Keepers of the Flame: Shop Visit and Interview With Smith Levi of RatKing Frames

Smith Levi, of RatKing Frames, has been dedicated to making frames and bicycle cargo accessories that merge fun and function for a decade. After getting started in Oakland, California in 2013, RatKing has since migrated north to Seattle, Washington and is a founding member of the creative collective Stunt Doubles. Andrew Johns recently had a chance to stop in the space for a chat with Smith and, below, shares a conversation that spans from the idea behind Stunt Doubles, to RatKing’s design inspiration and obsession with process, and Smith’s current offerings.

This is an homage to the age-old tradition of making things by hand. To the sweat, grit, manipulation of materials, craft, and spark of creative vision from which it all begins. The world of cycling has a rich history of builders and innovators who challenged the status quo by bringing their ideas to life on the workbench, making refinements along the way, and helping to push the industry into new and exciting directions. This is a nod of acknowledgment to the individuals currently working to keep that tradition alive in a time of unprecedented technological automation and mass production. To the craftspeople at the bench, the workers in metal, the keepers of the flame.

RatKing and Stunt Doubles

Located just a stone’s throw from Seattle’s International District, RatKing is situated inside the lower level of a 1950s industrial warehouse building. Upon entering and walking through the dimly lit hallway, then down a quick flight of stairs, the space opens up nicely into different workshops which are split between various makers at Stunt Doubles, a group of friends and collaborators who share the space. The vibes here are very chill, it’s a welcoming and laid-back environment that’s full of interesting happenings. Each corner is filled with some fun projects, ranging from early-stage prototypes and one-offs to small batch production runs.

Early on, I was struck not only by Smith Levi’s willingness to share but also by his dedication to the refinement of his craft. Never quite satisfied with things being just “good enough,” he’s always thinking about ways to improve workflow efficiency and how each detail translates to the end experience of the user. Most things are done in-house, from design work, prototyping, and tool building, all the way through final production and finishing, and even custom packaging. It’s an admirable pursuit to run a small-scale fabrication outfit like RatKing in a city like Seattle, especially one that’s so focused on providing utility and value to the customer. All of that, on top of Smith’s playful spirit and a pretty badass sense of design aesthetic, are what come together to help create the unique amalgamation that lies at the heart of RatKing. In trying to convey the experience of my time in the shop for this write-up, I thought it best to invite Smith along for the following Q&A. I hope this gives readers some further insight into his process.

Andrew: “It has been a decade since you started RatKing, can you tell us a little bit about your origin story and how things have evolved since then?”

Smith: “I started RatKing in 2013. At that point, I had only built a few frames for myself and a couple of close friends. I’d been interning at a local bike shop in Oakland, CA and I consumed any bicycle-related content I could find between the shop and the forums of yesteryear. As customers and coworkers became friends, more introductions were made, and before I knew it I was shaking hands with Cameron Falconer at his shop in San Francisco. He gave me some tips on building segmented forks, sold (or maybe gave) me a pair of fork blades, and sent me on my way.

“A year or two later he moved out of the Bay Area and started sending folks in need of frame repair or modification my way. I think that’s how a lot of things started for RatKing. Through the strength of the community and my bullheaded pursuit of the craft, I found myself standing in the shops of Cameron Falconer (Falconer), Rick Hunter (Hunter), and Matt Feeney (Pass + Stow) to ask questions and ogle their tools and process. Those were my most formative experiences as a builder. Each of them made their own tools, defined their own process, and were kind and generous with their time and knowledge. I think in the last decade the biggest growth that RatKing has experienced has been following those same feelings of stoke and awe that were gifted to me by the folks I admire. The only difference now is that I continue to get better at making my own tools to define my own process.”

Andrew: “What is the most satisfying part of the job for you? What keeps you going day-to-day?”

Smith: “In the past, it’s been a challenge to keep up with the evolving industry and not get burnt out. All the changing standards, all the new names for old bikes, all the new new new. Then on top of that, social media can suck. For the past few years, I’ve been making a concerted effort to make sure I’m having fun. Between finding purpose in the things I’m making and engaging with the internet as little as I can get away with, I’ve really been enjoying what I’m doing. The majority of that is focusing on process and innovating, both in the shop and in my products. I’m just trying my best to build and design things that excite me personally without too much regard for what the greater industry is pushing. When these projects are received well, and folks get excited with me, that’s just the best.”

Andrew: “I feel that and I really appreciate your approach. That excitement translates well throughout your work. What’s your take on the custom frame-building process more specifically?”

Smith: “RatKing is all about utility first. The majority of my conversations start with choosing a base model and making adjustments from there. This helps get our nomenclature aligned without getting bogged down by the semantics between all-road/gravel/CX, etc. My base models are intentionally pretty vague in their descriptions so that through our conversations we can define exactly what each custom frame should look like, and how it should perform. That being said, for the most part, I build bigger tire’d road bikes for jammer commutes and gravel campouts. This is my favorite bike to ride and build. I grew up mountain biking on a BMX bike so underbiking has always felt most at home to me. A nice hybrid of sorts achieves just that, not the perfect solution for one single style of riding, but very versatile and fun the whole time. I think that’s more the direction that RatKing is headed. I’m moving away from full custom builds and instead working towards small batches of radical vehicles of stoke.”

Andrew: “Beyond the frame-building side of the business, you’re also designing and manufacturing a very well-thought-out line of cradles and racks. Tell us more about that.”

Smith: “I make the RIP Rack and the Cradle. The RIP Rack is a front rack platform with dedicated mounting hardware for Wald Baskets for a rigid and modular basket mounting setup without zip ties or consumable hardware.The RatKing Cradle is an angle and height adjustable platform that mounts to the steerer tube or seatpost (with shims) and can offer a sturdy platform or support for bags or stuff sacks in either location. The angle and height adjustment make it a versatile fit even if you’re running a short stem with a small head tube and big tires or suspension fork. You can fine tune the fit to keep your load where you need it without interfering with stem/tires/head tube.

“Custom frames are fun because each one is special. Racks are fun because none of them should be special. My dad has always said the first 500 are the hardest and I think about that a lot. I haven’t made that many frames, but I have made that many racks, and they continue to be a fun challenge. Part of finding joy in the process for me is seeing tangible results and with racks that’s really easy to quantify. In a batch of 100 racks, something that took me a couple of minutes per piece at the beginning may be less than a minute by the end. Seeing that change is satisfying. Racks are a lot of brainwork on the front end, and a lot of handiwork for the remainder of that rack’s lifecycle in the shop, which feels kind of perfect for me. I get excited with the vision of all the functions I want it to serve, then I get to sink into every detail, from fabrication to tooling decisions, to suppliers, to packaging, to artwork, to installation instructions. Then the rest of the work is just production.

“Doing repetitive work is very calming to me. I get to put on some tunes, zone out, and give myself some time to sit with my thoughts. More often than not that looks like timing myself and looking for more efficient movements, or focusing on the ergonomics, or just how I can break things up to feel more engaging for myself. There are so many metrics for efficiency, and it’s a fun exercise that keeps monotonous work engaging throughout. Part of the joy of building is that I just get to mess around and find out. The best part is that I get the final say and if I’m not having fun, I have the freedom to change my process to keep it fresh all while trying to improve and make every next one better than the last.”

Andrew: “It’s clear that you take a lot of pride in making quality, accessible products that work with a wide range of people and their bikes. How have you optimized your design and fabrication processes to achieve this?”

Smith: “A lot of solutions for bikes —and primarily racks/cargo—either feel clunky, feel heavy, or feel like they don’t belong. My goal is to make something that works on as many bikes as I can while integrating cleanly and intentionally with any bike it goes on. I want my racks to disappear on your bike. They should serve their purpose and feel like they belong. So much of the upper echelon of custom builds comes down to dedicated solutions. When you’re building or getting a custom frame, you can get anything you want. You can design every element to play nicely together and feel cohesive, but that can be out of touch to a lot of folks.

“I started building bikes because I wanted something nicer than I could afford. I had the eyes of a doctor with the wallet of a 16-year-old dishwasher. And that discrepancy never really went away. All of this is on top of trying to be as reasonably priced as I can get it. I’m not going to sacrifice quality to knock off a few bucks, but I’m trying to be as accessible as I can as a business owner operating out of Puget Sound. Thankfully, what this looks like to me is, again, just focusing on the process. I’m not at a place where I can benefit greatly from the economy of scale on my costs, but I can get better and faster and make enough to pay my bills by making 100 racks at a time rather than fewer for fluffier margins.

“Finally, no matter how you slice it, my racks are simply out of reach for a lot of folks so I built in enough of a buffer to be able to give away/raffle/ donate racks. Putting racks directly in the hands of folks who are stoked and may not otherwise be able to afford one. The people and community are the only reasons I’ve been able to keep going all these years, so keeping accessibility as a core value of RatKing is really important to me.”

Andrew: “How about those long-handle spoons!?”

Smith: “Ha! The spoons started as a fun project to teach myself some CAD mechanics and learn about press forming sheet metal but were too fun not to push a little further. Ultralight titanium spoons aren’t new, long spoons aren’t either. But I couldn’t find anyone making even longer titanium spoons by hand. Frances Cycles makes the best spatula, and Hunter and WZRD make hardcore Sling Shots. I thought a spoon was functional enough to use, while having a bit of humor behind it.”

Andrew: “RatKing currently shares shop space with other makers at Stunt Doubles in Seattle, WA. The space has such cool and collaborative vibes! How has it been working alongside so many other creative people?”

Smith: “Stunt Doubles is so cool! It was a project that started with five like-minded folks with varied technical abilities. The thought was to share space, collaborate on projects, and build something cool. Thankfully we did a bad job defining what we were trying to do, we’ve all just been rolling with the punches and making the coolest, most expansive collection of work I’ve been a part of. From organization systems for a local pizza factory, to framing out sheds, and having a hand in putting things in space, we have had the opportunity to make some wacky stuff and meet a lot of great folks in the process.

“I think the biggest boon to RatKing has been sharing a wall with Brandon in the finishing room. He brings great energy into the space and is unsatisfied with the banal. On top of years of advertising and design work, he cooks up some kooky and deeply interesting color combinations and applications. As far as I’m concerned, he’s pushing the bounds of what can be done with powder and Cerakote as technical mediums and the results are gorgeous. Beyond the end result of collaboration, the shop as a space to internally share, riff, and be held accountable is a joy. It’s nearly daily that I walk into someone else’s space holding a piece of something I’m working on and say, “Check this out!” We chat for a few minutes, get excited or critique, before going back to our own spaces, only to do it again when the next rad thing gets solved/finished/messed up.”

Andrew: “To wrap things up, tell us about your plans for the future and how we can best keep up with you and your work.”

Smith: “Going into 2024 I am shipping out Cradles, updating RIP Racks, and clearing my queue so I can dedicate some time to making fixtures for a batch of frames Back Alley Bike Shop and I have been stewing on through 2023. Catch my time lapses on Instagram or score some Racks, Spoons, and Keychains here or here.”

Andrew: “Got any friends or other sources of inspiration that you’d like to give a shout-out to while we’re here?”

Smith: “Big ups to Carly Gauger for taking me seriously, being kind, and supporting me in all of my endeavors since day one. And to Eva at Liberation Fabrication. We shared shop space for a good handful of months and her irreverence toward frame-building tradition was the ultimate inspiration. She makes rad bikes and it doesn’t feel like she is hung up on what has or has not been done, Lib Fab just does it. I’m so happy to call them both friends.”

Special thanks to Nicholas Haig-Arack for making the Keepers of the Flame text graphic!