You’ve Got a Friend in Middle Tennessee: A Shop Visit with Amigo Frameworks

When I started working here at The Radavist full-time last fall, one of my first projects was collaborating with Jarrod Bunk on the builder galleries he photographed at the 2021 Philly Bike Expo. It was a great project for me at the time, as I got to interview many of the builders about the bikes they showcased and, more generally, their individual framebuilding ethos. Designing and building bicycle frames is, for the most part, an individualistic pursuit and I always enjoy learning about how builders’ personal backgrounds and experiences become physically manifested in their craft. As alphabetical order would have it, the file folder labeled Amigo Bug Out was the first I opened and I instantly fell in love with the bike I found inside. The Bug Out had everything I’d been looking for: shreddy geo, setup versatility, innovative design solutions, beefy tire clearance, and badass artwork from my buddy Casey Robertson.

After a few emails and brief phone calls with builder Zach Small of Nashville-based Amigo Frameworks, I was more than stoked to put my name on the list for the initial run of Bug Outs. Zach and I ended up talking even more over the following weeks and when we determined the bike would be built and painted in time for the annual Gosh Darn Gravel Gathering, we hatched a ridiculous plan for me to travel to Nashville, build up my bike in his shop, and then ride GDGG together. Ergo, from the coverage we’ve already shared, I had a great and productive time with Zach and I not only returned home with a hellova fresh bike, but also a new friend… or I should say amigo.

Continue reading below for an immersive look inside Amigo Frameworks and to hear more about Zach’s path toward becoming a full-time framebuilder!

The Spanish word amigo is translated to English to mean, quite simply, “friend.” The word first appeared in the early 1800s and is similar to amicus in Latin, which also means “friend” and related to amare, or “to love.” Amigo is typically used casually to enduringly refer to a close friend and is prevalent in Spanish-speaking parts of the US. Zach grew up in the inner-city of San Diego and was often called “Amigo” by his BMX and skater friends. As he eventually found his way to road bikes and wrenching in local shops, he moved on to study in San Francisco, then to Chicago, and now lives in Nashville where he’s recently made the transition from part-time machinist and framebuilder to full-time framebuilder. Through all of his locational and vocational changes, the childhood appellation “Amigo” continued to stick and is now the moniker of his framebuilding operation.

And, while Zach tells me that “Amigo” is just a nickname that came from his Spanish-speaking childhood buds, I believe it’s resoundingly eponymous: to know Zach is to be his friend. I witnessed a unique connection to his community in the short time I spent with him. Still a relative newcomer to Nashville, everywhere we went – restaurants, bike shops, bike paths, etc – Zach bumped into people he knew and each time it was like Norm walking into Cheers. Typically after spending a few days with a single-serving friend, I wouldn’t expect much of a relationship to continue; however, in the few months since my visit, Zach and I seem to find some reason to chat often about stuff completely unrelated to bikes – from trucks to music and tattoos. I’m stoked for that connection. He actually seems to enjoy talking on the phone rather than text, which I have a real soft spot for. Anyway, before I pivot and fully start talking about amare instead of amigo, let’s get back to Zach.

Zach’s trajectory to designing and building innovative framesets started with a high school job at the well-known Mission Hills Bikes in San Diego. After a short stint at university in San Fransisco, Zach returned home and continued working at Mission Hills where he also raced in the local velodrome and attended local club road rides. His six years at the shop were tumultuous and Zach relinquished most of his responsibility at the shop towards the end of his tenure and began attending community college.

During that retreat, he unintentionally dove head-first into San Diego’s rich cycling history by first connecting with Jon Pucci who had just started working for Joe Bell at the time. According to Zach:

“I came through JB’s one day hoping to get some motorcycle tanks sandblasted and he offered to do it if I traded help. During those off-days from the shop, I’d go over there and strip bikes for extra cash. While there I met Rob Roberson (Masi, Ibis, Hooker) and eventually pestered him to show me how to put together that tubeset I had bought a few years past.”

“This is how I also met Brian Baylis. Rob’s tools and jig were at Baylis’ shop. When it came time to build the frame, he invited me out there and I started hanging out at Baylis’ when I could find the time. I built that frame and got some life lessons from all those old dudes.”

Inspiration for framebuilding also came from years of attending the San Diego Hand Built Bike Show and selling Pegoretti bikes at Mission Hills (Dario once visited the shop in person to custom fit a frame for Zach’s boss).

With addiction and instability at home and work, Zach looked to enrolling in an Industrial Design program to get him out of San Diego. He ended up in Northern California for a short time, but the high cost of living prompted him to look at moving to a more affordable city that also had a strong ID program. Chicago won out because he had friends in town and it was home to the University of Illinois Chicago’s top-ranking ID program. Regarding his time in the Windy City, Zach recalls:

“I was making good money with a barbacking job, had super cheap rent, which allowed me to rent some workspace from Bubble Dynamics, an art collective that had a framebuilding space home to Humble Frameworks, Legacy Frameworks, Pachyderm, among others. I built some frames there for bartenders and rich people I met at the bar and learned more stuff from Michael Catano (Humble) and Levi (Legacy).”

Life was good for Zach in Chicago until he was involved in an altercation that left him blind in one eye. Multiple surgeries later, he had a difficult time returning to the dimly-lit world of bartending and, while recovering and learning to live with only one eye, found his way back to a bike shop; this time it was Comrade Cycles.

“Jesse, an owner at Comrade, was also into framebuilding,” Zach recalled, “we built out a little space behind the shop, did repairs, built a few frames and showed some of the other folks how to braze in the slower parts of the season.”

Towards the end of his two years working at Comrade, Zach was accepted into UIC’s ID program and worked part-time for Cut Cats Courier where the flexible hours were more conducive to being a student. But even with cheap rent and a flexible schedule, UIC was too expensive for him to continue after one year. In describing this pivotal moment in his professional journey, Zach told me:

“I don’t think they design higher education to be easy to obtain for poor people, there are too many hurdles for all the wrong reasons. So I decided to go to trade school instead, which is on the opposite side of the political spectrum! It’s not neo-liberals saying everyone needs a college degree and to learn to code, in order to flood the market with overqualified labor, get workers competing with each other, and in a race to the bottom pay people less and less. Instead, it’s the neo-con you can make 150k a year as a welder! We need hard workers in this country! mind you, they shipped all our manufacturing overseas, gutted unions, and the only 100k welding jobs are available to those that want to suffer in a bungalow housing at pipeline job in Alaska. But neither will tell you that, they’ll just keep pulling the football out from under you!”

Having most of his Gen Ed out of the way, then, he piled up coursework into 18/24-credit semesters and quickly cruised through trade school. During his final year, he taught a few classes and had a machine shop and the entire welding department at his disposal where he continued to hone his design and fabrication skills.

The shift away from university to trade school was relatively seamless for Zach and helped set him up for success in another new city. While messenger-ing at Cut Cats, Zach met his fiancée Joanna (they’re getting married next week!), and, after six years in Chicago, they decided to move to Nashville together where Joanna grew up and still has family. There was no shortage of positions in Nashville for Zach to run CNC machines, but when the pandemic hit he made the jump to building bikes full time.

“I’ve picked up some odd service jobs here and there to make ends meet but for now I’m fully Amigo” Zach recalled, “the Bug Out took a year to develop and I’m proud of it as my flagship model. We will see how the business grows, as it’s been a tough time to break into a business that has never been easy, but something always brings me back to it. I might as well give it my best while I can. I have realistic hopes and it allows me to express my love for design and engineering. It’s been worse, and now I have a happy life, a great partner, pup, and I get to ride my bike a lot. I guess that is why we do this bike shit.”

I thoroughly enjoy spending time in well-used and intentionally/pragmatically designed builder spaces and Zach’s shop is a damn good one. He’s converted the residential two-stall garage behind his house into an enviable “project guy” machine shop. It’s anchored by a Bridgeport 2J he picked up in Chicago from a plastics factory and flanked by a Clausing 5914 lathe that came from Joe at Cobra Framebuilding. Zach hauled the lathe from Joe’s old shop in Syracuse, NY all the way down to Nashville. With classic iron machines somewhat scarce in the south, in comparison to the northeast US, Zach scoured eBay on his way from NY to TN hauling the lathe and also picked up his Hardinge TM/UM while driving through New Jersey. Regarding the Hardinge mill and the long drive back down south, Zach commented:

“That machine was extremely well maintained and was refurbished by this machine collector and air-cooled Porsche builder named Jeff. My favorite part about getting these old machines is meeting the weirdos that sell them. That trip was an adventure too … a couple of hours after leaving NJ, the truck started to overheat because the fan put a hole in an old radiator hose that was expanding. We miraculously hobbled it to an Autozone and I did a full hose swap and radiator flush in the parking lot.”

In a few weeks, when I share my Bug Out build, I’ll go into more detail about Zach’s small-batch production process, but it’s important to note that he runs a fairly lean shop for level of work he’s getting into. With the Bug Out, for example, Zach utilized his CNC background to design in a 3-D model space, prototype, and automate production for elements like the frame’s chainstay yoke and dropouts (yes, those are Zach’s take on the classic Paragon sliders!). He also built the first batch of 15 Bug Out frames at once, starting with the front triangles in one go and then the rear ends.

The addition of a dedicated CNC machine would enable him to do all of his design and prototyping in house for future projects.

While Zach was on a bit of a break from frame production during my visit, after just knocking out fifteen builds, he had other reasons to light up his torch jump into action. The first was piecing back together a broken Campy derailleur alignment tool which, to our juvenile minds, looks like something out of a Dangle Supply catalog.

He also had a vintage set of 3Rensho Lugs on the shelf that he’d been meaning to customize for a future project. There’s a great backstory to these lugs and here is what Zach had to say abut them:

“I found a few of these lug sets from Chicago collector and bike shop owner Marcus at Yojimbo’s garage. It’s a really cool hole-in-the-wall shop and Marcus’ collection of track bikes and ephemera is so cool. He had three sets of these lugs in a box and I couldn’t pass them up. I’m not a lug guy but I really like interesting stuff like this. I had always assumed these were reproductions of the 3Rensho Modeulo Lugs, but when I went to the Yamaguchi Framebuilding school I brought a set to give to Koichi and he told me they were the real deal.”

“The reproductions were sold with a bottom bracket that was very different from the originals and that was the tell that they were original castings. I recently gave the second of the three sets to Chris Bishop when I saw him at PBE. He’s one of the few that can really do them justice. I kept the last set for myself and, while I’m not usually a lug guy, I thought it would be fun to use my fillet skills to fill in the gothic wings and file it down and make the transitions of the “webbing” really graceful. I still have to braze the other lugs and clean them up. I really enjoy small projects like that and when the right customer comes along I’ll braze them into a frame for them.”

Bikes led Zach to work in the metal manufacturing trades, which then led him back full circle to where he is now building bikes for a living. And, while bikes are always top of mind, he’s thinking of ways to better himself and expand his craft. In Nashville, he’s using his skills and dedicated shop space to channel his creativity into other custom projects that aren’t always bike-related. He recently designed a see-saw for a local toy tore in addition to furniture for local bars, signage, and tattoo instruments. In the coming years, I won’t be surprised to see Zach expand beyond just a framebuilder into his own small job shop for architectural metalwork and design.

Next up in Zach’s pipeline for Amigo, however, is a stock road frame that I hope we see debuted at this year’s Philly Bike Expo, along with a dedicated rack system for the Bug Out and other adventure bikes.

BIG thanks to Zach for welcoming me into his shop and home, for helping build up my bike, showing me around Nashville, and being a great friend. Until next time, amigo!