The Irony of Craft

In what counts for spare time I’ve got two book proposals I’ve been working on. One of them concerns frame builders. My online column for peloton, called Artisans, is meant to be background research for many of the builders I believe will be the subjects of the book. If you’ve never checked it out, you should drop by and read a few here.

Recently, I was on the phone with one of the legends of frame building. We got to talking about the dream that leads one to want to become a frame builder. I’ve always enjoyed talking to frame builders. They have that feel of brother-of-a-different-mother to me. The work is solitary, creative, essentially commercial in nature and requires simple acts to be repeated thousands of times to hone one’s craft. After a while, they find they begin exploring arcane ideas about heat, silver, steel. At a certain level, writing is no different. I find myself thinking about verbs and the relative evil of sentimentality.

The builder I was speaking to told me how he had dreamt that being a frame builder was like being a shop keeper, such as a tailor. You show up in the morning, open up, work a full day, then close up and head home. But the idea was that working alone was meant to foster craft and remove the need to crank out production-style work. He believed that working alone was the key to being able to perform artisanal work. But that’s not all: When he was starting out, he had a belief that most of the builders who weren’t employed by the big companies like Colnago worked in exactly that manner.

By the time he found out that wasn’t the case, he’d already been building on his own for a few years. What I’ve learned of most of the European shops is that their priorities were shifted toward maximizing efficiency to increase output. Most of the builders I’ve spoken to working in the U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s favored limited output so they could focus on quality. Indeed contract builders were common in Italy. There were some who kept a stock of their clients’ decals around for when they came calling.

What American builders—and consumers—seem to struggle to appreciate is that to most of the builders working in Europe up through the ’80s and ’90s is that the bicycle frame was a commodity rarely separated by more than paint and decals. Branding and identity were the province of paint, decals and sponsorship. That is, you could put Colnago paint and decals on any bike and—ergo—it was a Colnago. There wasn’t a belief that anything beneath the paint could be terribly special.

When you consider those early builders here in the U.S., that is the group that really helped put frame building on the map here in the 1970s, guys like Albert Eisentraut, Richard Sachs, Peter Weigle, Ben Serotta and Brian Baylis, they each epitomized that ideal of the solitary craftsman, at least early on. Nevermind the fact that Eisentraut and Serotta never really made a career of working alone, that romanticized notion of the shopkeeper craftsman that inspired many of them—and most of today’s builders as well—is largely a fiction.

This idealized vision held by a handful of American builders of just what the life and purpose of a one-man frame shop is is largely responsible for the state of frame building in the U.S. and even around the world. The example set by Sachs, Weigle and other one-man shops is directly responsible for the influx of guys like Sacha White of Vanilla and David Wages of Ellis. The irony is that Sachs and Weigle weren’t really responding to a tradition; they were inventing one.

Relationship counselors are in the business of reminding us that when we enter a relationship we rarely see the object of affection as they are. We see them as we want them to be. Think about that a second. Is there a better demonstration of a love of craft than setting out to be an artisan as part of a grand tradition that exists only in your mind?

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14 comments

  1. Scott G.

    By the 1960s cycling as a leisure activity of the middle class was pretty much
    dead in France and Britain. The club culture of pre war Britain was a ghost
    of it former self, resulting in the disappearance of many small builders and
    the bike shop with a builder in the back room. Look at the pre war catalogs,
    lots of inventive frame designs, Reynolds and A&P were making tubes
    in all sorts sizes and shapes, oversize, tapering, you name it.
    Lots of differences under the paint, go over to Classic Lightweights
    and see the glory that was Britain, he says with a smile.

  2. Robot

    What I find interesting is the balance that gets struck (or not) between developing a craft in isolation and engaging the world more actively to assimilate and refine ideas.

  3. Randomactsofcycling

    ‘meeting’ points like the Framebuilders’ Forum are making it much easier now for aspiring or newly minted FrameBuilders to gather information and best practices. I see posts from guys like Sachs and J.P. occasionally. They not only pass on technical information but they help to keep it real. As an aspiring FrameBuilder I feel privileged to live in an age where the artisans are still active and communication is so advanced as to allow me to enjoy and profit from their knowledge during their lifetime.

  4. e-RICHIE

    @ Randomactsofcycling

    thanks for that ^ ^ .

    i/we think patrick’s post, along with some killer threads that we often have on the effbuilder board, have a high degree of synergy atmo. and it must be said, he (PB) and i have had some wonderfully deep conversations about the trade, its history, the peeps, and its relationship to both the industry and the sport, such that i wish they were recorded for posterity. heck, maybe they were.

    http://www.velocipedesalon.com/forum/forum.php#framebuilder-forum

  5. Dave Moulton

    When I was in the framebuilding business I was inundated with letters from people who wanted to be framebuilders; they begged me for a chance to be an apprentice. On a few occasions I agreed to take someone on, and in every case I ended up regretting it. Although they all agreed to start at the bottom, within a very short time they wanted to jump right in a build a complete frame.
    One day a local high school kid came to me, his name was Russ Denny. He didn’t want to be a framebuilder, he just wanted a job. He didn’t even know what a framebuilder did; he was not even a cyclist. However, he was good at woodwork, he had made furniture. He had the makings of a craftsman.
    I took him on and had him do simple menial tasks at fist. When he was proficient at one task, I moved him on to the next, until eight years later he could do everything I could. He never once complained or gave me any problems, or wanted to build a frame with his name on it.
    Russ took over my business in 1993 when I retired and still runs the business today. He has moved with the times and now builds in aluminum and carbon fiber as well as steel. He doesn’t do the Hand Made Bicycle Show circuit.
    The problem with most would be framebuilders is that they want to be Rock Stars. But framebuilding is a business you have to strike a balance. Do you want to produce one off pieces of art, or do you want to produce something that not only looks good but rides good so you can actually ride it?

  6. Pingback: the irony of craft atmo -

  7. chris

    Great article. And Dave, thanks for posting. I for one am glad you took on Mr. Denny as an apprentice; I own one of his aluminum frames, love it, and want to offer a +1 to anyone considering a build from him.

  8. todd k

    I think many of us may be drawn to this romantic notion of a solitary figure crafting frames because it is the antithesis of the conditions many of us encounter in our daily occupations. And often we tire of some of the conditions we encounter day to day.
    I’m a prawn in a very large corporate ocean. I do many tasks each day and can be easily seduced into the hectic frenzy of performing a lot of activity, but actual forward progress moves at snail pace. It is often difficult to pinpoint an exact accomplishment at the end of every day. I complete many tasks, but it is often unclear if anything meaningful was accomplished.
    Occasionally I happen across your articles on frame builders (and others to be sure) and think whimsically how nice it would be to operate on a much different pace, under more controllable conditions, encountering new issues, and being able to more clearly define what is or is not accomplished day to day.
    To be frank it would also be nice to not have every action ultimately be “justified” under the banner “does this improve our earnings per share?” I like how many of these folks are out there refining a craft while running a business. Or least I like to romanticize it as such. Many of these folks have a backlog of orders that may never be ultimately satisfied. And yet they do not appear to be asking “hmmmm, how can we subcontract this out to capture more marketplace?” Or “What am I doing to make sure I don’t have lost sales.” Or “How am I going to dominate the marketplace so EVERYONE rides my #name x#.
    Romanticized or not, I find it refreshing that there are folks out there that may be approaching business in a manner that is quite foreign to me.

    Oh, and a while back you were asking about folks we would like you to interview… I would add Mr. Moultan to that list. I’ve never met him, but have encountered his blog and have always enjoyed what I have read. He has a lot of great insight. (By the way I loved his rule number 3 for tips for car drivers).

  9. rickvosper

    It’s like chefs becoming celebrities. Or, if you go back just a little farther, journalists. Or before that, musicians. In each case, we have a handful of working-class professionals who manage to raise craft to the level of art. And that’s when a whole bunch of terribly hard and often dreary work starts to look incredibly romantic.

    To paraphrase Dave Moulton’s comment, just try it sometime, kids.

    How many of folks fantasizing about Top Chef really want to work 7 days weeks of 14-hour shifts on their feet in a frenetic miasma of smoke and spitting grease? How many NAHBS attendees have the patience and attention detail to hand-miter and fit a frame? (Not me, that’s for sure.) Of course, being a journalist is a lot easier. As HL Menken famously said, “All you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

    But that’s the great thing about the lone craftsman: it’s almost impossible to fake it. Comedians may have legions of serfs writing one-liners and certain Tour winners I could name have single-handedly geezed enough dope to impact Amgen’s share price. But a one-person frame shop? Man, that’s a hard, hard way to make a living. And as Mr. Moulton so correctly points out, for every rock star, there’s a whole bunch of not-so-well-known guys turning out less showy but every bit as beautifully made. Let’s raise a glass to them all.

  10. cyclisme spandelles

    An interesting piece of deconstruction: well put. As one of the other commenters notes it was a slightly different situation in the UK, and sime influential US builders (such as Peter Weigle) learnt a lot from their UK mentors.

  11. WV Cycling

    “I think many of us may be drawn to this romantic notion of a solitary figure crafting frames because it is the antithesis of the conditions many of us encounter in our daily occupations. And often we tire of some of the conditions we encounter day to day.”

    I’ve always had a very dystopic, view about the corporate life, with the ‘workforce drowning in their own duties’ every day, one step away from their not-so-tangible casket.

    It is easy to see why some people admire farmers or craftsmen as they drive by in their SUV… not knowing the difficulties that pop up every so often, or the long hours… or…(Sounds like a business owner’s lifestyle.) The grass is not always greener on the other side, but it never hurts to ask your neighbor how they do it.

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