I don’t feel like I have lots to offer anyone who wants to be a frame-builder. I built my first frame in 2006 and am only now starting to annualize production in a number that sounds impressive. There is one thing I do have that other maybe longer-tenured framebuilders don’t have and that is the experience of learning recently. Having it fresh in the mind.
Many of the people I look up to in the craft started in a production environment. I took a class. The class approach is particularly good if you want to build one frame. Classes are organized in such a way that you will leave with a frame at the end, and with somebody looking over your shoulder at each step your first frame can be very good. Mine was. The second one was barely rideable and the 3rd only a little better but not great. Once I got home I had to reinvent and modify my skills to work with different fixtures and tools. I was alone. The problems I didn’t encounter in the class were brand new challenges as they happened. Still, for most folks who don’t have production opportunities and want to be frame-builders a class is a viable way to go but its not a substitute for learning on your own through repetition and trying to absorb information from as many sources as possible.
Which leads me to what I have to offer. If you want to build more than one frame I’d focus on my torch skills first. Whether it’s a tig torch or gas torch it makes no difference. Practice, practice some more and practice after that. It’s the easiest part of building a frame to control. The effort you put in is an investment paid back later. You can buy enough straight gauge steel tubing with $100 to fill a barrel in practice pieces, add in another $100 for fuel gas and it’s a lot cheaper than what happens to a $175 tube set and $100 of lugs when a rookie goes at it straight away. It’s a result we’ve seen over and over and I’ve been a part of myself. I was that guy.
Last year when I decided to learn tig welding I planned to not build a frame or sell a welded frame until I was happy with the finished quality. Subjectively, I wanted my welding in the beginning to be better than what you may find on mass-produced frames whose welders are paid by the piece. I’m there now. I’m selling well made frames; I’m also still practicing. Those original goals are not good enough now. I’ll spend more money on practice materials than most folks who will take a class this year. I’m committed to always striving to get better. I’m reminded of a story about the hardest working pro in golf at the time, World #1 Greg Norman. Norman knew his reign was almost over when having drinks after a pro-am round he spotted an amateur golfer named Tiger Woods hitting balls at the range in the dark. The hardest working guy in golf knew what it meant to see someone else work harder. It never occurred to Norman to practice at night too. He was obviously right about Tiger Woods, and the greatest golfer of that era has largely been forgotten. When I built that first frame 7 years ago I was enamored with the result. Today I’m focused on the process and I think I’d have been further along than I am right now if somebody had pulled me aside and explained that to me or if I’d related the Norman story to frame-building. If anyone who wants to build a frame is reading, I hope you can learn from my experiences, or better yet I hope my kids see the dedication to process and hard work as the answer to anything they ever choose to do in life.