A Guide to Buying Your First Custom Bicycle Sep 30, 2013

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I’m sure it’s maddening as a viewer of this site being constantly bombarded with high-end, custom bikes on a daily basis. Meanwhile, your apprehension and financial situation has you riding something from [insert big brand here]. Not that there is anything wrong with that. The best bike for you is the one you are able to ride.

In the time I’ve been covering frame building, builders and custom bicycles, I’ve dealt with this internal debate: am I being exclusive here? Custom and production frame building is anything but exclusive, it is however something that requires financial planning. I’m here to break it down for you in what I’m so nonchalantly calling “A Guide to Buying Your First Custom Bicycle”.

Check out more below.

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Custom vs Production

Now, before we move any further, I need to define the differences between “custom” and “production” frames. Often times, people get confused, thinking every bike that comes from a domestic shop is custom. That is not the case. The best example I can use are BMX companies like FBM. They produce all of their frames in house in a production scenario. This means there are a few sizes, that are made in an assembly-line process.
The tubes are cut for the size run, then welded and painted.

A company like FBM also offers custom frames, but for now, let’s look at production. Production road, cross and MTB frames are very much the same. A builder will have a handful of sizes. You place an order and the turnaround time is usually less than a custom frame. Why? Because there’s no guesswork to it. They’ve made these bikes consistently and constantly enough to know how long it’ll take. Production frames are the easiest way to break into the world of domestically-produced products (not just made in the USA, but made in YOUR home country).

Not everyone needs a custom frame. Most people can be fit on a standard geometry. Custom frames are best utilized when people are taller or shorter than the average consumer. Or maybe you want something wacky, different, or a little more tailored to your riding style? Then, custom is the way to go.

The way I look at custom frames, drastically influences the price and consequent financial obligation. Let’s be realistic. If you’re scraping enough money together each month to pay your bills, you shouldn’t be fixated on a big-name builder. People like BAUM, Firefly, Chris Bishop and JP Weigle are out of your reach financially.

Why? Two reasons: materials and finishing. Titanium and stainless are more expensive than most modern steel and people who carve their own lugs and spend hours of finishing time on their frames will be more expensive. Just like your job: time is money. No one works for free.

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Step: 01: KNOW WHAT YOU WANT

Cross? Road? MTB? Touring? Track? A custom or production bike is an undertaking. Look at what kind of bike you’ll ride the most. There’s no need to get a custom track bike if you only race once and a while, or a custom MTB if you can only ride it once a week. A custom bike should be your most-used weaponry for your riding style. Talk to your builder about how you ride and what you like / dislike about your previous rides. Do not burden them with constant emails and phone calls. Nail down what you want before you even contact your builder, it’ll make the process more enjoyable for everyone.

Step 02: CONSIDER LOCAL BUILDERS

If you’re on a budget, look into a builder who tig welds or offers simple fillet-brazed frames and look local first. Does your town have a frame builder? Do you really need to order a bike from someone across the country? A local builder will have a better idea of your climate, conditions and your rides.

Step 03: BE REALISTIC FINANCIALLY

Most builders require a deposit before they’ll take your order. This ranges from $300 – $900 US. Can you save up enough money for the deposit in two or three months? Consider this a down payment, because a deposit is just that: a place in a queue. That’s a word you’ll grow to either hate, or embrace, because a queue is most important to the planning process.

If money is a concern, a longer queue might be what you need. i.e. a builder with a 3 month turnaround requires you to be smarter financially than a builder with a 6 month…

You have to tell yourself to limit the cost of your frame. As stated, lugged frames are more labor-intensive, but if you really want one, try to keep the extra work to a minimum. Most builders have a “menu” with different selections and pricing options. This goes for tubing as well. Some mixtures of tubes will be more expensive than others.

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Step 04: START BUYING PARTS FIRST

There’s nothing more frustrating than receiving a new frame and not being able to afford the parts. Go to your local shops, ask them if they have used parts (it works). Scour Craigslist, eBay, swaps, forums. Spend time looking for like-new componentry. Most people ride very little, so ‘weekend warrior’ parts are the best. Sometimes, you can find deals on year old groups at your local shops.

Avoid worn and scuffed parts.

This process also makes it easier for the builder to ensure everything will work with the frame. Clearances are better planned when all components are in their shop. Which leads me to the next point: try to send your parts to them. Unless you’re dealing with very simple needs like a road bike that will run a standard crank.

Bikes like cross, ‘adventure’, MTB, touring, etc have different requirements for clearances. I can’t tell you how many builders have complained to me because a customer sends them some obscure crank at the last minute and they have to re-crimp the chainstays.

If you have a bike already and are looking for an upgrade, there is absolutely no shame in using your old components. Simply sell your frame when the time comes, or put it in the closet for the next swap or eBay purge. Not every custom bike has to be laced with brand new parts. It’s nice if you have the option, but those Chris King R45 to ENVE wheels can wait for a few extra months.

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Step 05: HAVE MONEY READY

For argument’s sake, let’s play out a scenario. You met a local builder in January, who has a 4 month queue. They do tig or fillet / lugged construction. Tig is more affordable (silver is expensive), so you choose that. He or she required $600 for a deposit for your new road frame. You decided to go with True Temper OX Platinum for the tubeset and paint, rather than powder coating. The frame and a carbon fork will cost you $2000 and a one-color paint job* is included! There are many builders who offer pricing comparable to that.

*paint is the bane of a builder’s existence. Prices go up, availability goes down. Discuss paint up front because you can easily tack on another $1,000 in paint fees if you’re not realistic! Not everyone needs a COAT paint job, but hey, they are nice!

Simple math tells you that you now have four months to come up with $1,400. You’re an adult and hopefully, you understand what that entails. The easiest solution is “I’ll just sell my current road bike!”. Well, then you’re without a ride. What I do in these times is cut back on luxury expenses like going to bars, eating out, buying shit you don’t need and other money-saving behaviors.

Banking on selling your old bike works for some, but it’s a hard market. Don’t use it as a crutch.

Bottom line: When the builder says your bike is ready, you’ve had four months to save. Send them money ASAP.

Step 06: SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL BIKE SHOP

There’s no harm in building your bike up yourself, but if you didn’t buy any of your parts local, sometimes it’s nice to drop off everything to a capable, local shop to build. Aside from the obvious support of a LBS, this has a two-part pay-off. First: it creates that moment of “wow” you get when you see your bike built up for the first time. Second: it gives your builder some exposure. When a new, custom (or production) bike is being built up, customers ask, employees take a look and it gets people talking about your builder.

It’s an extra $150 ish number in your budget you should plan for and don’t forget to tip your mechanic. Beer, cookies, money. Whatever.

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Step 07: RIDE!

You now have a custom or production frame that came from the shop of someone who is trying to do what they love: make something majestic by hand that people take for granted. Continue to tell them how much you love it. ‘Gram it, Facebook it, do whatever to spread the love. Who knows, maybe your testimony will help encourage people to support their local frame builder as well…

I’m sure I’ve missed a few points, so share away in the comments! Have something to add? Do so there as well!

  • sprint4burritos

    It’s not maddening to see custom frames and beautiful bikes—in fact it’s one of the reasons I love your site. As always the N+1 rule holds true for bikes (as you demonstrate) and burritos (duh).

  • Tanner

    “What I do in these times is cut back on luxury expenses like going to bars, eating out, buying shit you don’t need and other money-saving behaviors.” – And/Or Read and apply some Bad-Ass Mr Money Mustache finance tactics!

  • Tyler Johnson

    Good write up John!

  • http://www.cyclelove.net/ CycleLove

    Nice article. Anything which helps local framebuilders is good in my book.

    I did it all wrong when my bike was made and it added at least 2 months to the process…

    On top of that I forgot to factor in the build up itself… but luckily Saffron did it for me otherwise I would have been waiting even longer.

    (PS. Photos of the entire process at http://www.cyclelove.net/2013/02/the-cyclelove-bike-day-6-and-7-of-the-build/ if anyone is interested)

  • Paul Seip

    good read John!

  • Chris .t

    I disagree with the parts section.. I’d rather for my brand’s sake that each one of my bikes out there on the road has a build kit that works aesthetically and technically correctly together with the frame, I think most frame builders would agree. Also, profit margins on frames is relatively low (especially where I am in the world, away from the main tubing/frame component suppliers which means I pay a massive premium for freight) so this is subsidized (it keeps me in business) by selling build kits with each frame.

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      Totally understand, but I think we’re both addressing different pricepoints and demographics. I’m thinking the people you are addressing can spend that kind of money up front, while I’m trying to soften the financial blow for people who aren’t quite there yet.

      A lot of my friends (here in Austin specifically) – built their frames from forum / swap / ebay bought components and they turned out stellar.

      Off the top of my head: http://theradavist.com/2012/10/beautiful-bicycle-ross-speedvagen-road/

      That said, you’re totally accurate in the parts margin for builders and it’s a point worth noting.

      But I would also argue that far more builders ship out frames then they do full builds…

      • http://www.culturecycles.com/ Brian Kleiber

        Gotta agree with you there…it’s all about making domestically produced frames more accessible and for many of us (myself included), reusing parts so that we can support our favorite or local framebuilder is more important to many than blingin’ out an imported aluminum or carbon bike.

        Components break. Shit happens. Run what you got until it’s dead (or until you’ve saved money) and then replace it! I personally find satisfaction in destroying stuff (through use, not abuse). After 11 years in bike shops with access to wholesale/employee purchase deals, I know how amazing it is to order up an entire grouppo for your latest build but then again, those are the perks of being a shop employee (or being a dentist). Two years out of the shop game now, you’ll find me scouring eBay, V Salon classifieds, swap meets and my LBS for used parts or screamin’ deals on new stuff. My standards haven’t changed, you just have to know where to look.

    • Sean Curran

      Wouldn’t it be sort of a compliment that someone would value your frame over some nice shiny parts?

      Is it really the clients job to produce marketing for the builder?

      I understand that would be the preferred way to things, but I would say that idea that every custom build needs to be perfect is a bit of an intimidating thing for most buyers (including me). I think John has it right saying you might be talking about a different price point here. I can understand this with a Baum, or a Firelfy, where it is really a complete package they are selling (maybe you too). But more basic frames, that are tailored to the rider can add a lot more value than shiny parts (although I don’t yet own one).

  • Gary E. Morales

    Thx for this post. “I’m sure it’s maddening as a viewer of this site being constantly bombarded with high-end, custom bikes on a daily basis” So true, I put in my deposit for a custom frame in February with my spot coming up mid October and have since then spent significant time with “What If” builds. Ultimately I can’t break the bank on flashy brand new build kits and find solace in thought that I shall be getting a frame built for ME thus trumping anything else built for others or no one in particular.

  • jmilligan718

    Is it fair to say that a custom steel bike will be in the same ballpark pricewise as a carbon bike off the peg (road)? There is a huge range there of course, but it seems like a custom steel build has to start at around $3K and go up from there. And while spending 3-5 grand (or more?) on a bicycle is definitely a major investment for most, it’s not lunacy if you look at what’s out there from the mainstream manufacturers. Apples to oranges, perhaps, but I know what I’d rather ride!

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      Geekhouse and Rock Lobster frames start around $1500 and you could make a complete for under $3k easily!

      • jmilligan718

        I just might!

        • Sean Curran

          My current thought process is like this: Bought a ~1500 dollar complete, replace a couple of fit parts as I needed, some parts as they break, some as I realize there performance limits. once I am happy with where the bike is, and figure out what I want for fit I will get on a wait list. I’ll always have a bike and I will know what I like. In the end I can sell whats left of the complete or build it up as a back up.

  • Jake Ricker

    Awesome post dude!
    Seriously!

  • FireFly

    Great guidelines! Thanks Prolly.

    This :: “A custom bike should be your most-used weaponry for your riding style. Talk to your builder about how you ride and what you like / dislike about your previous rides. Do not burden them with constant emails and phone calls. Nail down what you want before you even contact your builder, it’ll make the process more enjoyable for everyone.”

    It’s all about intended use, defining this best guides your builder towards your ultimate rig.

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      There ya go! Thanks for the feedback and I hope I don’t dissuade people too much from pulling the trigger on a Firefly… ;-)

    • aboutapink

      I’m a little shame. Because I sent a lot of email discussion to my builder. Might be he think I am very tiresome?

      • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

        Maybe ;-)

    • Guest

      yeah that is excellent advice ^
      be able to communicate what you need in a bike, let the builder know but also let the builder build whats right. happened when i had my bike built and it turned out perfect.
      also, understand you can’t really have a bike that will do many things perfectly. you can have a bike that will do many things well though…

      as for swapping parts over, no problems with that. that new bike needs to be used hard. in time the new frame and older parts will all look perfect together.

  • Warren Jennings

    I’m a week away from getting my Geekhouse Mudville sent here from Boston to Oz. I got it for a bunch of reasons, but a big one being I saw some pretty pictures of one on some website…. (cheers!)

    Love your content, can’t wait for the new girl to arrive.

    • Todd!

      What color Warren? I’ve got one coming too! Mine matches last years team bikes.

      • Warren Jennings

        I chickened out from blue green pink combos and went black. I know I’ll love it a long time, Marty was wrapt with the black satin finishes they have been doing lately, and it will look less conspicuous locked outside a bar or pub. ;-) Your bright yellow/green will look great, though.

        • Todd!

          I got a grey/magenta color… I thought the blue/magenta was from this year… I like it, but like you, I prefer something a bit more low key. I got it second hand, never been ridden.

  • http://issuu.com/pntmagazine PNT

    Very good and useful article. It works the same everywhere, but in some countries it just take years not months to build your custom bike.

  • Western Rapid

    I’d underline the practicality of focusing on the frame, and dressing it up with your old components. Admittedly, you lose that ‘showroom sparkle’ that comes from seeing your brand new bike in its Sunday best for the first time, but it does take a lot of financial load off the initial expenditure. And, in many cases, a new stem or bar can be added with just the twist of a hex key.

    To put it another way, buying your components at a later date gives you a second bite of the cherry too. We’re all somewhat guilty of fetishising that showroom look – it’s the moment that’s usually captured on camera, but it’s fleeting. It’s far rarer to see shots of knackered-up Fireflys, IFs and Moots et al. But they all look that way after a couple of days of hard riding!

    So definitely consider the frame first, and the ‘bits’ second…

    • Todd!

      My Baum is 3 years old, ridden over 15,000km through all sorts of weather and people still say “Wow! I love your new bike!”

      If you’re chasing, latest greatest, I think you should hold off on Groupset until the last minute with custom frames as there is bound to be an upgrade in 6 months… More carbon/Titanium/lighter/blacker/more red… The only thing that dates my Baum is the 2010 Super Record Groupset… Other than that, everything is current. They released the 2011 Groupset a few days after mine arrived. That’s life :-P

  • btdubs

    I feel like giving the builder an idea of what you want, giving them your fit info, then letting them mostly run free is a big part of getting a custom frame built. I think it’s best to trust your builder to be the expert. Framebuilding, I imagine, is a lot more than numbers, materials and measurements. It’s an art, and armchair engineers need not apply…

  • hans

    great article John.

    Early on in the process of getting my frame built i came across this and found it well worth the read (many times over):

    http://overopinionatedframebuilder.blogspot.com/2011/07/how-not-to-order-custom-frame.html

  • Keith Gibson

    Great article and good discussion below. This helps me plan for a 2014 purchase. Thanks all.

  • shitbike

    Solution for custom bicycle envy while broke, build a shitbike! Ride it! Love it as much as a custom!

  • Thibaut Rivière

    I have 3 custom bikes, 1 from Italy and 2 from France. One of them came perfect, the one made for free, just for the love of making it! Thank You M. Caillar! None of them cost more 700 euros. The one From Italy looks just great with superb finish (RIC) They are all make from remarquable Reynold’s or Colombus tubing. Love and time is the key! I had to wait for months for each of them and I know I am lucky as I should have paid much more for each of them!

    • Thibaut Rivière

      Thanks John for highlighting the job!

      • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

        I mean, I wrote this for people who don’t get a hook up… I still paid for all my custom bikes too.

        • Thibaut Rivière

          Of course, as you perfectly quoted, always grant the maker. ;-)