Padraig: Tell us about the jig you use.
David Wages: It’s pretty minimal. I have an Anvil Journeyman fixture for frames and an Anvil fork fixture. I have a few other pieces of machinery. I have drill press, a die grinder and a dynafile and that’s pretty much it. It’s amazing how little that holds me back. I came out of Serotta and Waterford where we had pretty much every tool we could ever want. I have never felt held back by that. Even if I had a mill to cut tubes, I have to ask, ‘How many tubes would I have to cut to pay for that mill?’
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?
David Wages: It’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about that and talked to a customer about it just today. It’s starting to coalesce a bit. I have a very classic sort of lug pattern I do and then another that’s very modern-looking in appearance. I did a Di2 bike and wanted the lugs to be very modern, very minimal.
The more modern looking ones look good with SRAM or Di2, while the classic ones look good with Campy.
I have a Long Shen I like to use. It’s a stock lug they have for oversize tube sets. It works with 1 1/8 steerers. That’s the direction I’m headed—1 1/8” forks. I’ll build 1”, but if it’s in my hands, I’ll build an 1 1/8”.
Darrell McCulloch of Llewellyn has some nice lug sets I’m using. He’s got four different sets made by Long Shen and they are great castings. I modify them some so they like like my own, not cookie-cutter; they are really nice lugs.
Padraig: When fitting a customer for a bike, how do you usually work? How often is it in person?
David Wages: I don’t think I’ve ever done one in-person. The way I do this comes about in one of three different ways. There’s the guy who knows exactly what he wants. He can quote the tube lengths and angles he wants. I can take those numbers and build them that. Then there’s the person who has no idea what their fit should be and this is their first custom bike. For those, the easiest thing is to find a local place to do a fitting. I have two networks out there as a result of Waterford and Serotta. I can call a shop ahead and tell them that I’m sending a customer for a fitting. Afterward I just get those fit numbers and go to work.
In between there there’s the guy who may be having some trouble with his fit. One of the most helpful things is getting pictures of the bike. You may see the saddle all the way back or a crazy stem. So much of it comes down to seeing a picture of the bike, not just them on the bike, but also the bike itself.
I think the big thing is getting the person in the ball park so that they have adjustability. By ball park I mean a nice neutral position that provides a starting point for choices. The more information, the better.
I’ve been at this long enough I think I’m qualified to take all the information and distill it down into a good fit. I think it’s one of the things that new builders don’t account enough for. It has a big effect on ride.
Padraig: Who does your paint?
David Wages: It’s total serendipity that I ran into a friend of a friend. I didn’t have a plan when I left Waterford other than thinking I’d just send frames to Joe Bell. A friend said you should check out this guy in Milwaukee, Jason Sanchez. He painted for Jonny Cycles, but he [Jonny] stopped building, unfortunately. Jason’s work isn’t better than Joe Bell’s but it’s on par. He’s as obsessive about the paint as I am about the frame. Having a painter of Jason’s caliber is one thing, but to have him local so I don’t have to box my bikes up and ship them across country is really huge.
Padraig: Let’s talk about geometry: Would you say 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?
David Wages: I would say for your standard road bike, I have a fairly consistent ride and geometry I’m going for. Randonneur bikes are getting more and more popular and the geometry is very different. I talk to the customer to find out what the bike is going to be used for. Like with a loaded touring bike, I ask about where they are going to put their weight. Are they going to run a handlebar bag, panniers, fenders? There are a lot of variables to take into account. I’ve been doing a lot of research on randonneur bikes. It’s challenging and fun to keep learning about that.
Padraig: When designing a frame for a customer, once you know the ride characteristics the rider is looking for, do you conceive of the geometry as a whole or is there a particular dimension you look to as a starting point?
David Wages: I am a big fan of a lower bottom bracket and longer chainstays. If someone wants a tight race bike, that’s fine, but I think longer chainstays make so much sense. You can worry less about cross-chaining, can consider fenders, run wider tires, things like that. An 80mm BB drop really makes sense if you’re not racing crits. I’m trying make a bike that’s as easy to ride and as comfortable to ride as possible.
I spend most of my time looking at contact points: pedals, handlebar and saddle.
Padraig: Bottom line: What are your bikes supposed to ride like?
David Wages: I want the bike to ride like the bike you’ve always wanted. It should be an extension of you.
Padraig: How long is the wait for new customers?
David Wages: Right now I’m quoting about 6 months.
Padraig: What’s your pricing like?
David Wages: Almost nobody buys a stock bike; they are adding some options, a braze-on here or upgrade to paint. The average bike is around $3500 for frame and fork. The bare-bones frame and fork is $2900.
Padraig: What keeps the work fresh for you, gets you up in the morning (or out in the evening) and excited to build?
David Wages: I think riding. Going out and riding and the feedback from the customers along with my own riding is really it. Getting the first order for a randonneur bike was really huge. I got to do a lot of research. I’m probably more inspired in the summer when I’m riding a lot. Seeing other people on my bikes.
I’m not a type-A personality, a guy who likes to work the room, but when I go to a show like NAHBS [the North American Handmade Bicycle Show] I don’t mind standing up nine hours a day and talking about something I’m so passionate about. I’m stoked. I get to the end of the day and I’m jazzed. At home, I’m working all day and I love that, whereas here, I talked to 150 people. I’m excited about bikes. They have a value and people recognize that. I love hanging out with those people. I feel like I have the résumé as a builder, but getting people to know who I am is the challenge.
Padraig: What’s your life away from building like? What sort of outside interests do you have?
David Wages: My brother lives in Ventura. He and I are into rock climbing so when I visit him I get to do that, which I can’t do in Wisconsin. My wife and I met through kayaking. The year I was away from Serotta I worked at a bike/kayak store. When I got out here, I went looking for a club to hook up with; she was too and that’s how we met.
I gotta give my wife huge props just for putting up with starting this in a rotten economy. She has been very supportive. She puts up with a lot of talk about bikes and frames and she’s not a bike person to the degree I am, so she’s really patient with me. I couldn’t do it without her.
Images: Steve Wages
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?
I shot more than 200 images
today yesterday and there’s no way to both upload all of them now AND sleep tonight. So I’ve selected a group of portraits I shot. They were fun and the subjects delightful. Or maybe they are delightful and the subjects were fun. Regardless, as tired as I was when the show ended today, I didn’t really want to walk out.
Leading off the set is Sacha White of Vanilla, who I caught while he was making a small adjustment to my favorite booth of the show.
Jay SyCip, who manages Chris King’s Cielo program.
Jeremy SyCip, these days the one-man show behind Santa Rosa’s SyCip Cycles.Mike DeSalvo of DeSalvo Cycles relaxing during a calm moment.The ever practical Carl Strong; Carl’s aesthetic looks for function long before it seeks beauty. As a result, his frames are austere, but warm to the business end of the peloton.
Even if we never remembered Don Walker’s famous fillet-brazed frames, as the organizer of NAHBS, his place in the frame building world would be assured. If he wasn’t doing NAHBS, he’d be doing more frames.
David Wages of Ellis (it’s a family name) hangs out and talks to fans.
Frame building’s favorite iconoclast, Richard Sachs.Nick Crumpton gets excited.