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.
“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.
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.
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.