I have read a lot of blogs on the web, especially since I’ve started framebuilding. So many ideas and perspectives on the same thing but many times resulting in totally different end results. For building bikes, there are so many more people doing it as a ‘hobby’ than I had ever realized. Hobby is in quotes because it’s really an obsession. There are also way more people doing it to try and make a living. Some survive, some don’t. You probably have not heard of the majority of existing small framebuilder shops, they are so regional that even though I know of many of the smaller west coast builders, I’ve never even heard of many of the more established east coast builders! Each person takes what his or her wants from their learned experience and develops his/her process. What works for some does not work for others. An example is whether a builder uses BikeCAD or drafting paper and a pencil. I learned using BikeCAD but have just starting teaching myself the paper and pencil technique of drawing the full-size frame and fork on drafting paper and measuring miter angles, tube lengths, tire clearances off that drawing. I’m a VERY visual learner so seeing the frame before I start cutting tubes helps a ton. With my current fatbike build, the drawing helped me not ruin a pair of s-bend chainstays thankfully. The drawing in BikeCAD didn’t seem to model the rear tire clearance correctly for some reason! The fatbike tires are just such a different profile from a normal tire…wide from the rim up to the top of the tire.
Anyways, here are some things I’ve learned in the last year+ that I didn’t know before I started.
Tooling up or go simple?
- Don’t buy any heavy machinery when you’re starting off. Maybe get a drill press and a table grinder if you don’t already have them. I used to think this type of advice was the retro-grouches telling the newbies that they need to learn it ‘their’ way…but I see the validity in this approach now. The best thing about my milling machine is how FAST it is to make me nicely mitered tubes for TIG welding practice. When it comes to mitering tubes for the frame, I basically have the mill as the starting point to create the initial cut length of the tube, but then I file it to fit well anyways…sometimes for a long time. So get yourself a good set of files –> 6″, 8″, 10″ & 12″ half-round, flat, and rat tail files of different file patterns (Bastard, 2nd Cut, smooth). Get a good hacksaw with lots of 32tooth replacement blades. Get a good magnetic angle-finder (digital or vernier). I use my angle finder ALL the time, whether it’s to check a frame’s geometry and how it compares to the stated geometry, or helping me file tubes to the right angle, or just setting the correct cutting angle on my mill when cutting tubes. But most importantly, spend the money on a good vise (at least 4″ wide jaws) with some good soft-jaws (copper or AL). If you can’t afford a new Wilton Tradesman or the like, then wait for a *good* used vise on eBay or Craigslist. There are a lot of crappy vises out there. A crappy vice is more frustrating than spending some coin on a good one. You’ll never regret it, seriously.
- Start with using files to miter your tubes. Easy for me to say, eh? I don’t even do it. But truly, it’s much easier than you’d think, and pretty quick. When you account for the time it takes to set up the mill and fixturing, mitering your tubes with a hacksaw and file is nearly as fast. Honestly. Especially if you’re using one of those tube mitering programs that prints out the lines on paper to wrap around the tube to get you started.
- Get a solid Oxy/acetylene tank setup. If you want to do TIG…well…just wait until you know how to braze unless you have $2K burning a hole in your pocket. That’s just my opinion, but I learned to gas weld (oxy/acetylene) in a college welding course first and also to MIG weld at the same time but not to fillet braze. I wish I had! My framebuilding class was where I learned to TIG and it helps knowing how to do gas and MIG weld first. Plus they are WAY cheaper to start up.
- If you really want heavy machinery, I’d hold off on getting a milling machine and instead get a good lathe (if you have the room and the cash). You can make pretty much anything you need for a bike on a lathe, including another lathe i hear. Unless you’re wanting to make your own dropouts you may need a CNC milling machine. You can miter tubes on a lathe no problem. I have heard that Joe Breeze mitered his tubes on a lathe when he was making his own bikes back in the day. (what day? you know…THAT day.)
- Frame fixture. You don’t really need one if you are creative and have some initiative. Many hobbyists build their own out of aluminum extrusion available from places like McMaster-Carr. The result is a fixture that holds tubes where you want them to stay and although you have to measure the angles and distances yourself to set up the fixture correctly, it’s not all that much harder than setting up my Access65 jig. You’ll spend a crapload more time making your own fixtures but I’m sure it pays off in satisfaction and in how much money you’ll save. But I do like my frame fixture. I have absolutely zero machining experience and don’t know how to use CAD so I rely on the experts to make the tools that I use to make frames. I’d love to learn how to make my own dropouts someday, or make head tubes and bottom brackets, but my primary goal is the frames and forks so I cut my losses on learning that first.
- Get a big flat surface plate/alignment table. This is probably the heaviest thing you’ll ever want to place your hands on. If you move around a lot, get a C-channel steel plate like what Bringheli makes. But if you’re not moving and aren’t going to get a frame fixture right away, spend the time and cash on a big flat table. A 24″x36″ granite surface plate is OK but I feel it’s too small since you can’t place the entire frame up there and not have part of the frame hanging off the side. I’d go with something that can fit the entire frame on it without having to swivel the frame around the BB post. Just my opinion, but a big alignment table can serve many uses other than alignment of a frame. You can check for wobbles in tubes; you can align your forks; you can lay down your drawing and use it as a frame fixture with wood or aluminum tubing blocks and 1-2-3 blocks as spacers, etc.
Ok, that’s enough for part 3. I’m still a new builder but I hope some of my advice is useful so some newbies out there. I hope I can continue to share framebuilding info and techniques to help others learn from my mistakes, like all the people out there who helped me while starting out.