Framebuilding 101

Frame Building Fantasy Camp 101

I was in the market for a bicycle.  I had looked in all the shops and gone on several test rides, but even the high-end frames felt lifeless to me. At that time I was on an aluminum bike and didn’t like the feel. Carbon seemed too sterile. With its cycling legacy behind it, I knew I wanted steel.

But not just any piece of cold steel between my legs would do. I wanted something sexy, with a good personality and depth. I had been searching for the bicycle frame that would stimulate a series of tingling goose bumps at the mere sight of it. I wanted something that fit like a glove; was made for my body. I wanted my bicycle to start out with a good story, and we all know every good story starts in Rifle, Colorado.

Master frame builder Koichi Yamaguchi offers a two-week bicycle frame-building course, you can build either a steel lugged or fillet brazed frame. In this course you are taught the basics of old school steel frame building. Yamaguchi was head builder for 3 Rencho in Japan using nothing more than a jig, handsaw and a few files. These are the techniques that he passes down in his classes. Yamaguchi pioneered unbelievably imaginative designs including frames for the US National Team, along with NJS certified track frames for professional Kierin racing. Yamaguchi has taught notable students including Makino, Ian Sutton of Icarus and Megan Dean of Moth Attack.

In July of 2006 I made a pilgrimage to Rifle, Colorado with Nick and Ryan. We headed three hours southwest from my hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Nick was my college boyfriend, we got into cycling together, and Ryan was his long-time best friend. Our combined interest in cycling and a thirst for obscure adventures is what ultimately sold us on Yamaguchi’s Frame Building course in Rifle. I would be one of only a handful of women to take the class. I always liked to play like a boy.

Anxious for our adventure to begin, we wasted no time finding a room at the local Winchester Motel.  We flipped on the air conditioner to escape the 90 degree day and called it a night. The next morning when the alarm went off at 7am, we shot up, scrambled to dress and headed down to feast on the continental breakfast. It was already 75 outside.

Fantasy Camp Day 1

We walked the two blocks to Yamaguchi’s house and knocked anxiously on the door. His wife answered and let us right in. The short, small-framed master frame builder appeared before us with long hair and a Tom Selleck ‘stash. Although a revered framebuilder, he was polite and calm with no sense of an ego about him. We followed him to his shop in the backyard. He offered us water and coffee, of which there would be a full pot at all times.

He let our wandering, lusting eyes lead us toward his collection of bicycles and photos. Our jaws dropped and could no longer contain the drool. He had a 1960’s Cinelli frame, one he used to model his first frames. Mounted on the walls were 3 Rencho, Nagasawa and various other branded prototypes in unexpected shapes.

After our introduction to the shop we got down to business: Who was going to build what. Ryan wanted to build a lugged track frame. Nick wanted a classic lugged road frame. I wanted a mix between a classic lugged road frame and something that could double for triathlons. Yamaguchi had already torn three large pieces of butcher paper to sketch our geometry on.

First, our biometrics were recorded – height, arm, leg and torso measurements. We entered these numbers in to CAD to find the angles where our lugs would meet each tube of the frame. After our sketches were complete we picked out True Temper tube sets that Yamaguchi has left over from the late ‘80s when he was THE builder for the United States Olympic Cycling Team. He helped True Temper develop tubing to meet the needs of his designs, which have influenced KHS’s Aero Track frame and GT’s triple triangle.

Our lugs, dropouts, bottom bracket and fork crowns were chosen from Shimano, Suntour and 3 Rencho parts. We tucked away our tube sets for the time being. Yamaguchi showed us the few tools that he used and finally on to the torch!

This was the moment we had all been waiting for – who doesn’t like to play with fire? Although we would be using silver as the glue to braze our tubes and lugs together, we practiced using the less expensive brass. Yamaguchi threw an old tube in a vice then painted on a white pasty flux, something like the stuff we all use to eat in grade school. Using flux when you are joining metals keeps oxidation at bay and also removes any products of oxidation.

After the tube was coated in flux, Yamaguchi lit the oxy-acetylene powered torch. With the brass wire in one hand and the torch in the other, he demonstrated how to heat the tube using a small circular motion. As the flame heated the tube, the flux started crackling like a bowl of Rice Krispies. Once the flux turned smooth like glass and before the tube is cherry red, the brass rod was placed into the flame on the surface of the tube. The tip of the brass rod quickly turned to liquid metal and he removed the torch from the tube for a moment before building another bead on top of the first.

I can still recall the smell of bubbling flux and hot metal. After watching, we each got to practice melting and joining beads of brass onto the tube, I even managed to build a stick figure. Time flies when you are playing with fire and as 5pm rolled around, Yamaguchi, likely more than us, was ready to call it quits for the day. Our bellies were growling and after being inside all day, our bodies were begging to feel the sun on our skin.

At the end of that first day we discovered Rifle Gap Reservoir where we spent those hot summer evenings swimming and grilling. Once the sun went down we headed back to our shag carpet abode. Nothing felt better than scrubbing off the thick layer of metal dust that had built up on my sticky skin. My nostrils would become an endless source of grey crusties and for the next two weeks, my fingers never ceased to emit a metallic odor.

Day Two – Quality Control

Day two began in similar fashion, the alarm would sound at 7am and the only thing on our minds was frame building and soaking up Yamaguchi’s knowledge and subtle humor.

On our second day at Yamaguchi’s “frame shack” we practiced brazing again by emulating the circular motion of the torch we had been shown. We began building the brass beads on top of each other. Yamaguchi demonstrated how to test the strength of our work by whacking his perfectly stacked beads with a hammer – they held strong.

Testing our brazing work by the same method, the first stacks broke clean off our tubes! Time to practice.  After our strength tests, we made hand miter cuts to our tubes the old-school way by using metal cutters and then large files. I managed to mess up my top tube by cutting the miter in the wrong direction on one side, a beginner’s error. Luckily Yamaguchi slyly replaced my mess-up with a tube he cut for me himself.

Moi with a saw

Once our tubes were retrofitted, hours of filing and sanding were upon us. You have to make sure that the tubes are smooth, not warped or cracked, those types of imperfections can cause a frame to fail when riding.

During quality control time we would have long conversations.  Yamaguchi would tell us anecdotes about riding with the professional Keirin riders in Japan. The riders would wolf down raw fish hearts and livers before rides. Yamaguchi recalled getting stuck in the tail wind of the bestial-smelling gas the team would rip, the foul stench a cause for gagging. On those days we picked Yamaguchi’s brain to find out how he learned to build, who he had worked with and who he had built frames for. Then, just like that, five days of class had gone by.

On the weekend we spent time in Aspen, Rifle Gap Reservoir and the Lighthouse Bar. Over beers we nerded out on bike-building stories and postulated about why Yamaguchi lives in Rifle. How does one Japanese man fit into this mountain town picture?

Just Like That It Was Week Two

Monday morning we pulled out our tube sets to find that, like a cooking show where the raw roast is swapped with the already cooked version during commercial break, Yamaguchi had finished our sanding and filing. On the one hand it sucked to face the reality of our filing ineptitude. On the other hand, a master frame builder had perfected our tube sets. There wasn’t much time to dwell here – time to start brazing, the moment we had all been waiting for. I was up to bat and concerned about performing another great mistake.

I placed my head tube into my 3 Rencho fork crown and painted on the flux.  Torch in my left hand and spark thrower in my right, I spun the acetylene valve to on and lit the torch. Turning on the oxygen until the flame was just the right size, I felt like Frankenstein about to bring the dead to life. After a moment’s hesitation, I jumped off the deep end and began moving the flame over the tube. The flux bubbled and the steel turned a cherry red color. The heat from the flame radiated onto my face. I pointed the silver rod along the edge of the fork crown and melted it into the creases.

Yamaguchi was standing behind me watching. Patiently he said, “Good. A little more, a little more.” And then suddenly he said, “WAAAY TOO MUCH.” I pulled the torch off the tube, unsure if he was talking about the heat or the silver—it was the combination. No harm done. Continuing again, I aimed the hottest part of the flame back on the tubes. I held the silver rod right up to the lug and watched it turn to metallic liquid. The silver barely had a phase change before I was interrupted by, “Waaay too much”, again.

Lugs being added to the headtube

I backed off trying to simultaneously assess all aspects of what was happening. My rhythm was off, the tube was too hot, and there was too much silver melting. Letting the metal cool some, I ponied-up for round three. Applying the torch, I saw the tube heat up just right and inserted the silver rod at the lug. I drew the liquid bead of metal down by moving the torch over other parts of the lug. I watched as it sank beyond view into the seam between the lugs and tubes. The tube was heating up fast and just then, Yamaguchi was there at my shoulder to say, “Waaay too much”.

But as he could see, I had the timing right now and I began brazing the fork blades in place. I knew that if a few droplets of silver spilled over the edge of a lug it would mean more to file later. I let the fork cool and Yamaguchi put it in a soaking bath of warm water to remove the flux.  I got out the set of small files and cleaned up excess silver from the fork crown—easily a couple hours worth of work. Brazing in the dropouts would come next and then filing them. Achieving symmetry between each side of the dropouts was difficult at best. After alternating between one side and then the other, I at last, got a nod of approval from Yamaguchi—phew.

On to the front triangle

Tuesday Yamaguchi and I set up and aligned the front triangle of my frame in the jig. Checking and re-checking the alignment is an ultra important step, without it you could end up with a frame that barely tracks straight. I tacked my front triangle together at the joints to keep everything lined up, let it cool and then repeated the same thing for the rear triangle. We made an indentation with hand tools on the chain stay for chain and chain ring clearance. By Wednesday I was like a storm trooper ready for my mission, light saber in hand. I got into a rhythm of passing the flame in small circular motions over the tubes and when the temperature was right, melting the silver brazing rods into the lugs. One by one I secured each lug to each tube and then it was over. I wanted to stand up in the shop and yell, “Line ‘em up boys! I can braze ten more frames today!” because there is nothing like the power of the torch in your hand.

I mean, I joined METAL! And not only did I join metal, I made a mode of transportation with my bare hands! Take that you motorized factory-made machines!

Recalling that I still had the to adhere the braze-ons, I set the daydream aside and came back to the present. When the braze-ons were, well, on, I stood looking at my frame in the bike stand, a proud moment! My blood, sweat and tears, okay mostly just sweat, had gone into producing this frame and there it stood.

Master Yamaguchi and I

Thursday we worked on aligning the rear triangle to make sure that the wheel sits evenly in the dropouts and between the chain and seat stays. First you use a frame alignment guide to check the alignment on the outside of the dropouts. After that you measure the distance between the inside of the dropouts using calipers. Our measurements showed that the non-drive side of the rear triangle needed to come closer to the drive side. Using a good amount of force (but not so much that you weaken the joints or break the frame), we pushed the non-drive side toward its counterpart and measured again. After we achieved our ideal distance between dropouts, the alignment in that direction was complete. Now we needed to put a rear wheel in the frame and make sure the wheel was sitting smack in the middle of the chain and seat stays. It was tilted a bit to the drive side so we compensated for this by filing the opposite dropout until the wheel was straight. Before the end of the day we faced and threaded the bottom bracket and finally faced the head tube to ensure that components rest flat against these surfaces. As the day came to a close, it hit us that the tomorrow would be our last in the shop with Yamaguchi.

Myself, Nick and Ryan hard at work

That last day we spent filing the tiny, curvaceous lines along the lugs. Spending the last minutes of our time cleaning up any imperfections, we reveled in all that is Koichi Yamaguchi, his frame shack, the bikes and memorabilia that line it, his anecdotes and the knowledge imparted to us. Inducted into the society of frame-building samurai, we were now a part of the legacy of hand-built steel bicycle frames. We packed up our frames and said goodbye.

Part of me wanted to stay here in 1970, in Rifle and keep going to Yamaguchi’s house everyday. At 5pm I admitted that we had to leave his property, but I didn’t want to. He had been such an encouraging mentor for the entire class. I walked away with what I had come for – the story behind the ride and better yet, the inspiration to ride.

Nick, Ryan and I - Success!

A sad note: I did enjoy riding by bicycle off into the sunset for 2 years. Tragically one day while I was in Denver at a park, the air was filled with an awful stench as port-o-potty maintenance truck was servicing the portable toilet. A mere 50 feet from where my bike was locked up I watched as the truck backed up to leave and crushed my bicycle. I was unable to do anything from where I stood. Luckily I had one awesome cop on my side and the guys at local bike shops gladly helped me out. Nick built me a new custom fillet brazed bicycle that fits like a glove.

Nick Phillips and Aaron Barcheck started Mosaic cycles, a hand-built bicycle company out of Boulder, CO in 2009.  Now solely run by Aaron Barcheck, Mosaic specializes in bespoke custom titanium and steel bicycle frames. Read our recent interview with Aaron here and about the special Built to Fit project we are working on! 

By Stephanie Loveless – Boulder, Co – frame-building Samaria