Buying a Custom Bike: Ins and Outs

Buying a Custom Bike: Ins and Outs

I was minutes from an all-hands staff meeting when an editorial assistant asked me if I could take a reader call. People were heading to the conference room and shooting me stern looks that conveyed, “Don’t get to talking. Don’t be late. Don’t make us wait. We’ll barbecue you and your ideas, maybe your ass, too.”

Okay, maybe not that last bit, but no one wanted me to get in a chumfest with a reader. Still, the guy called—the least I could do is answer his question. So I picked up. After the introductory chit-chat he told me he was going to order his first custom frame.

“Great,” said I.

He told me he’d narrowed his choice down to two builders but then had gotten stuck. I told him I’d do whatever I could to help break the impasse, and asked him who his two candidates were.

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“Well, I’ve narrowed it down to Richard Sachs and Peter Weigle.”

I laughed so hard one of my co-workers stuck her head out of the conference room to look at me. The caller misunderstood my laughter. When finally I drew a deep breath he asked anxiously, “What? Did I overlook someone?”

My actual quote: “No, dude! You’re fine. There is no wrong answer. You can’t fuck this up.” It’s advice that remains as true today as it was when I gave it in 1998.

The caller lived in Pennsylvania and his mom was living in Connecticut. He was thinking he might get down for a fitting with the builder of his choice during a visit to her, that is, once he made up his mind. Not a bad plan. I suggested he go one further. Make an extra trip to see his mom (she’d love that; she’s his mom!) and then drive down to meet Weigle and Sachs. Take them to lunch. I told him they would be likely to play along if he was buying. If nothing else, it would be one of the more entertaining lunches of his life. By the end of lunch he would be likely to feel a greater affinity for one of the two builders. That would be the guy to buy his bike from.

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During this year’s NAHBS and in the couple of weeks since, I’ve been asked repeatedly how to choose a builder for a custom frame. It’s a fair question. NAHBS represented a fraction of all the builders in the U.S. I mean think about the guys who weren’t there: Sachs, Weigle, Mark DiNucci, Andy Newlands, Bruce Gordon, Chris Bishop, Dave Kirk, Kelly Bedford, Tom Kellogg, just to name a very few. Even if you just picked from those displaying at NAHBS, the choice isn’t going to be easy.

Let’s cut to the bottom line: buying a custom frame isn’t a transaction. It’s a relationship. That has to be true otherwise people wouldn’t ask the question. People do not get this worked up about refrigerators. This is why NAHBS is so great. It’s a chance to meet a builder and talk to him, to get a feel for what he’s like. Ultimately, your choice is going to hinge on just digging the person holding the torch. There were probably a dozen people at NAHBS who I like so much that I’d like to find a way to order one of their frames. They’re just good people.

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But you can’t interview 35 people before making a choice. That’s not practical and at a certain level the builders will detect that you’re simply kicking tires because the questions won’t demonstrate much insight on your part into what they do. I wouldn’t want to be interviewed by someone about my work if they had no idea what I did. Actually, I’ve had exactly that happen and it wasn’t any fun. It was kinda creepy.

So here’s what I advocate for those who don’t already have a list of suspects:
1) Decide what material you’re most interested in. You should have a feel if you want steel, ti or carbon fiber. If you think you want aluminum, there’s a fair chance you need to start over. Why buy a custom frame made from a material with such a finite lifespan?
2) If you think you want steel, give some thought to whether you want your frame joined with lugs or fillet brazing. For the most part, this choice will narrow your field. Kirk and David Wages are part of a short list that do both with relative ease.
3) Give some thought to what sort of bike you want. Is it road? Mountain? ‘Cross? If I wanted a full-suspension mountain bike built around 650b wheels, I wouldn’t interview Bill Holland, a man who has made his name doing titanium road bikes and is now venturing into carbon fiber. The point behind each of these considerations is just to narrow the field. What you don’t want to do is try to talk a builder into building something they don’t build.
4) Do a search of builders in your state or region. If you’re in Missouri, you’re going to have to look fairly far afield, but if you’re in California, you may not need to look much beyond your county. I advocate beginning your search locally because if you work with someone near you you are in a better position to talk in-person about what you want and have the builder take you through the fit process himself. This isn’t to say you can’t pick someone seven hours away, but the more local the builder is, the better your chance of forging a real friendship.
5) If money is a big issue, you can pursue two strategies to address that. One is to ask a builder if they’ll work off of installments. Many will. Most require a deposit to begin with. Alternatively, look for newer builders. They can’t command the same rates as a veteran like Steve Rex. If you do end up talking to a newer builder, say someone who had a table along the new builder row at NAHBS, do yourself and ask if they have liability insurance. It’s a fair question and is an honest indication of just how serious they are about the business. If they answer your question with, “Liability insurance? Uh….” end your conversation politely but immediately.
6) If you’re not finding someone more or less local to you, spend some time looking at NAHBS coverage here and elsewhere, like James Huang’s coverage over at Cyclingnews. When you see something you like go to the builder’s galleries and just start checking out the work. I’ve never purchased a bike I didn’t think was the bomb and I don’t expect anyone else to.
7) If one of your finalists isn’t local, don’t fret. Send the builder an email or give a buzz and ask if you might schedule a longer call at your mutual convenience. There have been those builders out there who are, if not customer hostile, then customer avoidant. If someone really doesn’t want to talk to you, he doesn’t deserve your business; keep moving.
8) That interview call is a lot like a first date. Tell him he’s cute. Okay, maybe not. Tell him what you’ve seen in his work that appeals to you. Tell him why you’re calling him and not standing in your Trek dealer. Let him know why you like his work and he’ll open up that much more quickly. That’s when the call will get fun.

If there’s one thing statistics teaches us, it’s that there’s someone for everyone. From Goths to punks to shrink-wrapped cyclists, we all have our match. The goal is to find someone passionate about making exactly the bike you want, even if that’s an electric-assist bakfiets made from TIG-welded stainless steel (don’t laugh, I want one). At the point I met Chris Bishop I wasn’t even planning a purchase but his sensibility so spoke to me, so perfectly matched what I knew I wanted in my next frame, the search was over even before it began. The process is fun and it’s not actually hard. Just feel for when the corners of your mouth turn up. That’s all the indication you need.

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17 comments

    1. Gary

      Tim Neenan is the real deal. He made me a very traditional lugged steel frame and fork, with modern modifications.(Wish I could post a photo with this e-mail.) When you order a custom frameset you get everything what you want and nothing you don’t. Tim was a pleasure to work with. Plus I was introduced to the Santa Ynez Valley, a great place to ride.

  1. Les Borean

    Another factor would be the builder’s backlog. I hear-say that some builders give you a 5-year wait for your chops.

    So consider how long you are willing to wait for your Christmas to come.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      There are only two guys I know who will keep you waiting more than 18 months. It’s not a real factor.

    2. brian

      The wait really isn’t that bad. Mine took 2yrs. 6 months of that was unavoidable. We all have other bikes to ride.

  2. Steve P

    I’ll add that a builder’s ability to effectively communicate, advise and deliver in a timely fashion are almost as important as his work at the bench. It’s worth searching online to find commentary from previous customers on how it is to work with a given builder.

  3. Rob Beard

    Padraig, you’re right to want a bakfiets. I’ve had one for years and despite buying and selling many bikes in the interim, the bakfiets remains the best cycling-related purchase I have ever made. Worth every penny and then some. If you’re ever in the SF Bay Area, you’re welcome to come take mine for a ride (though sans electric assist). I bought mine from Rob Bushill in the UK (http://www.reallyusefulbikes.co.uk/), who did an excellent job customizing it for me and my family. I wish Joe Bike were still making the Shuttlebug, because it was awesome. In my dreams I would buy the design from them and start my own business making them–anyone on here want to partner with me?

  4. Larry T.

    Back-in-the-day when I worked in a SoCal bike shop, we did a similar thing with the custom builder features in the original Bicycle Guide. We had them for the builders we worked with (Davidson, Serotta, Tesch, Dave Moulton, etc.) and would invite the client to sit down and read ‘em. We’d explain that if you liked the guy and bought into his philosophy after reading the stuff, you’d likely enjoy the bike he’d make for you. We backed it up with a 100% guarantee – if you hated it, we’d take it back and get you something else. No refund, but we’d satisfy you. During the years I was there I think we swapped ONE frameset under this scheme.
    The only thing I’d add to your otherwise excellent advice is details about SIZE and FIT. I’ve seen way-too-many beautiful, custom made bikes that fit like a suit stolen off a rack at Sears. DON’T SCREW THIS PART UP! Spend whatever it takes to get a proper fit on your current bike and have the guy build to match it. This is not the time to take a wild-ass guess and order something you think might work, no matter who tells you how great it is.

    1. Jonathan

      Couldn’t agree more on getting the size and fit right.
      I had a 3 hour fit session with one of Australia’s best bike fit guys, who designed me a frame with the contact points all in the right place. My frame builder then took this and adjusted the design for aesthetics and other stuff like wheel fit etc while keeping the contact points the same.
      2 years on and I couldn’t be happier. Absolutely perfect bike that fit the brief exactly.

  5. Jay

    This past December I had a fitting with Tom Kellogg for a Spectrum lugged steel frame. I hadn’t originally considered a custom frame. I was looking into getting a bike from Seven Cycles. That would have probably been slightly different from the experience I got by choosing to go with Spectrum. The main difference was that I got a chance to sit down with TK during my fitting, which lasted more than a couple of hours. We swapped stories, talked about riding habits, types of rides that I do and basically talked shop. He also observed me on my current bike, asked me to do things while he observed, made measurements, and made mental notes about all of the things that would go into my frame design. To be honest, it was the most fun I have had on a bike that didn’t involve an actual ride. While there I had an opportunity to watch Tom and Jeff do some work on a steel tandem that they were building at the time (its only Tom and Jeff and Jeff needed another pair of hands at that moment). So my point is this: I believe that you should come away from a fitting for your custom bike with this very same sensation.
    FYI: At present I am starting to count down to the time that my bike goes into production (there was a 5-month backlog for steel frames back in December). Hopefully I will be hitting the road on my new Spectrum by early June at the latest.

    1. Pete Meltzer

      You are in for a treat Jay when you get your new frame.
      I have 2 bikes from Tom (& Jeff). A steel frame he made for me in 1998 that has 40k± on it. Then 2 years ago I decided to do a fast and light ride across the country and the geometry on the old bike was too aggressive for that kind of trip so I got a new Ti frame. I have really enjoyed both bikes and they have served me well.
      But almost more than the bikes, I have thoroughly enjoyed all my interactions with Tom. There has been a 1/2 dozen times over the last 16 years that I needed advice about equipment or some other bicycling related matter and Tom could not have been more helpful. Great guy who makes you feel like once a Spectrum customer, always a Spectrum customer.

      Pete Meltzer

  6. brian

    I have a custom bike and I have tattoos. You will be served best when getting either by listening to whoever you choose, assuming you choose someone competent. They are good at what they do for a reason. Its ok to be talked into something different than you came in with.

  7. Aaron

    I purchased a Dave Anderson custom bike a little over a year ago and loved every step in the process. I looked at Richard’s location, but I couldn’t wait 7 years before I made it through the queue. Richard’s location has a list of people that build in “the tradition,” which is where I started. That Dave has my same last name wasn’t a real factor, but I was trying to decide between Ellis and ACB, and it was the same answer that rang true. Basically, you can’t fuck it up because both choices were awesome.

    In fact, because you get to specify just about ever facet of the build in concert with the builder, you can pretty much have whatever you want (if your wallet cooperates). So, I went with the Sachs Columbus tube set, lugs, BB, and such and had Dave make it. And, i have to say, my ACB RS (Richard Sachs) special is absolutely the best bike I’ve ever ridden. Hands down. So much so, that just over a year ago, I bought my spouse a spot in Dave’s queue, because I thought just once in your life, you should have a custom built bike because life is too short.

    When I asked Dave if he would build another bike for me he said, “I’d be happy to build your bike a wife…no, wait, I’d be happy to build your wife a bike..” which was a bit Freudian, but apropos as well. Indeed, when my wife get’s her bike, I’m sure she’s going to be thrilled, and we will ride many miles together.

    The connection with your builder is a relationship. I say go with your gut and have fun. Building a bike should be a wonderful, enjoyable experience and done with the right builder for you makes a huge difference. Here’s an example of how much I love my bike – I’ve even taking her out for her own photo shoot – https://allthepicturesfittopost.shutterfly.com/pictures/3426

  8. Bryin

    Unless you are buying a bike for status or bling think consider why some custom builders are so much more expensive for the same materials. If you are buying a steel bike compare the cost to a Waterford, no one makes a steel frame that is better than a Waterford. If another builder is charging 20-50% more you have to ask- why? What I am getting for that extra $$ besides the name on the downtube? Also there is no way I would stand in line for even 18 months… 6 months is it for me, I would just move on to another builder. There are many great builders out there can tig up a nice steel frame for $900 to $1500 and that is a tremendous bargain. Building a bike is not difficult and as long as the builder has been doing it for a few years and has some good references (I would highly recomend asking for references) then you are good to go. There is no magic in frame building but there is marketing.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      The great thing about cycling is that there is a correct answer for everyone and the correct answer isn’t the same for everyone.

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