14 February, 2012

On Custom Frames, and Boats

At my previous company I designed small boats and spent considerable time in coastal Maine, the center of custom boat building in the US. Being an avid sailor I was always interested in seeing custom boats and chatting with their owners and builders. While these boats were beautifully designed and finished, I was always surprised by all the technical issues their owners encountered. Despite a cost of half a million dollars or more, there always seemed to be mechanical or electrical gremlins. The best production boats, particularly from the established Swedish yards, had relatively few problems and the construction quality, though not the finish quality, was often equal or better than custom builts.

I've found a similar situation with custom bike frames. Of my four custom frames, three had problems that I probably wouldn't have seen on a better production frame. None were major problems, just little annoyances, but still... Chatting with other custom frame owners, I found that many have had similar experiences. That is one reason that the (now discontinued) Velo Orange custom frames were, in fact, semi-custom rather than fully custom. I knew that making each frame completely different would lead to unforeseen problems. Instead, we chose to make three stock designs and offered only custom sizing, paint, and braze-ons.

Why is it that custom frames, boats, and probably other bespoke things, suffer from issues rarely seen on top end production products? I think the answer is simply experience, both the builders' experience and the fact that there are no prototypes on which to work out the bugs. The custom boat builders have built a few dozen boats at most, each one taking upwards of a year to complete. The custom frame builder needs a week or two to make a frame. The Swedish boat factory builds a hundred boats a year and the top-end bike factory makes thousands of frames a year. They've made most of their mistakes long ago. The guys at the factories who weld or braze are also likely have much more experience than the custom builder. And, despite what you may think, they often take just as much pride in their work. In addition they have the very best mitering, alignment, and other machines.  Now please remember that I am writing about the very best bike factories, not the ones that make mass-market bikes.

In my experience at VO, we have had far fewer problems with production frames than customs. That is not to say that our production frames never have problems. They occasionally do. I once sent back 30% of a frame production run (to a factory we no longer use, but that still makes frames for one of our competitors). And some things can go wrong with any frame, like the fender eyelet that recently broke on one of ours. That dropout is used on both production frames and customs; short of x-raying it there was no way to have seen the flaw. We sent out a new fork ASAP, while the custom builder would have to make one and have it painted to match.

Does this mean that factory frames are better than customs? Of course not. The best custom builders still make the best bikes in the world and have waiting lists many years long to prove it. They are the exceptional craftsmen with a near pathological obsession for detail and decades of experience. Then there are lots of just average custom frame builders. We tend to romanticize the artisanal  object, but just as there are good and bad factories, there is a range of skill among frame builders, boat builders, wine makers...

So, should you buy a custom frame? If you are of average size and weight I would argue that you don't need one; there are enough good production frames to choose from. And, based on my experience, you may well have less trouble with a production frame. A great production frame is usually superior to an average custom. Of course, someone who is extremely tall, short, heavy, oddly proportioned, etc, may get more benefit from a custom.

But, we want what we want, not what we need. Experienced cyclists with refined tastes will derive great pleasure from a custom bike and that may well be what matters most. They should be prepared to look for the exceptional builder, have a long wait, and expect a big bill. My advice is to take your time picking a custom builder. Talk to the builder's clients while remembering that few will admit to spending a fortune on a sub-par frame.

Anyway, that's just my experience with custom and production frames. The point is that the idea that you won't be happy until you own a custom is just as ludicrous as the idea that no one should have one. Anyone who tells you that you will get better quality, performance, or durability, in a custom probably just has a  frame to sell. What you will get, if you choose wisely, is exactly what you want in geometry, stiffness, finish, and those little details that make the frame yours. Not a bad deal really. My two favorite frames are my semi-custom VO pass hunter and my semi-production Ebisu all-around frame. If I damaged either of those frames I'd build up a Polyvalent for myself (I get a discount on those).

What do you think about custom bike frames, or boats?

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

I had a custom bike built and and it was finished last summer. It's the worst bike I own---I have to push harder to go slower than with any other bike I own. I'm still trying to figure out why. If I do, it could be one of the best bikes I own, and I don't, then I'll probably strip it down, sell the frame and fork, and buy a nice noncustom frame to carry the parts I stripped off.

minisystem said...

My custom frame experience was also a nightmare, mostly due to my naivety. After having several LBS's stare at me blankly when I came in to talk about building up a vintage frame with new parts I used the one and only custom builder in my area to build a lugged frame and build it up into a bike. Stupidly I didn't check references and there were no examples of the builder's work on the web. The second warning sign was on my second visit to the shop and another customer's bike was in the stand with one of the seat stays broken off the seat tube. 'Bad brass', apparently. In the end, the frame was missing a couple of crucial braze-ons and had the wrong dropouts installed. The build was terrible, especially the fender installation. In retrospect, I should've refused delivery. Older and wiser now!

Anonymous said...

I disagree. I just bought my second custom serotta and love them both. I've never ridden a production bike that is as comfortable or perfect.

Ken said...

I am of average height (71 inches) so I would not need a custom frame.
What I would like to see from Velo Orange in the future would be orange bicycles in color or maybe purple. I do not want a green bicycle and for some reason is there cheap green paint in Taiwan? Is that the reason numerous bicycles made there are green? Please bring back navy blue or purple or orange not pea soup green. Also how about a metal VO head badge? I do not want a cheap decal I would prefer a head badge that will last the life of the bicycle. Thank you for letting me speak

Anonymous said...

there's custom and there's custom.

There's frames built by a guy in a shed who may be a fantastic artisan (sachs, rock lobster) or who may be a triumph of form over function. A "custom" seven is more semi-custom built by a group of framebuilders who are going off of established templates and who are building many frames using the best equipment. The likelihood of getting a very nice Seven, Waterford, or Davidson is much higher than some other makes because they build bikes with custom sizing off of a set of standard templates. Comparing a Seven to some 650b lugged bike from joe-self-taught is like comparing homeowner handyman carpentry to that of a master builder: You pay more (sometimes) and you know what you're getting when you buy from the expert.

Richard Risemberg said...

Best boat I ever sailed was, IIRC, a 31 ft. Columbia whose only custom touch was that the jibsheets were routed back to the helm; I sailed it in a tight circle singlehanded several times while my buddies photographed a seal lazing on a bed of kelp. As for custom boats--all that is far out of my reach, but Jack London's experiences with the Snark come to mind....

As for bikes: my wife just cancelled a custom order with a Very Famous Builder as the price kept climbing and the geometry became odder and odder. Her new builder is a local fellow with very small production but impeccable aesthetics and sensible geometry (about which I do know a little bit).

I have had three bikes that were pure production and superb rides: a Bridgestone RB-T, and Bridgestone 700, and my current Bottecchia Professional. As I ride some 600 miles a month, if there were a weakness or incapacity in any of them, I'd have found it out. (The 700 was too small, so I sold it, but I knew that going in; still the fastest and best-handling bike I've ever owned.)

That said, my taste in geometry is very middle-of-the-road.

buck-50 said...

My guess is, customs have more problems for 3 reasons.

The first is really simple- unrealistic expectations. A lot of people expect a custom to be the best bike ever, bar none. There are few bikes in the world that could live up to the hype I've seen attributed to customs.

Second is a more discerning audience. Nobody gets a custom as their first bike. Or even their second. By the time you're considering customs, you've probably had a dozen bikes. So, you are going to be a lot harder on the custom then you are on an off the rack frame. You've heard the hype, you expect the best, you gave the builder your measurements and your dreams, you want greatness. If you didn't want greatness, you would have just bought an off the peg frame.

And the third is the hardest one to accept. Compromise. Almost every custom bike is a study in compromises. Chances are you went custom to get something that didn't exist in the biking world. You wanted road geometry (quick handling, etc) on a frame that fit larger tires and fenders. Compromises have to be made- those chainstays are probably going to be longer than a race frame to accommodate the big tires. You want braze-ons for every rack combination possible and you want it to be super light... Again, compromises have to be met- are you going to tour? then the tubes might need to be heavier. Do you really need 3 bottle braze ons?

A custom frame is just a bike. They won't make hills easier, they won't make you faster- in that customs suffer from all the same hype as carbon- at the end of the day, it's all about the engine.

Says the guy who still loves his custom and went into the process with eyes open.

In the end, I got a bike that did everything I wanted. Had a lot of conversations with the builder, where he let me know that if I wanted this, it was gonna cause that to happen. And if I'm a 6'2", 230 pound guy, I'm not gonna get a sub 20 pound randonneuring bike. At least not from him.

Anonymous said...

@Ken

A cheap decal instead of a head badge? Are you joking?? Go look at the head tube of a Alex Singer. Or a Rene Herse. Or a Richard Sachs. Or a Della Santa. Once you do, tell me what you see. Hint: a decal. Want a metal head badge? Buy a Taiwanese SOMA!

howtostretch said...

Interesting topic. I have three customs, built by three of the best builders in the country. Granted, two i bought second hand, but have the right top tube length i prefer. So, all three ride great. However, all three are really by made to measure builders, so if you fit the bike, it's gonna ride great. Lots of beautiful details abound. Cool.
Then, i just got a Specialized Sequoia. It was designed by a custom builder, but built by Toyos master builders in Japan. I was thinking that if it were built by a custom builder, I could not tell the difference. Except for a few small details and some file marks on one rear dropout. High end production bike with design by master builder. I think this would work for most people.

Anonymous said...

Chris,

Another great article and I think the comparison between boats and bicycles is very apt. There are people who have the resources to buy custom because they are convinced they need it; some have the experience to justify this need while others may just have the disposable income.

I am a firm believer in the volume = experience market and I think that plays out in most fields. Tom Ritchey talks about this, about what he learned while building 400 + frames per year in the late 80s. Some people may still view a Taiwanese frame as junk, but it’s important to remember that many of these factories have now made high-end frames for over 20 years, and in some cases are supervised by builders (Toyo) who are regarded as among the best in the world. Custom or non-custom, I feel the most important issue is quality control and who is performing it, not country of origin—particularly for those of us without deep pockets. I’d much rather buy a frame designed by an innovative company and built by a reputable shop in Taiwan than the latest fancy lug experiment from an upstart builder in Portland.

The industry being what it is today, people sometimes forget there is still another option: modified production frames. Not happy with the stock colors of your new production frame? Get custom wet paint or a new powder coat. Want a braze-on not specd by the manufacturer? Your local builder can add one no problem. Any modifications will still cost you less than custom and I’d still bet the production frames are more consistent. Personally, like Chris’s design philosophy and I feel that’s something worth investing in, and I know that VO as a company has a better capacity to stand behind its products should something go wrong (as mentioned with the fork above). I’m really curious to see the new VO production Pass Hunter, which I hope will represent the best of both worlds.

-Dave D.

Steve said...

I do not agree with the notion that a frame made to an established, proven design but sized to fit the owner, with tubing chosen to reflect the owner's stiffness preferences, is in any way less worthy of the name "custom" than one where every specification is individually negotiated. If anything, it's the other way around: the proven design trumps the one-off prototype every time.

Anonymous said...

Bottom line is what do you want? Do you know what you want? If you specify every measurement, is that going to be what you want, or what you hoped for? You can read every review published, and draw on every piece of conventional or unconventional wisdom, but unless you ride something and ask a builder to produce the same, it's still to some extent a shot in the dark, or a leap of faith.

As buck - 50 says, every bike is a compromise, and what may fit your needs, desires and prejiduces today may not in three years time.

That said, I've had 5 custom bikes and many more off the peg so far, and as my body works better on a custom bike than anything I've been able to buy in a store, if I ever buy another bike I'll be speaking to a custom builder.

My 5 previous customs are in effect my prototypes for what comes next.

Stevy

Chris said...

I have neither a custom boat nor a custom bike, although I have both a boat and a folding bike that I keep on board, and I am fully satisfied with both. The most important thing about the bike for me is not that it's custom, but that it's customizable - I'm able to put whatever components I want on it. Aside from that, riding well and fitting in the bulk head are what's most important.

Anonymous said...

I've never ridden a custom built bicycle before and I've always been really curious as to how their so much more comfortable than say a production bike. I have a few bikes right now each one with its own strengths and weaknesses but I find them all comfortable mostly due the saddle I'm sitting in. Obviously the saddle isn't the keystone but when it comes to bicycles I feel that you can choose so many ways to make your bike "comfortable" the choice of frame material, stem length/angle, choice of handlebars/grip, seat post height and position of saddle, wheel size and tires just to name a few. Maybe I'm just naive about really fancy custom fit made bicycles and honestly I'm glad because it sounds like a headache with a big price tag.

Exhausted_Auk said...

VO makes a very good point that any fully custom frame is by definition a 1st generation prototype. My beef with many production frames is not the quality or the basic design. It is that sizing is often in 2 or even 3cm increments, and I invariably find myself needing something in between available sizes for optimum fit. My best bikes are both custom geometry applied to existing frame models by highly regarded builders, one in the US and one in the UK.

Phil from Seattle said...

To me there's just no comparison. I have owned any number of production frames, and I am currently riding my first custom, which I have owned for 2-3 years. It's a fully constructeur-style custom, with custom integrated racks, custom dropouts, etc. There's no chance a production frame could ever come close to this level of awesome. It's not just the looks, it's the ride quality, with the entire package integrated to create a smooth, stable ride.

I owned and rode a VO Polyvalent. There were some things I liked about it, but I just can't see how anyone used to riding an Ebisu or a custom pass-hunter could settle on a Polyvalent. A few of the braze-on eyelets were funky and I couldn't get bolts threaded through them. The alignment was slightly off. The shimmy was frightening. The fork bend and the matte black color were not visually pleasing (admittedly this is an issue of personal preference). I overlooked these things for awhile because the price was right and I still felt like I got reasonable value for my money. But would it replace an Ebisu, or my custom? Not a chance. It's not designed to compete with those bikes, in my mind.

Definitely I agree that getting the right builder is important and not every custom build works out well. But if you can afford it, and you bike enough to justify it, and you're actually going to ride the custom rather than hanging it on the wall, then yeah, without doubt, talk to experienced builders and go for it.

Trailer Park Cyclist said...

Chris,
In bicycles as well as boats I will always prefer "customized" to "custom."

Small Boat Journal used to run a piece each month showing handy and fun boat customizations. Remember that? Man, I miss that magazine.

I wonder what kind of bicycle Phil Bolger had?

I ride an old Schwinn LeTour that has few of the original parts on her and most of them will be replaced as time and money warrants. I'm tweaking as I go and having as much fun customizing as I would have waiting for my custom that I will never be able to afford. Right now I'm thinking about a Chris's Rando Bar.

Matt said...

@ Anonymous,
Don't trash my Soma, bucko! I have a San Marcos and like it very much... even if it needs 73mm reach brakes and not the 57s it was specd for.

Anonymous said...

I can be riding a bike and it feels like everything is perfect. Every dimension is exactly right. Nothing's annoying me. I can accelerate, I can push hard, it's just perfection. Then the next day, less than twenty-four hours later, I get back on the same bike and everything feels wrong. Who's fault is that? It's nobody's fault, but if it were a custom bike I would blame the builder.

Hoopdriver said...

Good article, interesting comments, thanks!

Anonymous said...

I have nothing against production bikes (I have a handful of them that I have customized to fit me well), but I'm all for bringing back industry back to our shores.

All these budding local frame builders have to be supported so that they will all become masters and our children will have much better luck finding custom rigs. If you have ridden many bikes, there's no reason not to experiment with a custom frame.

The art of crafted frames is just reviving here, why let it die by buying from Taiwan???

VO is part of this revival... but with all due respect, I would not buy a frame made overseas. And if I can't afford a custom bike, which I can't, I'd sooner find an old touring frame and build it up. At least that way I'm recycling it.

Anonymous said...

For me personally, a custom bike would be a waste, except for the simple pride of ownership. I presently own eleven bicycles- road, city, mountain, single speed, 3 speed, path racer, all steel, with drastically different dimensions and geometery. I must be blessed with a very adaptable body, because I am very comfortable on any one of these bikes when operated in their proper place. If I had a custom bike, I am shure I would love it. If I didn't, I would probably be very angry. -Coop

mgumber said...

I agree that tubing selection and sizing can take a basic design from great to excellent, but there is the price factor. My vote is semi-custom like Chris. I will leave the custom bike/boat discussion for a moment and set a different course - cuisine.

I have a restaurant strategy - go with the specialty, the dish that put them on the map. And then don't fiddle with it too much. The best dishes are the ones where the maker decides on the essentials, and I choose from appropriate options to suit my preferences.

That great BBQ joint, sandwich shack or pizza parlour does a few things really really well. Deviate too far from the menu and you are asking for trouble. I believe those custom bike/boat blunders are akin to putting mismatched toppings on and then blaming the chef.

Anonymous said...

Long time lurker chiming in on custom bikes.

I have a Vanilla Colorado pass hunter (for want of a category) that was built for me about about 6 years ago. It has exceeded my expectations in every way in terms of performance, looks, and durability. I was fortunate in that I spent a bit of time with Sacha White both on and off bikes so he had a sense of what I was after, but I did not specify any items other than the riding position I prefer and a few cosmetic details. I left the rest to the professionals and in my case the results were great.

Bass Man 1994 said...

I completely agree.