A Vist to Joe Bell

A Vist to Joe Bell

There’s something about visiting the workshop of a craftsman who began honing his skills before Greg LeMond headed to Europe. If you cut Joe Bell (and I don’t mean shiv him), his blood runs with lithium grease. His shop is less a time capsule than a place where time is suspended It’s not frozen in the past but rather a place where the past and present come together in a mashup of ages, Jimi Hendrix with a techno backup. In Joe’s shop 1978 is just as valid as today and the photos, posters and stickers are a testament to that.

IMG_7462There was a time back in the ’90s where I think we went more than a year at Bicycle Guide where Joe had sprayed every single bike we ran in Hot Tubes. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say he is arguably the most important bicycle frame painter the U.S. has seen. Every other painter I know has cited him as an influence. The funny thing is just how modest Joe is about his own abilities. He’s far quicker to praise the work of other guys than he is to recall any of his own work.

IMG_7463Talking to him in person is probably the wrong thing to do if you’re not already convinced he’s the right guy to paint your bike. He’s sooner huff thinner than give you a sales pitch. But the fact that guys like Richard Sachs and Dave Kirk use him exclusively to paint all their frames is, perhaps, all the resume the guy needs.

IMG_7464The reason I was in San Diego was arguably business, but I made sure to carve out a couple of hours to drop by his shop to see the frame above. That’s my Bishop. And surprisingly, I’ve struggled with what this bike will look like. The only thing of which I was certain was that it would be painted by JB.

IMG_7465This was my first opportunity to see the frame in person. To say I was blown away doesn’t begin to convey the way I marveled at Bishop’s work. Chris Bishop, if I may be so bold, is one of a rare set of builders. His skill is truly exceptional.

IMG_7466The unfortunate truth about Joe Bell is that he knows enough about building that he has the ability to clean up sloppy work by a mediocre builder. He could easily have make a career in an auto body shop fixing dings and crunches in classic cars. He’s made okay bikes look amazing, but will never betray a lesser builder. That discretion is one of his more charming features. But it also means that when something exceptional comes through his shop he has no problem given full points to the builder.

IMG_7467I won’t repeat what he first said to me as a measure of his praise for this frame because the terminology wasn’t what we’d call politically correct, but it made me smile. It’s what my buddies into classic cars would have said. I knew what he mean and it was praise of the highest order.

IMG_7468I’ve learned a lot from Joe, often just from talking to him on the phone, about the subtle cues to just how good a guy is with a torch. He’s taught me how to look for signs that a builder fed more silver or brass into a joint than was necessary and what they did to try to clean that up, or signs that a joint was heated for too long.

IMG_7470He also taught me a few extra tricks for finding sight lines to confirm the symmetry of a frame, particularly for fillet-brazed work. So when he kept up the effusive praise not just for the cleanliness of Bishop’s brazing but the symmetry to his fillets in the lug transitions and point thinning, it came as a nice confirmation that I’d ordered my frame from the right guy.

IMG_7472I could probably have done all I needed to with Joe by phone and email, but there’s nothing quite like being in the room with a person you dig. Similarly, I could probably have been in and out in a half hour, but I enjoyed the phone calls and other interruptions that gave me a chance to poke around a bit and get a look at a sticker collection I hadn’t seen in 10 years.

IMG_7473Someday, I’m going to have a garage workshop that looks every bit as cool and lived-in (or worked-in) as this one. Forget the backyard garden, I want a workshop where I can get lost. A place like this.

IMG_7474Sometimes the best touches on a frame are the ones almost no one will ever see.

IMG_7475I’m really glad I got to see the frame naked in person. I could have spent the whole afternoon just ogling this thing. And honestly, when you buy a bike it ought to give you that kind of thrill.

IMG_7477And this shot kids, the frame with the man who will make it unspeakably gorgeous, this is one I’ll take to the grave. It meant a lot to have a frame—my frame—get Joe excited about the work that lay ahead. Oh hell yes.

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13 comments

  1. Ransom

    I love it when people are good at what they do.

    I *really* love it when you get multiple people who are really good at what they do and who can appreciate each others’ work, working together.

    That is a beautiful frame, and I hope we get to see more pics after the paint.

  2. jorgensen

    I wondered what happened to this frame.
    I fully understand the problem of choosing color(s).
    Going to see it in bare metal might have given you an answer perhaps, I did note there was no comment on what it will look like when painted.
    It looks quite restrained, kind of DiNucci like.
    My guess it will provide you a new yardstick of which to compare other bicycles to.
    I look forward to those comments.

  3. Patrick O'Brien

    I know it will be a beauty. It will be a bike that will make someone walk past the Laborghini Countach parked next to the bike rack just to see Mr. Bell’s work up close. But, I am really interested in how it rides and handles. As Conan’s father said, “and the secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery.”

  4. Mike the Bike PT

    I’m curious about the shape of the rear dropout in the 8th picture down. I’ve never seen one like that. It almost appears as if there is some type of hood over the dropout.

  5. Dustin

    @Mike – that’s a Breezer style dropout, which is indeed hooded. They’ve been around forever, and they’re the best looking kind of dropouts in my opinion. Small, subtle, clean.

    Frame looks fantastic, I bet you’re truly excited Padraig!!!


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Mike: Dustin is correct about the dropouts being from Breezer. To the degree that they are popular with builders it’s because they are both really small (light) and rigid. It’s handy in my case as well because it’ll keep me from pulling our Chariot trailer with this bike.

  6. Maremma Mark

    I had the unique pleasure of riding with JB and San Diego frame builder Bill Holland some years ago when they came to Italy for Bill’s 50th birthday celebration. Both fantastic people and fine bike riders, JB is as funny as he brilliant. I have a 1972 Masi Gran Criterium that he rehabbed and re-painted so I can fully appreciate his artisanship. That bike looks as good today, at least 14 years later, as it did the day it left his workshop. Minus a few small chips in the paint from riding it at the Eroica a few too many times.

    I hope we will get a look at Padraig’s frame when JB is finished with it.

  7. Souleur

    yeah, agree with all the above, this guys real

    I’ll never forget the time I called to ask about a paint job

    I called: he picked up the phone
    which I know my jaw hit the floor as I asked after the unassuming ‘hello’…yeah…is this Joe Bells? ‘speaking’….

    then the information just flowed
    something you can’t get just anywhere anymore

  8. np_lab

    He is how Padraig describes. I had Joe straighten my Colnago Master XL after an accident. When I picked it up, I realized he doesn’t take plastic and since I’m married, I had no cash on me. Joe replied, “no problem, send me a check…I know you’re good for it.”

    Don’t hear that much anymore.

  9. Alan Cote

    JB is an icon of the scene — thanks for bringing us the visit Patrick. Did you or I do a Bicycle Guide Hot Tubes column about just JB? Seems familiar — and if we didn’t, we should have.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Alan: Yes, in one of the very last issues of “Bicyclist” I did do a Hot Tubes on him. I had to argue with some folks because he wasn’t actually a builder but I said we owed him because he’d been such an integral part of making that column worthwhile.

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