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  1. #1
    Senior Member carfart's Avatar
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    So I'd like to build my own frames. Are professional courses worthwhile?

    The two somewhat local courses run around $3000 here in the Midwest. With travel and lodging that could easily push $4000. If I instead purchased the necessary equipment, tube sets, lugs, and brazeons could I realistically get a good start learning on my own?

    I gather that the good builders learned through apprenticeships. So I'm really skeptical that I'll get enough value out of the money spent on a one to two week course. I'm low middle class in the Midwest, so that's real money for me. Leaving the value of the experience to chance is out of the question.

    p.s. Admins--What eldritch machinations do I have to orchestrate in order to successfully write and edit a post without having to log back in to submit it? If I take longer than a couple minutes I get logged out. What's up with that?

  2. #2
    Andrew R Stewart Andrew R Stewart's Avatar
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    I reply as I am visiting one of the mid West builders schools. I've been building frames since 1978, mostly hobby. Yet each time I visit my friend, this time to paint a frame (today I applied the decals) I learn something more then I knew before.

    Yes, you can get all the equipment and start to figure things out. If you do then you'll be spending a lot of time and some money to learn and practice. How many joints will you have to do before you feel that you have a command over what's going on? How about installing drop outs or raking blades?

    But a larger amount of this time and material cost can be avoided with good initial teaching. How to move a torch around a joint and not overheat one spot. How to hold the torch and filler rod and move each hand independent of each other. Exposure to tooling and such before you spend those $, better to know what you find is a must have and what is a work around.

    The list goes on. In the end it's a judgment that only one can make on their own. What personal guidelines and feedback is worth opposed to what being self reliant is worth. Andy.

  3. #3
    Senior Member carfart's Avatar
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    Which school is that? I may have to see irrefutable results before wasting any more money. I'm used to being left to my own devices even after spending 10s of thousands of dollars. Truly, the only courses that were worth a damn through my entire education were Medieval History, a proof-heavy geometry course, and Aristotelian logic. Beyond that I may as well have been on my own in a library. All too often the only path to deep understanding was in other, often older source material, and that's remained true to this day. My experience with every institution, large and small, has so far left me a bit cynical, more so as the price per hour goes up.

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    Well, I'm self-taught, and I'm satisfied with the quality of my frames. They are comparable to the high-end (but factory made) Italian bikes I raced decades ago.

    They are not, however, nearly as nice as today's frames from guys like Weigle and Sachs. If I had planned on going into the business I would have started by signing up for a professional course. If nothing else, I am sure that would shave years off the learning curve.

    Short version: if your time is more valuable than your money, or you are frustrating by screwing things up while learning, go to a school. Otherwise, the self-taught way should work fine for you.

  5. #5
    tuz
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    I think it depends. I've met a guy who took the UCI course; his frame was okay (they ran out of time) and he wasn't proficient with the torch when we added braze-ons. Another friend of mine took the Fattic course; they also ran out of time but he was able to build frames on his own afterwards and they were great. Funny thing the former is a tradesman and the latter is in literature. That's not a judgement on both these courses btw, just two data points.

    The nice thing is that a teacher will help you through the learning curve and ideally you won't need to make as many mistakes. Moreover you'll get a good understanding of frame alignment/geometry and about different fixturing systems.

    On the other hand, if you plan to have your own shop, it's unlikely you'll be able to afford the nice equipment used in the course. Learning on your own will allow you to develop a process that works best with your means.

    I don't think I could afford a course, but I've wasted a lot of money on errors and crappy fixtures.
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    coprolite fietsbob's Avatar
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    I took jewelery-metalsmithing courses at the community college to get the torch
    and metalworking chops , first.

    was part of my GI bill use. never could afford the real estate, for shop space
    so I only made 1, but I have it still, since 1975.
    Last edited by fietsbob; 03-12-14 at 10:39 AM.

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by carfart View Post
    The two somewhat local courses run around $3000 here in the Midwest. With travel and lodging that could easily push $4000. If I instead purchased the necessary equipment, tube sets, lugs, and brazeons could I realistically get a good start learning on my own?

    I gather that the good builders learned through apprenticeships. So I'm really skeptical that I'll get enough value out of the money spent on a one to two week course. I'm low middle class in the Midwest, so that's real money for me. Leaving the value of the experience to chance is out of the question.

    p.s. Admins--What eldritch machinations do I have to orchestrate in order to successfully write and edit a post without having to log back in to submit it? If I take longer than a couple minutes I get logged out. What's up with that?
    No. Take a class and walk away with a frame knowing you had the eye of an expert looking over your shoulder. You shouldn't bargain hunt for this sort of thing. If money is an issue go do something else and buy a bike at a shop. Some go it alone, but it takes years, passion, and thousands of dollars. Are you prepared to cut up your first 25 frames or more? There are rare people who just take to it, but they've usually spent years in the industry, and have a gift. Some people win the lottery also.

  8. #8
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    Of course there are those who are willing to make a total POS and think it's wonderful. Don't be that guy.

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by Craig Ryan View Post
    No. Take a class and walk away with a frame knowing you had the eye of an expert looking over your shoulder. You shouldn't bargain hunt for this sort of thing. If money is an issue go do something else and buy a bike at a shop. Some go it alone, but it takes years, passion, and thousands of dollars. Are you prepared to cut up your first 25 frames or more? There are rare people who just take to it, but they've usually spent years in the industry, and have a gift. Some people win the lottery also.
    My second frame was rideable, but with obvious mistakes. My third frame was very close to exactly what I wanted and has been ridden tens of thousands of miles.

    I don't have any particular talent at it, but I did do a lot of reading and then a lot of practicing with the torch - stamped lugs and straight-gauge tubing are a good way to get used to the work without spending an arm and a leg. I did waste an awful lot of time with homemade jigs (I still improve them with every frame I build) but it was more time than money I wasted.

    Which is all a long way of saying that I think you'd have to be hopeless if you build twenty-five frames and still can't get one right. I still hold that schools vs. self-taught is an argument between spending time vs. spending money. If a fellow has a few grand to spend, a school is a great head-start. If he doesn't, he can learn what he needs to know from the Paterek manual and a lot of practice.

  10. #10
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    Good luck, sounds like you have it all figured out.

  11. #11
    Senior Member carfart's Avatar
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    I'm willing to spend some money on a jig and other basic tools. Beyond that I want to keep the overall setup as inexpensive as possible, hopefully within $1500 US. I wonder if lugged construction and open hearth brazing is the best way to do that. I'm a little worried that the more traditional the setup the more skill you need to get anything done with it, so I may have to go with a class, assuming that the learned skills would transfer.

    Edit: Replying to Six jours.
    Last edited by carfart; 03-13-14 at 09:35 AM.

  12. #12
    Senior Member carfart's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by tuz View Post
    On the other hand, if you plan to have your own shop, it's unlikely you'll be able to afford the nice equipment used in the course. Learning on your own will allow you to develop a process that works best with your means.
    That's one of my big concerns. I'm not sure that I'll be able to use a lot of the course material in an amateur shop.

  13. #13
    framebuilder
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    Your question gets asked and answered in many different ways on various forums. I’ve been teaching framebuilding classes for over 30 years here in the Midwest (Niles, Michigan about 90 miles east of Chicago) so I’m obviously biased but I also have a front row seat watching how students catch on. Whether taking one is worth it depends on how good you want to be, how fast do you want to learn and if you eventually plan on selling frames. And also how much background experience and innate skills one has. The very select few that have done well on their own does not mean the majority can too. Framebuilding standards are very high now. If you want to be that good anytime soon you need good instruction. The best at any skill (music, sports) have had lots of training. That is why I went to apprentice in England. I did not want to be mediocre. The reality is those that teach themselves (which may be their only option because of limited resources) need to be happy with their more modest results while taking the long way around. Here are a few reasons to take a class:

    1. It greatly reduces frustration while shortening the learning curve. Avoid the confusion about exactly what to do (or whose advice to take) and get immediate correction when things start to go wrong. Brazing and filing are much easier to learn in person from an instructor. Managing frustration is an important factor in learning that isn’t often considered until things go wrong and it isn’t obvious what to do. It is a motivation killer.

    2. A good instructor knows common rookie mistakes and how to avoid them. For example unthinkingly lowering the brazing rod while watching the flame. Bad things happen when putting it back into position. Little mistakes combine to snowball into bigger ones.

    3. Classes provide an organized and systematic presentation of lots of information. More information than someone might think. Good instruction breaks down everything into understandable units. Practice methods are organized from the simple to complex in phase with their ability catch on.

    4. Any approach you take to possibly make frames in the future for money (even if you keep your day job) will eventually cost plenty of money. Teaching yourself by practicing lots and making enough “not-quite-right-yet” frames will add up. So will tool experimentation.

    5. Your beginning mistakes can last a long time hurting your reputation years after you’ve gotten a lot better (unless you can find and buy them all again to cut them up).

    6. A class gives you a big competitive advantage over the beginning do-it-yourselfers. You know what to do while they are trying to figure it out. Nobody is impressed with a "trial and error” education unless there is lots of additional experience. There actually are more reasons for taking a class that I send to inquiries.

    These are my goals for every student. At the end of class (I’ll abbreviate this list) they will have found their bicycle position and converted that into a custom frame design. Their joints will be properly brazed (lugs will have clean shorelines without voids) and frame alignment will be within a mm or so. They will know the tricks of filing so their frames look good. My job is to insure every student actually does this by adjusting teaching methods to meet their individual needs or taking up any slack myself if it is just beyond them. Some of them in a 3 week class will also have painted their frames (depending on how fast they work). I’ll post a couple of pictures below of class built student frames to help illustrate how nice class made frames can be.

    And by the way classes can vary in quality quite a bit. Teaching is a craft too that can be good or bad or mediocre. I don’t consider my university degrees in education to develop my teaching skills to have been a waste of time. My preference is for a student to take my 3 week class because I know how fast and effectively they can absorb information. I teach shorter ones because that is all the time some have available. The OP’s tuition costs he mentioned were high compared to mine.
    photo[1].jpgphoto.jpg
    Last edited by Doug Fattic; 03-13-14 at 11:31 AM.

  14. #14
    Senior Member carfart's Avatar
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    Those look great.

    Three weeks sounds much better. I didn't realize there were courses out there that would go beyond one or two weeks, so I'll look a bit further than the great plains states. Right now I'm not planning on ever building anything to sell. Maybe I'll love doing it and change my mind, but I wonder if anyone would be interested in hiring a middle-aged apprentice who isn't independently wealthy (I'm looking at you Daniel Day Lewis, professional cordwainer). I've been considering something along those lines anyway but in the timber framing trade.
    Last edited by carfart; 03-13-14 at 12:09 PM. Reason: Cordwainer, not cobbler.

  15. #15
    Senior Member himespau's Avatar
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    @Doug Fattic, those are some nice looking frames for your students. Not sure I'd have chosen the uniform dark paint job on the first one that kind of masks the beautifully ornate headtube lugs, but it's an interesting frame over all.

    ps. How're you dealing with all the snow? My folks down US12 in Sturgis are going a bit stir crazy.
    Punctuation is important. It's the difference between "I helped my uncle, Jack, off a horse" and "I helped my uncle Jack off a horse"


  16. #16
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    Quote Originally Posted by Craig Ryan View Post
    Good luck, sounds like you have it all figured out.
    And it looks like you're going to fit right in here at BF.

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    Quote Originally Posted by carfart View Post
    I'm willing to spend some money on a jig and other basic tools. Beyond that I want to keep the overall setup as inexpensive as possible, hopefully within $1500 US. I wonder if lugged construction and open hearth brazing is the best way to do that. I'm a little worried that the more traditional the setup the more skill you need to get anything done with it, so I may have to go with a class, assuming that the learned skills would transfer.

    Edit: Replying to Six jours.
    Well, I have no experience with hearth brazing so have no idea if it makes things easier. You'll need a torch for things like braze-ons anyway, so I figure any aspiring framebuilder needs to learn how to use one.

    If you haven't already, you might take a look at the Framebuilder's marketplace thread http://www.bikeforums.net/framebuilders/632757-framebuilder-s-market-place.html to see if Sanerbikes has any jigs left for sale. I don't know anything about him or them, but they are pretty affordable compared to others I've seen.

    And I do agree with Doug above in that if you want to make really high quality (especially in terms of aesthetics) lugged frames for sale, you're better off starting under the eye of a good teacher. I personally am not especially interested in how the lugs appear on my frames (I only build for my personal use) so I start with high-quality items like those from Henry James and do just a bit of filing on them. They look fine; about like the lugs on the Italian racing frames I grew up with, but aren't in league with the work from top name builders - and lug work is one of the reasons those folks can charge serious money for their frames.

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    To put the OP's question into perspective- It depends on your goals. Are you looking to learn frame building for a future means of making a living? Or, are you just curious and only want to build a frame for your personal use, with no intention of going further than building a frame or two? Be honest.

    Another question you need to address is, and this is big in my mind- do I have the "mechanical skills" to pull this off? Some do, and some don't. I've been around the block a few times and some folks, no matter how much instruction they get, just can't get it. It's not in their nature.

    Yes, you can go to Doug Fattic's class and leave with a really nice frame. I am NOT discrediting Doug's class, or his teaching skills. In fact, I'd love to attend one if the opportunity were right. You always learn something and it would be great to see/share new ideas.

    You do ask to ask yourself- can I take it from there with the skills I have? Maybe you are better off just buying a frame. On the other hand if you are a DIY'r by nature, and money isn't an object, go for it!

    In addition- I admire Craig Ryan's work but I have to take exception to the comment, "are you willing to cut up 25 frames or more..." There's lots of folks with the skills and past experience to produce some really good bike frames from the outset. It all depends on your past experience. BTW- have you seen Craig's paint job on the tribute bike with the "Firestone" rims?

  19. #19
    Senior Member carfart's Avatar
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    The impression I'm getting so far is that I mostly need some help learning how to braze well and then clean up the lugs, and I'm not seeing how that's worth around $3,000. The rest I should be able to get from the Paterek manual, and a few other books like Lugged Bicycle Frame Construction. Unfortunately our local technical schools are too modern, so basic metallurgy is a dying art here. But courses at a technical school sound like the most practical and economical way to get a good start.

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    I think reddog3 makes good sense. If a fellow wants to build a frame (or several frames) for his own use, then he can probably get along on his own, as long as he is not a klutz in general. If he wants to make a living at this, though, he is going to have to meet some extremely high standards (a perusal of Weigle's work is probably in order) and can use all the help he can get.

    WRT brazing well, I'd recommend a local junior college course if available. Unfortunately, these are becoming rare. At the least, learning oxy-acetylene safety from a competent instructor is probably worth while, so that you don't end up blowing yourself out of the garage. But as far as getting full penetration of brazing material is concerned, I think a reasonably competent person can figure it out from practicing with stamped lugs and straight gauge tubing (both available from NOVA Cycle Supply, among others) and cutting each example up for inspection, bearing in mind that your personal health rides upon your work.

    Lug clean-up? Yeah, you can either spend the next couple of decades figuring it out on your own, or you can get a serious head-start on it from a class like Doug's, or you can ignore it entirely, because it has nothing to do with performance and everything to do with aesthetics. Your call, of course...

  21. #21
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    Quote Originally Posted by reddog3 View Post
    In addition- I admire Craig Ryan's work but I have to take exception to the comment, "are you willing to cut up 25 frames or more..." There's lots of folks with the skills and past experience to produce some really good bike frames from the outset. It all depends on your past experience. BTW- have you seen Craig's paint job on the tribute bike with the "Firestone" rims?
    Thank you, I appreciate it. I believe 25 would be the low number, the number which would get one to start to understand what's involved with this process as a whole. Just above someone made reference to "cleaning up the lugs." When I say do it right I'm talking about being able to braze so you don't have to clean up shorelines. Any filing would be related to the lug surface. It takes a lot of work to get to that point. My comment also takes into account the ability to perceive the whole process. 25 frames might give you a start to an understanding of how geometry works for different sized riders, or how to build a frame with any sense of unity. Actually, I think I'd like to edit that number higher, maybe like 200 or more. Early on you just don't know what you don't know.

    I think a lot of folks get into this venture not realizing the investment in finances and time involved. If you believe a class is too expensive, you should take up another hobby. However, if you are financially stable, have space, time, and desire, + a lot of deep background knowledge of bicycles, you could eventually make pretty good stuff. This is also assuming you have the ability to filter out crazy internet stuff where unknown people throw out hearth brazing as viable. I think a ten year plan and about $20k will get you there. I'm not even talking about whether the intent is to go into business or not. I would start with a class, and I wouldn't quit your day job. If your intent is to just make a frame for you personal satisfaction, and probably only one, I would especially take a class.

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    Dozens of highly-respected British makers used hearth brazing to build countless reliable, beautiful, and desirable frames. Mercian still does it that way. Hard to understand how that can be termed an "unviable" technique promoted only by "internet crazies". And then to go on to say that a hobbyist needs to invest 10 years, twenty thousand dollars, and 200 cut-up frames before being able to make one decent rideable bicycle for his own use?

    Well, we agree on one thing at least: it's important to be able to filter out nonsense from the internet.

  23. #23
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    No problem, just saying it the way I see it. Lots of rideable first frames out there, but talk to any builder who's make a thousand and they'll likely agree with me. Hearth brazing had it's place in history, so did suits of armor. Why on earth would anyone interested in learning to build a frame today do it? Science Fair project? Hey, who are you, what's your name? Have a shop? Like to see what all you guys do around here.

  24. #24
    framebuilder
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    There are so many different subjects within this particular thread for me to comment on I hardly know which one to choose 1st but explaining if hearth brazing is an option for a beginner tops my list. I have actually learned to hearth braze myself. I apprenticed at Ellis Briggs in Shipley, West Yorkshire UK in 1975. Both before and after that date I visited just about every British builder (and Italian ones too) looking for the best place to learn as well as pick up any useful tidbits of information I could. Guys like the Quinn brothers in Liverpool had started making frames right after WW1. They were among the many that were gracious to answer my rookie questions. It wasn’t uncommon for many of these builders to have learned from their fathers and kept many of their same techniques. I was at Briggs when they changed from doing hearth brazing to using oxyacetylene. Jack had started building in 1938 and learned from his father. Let me explain how it works.

    Hearth brazing is using a giant natural gas flame augmented with squirrel cage supplied oxygen. It is like like holding a fire hose type of flame. It’s a big mama (both the hose and the flame). The frame itself would be hung on a rack over a table of fire bricks with additional bricks stacked around and behind the lugs. An entire area (like both head lugs or all the tubes coming out of the bottom bracket shell) would be heated up until everything was a cherry red color including several inches up the tubes. If I remember right I held this giant flame about a foot away from the joints. I would hold the end of the brass rod (it is really bronze) with a holder like a cigarette holder so it wouldn’t burn my hand as it melted and got shorter because there was so much radiating heat. Because everything is up to brazing temperature, brass would just slurp into every available gap in the joints. Of course there is no chance the lugs will have even shorelines with this method so after it cooled some we would take it over to the bench and touch them up with an oxyacetylene flame. One day Andrew (Briggs journeyman builder) said this is stupid to have 2 heating cycles, lets just do it all with oxyacetylene. So we - like many other builders - changed when that light bulb came on.

    This method makes absolutely no sense for any beginner to use. There are no subject threads on where to buy fire bricks or how to stack them around a joint (3” or 5”?) for a good reason. Some British builders still used it when I was there was because they just keep what worked from before oxyacetylene was available. This method requires that lugs be pinned because any spot braze would obviously melt when the entire area is heated up to brazing temperature.

    In my class I use both oxyacetylene and oxypropane. Most students like propane better but that is a separate subject thread.

  25. #25
    tuz
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    I think Marinoni (or was is Rossin?) said that you need to make 1000 frames to get the hang of it. And after 30 000+ frames he mentioned that he is still learning.

    Certainly, it takes a lifetime of work to become a true craftsman. Hobbyists like myself might make 30 frames in their lifetime so anything remotely near perfection is out of the picture. Moreover there might be months or years between two frames so this means you have to relearn a lot each time. But I think that making a safe, ridable and up-to-spec frame is possible. That depends on your diligence. Taking a course is diligent, but it won't make you a craftsman.

    Cutting up joints is necessary when you are learning brazing. Cutting up frames would be quite wasteful, although one could do it after they have ridden the bike for a while. Doing so you will learn whether there are built-in stresses. If you cold set a triangulated structure, or braze poorly, that will be the case.
    Last edited by tuz; 03-15-14 at 06:20 PM.
    homebuilt commuter, mixte, road and track (+ Ryffranck road)
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