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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!