Thursday, April 06, 2006

Going Custom: Part 2: Choosing a Builder

This is part 2 in the series about getting a custom road frame.

Choosing a Builder

This is as hard as choosing a color. When you go custom, you are entering into a relationship with the builder. Very similar to choosing a coach, you have to choose a person, or company with whom you 'click'. If you don't have faith in the builder you will forever second guess the frame.

Just like choosing a doctor you have to find a builder who listens to you. Who understands your needs. However just as important is their detective skills. They need to ask the right kinds of questions in order to get the right information out of you. Information that you might not even know or think is important.

There are SOOOOO many custom builders and companies that do custom frames that it isn't even funny. It is really difficult to even know where to start. Here are a couple of lists that provide a starting point.

Velo News Handmade Buyer's Guide
S&S Coupler Framebuilder list
North American Handmade Bicycle Show Builders List
Henry James Builder's List

Several companies that build stock frames also offer custom services. Such as Gunnar. They make one of the best values in a road bike around.

Many of the builders in the above lists are one-man shops. Others are small production shops that also specialize in custom frames such as Waterford, Serotta, Seven, and Independent Fabrication.
Most of these outfits work through dealers.

Personally, I wanted to give my support to the one-man shop. And I wanted to work directly one-on-one with the person who's name was going to be on the frame.

Some builders are on everyone's wish list such as Vanilla and Sachs. Everyone loves them, their wait lists are longer than a year and their prices are (justifiably) high. I love their work but the fact that everyone and their mom wants one too makes me want them less. I'm looking for someone that is sort of under the radar of most. But still in the same class as the top well known builders.

Construction Methods

There are several different types of frame construction that are used. One is necessarily better than the other though this will always be debated by the purists. Some builders do it all while other specialize in one method.


Fillet Brazed


I love lugs. Sometimes lugs have a limitation on the angles that you can use especially if you slope the top tube more than 6degrees or so. But they make a beautiful frame, and don't think that they can't be made light either.

For this frame I wanted TIG. I like the simplicity. Even if TIG might have a utilitarian stigma they still can be extremely elegant frames.

Steel, Titanium, Carbon, Aluminum.

Debate all you want.

I wanted steel. I had a custom steel frame, went to Ti, and like the feel of steel better. There is a lively springiness of a high-end steel frame that wasn't matched in the Ti. The road smoothing capabilities of Ti are legendary and the feel is amazing, but good steel also has a smooth ride. AL and Carbon just don't do much for me.

Depending on the builder, materials, and construction methods prices can range from $600 to higher than $5000. My Paypal account has never had that much in it so I need to be a bit more selective.

Ok so now that I've narrowed it down to Steel, TIG'd and have a budget, it looks like I've narrowed my potential builders from a couple of hundred to..well a couple of hundred.

Now what.

I've been into custom frames for many years. Over that time, you see some builders come up and I sort of file them away. For one petty reason or another.. a particular picture, a logo, or forum post I might have short listed a builder. I'm a total forum whore and there are some builders that come up a lot at the boards like

mtbr boards, especially the custom, singlespeed, and 29"er forums.
Road bike Review
The Serotta Forum

With any forum you have to take everything you read with a ton of salt. But it is a good way to research experiences that some have had with particular builders and see pictures.

There isn't a whole lot of rhyme or reason to my short list. I look at things such as:
-good reputation on the forums
-respected by their peers
-the logo
-Known but not too well known. I want something that no one around here has.
-Someone that also builds mountain bikes. Mountain bikes are my first passion, and I just want to support someone that also supports mountain biking. And maybe they might be able to get into my head a little better than a road only builder.
-someone who is a good email communicator. The main details have to be done over the phone but I like email and want someone that is prompt and informative in their email responses. Some builders prefer the phone over email.
-some sort of personal connection..

My Short List

Primus Mootry

The Ti bike
I'm replacing was actually the builder's brother's bike. Joe the builder at PM has been really good about answering any questions I've had about the bike. The handling problems with the bike are in no way indicative of the frame, just that I got too long a top tube.

He also does TIG'ed steel. I really like his design aesthetic. Simple and elegant. His prices are also really good. He is fairly popular in his local area of Colorado but I've never seen one around here besides mine. He also does his own paint, so I imagine the options are more varied at the same price point.


Carl Strong is probably one of the most well regarded TIG builders around. He has a great reputation for listening to the customer and giving them exactly what they want. I'm not too crazy about his logo for a road bike, but he's willing to give some other options. He does steel and Ti, also build some incredible Steel hardtails.

I've always wanted one of his steel or Ti hardtails.

Rock Lobster
The first person to get me into mountain biking back in Davis, CA was Kurt. He was a local expert and he would take me, total beginner, out for rides. He rode a custom Rock Lobster Hardtail. It was burgundy with yellow lettering. I still remember that bike and have always loved his frames. His logo is one of my favorites.

Paul at Rock Lobster is very sought after for his cross frames. His prices are very very good as well. They are very popular out west and in cross circles, but I haven't seen too many around here on the road.

Ti Cycles
Dave Levy at Ti cycles is one of those builders that isn't too well known but is very well regarded in the industry. He builds Ti and steel under his own Ti Cycles logo, but he is also a contract builder. The esteemed Hampsten Cycles chose him to build some of their steel models.

Nobilette is one of those builders that has been around a Long long time. He also flys under the radar and also is well regarded in the industry building for other people. His prices are amazing given his experience. There is a great interview with him at the Large Fella on bike Frame Builder's Questionnaire


My wife has a Salsa before they became part of the Quality Bike line. We love that bike. When Salsa changed hands two of their core members started Soulcraft. Their bikes have an elegant simple design to them, especially their mountain bikes. The above picture is one that really draws my eye.

Jim Kish is considered a master builder in the circle of established frame builders. When Richard Sachs puts a builder's name on his link list you know they are something special.

Kish is an instructor at the UBI Frame building school. The Titanium instructor. He has taught many of today's famous, well renowned builders. That says a lot. There is a really cool audio interview with him at Total Bike

This is a very recent podcast interview with Jim Kish

He's also one of those frame builders that seems to fly under the radar and not get as much press, yet is commonly mentioned among the best.

I've seen his name and bikes several times at the mtbr and roadbikereview forums. His Ti hardtail is one of the most incredible bikes I've ever seen. I did every search possible on the forums and google, and never saw a bad word said about him.

His email responses came within hours as opposed to several days for some of the builders. He also takes Paypal, which is important as well. There is a loss of $ in fees and that is the price of doing business with creditcards or paypal. But it is a convenience to the customer.

Frames are powder coated. Upcharge for panels or other features. Extra $ for sending to Spectrum Powder.

Others that were considered included
Hot Tubes They also offer a framebuilding class

Not being a time toilet
Once I have my short list, I sent out a short email enquiring about lead times and price ranges. Now is not the time to talk or email about the relative differences between tubesets, ti vs steel, etc. A time toilet is one of those bike geeks that calls and talks a builder's ear off to never be heard from again. And they probably do that to each builder they even consider. These guys make their living from frames. They can't weld when they are on the phone shooting the breeze.

Before I get to the point of calling someone, I've done a lot of research on the net and know pretty well who I'm going to go with.

The first phone call is really to look for red-flags. Are they listening to me? Do they understand what I'm looking for? Are they nice people?

I got responses back from everyone on the list and Kish by far had the best leadtimes which was important to me. 5-6 weeks compared to 10-12 weeks for everyone else except Rock Lobster who was at 4 months. This is prime season so that is no surprise. But even before I got all the lead times, I was leaning towards Kish anyway.

I decided to move give Jim at Kish Fabrications a call. Before I did that I emailed him a link to my diatribe on the kind of bike I'm looking for. When we talked I just got a really good feeling about him. The feeling that this guy knows his shit. The feeling that he understands the kind of bike I'm looking for. We agreed about the aesthetics and function of the upsloping top tube design. It is one thing for a builder to build what you want but another where the builder builds what he thinks looks good.

Half the cost sent via Paypal as a deposit, and we are on our way. Now I can waste his time asking how much it is going to weigh!.

Stay tuned for the

Design Process.


At 12:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good stuff. Keep it coming. I'm going through the same process right now - leaning toward Strong. I spoke to Carl yesterday and got a really good feeling from the quick conversation. 10-12 weeks was the timeframe he quoted me. Kish would be great as well, since he's a couple of hours north of me, so I could actually drop in and waste his time. Decisions, decisions....

At 1:38 PM, Blogger ashwinearl said...

Carls is great from what I hear, but if you could meet the builder face to face and get fitted in person I'd take that in a heartbeat

At 2:42 PM, Blogger terry b said...

You're doing a great job of describing my first custom process. It's fun, and when UPS finally shows up with the box, it gets even better. I own bikes by Carl Strong, Sacha White, Dave Kirk and Bill Davidison. Every single time it was a unique transaction. Some great, some good, some so-so.

At 11:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kish...Good luck..argh

At 6:19 AM, Blogger ashwinearl said...

If you had a bad experience, describe it so I an others can work to avoid it in the future.

At 9:04 PM, Anonymous cadence90 said...

This is a very well-written description of the custom frame process, etc. Very thoughtful and well-illustrated, etc. Really nice to read. Very self-aware in terms of the selections you've made. Congratulations.

terryb is right: the process is invigorating, fun, usually extremely rewarding, from the first collaboration to that final anticipation...and then the ride.

You've made an excellent choice to work with Jim. I think he's a super builder and a great guy. And he won't give you some indeterminate result: he has a clear philosophy.

I know: I have 2 Kish frames and that's my ti hardtail that you chose to highlight, so thanks for the compliment!

Best of luck, have fun, and I look forward to seeing the results!


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