bike went to together great. In fact, with the extra attention paid to proper frame prep that all custom bikes require, the headset, seat post, and bottom bracket went in smoother than they often do for production bikes, which don't always get this kind of attention.
In the end, despite all the mistakes I made, I’m incredibly happy with how the whole project came out. In addition to the perfect fit and smooth ride of the bike, I just enjoy looking at it leaning up against the wall in my living room. Knowing that I made it myself only makes the feeling of accomplishment that much sweeter. But version 2.0 will be better. I’m not done wrecking tubes yet.
If you are thinking about trying framebuilding, my advice is to don't let the process intimidate you. Most first frames end up as scrap and that is completely OK. Don't let perfectionism or fear of failure get in the way of achieving your dream like I did. With that said, I think my first frame came out as well as it did because I spent eight years researching how to do it. During that time I also practiced filing and sculpting old bike parts and frames to get some practice for that part of the process. The welding and machining courses and framebuilding seminars helped as well, but more than anything, working with friends that had experience framebuilding was by far the biggest help. So get involved in the framebuilding community in your area and online and don't be afraid to ask dumb questions. There are lots of people willing to help you. Yes, there are a multitude of people in the framebuilding community that have very strong and often differing opinions on how to build a frame. Don't let that scare you. Take in all of that information and just ask questions. You will find that there are many ways to build a good frame. Find the common, widely accepted framebuilding practices and follow them. It's all a learning process that never ends, even after building many, many frames. Making mistakes is just part of that process. Start by practicing on old scrap tubing or inexpensive tubing and you'll likely find that you are capable of learning faster than you might expect.
Completed bike photos by Carl Kunde