If you weren’t already familiar with Schön Studio, you may have just seen some of their stellar work in our recent MADE bike show coverage. Tucked into a corner of a quiet neighborhood in Squamish BC, Danielle Schön has been building bikes, teaching classes, and doing a variety of other metalwork and art out of her hand-built, backyard workshop. Read on below for Pat Valade‘s shop visit and in-depth profile…
Danielle Schön didn’t start out life dreaming of being a welder, but here she is, in a workshop that she and her partner built themselves making metallic dreams come true, with a carefully curated collection of tools and machines, and a skillset amassed over the last decade.
Originally from outside of Toronto, Danielle grew up riding bikes, like you would imagine any suburban kid doing. It was the only way to get around, and it was a classic situation of riding to friends’ houses, not thinking of a bike as anything more than a transportation tool, to be loosely discarded on the grass on the way to better things. In typical cadence, a driver’s license soon followed, and bikes fell away in Danielle’s teen years, a car taking the place of a two-wheeled machine. Fast forward to university, and she couldn’t afford to drive or take the bus every day, so the ideal solution was one many of us have sought out. The $100 Craigslist find! A shitty, albeit reliable single-speed with a spray can paint job. Can you imagine the evolution? Living in a major city, shitty single-speed purchase, of course, naturally, a fixed gear was soon to follow, and this was the Alice down the Rabbit Hole moment.
Just like any young, art school kid, the bike becomes part of life. It was the same for me when I was going to art school in Vancouver. Everyone is riding their bikes at every chance, everyone is on some sort of bike. You ride it to school, socially, to the bar, and around the park in the summer. For Danielle, she was more than hooked, and alley cat races soon followed, and then the track! Just outside of Toronto, in Milton Ontario, a massive Velodrome was constructed, and fixed gear crits were the name of the game. A gateway drug. Cross racing followed, then road racing. Road racing at this time was challenging for Schön, there was only one category for women, and it was amateurs and pros mixed together. There were a dozen different categories in Men’s racing, so it was either commit your whole life to it or move on to something else.
After art school, she moved into an IT Management job, and this was not the dream, as Danielle put it, she hated it. The pay was decent, but the hours, the management, and the culture were not. After getting yelled at by a superior for not answering a client email at 9 p.m., the decision to go back to school for welding was easy. The potential of different avenues of work, and being able to work wherever a plane ticket could take her, was a major draw. Danielle attended welding school nights and weekends while working full time, and then the same thing with machining. Eventually, she decided to quit her job and see where the torch would take her.
At 21 years old, the prospect of moving on, heading to the West Coast, and couch surfing didn’t seem very daunting at all. A big part of this was a desire to get into road racing, but feeling stymied by the cost of high-spec bikes, Schön thought, why not just build one on my own? With welding skills, and a superficial knowledge of bike building, the unattainable seems relatively within reach. At the time, Paul Brodie was teaching a Frame Building 101 course in Abbotsford BC. Schön decided to hop on a plane, stay there for a few weeks, and build a bike. This was no lightbulb moment, the real desire was to just build one personal bike, and get back to trying to race. Schön found the whole process mystifying, but at the same time, found a desire to do it again and again. Taking a creative idea, some inspiration, and a pile of tubing, and morphing it into a finished product that you could ride, and go on adventures on seemed like was immensely satisfying and special. It really stuck with her.
Back in Toronto, Schön was working a few part-time jobs. Doing some bike wrenching, and working as an operations manager for YNOT. Alongside making bags, YNOT was supposed to be offering unlimited customization on their in-house bike brand “Gallant” so if you bought one of these bikes off the shelves, you could add brazeons, custom racks, custom paint jobs, etc. Schön was intended to be in charge of any of those requested alterations. For a variety of reasons, it was clear that she had to move on from this job and take her own path. After quitting a high-paying job, doing years of school, and scraping by, the draw to have her own space, and make her own path was something unshakeable. Maybe she wouldn’t make any money, but at least there would be the space to be creative, make art, and build.
The first iteration of Schön studio was 160 square feet with her last savings spent on a jig, table welder, and a small box of hand tools. Hacksaws, files, an angle grinder, and no mill. Her builds were 100% hand-mittered for the first three years of building. It’s a difficult way to build frames, but it makes you extremely competent at being precise. The more precise you are, the less work you have to do. Even with the tools available in her current workshop, there is always some hand work to be done, so having that hand-built background early on pays off in spades. If the power goes out, and no machines are running, you can still build a frame.
It’s a conversation Schön has often with her frame-building students, the reality of building up those by-hand skills, versus the reliance on machines. Even in Danielle’s first experience with Paul Brodie, they were essentially working in an aircraft hangar with a fully functioning machine shop. Milling on a lathe, using every machine you can imagine, and then leaving that environment and trying to figure out how to do it on your own can be tough. No issue if you don’t plan on building more frames, but a hurdle to consider if you are going to continue building.
Enter Koichi Yamaguchi. If you don’t know him, check their work out. Koichi Yamaguchi is a frame builder in the US who has been building bicycles and components for 40 years. He honed his craft through years spent as a master frame builder for the “3 Rensho Company” in Japan and has worked with numerous teams, Olympians, and athletes. He runs a frame-building school and teaches everything by hand. Schön decided to go down to his class about a year after the Paul Brody course, to make sure she still had the skills, the desire, and the drive to invest serious time, energy, and money into making handmade bicycles.
The course with Yamaguchi was a positive reassurance. She could do it and felt motivated and capable. The setup was small, but the enthusiasm was high, and the wheels of small production started to spin. The first few bikes were personal projects, then there were a few orders from friends, this led to getting a booth at the Toronto Bike Show and establishing herself as the place to come get bikes repaired, tinkered with, and customized in the greater Toronto area.
Schön just wants to build it. She doesn’t care what. Bikes, banisters, commercial fixtures, metal work for fine art pieces. She just wants to take an idea, from her brain, and be able to present it to the world as something that was made with her hands. Alongside bikes, she works with a number of metal fabricators and artists, doing custom work whenever needed.
Danielle moved to Squamish at the end of 2018, and over the years has kept in touch with Paul Brodie. At the time, Paul had been in a serious motorcycle accident, on one of the custom motorcycles that he builds, and races. At the time, he was still recovering and had a frame-building course coming up, and asked if Schön would consider helping out as a sort of teaching assistant around the shop. Danielle did this for a number of weeks, and it really helped with what she described as her “impostor syndrome” – something I feel everyone with an artistic practice goes through at some point. The fact that Paul trusted her, to work with his students, and to going from never imagining being able to do a skill, to being able to do it ten times in a day without thinking about it, was immensely important to the trajectory of Schön Studio.
Besides building custom bikes, Schön Studio has recently become known as one of the best places around to take a frame-building course. For a number of reasons, Paul Brody had moved on from his reputed frame-building courses, and some friends had reached out to Danielle informally, to see if they might teach her how to build a bike. Initially, it was fairly informal, then she started getting inquiries from strangers, far away from Squamish, and it was clear that there was a serious desire in Canada, which after Brody, didn’t have any frame-building classes.
In 2022, the schedule became more formal, and Danielle offered two classes in the fall, and two in spring. All were sold out. Recently she has done five classes in the spring, and three in the fall, and they were all sold out instantly. The desire people had was shocking for Danielle, and it has been a wild ride so far. The opportunity was clear, and the demand from the cycling community was resounding. Schön is offering eight Framebuilding classes in 2024 and hopes to maintain a similar schedule annually. In the next few years, she intends to put together a scholarship course to help remove some barriers of entry to Framebuilding. It’s been awesome to see the builds people have been coming out of the classes with, and even seeing people out on our local gravel rides, with bikes they built with their own hands! Some of Schön’s past students are even setting up shops to start building themselves.
In our conversations at her studio, the topic of being a female-identifying builder, in a predominantly male-dominated industry undoubtedly came up, and I have to thank Danielle for her openness and honesty in addressing this subject. In her classes, Danielle has had younger women, tell her they would have never been confident taking a frame-building course if someone like Danielle wasn’t teaching it. This has been very important to Danielle, and a responsibility she takes incredibly seriously. In trades school, it was obvious the disparity that existed there with the students, and as a woman in trades, the only woman in a class full of men, those experiences will stick with her for the rest of her life. Having to learn to stick up for yourself, always feeling the need to prove yourself, and learning to advocate for yourself, because the system wasn’t going to. For Danielle, sometimes she just needed to put up a wall, and deal with situations, that no one should have to deal with in a workplace.
On the flip side, Schön has been able to get to know and build a bond with a group of strong women in trades, who have shared experiences and she can look up to. People who know what you’ve been through, and can create an immediate, and strong bond because of that. Although Danielle says she initially could only count the number of non-male frame builders she knows on one hand, that number has been increasing over the last 5-10 years.
With all this, Danielle knows, that her work always comes with a sort of stipulation: She’s a female builder or a woman builder. When we were talking about this, Danielle was very clear that she wanted to advocate for women in this space and set an example for the next generation of non-male builders. She was raised by a hard-working single mom, and this space needs more people like her to lift it up from the status quo, and she takes on that responsibility every day. At the same time, she sometimes just wants to be known as a craftsperson, where the work that she has poured her entire life into, speaks for itself. It is a constant tug-of-war, and there are times when it is easy, and times when it is trying.
The desire to work hard, and do the best job that she can possibly do on her builds, or for her students is the vein that runs through our conversation, the builds I photographed, and our conversation. Nothing is for free and you need to bust your ass for it, and that is what Schön has done.
Will Schön do this forever? Maybe. Things might evolve, or look different in the years to come. Right now, achieving the goal of being creatively fulfilled and at the same time living, and paying the bills is working out. Working out. It’s a lot of work, but being self-employed for over a decade is something Schön has worked hard for, and is proud of. Welding, working with metal, building bikes and teaching are all ways Schön will continue to spread art, work hard, and have a fantastic time doing it.
I’ll leave off with my favorite quote from our interview.
“No one is going to do it except you. Just because some old man tells you that you can’t do it sweetie – well fuck that. I know that it can be very difficult, and a lot of people can’t get there, so I want to be the one to tell you that you can do it, and provide mentorship, and assistance in some capacity in my work”