Craftsmanship is a word that is often bandied about, along with words such as artisan and handmade. When it comes to framebuilding, craftsmanship is “to strive for mastery of the craft” So lets have a look at how that applies to the process of building a custom frame.
Every frame we build starts off life as a collection of parts. Tubing is selected to give the frame the correct ride characteristics. Frame tubing is available in many different sizes and thicknesses. The diameter of the tubing has the largest effect on the stiffness of the frame, which we use to tune the frame to its intended purpose.
We check each tube for straightness, roundness and also if its specified butting is correct. All quality bicycle tubing is what we call butted tubing. It is made thinner in the middle of the tube and thicker at the end. It is at the ends where it is brazed to another tube or tubes where the extra strength is needed.
Once we’ve made sure that our tubing is to the required specification we can begin to mitre our tubes to fit the frame design. Mitreing is how we make one tube fit perfectly with another. We do this by hand with hand files. The real skill is getting all off the tubes to fit together perfectly, with no gaps where one tube fits up against the other.
There are many ways to join the tubes together when making a bicycle frame. At Ellis Briggs, lugs are very close to our heart, we happen to think that they are the most elegant way of joining frame tubes together. Elegant once we have spent many hours on them before and after brazing the frame together. My own apprenticeship, many years ago now, started with a filing technique which is the backbone of our craft.
In the early days of lugged bicycle frames, framebuilders used thick cast lugs which were heavy and rudimentary. The better framebuilders improved these crude lugs by cutting designs into them and then thinning them down until the lugs only looked slightly thicker than the tubes inserted into them. As time went on the lugs were improved upon so that less work was required to get them to look nice. Pressed lug designs by companies such as Prugnat, Nervex, Cinelli and others still needed working but the starting point was much better. By the 1980s the big frame manufacturers wanted better quality lugs for and so high quality cast lugs were produced.
Cast lugs from this era are still widely used, including by ourselves. Unfortunately many framebuilders using these lugs have abandoned lug filing almost completely. This has happened for a couple reasons, firstly many framebuilder have been trying to build to a price and filing lugs takes a long time, secondly many framebuilders find find lug filing laborious, so prefer to take short cuts.
There is not much point in paying for a handmade steel frame if it is not straight. Yet many frames are worse than mass produced frames from the far east.
Our alignment process ensure that the frame tubes are on the centreline of the frame and all in the same plane. From that foundation we can then ensure that when the wheels are mounted, they are also on the centreline. It is essential for predictable and safe handling, to have both wheels in exactly the same plane. Seem obvious really doesn’t it? But it is much harder than you might think, which is why on many frames short cuts are taken. We take spend a whole day brazing and aligning the front triangle alone.
Attention To Detail
So what sets apart a truly artisan from a mediocre framebuilder? Attention to detail. Not just the details that are obvious to the casual observer either, but the fine details which take a bit of education to appreciate.
“In the movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” there’s a scene in a dark room where Roger Rabbit (an animated character) flies across the room, knocks a hanging lamp around, and the lighting becomes so dynamic that all the shadows move around including the animated character’s shadow.
This was such a small detail that it would have been forgivable if the animators had left it out entirely: if they had not moved the lamp, kept the shadow steady, no one would have really noticed the difference. It would have been 100 times easier to animate and the effect wouldn’t really have been that different.
But they did it anyway. The term was later coined, and “bump the lamp” is used throughout Disney (and probably other organizations) to mean something akin to “go the extra mile”—but I see it as having a special significance to design.
You’re right, most people won’t notice. By that logic, you could cut corners a lot of other places too. You could be lax about button colors matching exactly, or per-pixel sharpness on the map and buttons. No one would probably notice.
But if you go for every detail like it was the most important detail, you have the possibility of reaching a level of design quality that is superlative, and some people will notice. Others will not notice directly, but will see that the piece exudes style and quality subconsciously, due to the attention to small details.
If you don’t pay attention to detail at that level, well, you might have the chance to actually get something done. Yes, it’s a balance, like everything else. But you have to know that it won’t be quite as good, and understand that yes, you are sacrificing something, even if you can’t see it.“On Hacker News, calinet6 writes an insightful comment on why attention to details matters and that it even if most people don’t notice many of the details, they may subconsciously feel that the total sum of details exudes quality.
When you buy a handmade frame, you don’t want to be treated like a number, otherwise you may as well buy a frame from a big manufacturer. You want a frame that is personal to you, unique. So the attention to detail is evidence of how much care has gone into building your pride and joy.