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Framebuilders Thinking about a custom frame? Lugged vs Fillet Brazed. Different Frame materials? Newvex or Pacenti Lugs? why get a custom Road, Mountain, or Track Frame? Got a question about framebuilding? Lets discuss framebuilding at it's finest.

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Old 05-10-11, 02:09 PM   #1
radshark
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Where is the market heading?

I've been tossing around the idea that I would like to learn framebuilding, practice it as a hobby, and maybe supplement my income.

From a business standpoint I don't see how custom hand-built bikes can survive the onslaught of inexpensive frames coming from the pacific rim. I can't imagine how many hours go into building a high quality and aesthetically pleasing bike. Certainly many more then a razor thin profit margin will allow.

It seems to me the current state of the hand-built market is artesian centric that serves a fairly affluent segment where only those with exceptional talent coupled with extraordinary artistic ability are able to survive.

Is this the future of independent frame-builders?

Is it possible overseas shipping costs eventually allow independent frame-builders get a foothold and eek out a living?

Thoughts..

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Old 05-10-11, 02:42 PM   #2
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no doubt it's a hard business unless you manage to strike the imagination of a fairly large number of people. I don't know if it really has to be affluent people, although that helps. In the U.S., between taxes and insurance, it's very difficult to make it as a small volume framebuilder unless you choose to charge reasonable prices. That puts you out of many people's price range. Competing with Taiwan is a non-starter. It's always possible they will get their act together and start building better steel frames than they are right now, in which case we're in real trouble. But selling on price is a losing game anyway.
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Old 05-10-11, 04:12 PM   #3
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I believe a small part of the supplyers maket is hobbiests, and growing rapidly. The exporters need to build large volumes of frames to make a profit and current trends are in the expanding market of carbon. Some brands are going back to steel, Masi, Colnago, and at a price point close to custom frame builders that are well established. Some builders are less then famous brands. I am working on my own frame project but if money was not the issue I would buy a local custom frame for the same price as a Colnago. E-bay has a listing for a custom frame builder in Tiawan, 1400$ is close to some of the prices here so I don't think there is a worry about a flood from over seas.
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Old 05-11-11, 08:07 AM   #4
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I would be more concerned with frames being sold for sub 300 USD or large corporations selling frames for sub 1000 USD. Is there that much value added to a custom frame to attract enough buyers to the custom market so that frame-builders can survive?

Incidentally, how much time on average does it take to build a frame and fork? I know it depends on the level of detail (polished lugs, paint, etc..). I can't imagine there is much money left for labour after supplies, consumables, overhead.
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Old 05-11-11, 08:17 AM   #5
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depends on how much it costs to paint, but I figure it costs over $900 to build a high-end lugged frame. You can cut that down a couple of hundred with cheap parts and powder coat. It's fairly well established that if the final price isn't 5 times the materials cost, that is not a stable business. So if you see someone selling bikes for $1200, rest assured that is a business that is barely making it.

I don't see sub $1000 frames to be competition for custom bikes at all. If someone would be happier with a $300 frame or even a $900 mass-produced frame, we are both better off if they buy that. I think it takes most experienced framebuilders less than a week to build a frame, but if they are living off of $500 a week, that's not much of a living for someone that's good at their craft.
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Old 05-11-11, 08:42 AM   #6
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There's bargain import production frames out there in the sub-$300 category, which I don't think any domestic manufacturer could touch. Then there's custom domestics, which realistically are going to start at the $1k-$1200 level. And in between, you can get a production, standard sizing/geometry frame to tolerable standards in the form of import brands like Surly or Soma for $400-600; domestic or western manufacturing with brands like Gunnar and Bob Jackson in the $700-900 range.

Is it possible for a small builder to gear up for small production runs of 3-5 bikes in the same size/geometry at one whack and offer them at a competitive price, say $600-800 range? Seems you could save a bunch of individual setup time if you were making a series of bikes to the same spec and knock them out fairly quickly. Market for such a beast?
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Old 05-11-11, 10:06 AM   #7
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that would be an extremely difficult business model. It's being done here and there. The prices aren't that low, however. There are a lot more people re-branding bikes from Asia.
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Old 05-11-11, 09:43 PM   #8
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But if things weren't looking good towards the custom US builder. Why do so many have such long waiting list or not taking any new customers at all. I think it still comes down to having something specifically built for you and people are willing to pay for something of quality. It's like saying how can Mercedes Benz or BMW stay in business with companies like Tata(maker of the world's cheapest automobile) making brand new cars for only $2500.
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Old 05-12-11, 08:13 AM   #9
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The custom builders that have those waiting lists also have years of experience behind them.

While I don't feel qualified to answer the OP because I only have a couple of frames under my belt, there is only one scenario where I see myself building frames for a living, and it goes a little like this:

* I'm at the point where I've built 25-30 frames and have the fundamentals down cold.
* I have added to my tools at the very least (1) an O-A or O-P torch and (2) some form of jig, most likely one built from 8020 or a Bringheli alignment plate.
* I'm building 6-8 frames per year for friends, family, and acquaintances on nights and weekends.
* I have enough orders "in the pipeline" that I can't fill them at the schedule I'm building within the next year (this is as far out as I would be comfortable having a waiting list)
* I'm able to charge enough for frames, and I've gotten efficient enough, that I'm making about $25/hr before taxes for my time
* I'm only building frames that I would ride, so mostly classic racing, cross, rando, sport touring, constructeur type frames. Nothing crazy, nothing unsound, nothing that I wouldn't put my name on.

So, I figure with the most basic of finishes and fairly mundane frame tubes, I'd charge about $1500 at the very lowest.

Realistically, I won't ever "go pro", and the only time I see myself building frames full time is once I retire. I am, however, a high school teacher, and have summers "off" (in quotes because I always work during the summer) and could see building 3-4 frames per summer.

With that said, I don't see how a person who has never evn built a frame could even be thinking of going into business as a framebuilder. That's got disaster written all over it.

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Old 05-12-11, 10:33 PM   #10
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Some one asked how long it takes to build a frame. The answer is in watching a lot of you-tube frame clips. Some one with the proper tools and jigs who knows what there doing can build a welded frame in a day ( less fitting ). Luged frames take longer ( more fitting ). Custom lugs could take the rest of your life depending on the detail. Watch "Geekhouse" on you-tube, yes I know it's edited but the building process is step by step and all the machinery is in the same room.
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Old 05-12-11, 10:54 PM   #11
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I can build them many times faster than I can sell them.

The truth of the matter is that there are not very many full-time builders out there. And not very many of those have a multi-year waiting list. Getting from the point where you have to deliver a bike in less than a year to the point where "you'll get it when you're at the top of the list," is a pretty big jump. Waiting lists are a sensitive subject, and I wouldn't go by what you've heard about various builders waiting lists.
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Old 05-14-11, 10:59 AM   #12
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Seems like most of the full-time builders 1) have decades of experience, 2) are building the best quality frames the world has ever seen and 3) are charging $3000 to $10,000 per copy.

I suspect anyone who can't claim at least two out of those three is going to have a nearly impossible task. We've seen an awful lot of folks get into the business and then get back out after a couple of years.

I've been building for four years now, and while I build decent, functional frames, they're not nearly to the level of a top builder. At most, I could see building an occasional frame for a friend or local club rider and charging no more than $1000. IOW, a hobby that pays for itself and maybe allows an occasional upgrade in tools or equipment.

<edit> In re-reading the OP I note "It seems to me the current state of the hand-built market is artesian centric that serves a fairly affluent segment where only those with exceptional talent coupled with extraordinary artistic ability are able to survive."

This is exactly right, IMO. And "survive" is the operative word. I'm friends with a "top name" frame builder, respected as among the very best, and after decades of living at the poverty line, he's decided to pack it in. He figures some menial manufacturing job will be more money and a lot less work. He'll be a nobody, but at least he'll be a nobody with a decent paycheck.

In that light, I can understand framebuilding as a hobby that can supplement a real job, but anyone who is getting into it as a career should have his head examined.

Last edited by Six jours; 05-14-11 at 11:06 AM.
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Old 05-15-11, 09:03 AM   #13
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I am a full time builder and have been since 1989. I worked for other builders until 2003 when I started my own company and have been busy ever since. I would not call this a get rich quick scheme but at the same time I'm comfortable, eat well and take a vacation every year. I think the term "middle class" might fit.

I have a few things to keep in mind about framebuilding as a business -

* I often read that there are builders out there with long wait lists therefore there must be a pent up demand for handbuilt frames............so......... it must be a good time to throw one's hat into the ring and build/sell handbuilt bikes to satisfy that demand. I think this is a misinterpretation of what is going on. I don't think that Vanilla has a multi year wait because there is a great demand for a well built handmade frame but instead I think it shows that there is a demand for Vanilla's. There is a big difference. If Vanilla's demand was created by overall demand for handmade bikes then we would see many other builders with similar demand - but we don't. So starting a business to take advantage of this perceived demand can really ruin your day when the phone doesn't ring. Unless you are going to make Vanilla's you won't be directly addressing the demand.

* Framebuilding is a fun business to be in but at it's core it is a business first and foremost. By this I mean that the f-building is just a small part of the deal. I spend about 1/2 my time at the bench and the other 1/2 doing everything else. The 'everything else' is the wild card in my opinion. The framebuilding itself is the straightforward and frankly easy part and the rest of the stuff is what makes or breaks the deal and puts the business in the red or the black. Customer service, design, fitting, ordering, accounting, time management, inventory control of both raw materials and finished goods, cost control, sales, marketing.............these are just a few of the things that need to be attended to if one wants to make a living. The builder needs to wear lots of different hats and each one of those hats is equally important to wear well. By that I mean you might be able to lay the perfect 'roll of dimes' TIG beads but if you can't manage your cash flow you will not make it as a business and turn a long term profit. Perfect lug shorelines will not in any way guarantee the builder will turn a profit. A successful builder will be good at all the above and more.

* I think it is extremely rare that someone who is still working on their basic building skills can somehow make a business out of it. I think the builder should have building down cold long before they hang up their shingle. That brings the inevitable question of 'how many bikes do I need to build before I'm good enough?' I wish I had an answer but I don't and I doubt that anyone does. Different people learn at different rates and some are pretty darn good with not that many bikes under their belts and others will need many, many more. That said, and having taught many people to build at a professional level, I feel safe in saying that having 10 bikes out there will not make you an expert builder. When I started building it was in a factory setting and we built more bikes in a day than even some pro builders do in a month or year - so lots of bikes passed through our hands everyday and we got lots of practice. For instance I brazed 5-10 bikes a day for months on end and frankly got good at it. I recall that after I'd been doing this for a year and had built or worked on hundreds of bikes that I thought I was the **** and that there was little left to for me to learn. I was very wrong. Maybe I was a slow learner - I don't know. But even though I'd worked on so much stuff I was not ready to be on my own and do pro quality work. So when I read that someone has built 10 bikes and none have broken so they are ready to have their own business I have more than a bit of skepticism. Now, all these years and many thousands of bikes later I'm still learning. The learning curve is flatter that is was way back when but it's still there and the more I learn the easier it gets to make a living at this.

I guess I would summarize this overly wordy post by saying that liking the act of framebuilding itself may not be a good reason to jump into business. If you are a skilled builder (or in time will be) and are interested in the business of framebuilding then I think it's worth thinking about. If you love building but dislike the idea of spending 1/2 your time balancing the books and returning customer emails then maybe you want to be a hobby builder. I do not think the term 'hobby' is a bad one and do not mean it as an insult. I think doing this as a hobby would be really fun and a great way to express yourself.

I do not want to discourage anyone from jumping in to the business but instead I'd like to think that everyone that does has their eyes wide open. I think we would see far fewer builders go under if that was the case.

All the best,

Dave
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Old 05-16-11, 03:44 AM   #14
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Custom carbon fiber frames. Demand is high. Since there are no schools that teach carbon construction, that limits the number of carbon builders.

There are custom carbon builders making $100,000+. Yes, over 100k, as in 6 figures. Forget steel, titanium, or aluminum. Custom carbon construction is where you have the best chance of making a decent living in framebuilding.
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