Chipps Pub Bike Framebuilding Downland

Bicycle Frame Making in UK classed as ‘Endangered Craft’

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The Heritage Crafts Association has been tracking the health of crafts in the UK since 2017, ranking traditional crafts by the likelihood they will survive to the next generation. This year, ‘bicycle frame making’ has joined the list of ‘endangered’ crafts, shifting from a previous status of ‘viable’.

For this ranking exercise, a heritage craft is defined as “a practice which employs manual dexterity and skill at the point of production, an understanding of traditional materials, design and techniques, and which has been practised for two or more successive generations.” Using information such as the current number of craftspeople and trainees, the average age of practitioners, opportunities to learn, and other issues affecting the future of the crafts, including the impact of the energy crisis, the study assesses how likely it is that the craft skills will be passed on to the next generation. There are four categories: extinct, critically endangered, endangered or currently viable.

If you look down the list, you will see all sorts of crafts for which it seems understandable there is low demand in a modern age: how many orrery makers do you need when you can explore real footage space from your own home computer? Other crafts you can image are occasionally really desirable – essential maybe even – but only to a very few: if you need a bell, you probably need someone who can do bell founding. But how often does anyone actually need a new bell? It’s not like we’re a nation that’s churning out new churches and ships.

However, we are a nation that rides plenty of bicycles, so what is bicycle frame making doing on the ‘Endangered’ list?

In its description of the historical context of bicycle frame making, the Heritage Crafts Association states:

Historically, there had been local frame builders in most towns in the UK. By the mid-1980s there were 150-200 frame builders still operating, although most were older and on the verge of retiring. By the late-1980s, the bicycle industry had changed dramatically with the introduction of cheap imports from Taiwan/China which finished off many of the remaining frame builders, and by the early-1990s the craft had all but disappeared with no more than a dozen makers left, usually those with an individual name/reputation rather than the local town frame builders. Frame builders today are usually one person businesses, with most makers in their 40/50s and some in their mid-30s.

The shape of the frame making trade in the UK is still changing. In addition to the established frame builders there are a large number of start-ups springing up in response to an increasing interest in cycling. Some of these are making some innovative new designs using unusual materials.

Heritage Crafts Association

The report also lists the following issues affecting the viability of the craft:

  • Size of market: based on research and figures of tubing and frame parts sales (from suppliers to the builders) over the past two years, there are only around 450 bespoke frames being made per year – so the market is quite small in that sector. There are probably another 1,000-1,200 (total) being made by larger companies – these may be made to order but not bespoke.
  • Training issues: there are no formal training opportunities available in bicycle making and few businesses have the capacity or resources to take on trainees. There are a number of short courses available where people build themselves a frame and some masterclasses for those who wish to develop their skills. Training in advanced and specialist skills can be difficult to access.
  • Business skills: there is very little training available for those who want to start a bicycle making company and some have difficulty in marketing their products and communicating effectively with clients. It is very challenging to develop a sustainable bicycle making business from scratch due to high start-up costs and the high retail value of the finished product. Many bicycle makers have to diversify or make other products to generate a living wage.
  • Issues relating to passing on a business: many frame builders are individuals and the name is the business – this makes it very hard to pass a business on as a going concern.
  • Availability of raw materials: In early 2021, bicycle making businesses were reporting supply chain issues with sourcing stainless steel tubing. If this continues to be a problem it could have an ongoing impact on manufacturing.

The report notes that there are a number of part time or amateur frame builders, of whom many might hope to turn their sideline or hobby into a full time role. It estimates there 11-20 professional makers who earn their main income from frame building, and another 11- 20 professionals for whom it is a sideline. It judges that there are between six and ten serious amateur makers, and up to 15 ‘leisure makers’.

The listing also includes ‘Crafts people currently known’ as follows:

The frame building listing also notes that there are the related sub-tasks of ‘Polishing thin walled tubing’ (very few practitioners) and ‘Lug cutting’ (no practitioners).

Do you spot any missing? Gav from Coal Bikes and Ralph from Ra bikes don’t appear to be there, so perhaps there are a few more builders out there. Stanton isn’t on the list either, and nor is Fiveland – but maybe they count as production?

How many people are left who know how to do this stuff?

In publishing the list, Mary Lewis, Heritage Crafts Endangered Crafts Manager, made the following observations:

The cumulative effect of COVID-19, Brexit, the energy crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine, and the ensuing financial troubles have all had a brutal impact on many crafts businesses already struggling to make ends meet. I have spoken to so many craftspeople who are having to make heartbreaking decisions between buying in materials, keeping their workshops powered, and paying themselves even a minimum wage. This is all on top of the pre-existing structural issues such as the lack of training routes and government financial support for training.

We have always talked about the cultural loss that is borne every time a craft is lost, but over the last few years we have begun to notice another phenomenon. We increasingly see how crafts operate with a degree of inter-dependence. They form a complex ecosystem, with associated skills, supply chains and economies of scale that come with the level of specialisation you used to see in cities like Sheffield, Birmingham and Stoke. When one business closes, or one craft becomes extinct, it can have a knock-on effect on other allied crafts. The fear is that if we continue to witness this haemorrhaging of skills we may soon get to a tipping point, beyond which the collapse of heritage crafts in the UK accelerates exponentially.

Mary Lewis, Heritage Crafts Endangered Crafts Manager

Petor Georgallou, co-owner of the hand made bicycle show Bespoked, says that here in the UK, framebuilders – and the broader bicycle industry – are battling the same effects of Covid and energy costs, but with the added influence of Brexit. This makes it even harder to be a frame builder in the UK than it is elsewhere in the world.

The Heritage Crafts Association factors in opportunities to train in the craft in its rankings, and Petor says that the significance of the loss of the Bicycle Academy cannot be underestimated. He believes that a significant proportion of the builders exhibiting at Bespoked got their start with the Bicycle Academy, and their closure last year will impact the number of people learning frame building skills in the UK. He contrasts the situation with France, where as well as not having Brexit impacts, the French government is supporting the establishment of a new ‘Victoire‘ frame building school.

Petor also notes that the loss of distributors like Moore Large has led to some brands going direct, rather than re-signing with alternative distributors. For a small frame builder, this means placing orders for components with a number of different companies, rather than a single distributor of many parts. If you’re already juggling another job with your frame building sideline, or operating on the leanest of margins, this kind of administrative inefficiency can be significant.

The disruption in the broader bike industry has two sides to it. On the one hand, Petor thinks the bicycle buying market is slowing as big brands trim their marketing budgets and draw in fewer riders. There are also plenty of great offers to be had in the industry, due to the overstocking of products – making it harder for a hand built frame builder to compete in the £2-4k frame market in which they’ve largely operated. But Petor thinks there’s a flip side:

Frame building will always exist, the question is where it exists. Frames built in Taiwan are still using frame building skills. Here in the UK, Brexit and USA trade deals have made operating unbelievably tough – tougher than elsewhere in the world – but there is hope. The demand for hand built frames, and the bicycle culture that goes with it, still exists in the UK, partly thanks to shows like Bespoked that help support frame building culture and legitimise frame building. As the broader bicycle industry saves costs and tries to shift its excess inventory, it is delivering a poorer customer experience, and stepping back from marketing activities that help nurture the ecosystem of cycling culture. For many, it’s not just about buying a bike, it’s about buying into a whole culture of cycling. Frame builders offer cycling enthusiasts the experience, knowledge, story and unique product that those riders are looking for.

Petor Georgallou

While you ponder whether you care about lost craft skills or not, why not read more about the hand made bicycle scene?

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Hannah Dobson

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  • This topic has 25 replies, 20 voices, and was last updated 1 week ago by paton.
Viewing 25 posts - 1 through 25 (of 25 total)
  • Bicycle Frame Making in UK classed as ‘Endangered Craft’
  • thepodge
    Free Member

    18 Bikes
    Wilson Cycles
    Vernon Barker

    That’s 5 in and around Sheffield they have missed… Crap research dressed up as facts.

    Full Member

    Whether or not the list is complete doesn’t change the main point surely, it’s still not a growth industry.

    Full Member

    Clandestine! Definitely full time and making lovely bikes – i have 2!

    Full Member


    Dawley bikes
    Rå bikes
    Tora cycles
    Coal bikes
    Carbon Wasp

    Off the top of my head, and that’s just MTBs

    Full Member

    ^ The article mentions some of them not being listed, and it’s about the craft of steel frames rather than 3D printing or carbon layups – arguably they should be included but it’s a different craft.

    Size of market: based on research and figures of tubing and frame parts sales (from suppliers to the builders) over the past two years, there are only around 450 bespoke frames being made per year

    You’re selling to a small section of the market and when you think of how long-term a purchase a custom frame is now (compared to the 60s and 70s road scene) that number’s not suprisingly low. I wonder if there’s a tube or dropout supplier who wasn’t factored in, but even so that may only bump the numbers up to ~500-600?

    Free Member

    Of course it is an endangered craft. The products are high end and niche and not for the majority of bicycle buyers. Even buyers with money will typically be spending it on some big brand bike or frame.

    Free Member

    As above… yes, it’s not the most secure way to trade but there remain plenty of players.
    In the Lothians alone:
    Five Land Bikes. (Steel frame builders for Cotic)

    Full Member

    ^ Scottish govt seems to be supporting it too, quite a a bit of industry talk about manufacturing investment there.

    Full Member

    BTR also missing.

    Home page

    Full Member

    Surely Brompton is the big one missed off the list? They have a robust apprenticeship program and make lots of bikes in the Uk.

    Full Member

    Isn’t the point of the exercise not to point out how many brands there are currently, but how many there will be in the future? Many of the companies listed are one or two man workshops that are completely viable right now but aren’t going to be or may not be passed onto a next generation, and if that happens in sufficient numbers; hand making a bicycle frame will start to decline.

    Full Member

    As an aside I see that Reynolds are no longer making 953. I know it’s niche but this doesn’t seem to be making the news.

    Free Member

    Many of the companies listed are one or two man workshops that are completely viable right now but aren’t going to be or may not be passed onto a next generation, and if that happens in sufficient numbers; hand making a bicycle frame will start to decline

    Not really any different to many small business especially enthusiasts based ones, just because it does get continued doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t set up shop. I remember ~15 years ago there several old school road bike frame builders retiring but loads of new builders have come onto the scene. I would argue the industry is better now than for some time due to easier advertising on the internet bespoked show, the bike field being more and more splintered allowing builders to have a speciality. E.g. known for flat bar, long dist nice off road bike packing suspension corrected rigs but builds MTB, road , commuter etc

    Full Member

    Like most craft trades in the last 100 years it has gone mainstream-decline-low level resurgence, and now sort of stabilised.

    The only recent bike specific difference in this (and the main driver behind the article) is the big decline in availability of training due to the covid induced demise of the Bicycle Academy. But things were definitely growing before BA started (the Bespoked show started before BA). So growth in interest made BA viable, not the other way round.

    When I was a kid in the 80s, lugged steel frames still won the TdF. That was the cutting edge, and by happy coincidence you could make those locally. But it was a closed world and very difficult to buy tubes etc (In 1994 I could only buy Reynolds tube through friends with a trade account at Newman Distribution bike supplies).

    The internet is the big enabler as it suddenly allowed sharing of knowledge and direct access to suppliers and customers.

    Free Member

    I still think its a mess of a report.

    There are probably another 1,000-1,200 (total) being made by larger companies – these may be made to order but not bespoke.

    Brompton make 50000 frames a year by hand in the UK so that number is wrong.

    there are only around 450 bespoke frames being made per year – so the market is quite small in that sector.

    Based on the last number being wrong and the fact we’ve added around 15 to the list of builders I’d say 450 is also vastly wrong. because it also says

    Use of different materials – carbon, titanium, exotic materials like wood and bamboo etc.

    so that basically covers everyone.

    with most makers in their 40/50s and some in their mid-30

    I would imagine most people in the entire workforce are somewhere in their 30s, 40, or 50s.

    The cumulative effect of COVID-19, Brexit, the energy crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine

    That’s just lazy reporting. What has really caused problems for start up businesses, especially engineering / messy craftsmanship is workshop rent prices. If you don’t already have a garage to work from then it’ll cost you £2k a year to rent one without power & most landlords run a mile when you start saying you’re going to be wafting flames & sparks all over the place.

    Full Member

    With the rise in eBike ownership I can see the custom sector declining further, along with any new small bike company start-ups. Start-ups who did it like On-One, Cotic, Dialled Bikes etc., will be a thing of the past. eBikes will be dominated by the big players.

    The demand for a custom eBike will be pretty much zero.

    Free Member

    Also forgot the Moulton Bicycle Company where I work, and yes those figures quoted are incorrect.

    One of the biggest issues we face are attracting skilled staff or even apprentices, most kids these days don’t want to do manual work. The pay is fairly decent for a brazer at £30k plus a year with no weekend work and Friday finish at 1, yet we struggle to attract employees.

    On the plus side we have a record amount of bikes on order and are expanding, although in fairness our product is extremely unique and industry downturns have never affected us. Over 90% of our product goes overseas, I can’t imagine other framebuilders can match that apart from Brompton maybe.

    Free Member

    Do you allow remote working? I’d apply in an instant.

    Full Member

    This is going to sound sort of harsh but, does it actually matter?

    I mean no business or manufacturing method has a devine right to exist, and most of what you’re paying for with a UK made bespoke frame is specialist labour, based in a country with a higher cost of living and in direct competition with pretty good Far Eastern produced alternatives…

    As wonderful as it is for expensive, niche products to be available so wealthier punters can distinguish themselves from the rest of us, are most people actually affected by not having ready access to an artisanal collection or tubes?

    Full Member

    @cookeaa, at £2k for an average custom frame, Vs looking at the OTP MTBs around these days, it’s not about wealth.

    I like the fact you can get a frame set made of tubes from Birmingham, brazed or welded in the UK, and it’s likely to be a considered long term purchase. As an alternative to imported product churn it matters.

    Free Member

    Do you allow remote working? I’d apply in an instant.

    I’m packing my bags as we speak.

    Full Member

    There’s Chickens Frame Builders on the outskirts of Brighton too.

    Free Member

    There is some sharing of knowledge and experience across cycle and motorbike brazing.

    Free Member

    Brian Ashcroft bronze welding Ariel Atom

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