Builder Interview: Dave Kirk, Part I

RKP: Where are you based?

DK: I work from my home shop in Bozeman Montana. Bozeman is a small university and ski town of about 30,000 people located in southwest Montana about 90 miles north of Yellowstone Park. Bozeman is in a valley surrounded by mountains on every side and it’s the ‘big city’ in the area. When you leave town you have really left town and you can ride for miles and see no one at all. I like my solitude and I love Bozeman. 

RKP: Is that where you grew up?

DK: No. I grew up in a wonderful small town in central New York State – Rome NY. The riding in the area is world class and for the most part no one knows about it. Every other road is called “farm to market’ road and they are all 1½ lanes wide and just meander through the countryside and farmland up and over 20% super steep climbs……… It’s like Belgium but with out cobbles and I speak the language. I lived in Rome until a few days after high school graduation and then a good friend and I took a road trip to Florida to meet girls. I ended up moving to Florida and went to school half-heartedly but raced BMX with gusto. The southeast was the place to be in the early 80’s for BMX. 

RKP: What’s the riding like there (where you live now)?

DK: The riding around Bozeman is much different from Rome where I grew up. Instead of short uber-steep climbs Bozeman has very long alpine type climbs that go up to about 8000’. It’s easy to find climbs of 10 miles or more and it takes a much different mindset. You certainly don’t just stand up and hammer over them. Many of the roads here leave town and get narrow and rough and then turn to dirt. These are my favorite roads to ride. I like the feeling of being way out there and away from everything and slogging over the rough loose surface. I could do that all day. I ride alone most of the time. No wonder why I guess.

RKP: How long have you been building?

DK: I started working as a full time professional framebuilder in 1989 at Serotta in Saratoga Springs, NY. With the exception of one summer working as a water well driller and a few winters working as a snowboard school supervisor it’s all I’ve done since 1989. 

RKP: How did you get your start?

DK: I was living in Rome NY and working at a bike shop in the area called “Dick Sonne’s Ski, Hike and Bike” when I got a call from a guy at Serotta. They knew of me through my racing and wrenching and needed more warm bodies in the building. I went and interviewed and Serotta at that time was in a barn with the paint booth being in the chicken coop. It wasn’t very impressive but I really wanted to work there. They offered me a job as a mechanic and I took it. About a week before I was to start I got a call from the same guy and he told me there was going to be a delay and could I start in two weeks. Sure, no problem. Two weeks turned into 6, which turned into 12, and I finally gave up. I started working at a small bike shop close to my home called Schuss Ski and Bike and about 2 years after that first call from Serotta I got another call. This time it was Ben Serotta himself and he told me he had just found out how I was treated first time around and apologized. He then told me they were looking for help in the frame shop and asked if I wanted to interview. The night before the interview I was out riding in the woods and stumbled on a bee’s nest and my hands were badly stung. They got so huge that I could barely drive. I went to the interview and kept my hands out of sight and it was all going well. I was then asked to go into the shop and use a few tools to they could judge my hand skills. I flopped my hands onto the desk and told them I didn’t think I could do that today. Everyone moved back a steep when they saw my freakish hands. They ended up offering me the job anyway and I started work as a framebuilder on October 2nd, 1989. 

RKP: Is building your day job? If not, what else do you do?

DK: I am a full time professional framebuilder and it is all I do. 

RKP: Have you held other positions in the industry?

DK: I started working as a kid in bike retail and as a mechanic. I’ve raced professional BMX and mountain bike and some road. I worked at Serotta for 10 years and ended up being the one man R&D department and was responsible for all new products, the tooling to produce them, as well and personally building the bulk of the bikes to be used by the professional teams Serotta sponsored at the time. I then moved to Montana and worked with Carl Strong as general shop help and he and I eventually formed a production company to produce Strong Frames as well and all the steel Ibis’. I then struck out on my own and formed Kirk Frameworks in June of 2003. 

RKP: Do you ever work in a material other than steel?

DK: Over the past 21 years I’ve worked with most every popular frame material (and a few not so popular) but I now work exclusively in steel. I like working with and riding steel better than any other material. It speaks to me in everyway. 

RKP: Who makes the tubing and lugs you like to use?

DK: I work with mostly Reynolds tubes but also use a bit of True Temper. The good folks at Reynolds make proprietary tubes just for me and they are vital to my getting the ride just the way I think it should be. For lugs I like Sachs and Llewellyn. I’m just introducing some dropouts of my own design and have plans in the works to expand my offerings. My job at Serotta was product design intensive and I missed the challenge. That combined with being unsatisfied by the parts available to the professional builder I decided I needed to design and make my own. 

RKP: Tell us about the jig you use.

DK: I use Anvil frame and fork jigs. All my other tooling (bending, braze-ons, lug holders, etc.) I’ve designed and made myself. I love designing and making tools. It’s a lost art. 

RKP: What sort of cutting and shaping of lugs do you like to perform? Does it vary from bike to bike or are there stylistic elements people can find running through all your bikes?

DK: I favor simple, purposeful and straightforward designs. While I like and admire frilly and baroque designs they aren’t what I like to do. My bikes are all a bit different but there is a common theme to the look. While I offer lugged bikes I also offer and love building fillet brazed bikes. I think the beauty of a properly proportioned fillet joint has few rivals. 

RKP: When fitting a customer for a bike, how do you usually work? How often is it in person?

DK: Being in the middle of nowhere I get only about 3 people a year visiting for fittings. I welcome all to visit but understand that isn’t very often possible. I design the bike based on the customer’s body dimensions, and how the bike is to be used. I double check the design by getting the contact points of their current bikes as well as feedback on how they feel these bikes fit, ride and handle. I will sometimes ask for photos of the rider on the bike just to see how they tend to hold themselves. All of this info, along with the answers to an extensive questionnaire I send out, gives me a very full image of the rider and their needs. 

RKP: Let’s talk about geometry: Would you say your all your bikes have a consistent ride that is your signature, or do you vary your geometry based on the customer’s preferences and needs?

DK: Some of both. I think all of my bikes ride like a ‘Kirk’ regardless of what the intended end use is. They all have that same Kirk DNA. I feel the most important thing is to be sure that the bike will fit and handle well considering how and where it is to be used. From there the numbers are picked to give a certain ride in those conditions. I like my bikes to have enough stability to give confidence and at the same time have a lot of ‘snap’ and jump’ to give the bike spring and life. This is done by not only getting the geometry right but also picking the proper tubes for the rider.

I feel very strongly about forks and every Kirk frame goes out the door with it’s made to match Kirk fork. I do not offer off the shelf forks. Each one is designed and built to match the frame’s geometry and the desired ride qualities. It’s next to impossible to get the handling and alignment just right when ½ of the design was done by someone else who knows nothing about the needs to the rider. The frame and fork need to be designed together to work properly together and to give the proper handling and ride. 

RKP: Who does your paint?

DK: The one and only Joe Bell paints everything I build.  

RKP: How long is the wait for new customers?

As of January 2010 my wait is about 11 months from receipt of deposit to delivery. 

RKP: What’s your pricing like?

DK: I offer two different levels of build. My standard lugged frameset sells for $2900 and a fillet brazed frameset is $3000. I also offer the JK Series names after my father John Kirk. They differ from my standard frames in that they use a bespoke blend of lightweight tubes (953, S3 and special tubes Reynolds makes for the JK series). I offer the JK Special road frameset for $3600 and the JK Cross frameset for $3700. All these prices include a single color Joe Bell Signature paint job. If the client wants more elaborate paint that is done at an upcharge. 

RKP: What keeps the work fresh for you, gets you up in the morning (or out in the evening) and excited to build?

DK: I work a pretty standard work schedule and I do my best to never work too late or start too early and I never ever work weekends. I do my best work when I am fresh and rested and wanting more. This is hard to do sometimes because I really like the work itself. I love going over the tube bin and selecting the tubes to be used in a given bike and laying them all out for inspection and letting the process happen. It’s this process that keeps me excited and motivated. I’ve built thousands of bikes over the past 21 years and it’s always been the process that motivates me. 

RKP: You’re part of the Framebuilder’s Collective. What was the motivation to get involved in an association devoted to what can be a pretty solitary craft?

DK: Can you say “herding cats?” I am one of the eight founding members of TFC and I originally became interested in forming a group after spending so many hours in the shop talking with Carl Strong. We were frustrated by the lack of resources for the new builder and by seeing so many talented and skilled builders hang their shingle, build some very nice bikes and then go out of business because they didn’t know how the whole business thing worked. And at the same time we saw plenty of other hobby builders hang their shingle when they were not at all ready to build bikes for paying customers. There is just no professional standard for building or business practices in this industry and each bad business transaction a customer has, and every poorly constructed handbuilt frame out there reflects poorly on the whole group of us professional builders. We want to do what we can to promote professional building and business practices and to further promote the image of the handbuilt frame.

RKP: What’s your life away from building like? Are you racing or do you have outside interests?

DK: I love to be outside and moving quickly. I ride my bike as much as possible in the mountains surrounding Bozeman, I snowboard and cross country ski and I race autocross. The autocross (also known as SCCA Solo) gives me that competitive rush I seem to need in a big way. I’m proud to say that I‘m two time state champion racing a Birkin S3 in the modified class and this year I’ll be moving into a 2005 Lotus Elise and trying to up my game. I like the process of learning to set up and drive the car at it’s limits. It’s always the process. I also love spending time with my wife Karin hanging out in the greenhouse or the garden, watching the plants grow. There’s not much better in life than getting back from a dirt road ride, cracking open a good dark beer and hanging out in the garden watching our four cats play and chase each other around. A good thing in every way. 

Images pilfered liberally from Kirk Frameowrks

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1 comment

  1. Thomas Byrnes

    Patrick – Great article and interview.

    I am glad to see Dave Kirk get some well-deserved recognition and publicity. Dave makes beautiful bikes. There are four Kirk bikes in my household, including a JK Special painted in Velo Club La Grange color scheme.

    If you want to test ride a Kirk, let me know.

    Tom Byrnes
    Los Angeles

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