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How can you tell good steel frame-building from bad?

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How can you tell good steel frame-building from bad?

Old 07-22-15, 05:13 PM
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How can you tell good steel frame-building from bad?

I've been using Sheldon Browne's rough pricing guide to idly check up on frames that crop up on local listings, and I'm always struck by how descriptive he gets about the frames, in particular the lugs, brazing, etc. Here are the kinds of things he says:

"Many Cinelli frames show exquisite mitering, smooth and even brazing, and lots of lug thinning."

"Some are absolutely gorgeous, others are a bit sloppy."

"Most of these bikes were wonderful, a few were a bit sloppy but still extraordinary."

"While many of these blue classics with the coin-like plugs in the forkcrown all look the same, beware. Some are exquisite, some are only fairly nice."


The thing is, I've ridden a bunch of steel frames in the past year or so, and though I notice huge differences in how they feel to ride, superficially I can't tell what separates good steel construction from bad. Unlike aluminium frames, where you can see the evenness of the welding, I don't know what to look for. I've seen lugs that have pretty cutouts on supposedly trashy department store bikes, seen pantographed brands on frames that aren't made of great tubing, and ridden frames that were wonderfully light and nice to ride, but had the most basic of lugwork, and no visible signs of difference from a plain steel frame.

So at a glance, how can you tell the craft, skill, and quality that a steel frame has been put together with? Is it something you can tell only by riding? Can anyone show me pictures of good vs bad lugwork, welding, or whatever else it entails?
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Old 07-22-15, 05:38 PM
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Great topic for a thread! I'm no expert, but I look for thinned lugs with an elegant shape. I've always thought the lugs on my Strawberry were particularly nice (ignore the wax that I hadn't polished out):



Whereas these are a little more basic:



Maybe not the best examples, but those were the lug-shots I had on hand!
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Old 07-22-15, 05:46 PM
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Frankly, I think how a steel frame feels while riding is more related to the frame geometry, the wall thickness, diameter, and butting profile of the tubing, and wheels/tires than the quality of the brazing or welding. The relationship between the rider's size, weight, and power output to the tubing wall thickness and diameter will also affect the feel of the ride. I've seen lots of frames with sloppy craftsmanship that have a great feeling ride; OTOH I've ridden beautifully brazed or welded frames that felt dead, too stiff, too noodley, had skittish handling, etc.

For a lugged frame, consistently even lug shorelines without any voids in the braze filler or file marks from the cleanup are good indicators of skilled brazing. For TIG welded frames small, evenly spaced "dimes" are signs of a skilled welder who takes pride in his/her work.

Here's an example of nicely brazed lugs on polished bare stainless steel. The shorelines are even without any braze void, and file marks from the cleanup have been polished out. The lug points are nicely thinned. Paint can cover up lots of sloppiness.

The frame was brazed by Dave Wages.







This is an example of nicely executed TIG welding. The frame was built by Ted Wojcik.



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Last edited by Scooper; 07-22-15 at 05:50 PM.
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Old 07-22-15, 05:53 PM
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Good - "Thick" lugs and shape is not elegant.




Better - Thinned lugs and symmetrical and a lovely taper





Best - Just wow

IMG_1240 by Joel Greenblatt, on Flickr
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Old 07-22-15, 06:09 PM
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I agree with Scooper. I think of geometry and the type of tubing used as being much more important than lug work/type.
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Old 07-22-15, 06:29 PM
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Originally Posted by exmechanic89
I agree with Scooper. I think of geometry and the type of tubing used as being much more important than lug work/type.
It's the whole package for me.

A purpose built frameset, which has been properly fitted to the rider, a tubeset chosen for the rider, beautiful lugwork and finally skillfully applied finishes make it all come alive for me.

Think Chris Bishop, Mark Dinucci, JP Weigle, Chris Kvale, Mitch Pryor, Curt Goodrich etc.

I happen to admire Chris Kvale's handiwork quite a bit.

[IMG]Untitled by gomango1849, on Flickr[/IMG]

[IMG]DSCN5870 by gomango1849, on Flickr[/IMG]

Curt Goodrich does nice work overall as well and I get to see his handiwork locally quite often.

[IMG]Untitled by gomango1849, on Flickr[/IMG]
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Old 07-22-15, 06:33 PM
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Originally Posted by gomango
It's the whole package for me.

A purpose built frameset, which has been properly fitted to the rider, a tubeset chosen for the rider, beautiful lugwork and finally skillfully applied finishes make it all come alive for me.

Think Chris Bishop, Mark Dinucci, JP Weigle, Chris Kvale, Mitch Pryor, Curt Goodrich etc.

I happen to admire Chris Kvale's handiwork quite a bit.

[IMG]Untitled by gomango1849, on Flickr[/IMG]

[IMG]DSCN5870 by gomango1849, on Flickr[/IMG]

Curt Goodrich does nice work overall as well and I get to see his handiwork locally quite often.

[IMG]Untitled by gomango1849, on Flickr[/IMG]
No argument from me.
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Old 07-22-15, 07:04 PM
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Old 07-22-15, 07:09 PM
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I think on mass produced bikes you have to go with reputation to a large degree.

I find it interesting is that my miyata, which has a rep for quality has realtively simple lugs.
My torpado super strada, which was not considered a super end italian, has nice lugs.
My nishiki has simple lugs, but when I stripped the paint the quality of he brazing was visible and really good.

Each rides differently, but well.

Someday i would like a full custom with beautiful lugwork as much as for the custom fit as for having a practical piece of usable art.
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Old 07-22-15, 08:25 PM
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Even though I've ridden 'massed-produced' lugged Japanese frames for over 40 years, I can still appreciate some of the artistry that some of the above pics depict. Would I prefer one to the latter? - hard to say since I don't get that opportunity with my limited budget. Which is really 'better'?

All I can say for certain is that I prefer lugged steel to non-lugged. I prefer component function over brand name 'status'. So where does that place me in the bike hierarchy? When it comes down to it, I don't give a rat's butt. Functionality/bang-for-the-buck wins.

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Old 07-22-15, 08:47 PM
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Some of the best.
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Old 07-22-15, 08:55 PM
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Old 07-22-15, 09:29 PM
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look carefully at the fork crown, dropouts, bottom bracket, brake bridge,
it is not hard to spot the frame with more attention to detail, if you look close enough
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Old 07-22-15, 09:47 PM
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Take a look at the pictures from any of the NAHBS shows.
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Old 07-22-15, 10:10 PM
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Originally Posted by JPeters
..... I've ridden a bunch of steel frames in the past year or so, and though I notice huge differences in how they feel to ride, superficially I can't tell what separates good steel construction from bad......
It is more than engineering. It is more than just the quality of the assembly of parts. Although just those two concerns can lead to the manufacture of some very nice bikes.

However great bicycles are made with an artistry and passion that sets them apart.
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Old 07-23-15, 07:23 AM
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Originally Posted by JPeters
So at a glance, how can you tell the craft, skill, and quality that a steel frame has been put together with? Is it something you can tell only by riding?
At a glance you can tell, as shown above, the appearance of quality (nice thinning, etc.) but not what Scooper correctly discusses, the all important ride. I have a Zurich that has such horrible TIG welding splatter that I dare not show a photo. One would need a 1/8" layer of paint to cover up the welds ,yet the 853 frame is a brilliant ride.
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Old 07-23-15, 07:23 AM
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A good craftsman does good work throughout the process. S/He does lots of good work that you will never see, all of which make a big difference. The finishing touches may not make any difference to the ride, but show you the quality of all the work.

Similarly, for example, if you compare the carving of the scroll of a really good violin with that of a cheap one, you'll know right away which is which. If you open both instruments up and look at the details you can't see from the outside, you'll see that one has good workmanship throughout, while the other has crummy workmanship throughout. Though the carving of the scroll has nothing to do with the sound of the instrument, you can be pretty sure the one with the well carved scroll will sound better.

Of course, with violins, you can tell a great deal about the quality of the wood just by looking at it; with bicycle tubing you can't do that. But you can learn a lot from tapping on the steel and listening carefully. Different steels sound different, and thin tubes sound different from thick ones. I'm not going to bother trying to describe the differences; try it for yourself, and you'll figure it out.
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Old 07-23-15, 07:34 AM
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Originally Posted by Dave Cutter
It is more than engineering. It is more than just the quality of the assembly of parts. Although just those two concerns can lead to the manufacture of some very nice bikes.

However great bicycles are made with an artistry and passion that sets them apart.
The geometry of the bike is what contributes to the ride quality. The lugs and welding are the outward sign of the artistry and skill of the builder.

Can you get great lugs on an crappy misaligned bike? Sure but it's unlikely. No good builder is going to put the time and effort into detailed lug work on a crappy frame.

Can you get a great riding bike that has mediocre lugs or welds? Certainly and this is more likely because a lot of shop do a budget priced custom steel frame that will be a great geometry, but less finished.

A top notch builder understands the final product is a total reflection of the entire process though and won't cut corners on geometry, assembly or paint.

Look at some of the work done by local build Tomii. This is excellent work in every respect.

tomii cycles

And if you go to see his shop, everything is in perfect order.
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Old 07-23-15, 07:37 AM
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Originally Posted by easyupbug
At a glance you can tell, as shown above, the appearance of quality (nice thinning, etc.) but not what Scooper correctly discusses, the all important ride. I have a Zurich that has such horrible TIG welding splatter that I dare not show a photo. One would need a 1/8" layer of paint to cover up the welds ,yet the 853 frame is a brilliant ride.
I had a Merckx Corsa Extra that was an embarassment. The brazing was shoddy at best and brazing gaps were quite evident in the bottom bracket shell and seat stays near the cluster. I really don't know how it passed inspection and made it to paint, but it did.

But I loved that bike anyway and it rode like a champ. I'm really not sure why, but it did.

Fwiw Many years ago as a teen I worked in a local bike shop for two years. I was a new bike builder and really had to crank them out. Most of the Dutch bikes we sold were solid, but the English Raleighs were sad at times. Some of the framesets were unsellable, as the lugwork was frightful.

Funny thing is none of those bikes ever came back and the customers were often thrilled to just get their hands on a bike. This was during the early 70s fuel shortage and so many turned to bikes.
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Old 07-23-15, 08:39 AM
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One important point the OP makes when quoting Sheldon Brown is "Many Cinelli frames show exquisite mitering..."

Observing the quality of tubing miters on a TIG welded frame is a lot easier than seeing how well the tubes are mitered when the lugs obscure the miters. Having good, tight miters is just as important to structural integrity in lugged frames as it is in welded frames, but in a production environment it's easy for the factory worker to cut sloppy miters in the interest of saving time. Unless the joint is cut apart, the end user would never know.

Here's an example of very sloppy top tube and down tube miters with large gaps concealed by the lugs in a production frame.



In contrast, this photo is from Cassave's thread in the BF Framebuilders forum showing how a lugged joint should be mitered. He says there's still some filing to do on this miter before it's ready to be brazed.

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Old 07-23-15, 08:44 AM
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I think that if you want to see bad lug work you need to look for early to mid 70's European bike boom products. They must have been having a high old time on the assembly line back then at Gitane, Peugeot, Bottecchia, Raleigh and some other brands. By the time the 80's rolled around and Japanese quality came into play you really didn't see too much sloppy work any more. And of course, by the end of the 80's & early 90's robots began to weld bike frames.
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Old 07-23-15, 09:05 AM
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I agree with most of what's already been said, so won't "pile on" except to say that I was at a local show some years back where Bernie Mikkelsen (Alameda-based framebuilder/fitter/fixer) had a slew of lug joints that were cut-through so you could see all the "dirty secrets" that paint and rosy glasses can hide.
He did this, we assume, using crashed frames that were headed to the scrap heap anyway, and he had examples from MANY of the major brands you could name and they had the original paint, decals, lug piercings and panto on the exteriors so you could see at a glance whose work they were.
THAT was a real eye-opener!
Which is what Bernie intended since he'd show a customer who might be gushing over the wonderful (fill-in-blank, oh say Colnago, for example) that he wanted Bernie to build him a frame as wonderful as. Bernie could show him "Ernesto's pride" cut open to show horrific craps-manship, then an identical specimen that Bernie had brazed and let the evidence speak for itself. I'm sure that clinched many custom frame orders. I wonder if he'll ever post all that stuff online someday...but maybe the Italians would send somebody to "visit" if he did joking, people, joking...
BUT, fantastic craftsmanship in and of itself does not a great RIDING bicycle make...it CAN sometimes justify the PRICE paid, however.
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Old 07-23-15, 09:12 AM
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Originally Posted by ramzilla
I think that if you want to see bad lug work you need to look for early to mid 70's European bike boom products. They must have been having a high old time on the assembly line back then at Gitane, Peugeot, Bottecchia, Raleigh and some other brands. By the time the 80's rolled around and Japanese quality came into play you really didn't see too much sloppy work any more. And of course, by the end of the 80's & early 90's robots began to weld bike frames.
The demand for product was so great in the 70s, people would accept what they could get.

Quality expectations were often cast adrift when I worked at the shop in the early 70s.

Customers were buying the bikes as fast as I could build them and sometimes they were even buying bikes that were clearly not their size.

We used to holler at the owner when he sold them that way, but it was his shop.

Interestingly, the shop closed after only three years in business.

We mainly sold Gitane, Peugeot, Batavus, Gazelle, Raleigh and whatever other small brands he could get his hands on.

Believe it or not, the Batavus and Gazelles were the predictably brands that were solid out of the boxes and crates.

The others were like rolling dice, you never knew what nonsense you had to fix.

I wish I had a dollar for every rear derailleur hanger I had to realign before I could build the bike.

Frame alignment was also a regular task and many were just too out of whack to correct.

I did the best I could before they would hit the showroom floor.
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Old 07-23-15, 09:16 AM
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Originally Posted by unworthy1
BUT, fantastic craftsmanship in and of itself does not a great RIDING bicycle make...it CAN sometimes justify the PRICE paid, however.
Precisely why I will stick with my Kvales at this point.

He builds a sweet riding frameset that just happens to look fantastic. imho

FWIW The Twin Cities are loaded with custom builders that check all of these boxes for me. Makes little sense to go elsewhere when there is so much local talent.
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Old 07-23-15, 09:18 AM
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The only bike shown above that I think you can visually verify its build quality is Scooper's Waterford.
No Paint. If it was overheated it is a son of a B to remove the burned evidence.
Paint can hide a multitude of sins.
One can look inside the bottom bracket shell on a painted bike and get some sense as to how its built, but any strategic frame builder knows folk often look there.
To KNOW it needs to be bare and that is not full proof.
Beyond that its reputation. Hard earned, but easily fudged.

Note that SOUND construction does not necessarily equal a fussed with finish metalwork.
Best example of this are numerous French bikes, Files? Surely you are joking.
Extra brass, but having taken a few apart post crash, the bare frame often showed no overheating, the torch man got in, flowed the brass (often overflowed) complete penetration and got out.
Strong, short duration probably of heat most likely (think production environment), on to the next.
I will take that over a guy who takes 25 minutes to braze one lug, overworks it to get a pretty fill of braze, cooks the flux while he is at it.

Bike design is a separate issue to me.
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