Padraig: When fitting a customer for a bike, how do you usually work? How often is it in person?
Brian Baylis: Every customer is different. If they can get here, that’s the best way. Anyone who’s going to buy a Baylis has had a lot of bikes. They are real, dedicated cyclists. They usually come with a bike they like and they know why they like it. It’s just asking a lot of questions. You have no idea why, but I’m asking questions. I’m writing down things and by the end I have all the dimensions I need. It takes probably a 100 questions or so. What do you like, what don’t you like, what would you change?
I need three photos of rider on bike: bar tops, hooks, hoods. It’s not unusual for their not to be any significant changes. All they have to tell me is what they want. I know what to do.
Padraig: 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?
Brian Baylis: The answer to that should be apparent but I respond to what the customer’s needs are. I’ve owned over 100 bikes in 40 years. I’ve made myself over 50 bikes. You learn a thing or two about how bikes ride when you own that many.
You have to respect what the rider wants the experience to be.
Padraig: What informs your sense of color?
Brian Baylis: It started off with Imron in ’74 when we first started using it. Imron was brand new. They still didn’t know how to do metallics. They were fleet truck colors. Not really classy looking on the bike. I wanted good paint colors. I tried lacquers. That didn’t work. I asked the paint shop to put pearls in Imron. I was probably the first to do pearl in Imron, definitely the first to do it on bicycles.
I hate metallic Imron colors. I like pearls.
I learned I could make all my own colors by purchasing toners. Most of my colors are two or three layers, custom-mixed on the spot. Most are in layers, techniques no one was using back in the day. I’ve been mixing my own colors for 40 years.
Padraig: How long is the wait for new customers?
Brian Baylis: I really don’t tell anybody anything. I’ve been in a catchup mode and overseeing a remodel of my home. I tell people I’m not taking orders, but I take orders as a feel like it. It’s no rhyme or reason. I don’t want to take on anything that’ll make it hard to catch up. There are so many tire kickers … I hate taking the time to quote someone and then having them say it’s too expensive.
Padraig: In the interest of keeping the tire kickers to a minimum, what’s your pricing like?
Brian Baylis: They start at $5000 and go up. What I do for $5000 is what you generally see. You come to me for a reason. Sometimes someone comes to me and says I want a Baylis, but I want to keep it simple to keep the cost down. I tell them, ‘Then you don’t want a Baylis.’
Most of the work is in the mitering, cleaning, preparation. I may only spend eight hours on the lugs. I make a drawing for every single bike; it’s an individual bike down to every single tube.
Padraig: What’s your life away from building like? Are you racing or do you have outside interests?
Brian Baylis: I love playing drums, been doing it a long time. And I’m good at it. I make knives, too, and stained glass as well.
Postscript: Unfortunately for me and anyone else who’d like to purchase one of Brian’s frame’s, he has announced his retirement. His last day of building will occur on 11/12/13. This is a real loss to the community. Those his output was never high, it was always stellar. I liken it to the rate at which Peter Gabriel releases albums. We can only hope that his retirement is unsatisfying and that he chooses to light his torch again someday. Until then, enjoy the riding, Brian.
Padraig: Where are you based?
Brian Baylis: I guess technically La Mesa, not San Diego. We’ll call La Mesa headquarters.
Padraig: Is that where you grew up?
Brian Baylis: I grew up in initially in Burbank and from 10 or so lived in Huntington Beach. When I discovered cycling I was just graduating high school in Huntington Beach. I would call my hometown Huntington Beach.
Padraig: When did you move to San Diego?
Brian Baylis: The first time was in 1973. I moved to Carlsbad to work for Masi. My first out-of-town experience was when I moved to Carlsbad to work for Masi in 1973. I was working for a Rolls Royce dealership in Orange County when the job with Masi came up. I met Faliero Masi, the manager and Mario [Confente, head builder] and everybody at a race in Escondido in ’73. I was racing an Italian Masi. Faliero autographed my number. They were all watching the race. I got there right at the beginning. They had only made a few frames.
I asked, ‘You need anybody to work there?’ I had a delivery for Rolls Royce down there and I stopped in and filled out an application. Very shortly after that I got two of my friends jobs there. One was Mike Howard, the other was David Vander Linde, someone no one knows. I think he’s a geologist in Boston now. He got me into cycling. He was the bassist in a band I was in. He said get a bike and we’ll go for a bike tour. We ended up renting a house together—me, Howard and Vander Linde.
Padraig: What’s the riding like there (where you live now)?
Brian Baylis: It’s actually outstanding. If you go east, you go out in the mountains, up into Alpine and all those big climbs. And then you’ve got your coastal ride, down to Coronado and all that. The riding is fantastic, into the boonies or along with coast with all the tri guys. And it’s not really badly trafficked either. A lot of riding out east. We have a velodrome here as well. We have it all, whatever you want.
Padraig: How long have you been building?
Brian Baylis: Since ’73. Yeah, the very first time I held a torch was Mario teaching me how to braze front dropouts in fork blades. I learned silver brazing on my own. I built my very first frame silver-brazed in 1974. It’s still alive and well, in a guy’s collection, totally rideable.
Brazing is the easiest part of frame building.
Brazing with brass—because you’re much nearer the end of the heat range for the tubing—is really tough. You’ve got to be really good. Silver is really easy. There’s no reason to learn to braze with brass unless you plan to do production stuff.
Second time I moved to San Diego was working for Masi in 1976. I built four custom frames. Start to finish including paint.
Padraig: What different roles did you hold while at Masi?
Brian Baylis: My first job was building wheels. Faliero showed me how to build wheels his way. Then glued tires on each one, his way, no glue on anything. Then, assembling parts, handlebars in stems with brake levers, also toe clips and straps to pedals. Filled up bin after bin full of these subassemblies. After that, then they started me with brazing and filing and stuff. With filing to clean up dropouts, seatstays and caps, fork crowns, shaping of lugs. There are all kinds of filing. That was the first time I worked there. And then at some point I became the painter’s assistant. I was the third American hired. Mike was being groomed for brazer. David and Chuck Hofer filed all the lugs for Masis for a few years.
Padraig: When did you start painting bikes?
Brian Baylis: The first painting I did was Wizards.
Every Wizard we made, we did a full-scale drawing. Got how to do that out of the Italian CONI manual. That’s where we started.
Padraig: What year did Wizard start?
Brian Baylis: Wizard Cycles started around the middle of ’74. What it came down to was Jim Adne. He worked at Yellow Jersey in Madison, Wisconsin. Master’s degree in physics. He wasn’t stupid. Mario had some faults; he was a little insecure. One day Jim says, I don’t have to take this.
Mario pissed Jim off enough that he said I’ve had enough of this and left. Mike ended up taking off, too. Mario treated him badly. One day Mike tossed his apron on the bench one day and walked out the door.
Mario didn’t like me, but Faliero liked me just fine. The only people who worked for Mario who went on to be professional builders, Mario didn’t like.
Frame building is an easy thing to do, at least in its basic form.
Frame building is mostly a design exercise.
I’m building for the next generation. Time will tell the real story. I’m building for when most of these craftspeople are gone. I’m building for quality, not quantity. My job is build bikes that stand the test of time. There are all kinds of different people and different frame builders. I’m a bit of a fanatic.
Padraig: How long did in Wizard run?
Brian Baylis: We went back to Masi when Mario and those guys got fired. Middle of ’76. We quit to begin Wizard, and I moved from Huntington Beach to Leucadia. Mike was the brazing foreman and head brazer. I was painting foreman and taught all the guys how to shape and file the lugs. By then we were using investment cast lugs.
Those lugs, Masi was the very first company to use investment cast lugs. Made by Microfusione in Italy. Same company made all the stuff for Cinelli. It was their work that was copied by the Chinese and Taiwanese.
The very first set didn’t allow for shrinkage. They shrink about 14% and so they were all miniatures.
Padraig: How long did you stay?
Brian Baylis: We all thought Bill Recht was going to buy Masi USA. Bill couldn’t complete the purchase and moved to LA and started Medici. That was in ’77 or ’78. Medici was in downtown LA. Medici’s were painted in Mario’s shop.
I stayed in Encinitas. Went to Alaska for a while. I was in a monastery. It was a half a year of really intense self-realization. Then Ted Kirkbride called me. That was 1980. He had started a coop in San Marcos. Ted Kirkbride purchased the right to make Masis. Jim Allen was the painter. He had this building, put in a spray booth and all these cubicles. Dave Moulton, Dave Tesch and Joe Stark were all making Masis. For a period of time the building was shipping Masi, Moulton, Baylis and Tesch.
We parted company when Masi moved into their new building in ’83. That’s when CyclArt rented that building. Moulton and Tesch moved into their own spaces as well.
I did a super-special gold-plated Masi in ’83. The last time I really worked for someone else was then.
Padraig: Who makes the tubing and lugs you like to use?
Brian Baylis: I stick with the vintage tubing. It has always worked and is always going to work. I use Reynolds 531 and Columbus SL, SP and PL and PS. I love Nervex Professionals. Most folks don’t want to put the kind of work into them to make them beautiful. They have tremendous potential. There are characteristics that allow me to do things with them.
I use Prugnat, too, but don’t like Bocama much.
The question is what do you do with them. I’ve been doing it 40 years and I’m not even close to running out of things to do with them.
Padraig: Tell us about the jig you use.
Brian Baylis: The fixture I have is one made by Jim Allen. This was when I was working down in San Marcos. It’s the same design as he made for Ted Kirkbride for making Masis. I have another that makes the rear ends and the forks.
I really don’t use it for all that long. It’s in there a half hour or an hour. You get it in there and tack it and the take it out.
I have two granite tables. All a fixture does is save time.
Pinning was developed because you couldn’t take a frame and tack it. They did that back in the Stone Age. If you’re a modern frame builder and you tack a frame properly, and tack it in three places on each tube. I don’t see any point in doing it except for fork crowns because when you begin brazing the crown will slide down the steering column.
I begin with a seat tube already brazed into the bottom bracket shell.
I call it cheap insurance.
Padraig: 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?
Brian Baylis: The way I go about designing a lug, the first thing I try to do is not to do the thing I did before. It’s not impossible but not easy. There are certain general elements that are successful. Points, some are long, some are short. I know where to stop and what elements to put in and how to join them. You gotta know how to combine elements. The trick is learning how to make the shoreline, to make something original but not too original. I was once asked to cut a lug that looked like the nose of a pig. I passed on that. If it works for me, most folks will like it. A friend of mine who is an artist and went to art school said, ‘Your lugs always have proper proportions.’
The thing about Baylis frames is, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen one. In 40 years I’ve not made two bikes the same. Each shape of a lug cutout is an individual creation. I cut what I feel like, what I feel is appropriate, but I’ve done Fleur di Lis, hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs.
I like to cut lugs out because windows are an aid to brazing. They help penetration.
Last year, as I was wrapping up my coverage of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show I went to some length in describing my newfound love for the builder Chris Bishop. He runs a classic one-man shop, Bishop Bikes. Simple, straightforward, right? Not at all. Other than the fact that his business model is simple, nothing else he does is simple. Every bike he brought to the 2012 show wowed me on multiple levels. His eye for the line of a point was exquisite. His tendency to fill in the hard transitions of some lugs with brass fillets is an old-school California thing favored by guys like Brian Baylis, Tom Ritchey and Peter Johnson. And then there’s the fact that he never takes the easy way out. I’ve seen a number of builders do what was essentially a paint-by-numbers thing where they simply played plumber with a box of lugs and a bunch of tubes. What they did seemed an insult to the term “craft.” They certainly didn’t merit the title “frame builder,” not the way Bishop does.
I was scarecely back home before I’d sent him a deposit. I can’t tell you the last time I fell that hard for a builder. Good thing he’s not as cute as my wife.
And, no, Virginia, this doesn’t mean he has an 18-month wait. It means that we waited until I’d recovered from my crash and had a thorough fitting (that session with Steven Carre at Bike Effect), and then gotten through the crisis that was my second son’s birth before we even began talking about the bike and what size frame would be the appropriate response to the fitting I’d had. From first drawing to now, scarcely a month has passed. And we went from final drawing to the shots contained here in about a week.
We talked a fair amount about the bike I desired. The big thing for me, aside from being stiff enough to stand up to hard, out-of-the-saddle efforts, was that I wanted lug work that was gorgeous but didn’t call attention to itself. That meant no fancy windows, but points thinned enough to draw blood and brass fillets to make them curve to the gentle contours of an industrial designer’s eye. I wanted a bike that would be pretty to anyone, but would contain an extra layer of special for those who knew a thing or two about frame building.
I also wanted this to be a signature build for Chris, something that would stand as a calling card even without paint. That he cut the Bishop icon into the bottom bracket shell is too cool for words, says the word guy.
That he’s taken the time to not just show completed work but also place it alongside untreated pieces really helps show just how remarkable and subtle his work can be.
I told him, flat-out, “Go crazy.” I’ve sold off a few bikes that no longer fit, so to get one frame that should fit me for at least the next 10 to 15 years … well, I can make an investment in his time.
I don’t really want to imagine the amount of effort it took to remove the seat binder from that seat lug. But it sure looks cool.
An internally routed brake cable? Hell yes!
I really wish he didn’t have to paint the bike.
Those fillets at the dropouts are more than just beautiful; they’re harder to do than a quadratic equation.
Hiding the seat binder in the fastback seatstays is full-on ninja design.
When I saw this shot, all I could think was, “I’m going to get to ride that?”
An Anvil jig.
I’ve seen a lot of bikes over the years. I’ve seen a lot of great work. I’ve met plenty of builders who were capable of doing work of this quality. I’ve met maybe a half dozen who had the confidence/chutzpah/balls to do something like this. And until now, I was reasonably sure that all but one of them were California cats.
Learn more about Chris Bishop here. Do it! Click on that link. Srsly.
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?
The second annual San Diego Custom Bicycle show took place this past weekend at the Town and Country Resort north of downtown San Diego. The show was a bit bigger this year, with more exhibitors overall and the organizers (builders Dave Ybarrola, Chuck Schlesinger and Brian Baylis) sold out the available booth spaces. All good things, but for the devoted, there was a detail that made the show much, much cooler this year. More builders.
The number of builders in attendance jumped noticeably and there were more builders who you couldn’t call local by any means. Brent Steelman, Sean Walling of Soulcraft, Mike DeSalvo and many others made the trek down from NorCal and Oregon. Mark Nobilette made it out from Colorado. Dave Bohm of Bohemian came in from Arizona and Serotta and Bilenky helped represent for the East Coast.
Dave Ybarrola says next year’s event will have to be held in a larger facility to accept its growth. No matter. This year’s show was terrific. It reminded me of the second year of NAHBS, when it was held in Palo Alto and the attendees were by and large custom bike fans.
In this and another post I’ll present some of the show’s highlights.
This shot and the one above are from a frame built by the super-talented and little-known builder Peter Johnson. He’s known for ultra-thin points and fillets that bring a gentle sweep to his lugs.
Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster showed this single-speed ‘cross bike with beautifully cut lugs and a killer head tube badge.
The rear triangle on this Rock Lobster features these very trick adjusters to make proper chain tension easy no matter what gear you run.
Sadoff is not without a sense of humor.
Funniest bike of the show award goes to Keith Anders for his satirical take on a classic Eddy Merckx.
Not the Cannibal, but the neighbor.
Anderson made this amazing boy’s bike with disc brakes, wood fenders and chain guard.
Yes, Virginia, that’s mother-of-pearl inlay.
Most furniture stores I go to don’t feature woodwork this nice.
Not everything was handmade bikes, though. This cabinet was stuffed with NOS parts, and plenty of it was Campy.
Custom, lugged stems are becoming more common and this chromed unit from Greg Townsend was one of the prettiest examples at the show.