Photos and Article by Roderick De Guzman (rodpedals)
N + 1. The ultimate goal for any cyclist. One of the most controversial discussion you will ever have with your better half. Ruiner of relationships. 😅
However, if you are one of the lucky few to have successfully navigated the treacherous N + 1 journey (and still be alive to tell the tale!), then the next question one must answer … What is the next “N” in my N + 1 journey?
Over 1 year ago, I took a slightly different approach. Rather than just searching various bike manufacturers and local bike shop websites, I asked myself this question… 🤔
In my bucket list, what would be my ultimate bike/cycling item?
The answer wasn’t the lightest bike or the fastest bike. In fact, it wasn’t a manufactured bike (from a factory/mold) or that someone else would create/build on my behalf, no matter how bespoke it could be, or how nice their ULTIMATE paint package looked or how cool their Instagram feed looks.
I wanted a bike that I create with my own two hands. 🙌
In Britain, we are very fortunate to have frame building academies accessible throughout the country. I enlisted in the Enigma Frame Building Academy in December 2016, unfortunately, they don’t run the academy any more. However, master frame builder Geoff Roberts (from Roberts Cycles) who was my tutor for the 5 days now runs his own frame building course.
Geoff generally recommends lugged frames to start with as the results are better for non-experienced people. You can always come back for a second advanced course making filet brazed frames. The weapon of choice for my frame is the Columbus Zona steel tubing (double butted). I opted for a steel road bike with caliper brakes and a bespoke geometry.
DAY 1 – Say What!?!?
Day 1 started with health and safety (most important!) plus explanation of the equipment you will be using the next 5 days. This was probably the most disappointing part of the course. Why? I had assumed that in order to build my steel frame, I would get the opportunity to use the various cool machines, custom lathes, accurate tube cutters, etc… Geoff explained that the only real machines or big pieces of equipment we will be using is for brazing (huge propane tanks and torches) and for shot blasting (sand blasting machine). Otherwise, everything you need is done by hand (plus blood, sweat and tears!). EEEK! 😲
I was measured up and spent the first hour with the frame designer about some of my specifications (done via a software and printed). My frame jig was setup according to my measurements. A set of Columbus Zona steel tubing and a set of lugs was placed in my station plus a hacksaw with a set of steel files. YES! a hacksaw and steel files!
Geoff started to go thru what each tube was for and explained how each end needed to be mitred and shaped. This was very much an iterative cut, shape and measure process (using the lugs and the frame jig as our guide). So Day 1 was really focused on mitred tubes, cleaning up the lugs, bottom brackets and ends.
DAY 2 – Lesson In Brazing
I have zero experience in soldering or welding. I need not worry. Day 2 was all about brazing and the first time we get to use the propane torch to tack the tubes and lugs in place (and eventually braze them together using brass rods). Geoff allowed me to practice and learn how to braze at a distance (but he was there all along to guide you with suggestions and encouragement throughout).
The trick to brazing is ensuring you heat the lugs at the right place and temperature. Too cold and the brass won’t go to where you need it to be. Too hot and the brass goes everywhere and you might end up getting burnt/black marks on your frame which will be harder for you to clean (do not underestimate this, see Day 4!). When the lugs are heated, you push the brass rod thru the gaps and as it melts, guide it across the lugs using heat to push/pull it around. Remember, brass liquefies and moves along to where it’s hot.
We focused on the front part of the frame, top tube, head tube, down tube, seat tube and the lugs that connected them together. Why “tack” (lightly braze in place) and not fully braze them right away? The answer to that question is on Day 3.
DAY 3 – Stay True
According to master builder Geoff, the biggest difference and secret to a great steel frame is whether or not the builder “tracks” the frame. Not “tack”, but “tracks”. The Art of Tracking is where the frame, throughout it’s build process, is placed in a seperate jig (or thru other methods) to measure its straightness and trueness (that even a word?). This is why you tack to track, rather than brazing them properly right away, as it still gives the builder a chance to straighten before doing the final braze. Makes total sense! 👍
So we tracked my frame on all three corners to make sure it was straight. According to Geoff, not a lot of frame builders do this. Why? They either don’t have the jig to do it in or just eye it (eg. shortcut the process). There are other ways to track according to Geoff, but it is MUST to make sure that your steel frame is straight and well balanced. 📐
After we tracked the frame, it was onto the final brazing of the lugs for the top tube, head tube, down tube and seat tube. Once all the brazing was done and the frame cooled off, Geoff instructed me to file and clean up the seat tube lug. So Geoff hands me a small steel file and various types of sand paper. 😒 You want me to polish off all that brazing muck by hand? Geoff’s answer, “Yes.” and continues to drink his tea. 🤨
DAY 4 – Coming Together
Day 4 is about tacking, tracking and brazing the back end of the bike. We focused on the seat stay, chain stay and seat tube plus all their lugs. This included all the required fittings (eg. bottle cage holes/bolts, brake bridge, etc…). Once we did the initial tack, Geoff did the rear alignment by using a rear wheel. Simple but effective. It was a very iterative process, measure then adjust, until both sides of the wheel are of equal distance across the seat stay and chain stay.
The head tube also had to be tapped and reamed incl. the bottom bracket and seat tube. In addition, I asked Geoff if we could build-in an internal top tube for a hidden rear brake cable install which worked a treat. There was a lot of brazing to be done that day but I was fairly confident to do the brazing on my own, requiring very little assistance. By the end of Day 4, it has all come together. 🤩
DAY 5 – Blood, Sweat, Tears and Joy
When I arrived the final day, I knew that the hardest part was yet to come. Hardest? Mitred tubes wasn’t difficult? What about brazing? Nope. The hardest part to making your own steel bike is filing, cleaning up and polishing! 😅 The day started off with the use of the shop’s shot blaster (sand blasting) to get rid of most of the muck that came from the process of brazing. Once that was done, the lugs had a lot of brass muck around it. All of this had to be filed and cleaned up by hand! That, took, forever!
After 2 hours of intense filing (and mangled fingers!), I thought to myself, I’m done! Geoff looks at me and says, “time to polish”. 😥 Geoff hands me several sand paper and instructs that every inch of the frame needs to be properly polished. Why? Apparently, polishing your frame ensures a very high quality paint finish. This is actually a crucial step in the overall process and one I wasn’t intending on skipping.
After 2 hours of sanding and polishing (no fingers left!), my steel bike frame is finally complete! At this point, my hands, fingers, arms and feet were all achy, but it didn’t matter. The best part of the build was yet to come! The paint department! 😍 We discussed finishing parts (Columbus carbon fork, 3T stem and handlebars), paint choices (fluro orange, jaguar grey and egg white) and my personal design (masking, fonts, RODWORKS logo, etc…).
It’s been a year since I’ve had Project RodWorks. Always put a smile on my face. 😁 Why is that? Is it the lightest steel frame? No (full bike build is currently at 8kg, it’s not bad). It’s because I made it with my own two hands. That is priceless. My carbon bikes will eventually be replaced. This one is a keeper.
Globalisation and mass production has impacted the cycling industry. When we peel back all that carbon/aluminum/titanium, marketing dollars, aero designs, weight saving efficiency and ride smoothing innovations, at the end of the day, they are bikes. They give us the feeling of freedom and happiness. However, I don’t think we can truly appreciate the beauty of a bike until we have built one with our own two hands. 👐