This article was originally published in Issue 111 of Singletrack Magazine.
Chipps goes on Downland Cycles’ TIG welding framebuilding course, to see if his office skills can be turned into more practical ones that can shape and build a bicycle frame from bare tubes.
I nearly worked for a framebuilder once. A long time ago, I talked to Greg Fuquay, an American framebuilder who was working in Suffolk, about working with him. The idea was that I would do all of the admin and marketing and Greg would shut himself in the workshop and crank out beautiful TIG welded frames. We got as far as the planning stage, but called it quits before we started (and that, ironically, set me on my path of mountain bike journalism, but that’s another story). I do wonder, sometimes, what would have happened if I’d have worked with a framebuilder, tubing and files all around, rather than making the keyboard and camera my tools.
A couple of times over the years, on tours of Pace Cycles and Orange, I’ve had a go at welding. In both cases, my secret hopes to find that I was a natural welder were dashed in a mess of jagged lines, melted tubes and smouldering torch tips stuck to the work. In addition to a lack of practicality, the other skills needed when building frames are careful measuring overall accuracy and precise geometry. There’s a reason I write for a living…
Downland Cycles still reckoned that its framebuilding courses could take someone of my natural ‘talent’ and teach me to build a frame. It happened that the only eight days I had spare in 2016 coincided with its TIG welding course and so I booked in.
Downland Cycles is Julie and Bryan Jackson. They used to run a popular bike shop in Canterbury that also built ‘Invicta’ frames and ran framebuilding courses, but after the shop building was sold a few years ago, they moved the business into a converted stable block next to their house to concentrate on teaching bike mechanics, bike fit and framebuilding. Due to the remote location (miles from the nearest streetlight) they’ve built a small bunkhouse and offer accommodation for students too.
Bryan is a quiet, sage-like character, with a dry sense of humour, an unflappable demeanour and the patience of a saint. I can imagine him as a helicopter instructor… ‘Let’s try adding a touch more on the throttle before we hit the ground, shall we? There, that’s better, isn’t it?’ Bryan has spent many years learning how to build frames and to teach framebuilding and he’s justly proud of the small but well-equipped workshop he’s built up.
His wife Julie is the chatterbox, logistics expert, cook and cake-baker of the pair. She loves her visitors and ex-pupils are kept tabs on and talked of fondly. Food is delicious and plentiful and much of it is grown in the garden.
There were two other students on the course with me. Both had built frames with Downland before and they’d returned to have a go at TIG welding. Gael – a young French lad – is a material science graduate and engineer by trade. Having spent the last few years designing and making carbon fibre brake ducts for Red Bull Formula One cars, he fancied a change. He wanted to add TIG welding to his skill set and move back to France to set up a frame shop. His project was to make an all-round steel hardtail mountain bike.
Dave, meanwhile, is a cheerfully abrasive Yorkshireman who’d come back to build his third frame. He makes precision train set layouts for a living, which involves a lot of laser cutting and attention to detail.
He arrived with his own overalls, tape measure in hand and sharpened pencil behind an ear. Having made a mountain bike and disc road bike before, he wanted to make a traditional road bike out of stainless steel, a notoriously hard material to work with.
Dave arrived with a fully formed idea of what he wanted: angles, braze-ons, clearances and all. He’d also pre-ordered his stainless steel 953 Reynolds tubeset through Bryan, so it was a quick job to translate that to the BikeCAD programme on the computer, which calculates everything from tube lengths to mitre profiles. Gael, meanwhile, is either a show-off, or a naturally talented engineer. He turned up with a BikeCAD file and a folder containing his frame design already worked out. All he needed to do was select the tubes from the vast array there and start chopping.
Now what did I want to build again? I didn’t want to build a half-arsed Cotic Soul. So I figured I’d be best off building something that didn’t have a precedent and something I’d definitely ride: a performance pub bike.
My design was inspired by Nick Larsen’s Charge Klunker that he built at the Bicycle Academy for the Hack Bike Derby. It had Sturmey Archer hub brakes, a tough BMX cruiser look to it and some slack looking angles. The other bikes that I was looking to were the Pashley Speed 5 and Guv’nor bikes. Bikes that looked like ‘Scorchers’ or ‘Gentlemen Racers’ from the 1920s. All of those bikes shared slack angles and hub brakes (or no brakes at all). Because I live halfway up a steep hill, and the pubs are always at the bottom, I’d need brakes and gears to get there and back again. Not too many though, so I figured that a Sturmey Archer three-speed would probably fit the bill.
With that decided, things started to move quicker, though I soon discovered how interlinked everything is. I wanted 27.5in wheels and clearance for fat slicks or skinny knobblies on wide rims. But Sturmey Archers only come in 36H drilling, so that limited my rim choice to one hefty Mavic trail rim. There probably wasn’t going to be a drum-brake compatible, 27.5in rigid fork out there, so suddenly I was looking at having to build a fork too (something that is only normally covered in the full 11-day framebuilding courses) so I’d have to find time to fit that in.
Eventually the frame was laid out in BikeCAD and the tubes were chosen. Slack angles, a tall headtube for an upright riding position, biggish clearances and a 31.6mm seat tube in case I ever wanted to fit a dropper post. Dave christened it ‘Dickie the pub bike’.
The next few days went by in a blur of concentration and industry; there was so much to do. The main tubes all needed mitring so they would fit together perfectly. This involved printing a mitring mask out from BikeCAD and taping it to the tube, then filing in the mitre. It had to be as millimetre-perfect as possible, and a couple of times I found my ‘almost near enough’ accuracy lacking as I chased gaps around the joins.
Time past unnoticed in a haze of single-minded focus and repetition. Minutes would pass and suddenly it would be dark outside. File a tube two, three times, take it out of the clamp and offer it up to the frame, then repeat… I found working with the hand tools both satisfying as an exercise in creation, and frustrating at how easy it was to get something slightly wrong. A tiny variance in an angle could mean a couple of millimetres at the other end of the tube. I wasn’t used to working with such precision.
Sparking tips and melting silver.
Building a frame is a very tea-intensive business. Is your welding or filing getting harder to do? Have a cup of tea. Mind wandering? Tea. Someone at the machine you want? Cup of tea. Not sure what shape seatstays you want? You get the idea – though it’s not a single estate tea or AeroPress coffee. The sheer volume requires a box of Yorkshire tea and a jar of instant coffee with a kettle permanently on the go.
By the fourth day and fifth days, we were all taking turns at the TIG welder in between other jobs. My aforementioned experiences with TIG welding were high on my mind as I took the torch under Bryan’s gaze. There’s a lot going on and it takes a while just to get the co-ordination together to start with. One hand holds the torch; the other holds the welding rod. A foot controls the wah-wah pedal that turns on the current and increasing that starts the spark pulsing with energy and it starts melting metal. At an alarming rate if you’re not careful…
I started my lessons by just trying to lay down beads on a metal block in a straight line, without adding rod. You spark up the torch, then concentrate on melting a small pool of metal before moving it slowly towards you as it pulses and melts, pulses and melts. With that done, it’s time to move on to welding round corners on scrap mitred tubes, then adding rod to fill the join. While the ‘eureka’ moment never came, there were times where I could see what was supposed to happen and how all of the actions were related. Just when I was on the verge of getting it, I’d touch the torch tip to the piece, short it out, and the tungsten tip would be stuck to my weld. The level of precision you need (within 2mm up and down and side to side, while moving smoothly and perpendicularly round a join on two circular tubes…) is just not something I have EVER needed to do in my life. If I make a mistake on a story, I can delete a word. If you do it on a frame, you’ve blown a hole in a tube…
More practice needed, but first, I had a fork to build. Oh, and a pair of wheels while I was here. Both of these were fitted in between other jobs and in the evenings, after dinner. It seemed that if you had the energy to learn, Bryan had the energy to show you. We got a pair of wheels laced up in an evening and a day or so was spent cutting tubes and fitting blades to my lugged crown fork that I’d inadvertently needed to make due to my hub-brake choice.
Brazing is another skill I’ve admired from afar. There’s less of a panic to it too; the play of the oxy-acetylene torch on the metal is more graceful and contemplative as you slowly heat up the metal to the point that you can melt a blob of brass rod (or silver, depending on the work) and then use the heat to draw the molten metal into the lug, or around the braze-on. You have to be ready, though, because when it’s at the right temperature, things happen fast. It’s fair to say that I was more at home with that than I was at the TIG welding. And with cable guides, mudguard eyes and fork dropouts and crown, I certainly got the practice. We got the fork finished about 10pm one night and I heard that this wasn’t the latest time the workshop has ever stayed open. Framebuilding is a very open-ended pursuit – you get out what you put in.
TIG of Truth.
Day seven already and it was time to tack up the frame. It seemed that overnight the ‘brazing fairies’ had been in and tidied a couple of bits of my fork so that I could concentrate on welding. I was still struggling with it. The time I’d spent building my fork and extensive braze-ons had meant that I’d not been able to devote as much time as I wanted to practice and I was still very apprehensive about tacking up my frame in the jig.
Dave really helped with getting my frame prepped for the jig – slicing tiny amounts off the chainstays until they fitted perfectly to the BB shell. I concentrated on the much simpler task of making a seatstay bridge out of flat plate (Zinn/Islabikes style) and drilling random holes in it for looks… Finally, I couldn’t put it off any longer: I tacked each of the main frame tubes together. Four tack welds – front, back, left and right took me over half an hour. The front and rear ones, that aren’t really visible, weren’t bad, but the left and right ones were gits and we were surprised that I’d not melted a hole in any of the tubes.
On the eighth and final day, I was straight into more tacking and then welding. Every time I got it right there was a moment of elation. I just needed to remember what that welding action felt like. And then I’d get it wrong again. I started tacking the seatstays on. One tack good, then I blew a hole in the other one.
After another cuppa, I moved on to the main tubes – starting with the important welds that hold your headtube on and stop your face from hitting the ground. The flow was not with me; my welding was more a series of blobby tacks. The more I tried, the more I tensed up. Bryan watched every move and he could sense my frustration, but never lost his helicopter instructor calm. We made our way round the tubes and got everything welded in some form – however, neither of us were that happy with it. Bryan continued to be positive and unflappable though, suggesting a break for one of Julie’s great dinners.
Last chances and revelations.
I knew I’d lost a day of potential practice time, due to having to make a fork, and spending at least an evening for some wheels, neither of which were in the original plan – perhaps I’d have been better cracking down to some more welding. I had dinner, feeling pretty disconsolate at my gobby welds. Dave had said a couple of days earlier that no one goes home without a frame, though I reckoned I might be the first. Bryan had offered to finish my frame off after I’d gone home and send it on later, but that seemed like a cop-out and an admission of defeat.
Instead, Bryan had a plan. He reprogrammed the welder to do a higher frequency, lower current pulse that could be used to smooth out my spackled welds into something a little more durable. It wouldn’t fix all the issues, and a couple of the holes I’d melted and harder to reach bits would need his expert touch, but it would get me a frame where the tubes would stay together and it would look presentable – especially under paint.
I slowly evened out the welds, moving across them in more of a falling leaf motion and melting them into shape, filling holes in as I went. The change was instantaneous. Where before there had been staccato blobs, there was a more even bead from tube to tube. No stack of 5p coins by a long stretch, but it definitely looked rideable. It took the rest of the evening, but we ended up with a frame that, for the most part, looked pretty great. And there was a moment where I did actually get it. I could feel the metal melting and briefly doing my bidding, rather than as it had been before – a couple of panic tacks before I accidentally touched the torch to the metal again.
There were more braze-ons for me to do, and a bit of brass filing on the fork, and Bryan and Julie kindly let me stay over another day and not leave until it was done. Again, Bryan snuck into the workshop at dawn and worked on the tricky welds around the seatstays and chainstays for me, while leaving my homely welds on the main tubes alone. I left that afternoon with a frame, fork and wheels that I could say I had made – from bare tubes to something that rung solid when you rapped on it.
And now my bike is painted and built and I’ve ridden it. I’ve hopped off kerbs with confidence, I’ve ridden it to work and I love it a little more with every pedal turn. And once the trails dry a little, I’m going to ride the off-road way to the pub on a bike that I built.
Can anyone build a frame? Yes. I reckon that if you follow the kind of instruction I was given, you can. It won’t make you a ‘framebuilder’ – that only comes with practice, dedication and a real understanding of the craft, but yes, if I can build a frame, then you definitely can. Even TIG welding can make sense after a while.
If you fancy a go, then get it done. While the courses aren’t cheap, it’s a solid week of learning that’s as immersive and instructive as you want to make it – and you’ll walk away with your own frame that you designed and you built, though you’ll probably be a few pounds heavier after Julie’s cooking.
Now, what shall I build next?
TIG Course: Eight days, £1,600 including VAT and all practice tubing. Frame/Fork tubing from £280
Accommodation: £42 a night, includes all meals, cake and endless cups of tea.
Thanks to Orange for the powdercoating and Downland Cycles for providing the course and accommodation.
If you want a closer look at the finished bike, check out this bike check feature.
If you fancy seeing how Wil got on building his frame out of bamboo, check out the Bamboozled feature in Issue 117.