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Frame building as a business

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Frame building as a business

Old 10-03-12, 11:55 AM
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Syscrush
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Frame building as a business

Hello, folks.

A bit of mechanical background about me: I've been working on cars and motorcycles since I was 14, and I'm competent with a wrench. I've also done a bit of fabrication (fiberglass, brazing, and wire-welding, plus machine shop in school), and painting. I'm not great with metal, but I enjoy it and would like to do more of it. I'm pretty handy with wood (made most of my own furniture), and like doing fussy/careful work and doing it correctly.

And a bit of professional background: I'm a fairly senior software architect type in his early 40's doing independent consulting work for big banks (not as lucrative as it sounds), and I'm sick of it. I am going to make a big professional change hopefully sometime within the next year and I am exploring a lot of options about just what to do.

Trying to get into bicycle fabrication is the option that's farthest from my comfort zone, but I am considering it seriously. For reference, some of the other options I'm considering would involve spending a year or more at school - which means significant monetary and time investment, plus the opportunity cost of losing a year+ of salary.


Now, I'm not a great cyclist, not an experienced bicycle mechanic, and not an expert welder/fabricator. However, I have a lot of love for cycling, for all things mechanical, and have wanted to become an expert welder/fabricator since my teens.

I live in Toronto, which has a remarkably rich and varied bike culture. Despite having a remarkable proliferation of bike shops, it seems that there are no full-time frame builders operating in the city. To me, that implies that one of the following is true:
  1. There is a significant niche for custom building here, and it's wide-open.
  2. It's impossible to keep a frame building business in operation in Toronto.


On one hand, I know that people are willing to deal with builders at significant distances to get what they want, and there is at least one well-regarded frame builder within ~100km. On the other hand, I know that around here there are a lot of cyclists living a car-free lifestyle (including me), who would be inclined to give business to a shop that they can cycle to or that's easily accessible by transit.


As I look into other options (teaching, MBA/mgmt, journalism/writing, my own software business), I can't shake the idea of going to a good frame building school, getting a jig, torch, and collection of files, and setting up shop in a small space in the Junction somewhere.

I would have no expectations of putting out a shingle and having customers line up - my intent would be to just start building as many lugged steel frames as I can at the most common sizes and sell them on ebay or etsy, or on consignment with a local bike shop. I would expect to lose money doing this for a while as I practice and hone my skills to the point where I could move up to higher end bespoke building and figure out a specialization that would let me differentiate my products from other builders. My intention would be to stay focused on frame design and builds, and team up with a good mechanic for fitting and tuning everything else.


My questions:
  1. Are there full-time frame builders in Toronto that I'm not aware of? I don't see any since Mariposa closed.
  2. Why are there so few builders in Toronto? Does it all come down to high rent and taxes?
  3. Is it plausible to think that someone with my background and skills could make a go of it in a one-man operation like I describe?
  4. Do frame builders have to carry any specific liability insurance?
  5. What do you see as the pros and cons of taking this route? Here's how it looks to me:

Pros:
  1. Working with metal and fire is rewarding.
  2. People buying bikes are excited and happy, custom bikes even moreso.
  3. Opportunity for some artistic/design expression.
  4. Chance to do at least a bit of engineering (in addition to being a hobby mechanic, I studied physics).
  5. Radical career change. Life change, really.
  6. Spending my days mediating on bikes and bike-related stuff would be good for my soul.

Cons:
  1. Non-trivial startup costs.
  2. Rent & utilities must be paid every month, regardless of customer demand.
  3. Seasonal/whimsical demand.
  4. Customer excitement and happiness dampened by what you have to charge to pay the rent selling hand-built frames.
  5. Spending my days in a small shop by myself could be bad for my brain. Lot of opportunity for cabin fever.


Any info, advice, or insight would be much appreciated.

Thanks.
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Old 10-03-12, 12:37 PM
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I can't speak from experience on the economic feasibility of your plan, but as someone who lives in the GTA I hope you succeed at this. Be sure to post on here if you eventually get to the point where you want to expand and hire a few people.
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Old 10-03-12, 02:45 PM
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If you have never built a frame, I really think you are getting ahead of yourself. However, to address the most important question, framebuilding is either a part time job, subsistence living or something you do while your S.O. keeps the household afloat. Unless you are a natural, you aren't going to get from nowhere to thriving in a reasonable amount of time. The insurance question has been beaten to death, but I think you owe it to your customers to carry liability insurance. And you owe it to yourself to figure out how to carry that insurance for the lifetime of those frames. There would be a lot more part-timers if it weren't for insurance.

The bottom line is that every one man business comes with a full-time position in sales. Is that how you want to support yourself? Furthermore, making a frame in a reasonable amount of time is something that takes practice. So you're wasting time coming and going.

Last edited by unterhausen; 10-03-12 at 02:52 PM.
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Old 10-03-12, 03:07 PM
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There is a niche market for hand-made frames but how "significant" that market might be is up for interpretation. My experience: don't expect to get rich, and don't give up your day job unless and until you've determined that the niche market can support you (and your family, if any). But since you're in Canada, at least you won't have to worry about buying health insurance on the private market.
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Old 10-03-12, 03:16 PM
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To have any realistic chance you need:
Another source of income
A bike shop to support the framebuilding
To be able to build a bike a day

If you don't have at least 2 of those there's little chance of survival.
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Old 10-03-12, 04:32 PM
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Mike Barry (of Mariposa) said as an advice to up & coming frame builders that "there is no money in it". It's a tough business, and it's even harder in a high cost-of-living city like Toronto. That might explain why there aren't any builders. Biseagal is the closest thing to a custom builder but he also runs a shop and the output is low, as far as I know.

Try to do some math. An experienced builder can build say 100-150 frames a year? There is at least $350 of materials and basic powdercoat in a frame, rent is expensive (unless you work at home), tooling up an efficient shop can easily add up to 20k, plus comsumables, insurance, etc. And since your are starting from scratch you need education and/or practice time...

PS. check this thread

Last edited by tuz; 10-03-12 at 04:37 PM.
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Old 10-03-12, 06:38 PM
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Originally Posted by Ride916 View Post
To have any realistic chance you need:
To be able to build a bike a day
more importantly, you need to be able to sell that frame. If I had to, I could build a frame in a day. It would be hard to build a frame every day because you have to spend time finding parts, waiting for parts, etc. But selling that many would be pretty much impossible for anyone that doesn't have a large and vocal client base.
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Old 10-03-12, 07:52 PM
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I'm by no means even an amateur in this subject. But I used to be an airline pilot, and I'd frequently see people in your situation that either made a career change or were considering it. The salient qualification for their happiness in their career change seemed to be how much money they had upon entering the career. I worked with a retired NYPD Captain and he seemed to be fine with his lot ($17,000 a year salary + his pension which was close to 6 figures), same with an ex wall street guy. The other people that were in their 40s and left only average jobs seemed to be miserable. It always seemed like they would probably be happier by staying in their old job and doing some sort of professional flying on the weekend, flight instructing, banner towing, glider towing, VFR charters, etc.

I'd propose the same thing for you. Why not work as a software engineer on a contract basis, scale your life back as much as possible (get rid of anything like a car that requires a monthly payment) drive an old beat up civic maybe move to a cheaper house (with a nice workspace) etc. And work on the frame business in your free time. There's so many venues you can advertise in these days, and if you're not relying on the frame building to pay the mortgage you can scale up slowly. In a city like Toronto there must be tons of farmers markets and first friday type art walks that you could set a booth up with your wares, combine that with a website and you're in business.

Good luck.
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Old 10-04-12, 04:38 AM
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We are in the age of the "Gentleman Builder."
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Old 10-04-12, 05:53 AM
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I don't quite understand why a person who may be scrabbling to survive on about 24-30 grand per year (which is typical for many jobs) to suddenly have to be making a frame a day and pulling in a quarter million in sales, if not profits.
Why does a feasible business have to be so much more lucrative than your average menial dead end job?
True North is not in Toronto(Guelph) but I think Hugh makes about 100 frames a year, not "one a day".
I think it would be hard to jump in and compete with someone like that who is established and has likely already cornered the niche steel market in Ontario.
Mike Barry saying that there is no money in it begs the question as to how he managed to retire.
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Old 10-04-12, 07:21 AM
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Being able to build a (basic) frame a day would demonstrate you have some experience and probably know what you are doing. As was said it would free up time to run a business. Keeping inventory, customer interaction, marketing, etc...

Any business or job should be lucrative enough to keep you and your family comfortable. For a small family in Toronto, that would mean at least a 60k income. I doesn't seems like the OP has a "menial dead-end" job he's trying to escape from?

Originally Posted by Canaboo View Post
...
Mike Barry saying that there is no money in it begs the question as to how he managed to retire.
You'd have to ask him. For one thing Mr. Barry ran a bike shop for most of his 30 year career.
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Old 10-04-12, 07:33 AM
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Originally Posted by Canaboo View Post
I don't quite understand why a person who may be scrabbling to survive on about 24-30 grand per year (which is typical for many jobs) to suddenly have to be making a frame a day and pulling in a quarter million in sales, if not profits.
you don't, and I took him out of context so it's my fault. But I'm pretty sure it looks a lot easier to make 24k a year than it actually is.
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Old 10-04-12, 08:00 AM
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This can't be said enough:

Originally Posted by unterhausen View Post
The bottom line is that every one man business comes with a full-time position in sales..
It sounds like you're approaching this in a pragmatic manner, but most of your questions are about things you can only know after you've built for awhile.
Make 20 frames and you'll have your answers.

Last edited by Live Wire; 10-04-12 at 08:49 AM.
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Old 10-04-12, 10:07 AM
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Originally Posted by Canaboo View Post
Mike Barry saying that there is no money in it begs the question as to how he managed to retire.
Maybe he couldn't afford not to retire?
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Old 10-04-12, 11:16 AM
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there is another similar thread......you may want to take a look at

https://www.bikeforums.net/showthread...-effective-way
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Old 10-04-12, 11:32 AM
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Lots of great posts in here, I really appreciate it. I've got a lot to think about.
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Old 10-04-12, 11:44 AM
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Incidentally, are there any other shops in Ontario with a similar profile to True North? I have some friends who've had bikes custom made by Hugh and have heard nothing but awesome stuff. I loved the looks of the Mariposa bikes when they were going, but that's been done for a few years now.

It seems to me that a new Toronto shop that could not compete with True North on quality/brand/reputation/price would have basically 3 ways to compete:
  1. Shorter wait
  2. More convenient location for anyone east of Mississauga.
  3. Very unique niche (exotic/odd materials, construction technique, design, etc.) not addressed by True North.

None of those is an easy road, though. If someone's willing to spend $2-3k on a custom-made frameset, they're generally willing to wait to have it made by the person who has built a reputation for excellent quality and customer service.
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Old 10-04-12, 02:53 PM
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A Trust Fund would be very useful.

now if it were a sideline for an already functioning Machine and welding fabrication shop,

rather than, or in addition to, as said a bike shop, that would help too..

so fixing Skidoos and such through out the year will help pay the bills ..
as the heavy machine tools , lathes and drill presses and such, don't come cheap
then you need a lot of other jigs and fixtures..

Schadenfreude, at failed machine shops for that stuff [or estate auctions]

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Old 10-04-12, 04:33 PM
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Originally Posted by Syscrush View Post
Hello, folks.
I think someone will say to the effect;
0) From day one; Work on your frame building related skills and start practicing (a lot). Some of the tube and lug sellers offer "practice kits" consisting of some length of tube and a few random lugs for about $20-30. These are a great investment (recommend buying several kits). Somewhere earlier in this forum was posted a list of companies that sell tubing and bits -- hit those sites for the kits as well as expanding your knowledge of materials and tools available.
1) If one has a paying job now, keep it. It is an ugly world out there today. Lots of guys with degrees work at McDonald's for minimum wage (and no offense to the double Arches intended)
2) Keep the day job and pursue your frame building hobby in the evenings and weekends.
3) IF the hobby eventually becomes so profitable and fullfilling that it demands that you make it a full time profession, then do it - at that time or a bit later!
4) Find a MBA degreed friend and get their assistance on developing a "business plan". When you get it done, you may be glad you didn't give up the day job! Just from a business standpoint, starting up and surviving is very tough to succeed at.
5) Determine what your frame building vision really is... basically assuming that you can develop the skills needed to make a good frame and can finance the effort somehow; Then what are you going to do within that frame building market space that will really distinguish your product from frames built by others? What is going to drag well heeled folks to your shop AND compell them to open the check book?

Hope this helps
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Old 10-04-12, 07:09 PM
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Originally Posted by Syscrush View Post
Incidentally, are there any other shops in Ontario with a similar profile to True North? I have some friends who've had bikes custom made by Hugh and have heard nothing but awesome stuff. I loved the looks of the Mariposa bikes when they were going, but that's been done for a few years now.

It seems to me that a new Toronto shop that could not compete with True North on quality/brand/reputation/price would have basically 3 ways to compete:
  1. Shorter wait
  2. More convenient location for anyone east of Mississauga.
  3. Very unique niche (exotic/odd materials, construction technique, design, etc.) not addressed by True North.

None of those is an easy road, though. If someone's willing to spend $2-3k on a custom-made frameset, they're generally willing to wait to have it made by the person who has built a reputation for excellent quality and customer service.
This bike was made in Toronto from exotic materials and techniques and was "given away".
People in Toronto aren't particularly interested in exotic stuff, nor do they seem eager to spend money on it if they are.
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Old 10-05-12, 02:40 AM
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Originally Posted by Syscrush View Post
My questions:
  1. Are there full-time frame builders in Toronto that I'm not aware of? I don't see any since Mariposa closed.
  2. Why are there so few builders in Toronto? Does it all come down to high rent and taxes?
  3. Is it plausible to think that someone with my background and skills could make a go of it in a one-man operation like I describe?
  4. Do frame builders have to carry any specific liability insurance?
  5. What do you see as the pros and cons of taking this route? Here's how it looks to me:

Hard to answer these in place due to the formating.

So here goes, you can figure out what numbers they apply to.

1)I don't know that maripose was full time. They were a bike shop, and one of their products was frames. The frames were not all made by Barry. I drove by there once, and there were some young guys wielding the torch. Perfectly rational approach, but not a Sachsian enterprise. Urbane has an inhouse builder, but I have never heard of any of the bikes. But I have seen them working on proposals.

2) It does come down to high rent and taxes in part, though these days there would probably by issues about that kind of business in a lot of retail like places. There are some very nasty things happening in a frame shop that were probably OK in the Sixties but might be hard to justify. But as others have said, the gentleman builder model makes the money issues less a big deal. However, for others it is tough.

3) Possible but not likely you would make a go of it. As a business you have to make sales, so the main issue is how do you get your frames in front of people and get them to buy. Some people can sell a hundred frames in the first week of their going into business. Other people can't sell one. As Gerry McCaughy said to me, he runs one of those banks, they have no idea how to choose a person who will become a successful account executive, and those who do, do it their own way, there is no one way. You either are or you aren't. Since custom bike building at the highest artisinal level is barely a business that makes it harder. Many of the great builders, were not one man bands.

4) I don't think you have to carry insurance in Canada. There is no law saying you must. Unlike the US we have healrh care so the whole lawsuit thing is less an issue. But if someone gets horribly hurt, there are reasons to come after the cause of that misfortune. So you best way to be is to not have any assets if you own a big honking house in Rosedale, etc... you are an atractive target. A few suppliers will not deal with you if you do not have insurance, as a requirement of their insurance. So there is that. You can count on the insurance not being there for you if something serious happens. You will have to sue, and it will take 5 years.

Pros

1) It is rewarding because you don't do it. To deserve this kind of career it has to come to a point where you do it without thinking. Not exciting, fresh, challenging, etc... any more. Some people love that, but you could make both sides of that argument on computing also, and you know how that is turning up.

2) The excitement of customers is what is known as time wasters and tire kickers. Yes, there willl be rewarding customers, but the will be 1/100, there will be some solid ones and an ocean of time wasters. This is one reason to be a little remote.

3) There is certainly a chance of artisitic expression, but you will be under a lot of time pressure, and for the most part you will not have the time to do radically different things every time. Many of the successful builders seem to put a lot of effort into their overall brand, but as a result the individual bikes follow some sort of common pattern. This could be even moreso, in some regard, with lugs, though lugs are a canvas of sorts for some.

4) That would be cool, though for the most part bikes are patterned, not engineered. Like you I enjoy working through those angles.

Cons

1)The start up costs in gear are pretty trivial, but the bridge finance aspect of it is not.

2) I think it is nearly impossible to make it if you can't work out of your house for a while.

3) Yeah, the fact it gets so cold here once a year is an issue. Easier in say Victoria. And the place you decide to do this is really important. I tend to think at this point if Toronto were going to be Portland, it would have happened. When Mariposa was starting there were hand crafts being sold the length of yonge street from bloor on down. Candles, leather, etc... from street vendors. People were selling peeny farthing t-shirts, and cycling was the hot sport.

4) Prices are too low, and part of the thing is you have to be able to have people see the value. Some people just sell high end stuff like that was nothing. If that isn't you, it is a problem. What you referred to as bike culture, is to many people in TO hobo culture, you need to have the ability to reach the kind of people who buy expensive bikes because they couldn't afford Mariposa in the 70s when they were kids. That is me, though I make my own. Back in the 70s bikes were cool, then it moves on. What is cool now is not in all cases the kind of thing that leads to high end sales.

5) I have done lots of handwork over the years including piece work. Some people really are not cut out for it. It is a grind in some part for most people. If you make a list of all the steps in making a frame, which ones are the ones you see yourself doing? A great deal of it is dirty repetitive work, with the time spent with a torch in your hands being just one part. But you have to push through the stuff you don't like if it is your job. One of the things Psych torture relies on is the idea that it is harder to resist the pain that you inflict on yourself. In the same vein, it seems to be relatively easy for many people to do a boring job for money. But it may be hard if you are the one making you do it.
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Old 10-05-12, 02:50 AM
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Originally Posted by Canaboo View Post
.Mike Barry saying that there is no money in it begs the question as to how he managed to retire.
Maybe his wife was a teacher. Two other things 1) he ran a great bike store, for many years. He may have made money doing that. The custom bikes were something that added to the shop, and to the whole scene in Toronto at the time. Keeping in mind that at that time, lugged racing and touring machines were state of the art. 2) while I have no knowledge of his situation, BS was located on King street east of the core, and that whole block had many industrial shops on it. There was a 6 story machine supply store there. If you owned your place, you were able to sell out for millions when they assembled the properties on that block. The machine shop moved to north toronto where it is almost impossible to do a deal, because the guy who owns it enjoys talking, and negotiating... Bs also moved out of town at the time, but whether it was due to a pay-out or displacement, I have no knowledge. I'm just sorry it is all over. Barry's son (and daughter in law) is a distinguised pro cyclist, so that is how deep the cycling runs in that family. It is easier to draw customers to a guy who has that kind of position in the comunity. Not the only way at all, but it is that extra thing that lends credibility.
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Old 10-05-12, 05:50 AM
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Originally Posted by MassiveD View Post

4) I don't think you have to carry insurance in Canada. There is no law saying you must. Unlike the US we have healrh care so the whole lawsuit thing is less an issue.
I disagree.

Your legal system is derived from Westminster so you will have the doctrine of joint and several liability in all cases where it has not been removed by legislative fiat. You'd be mad not to carry liability insurance.

I live in Australia, the country with what is possibly the world's best public health system (which, BTW, saved my life last year) and I am actively looking for liability insurance.
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Old 10-05-12, 09:09 AM
  #24  
ksisler
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Originally Posted by Mark Kelly View Post
I disagree.

Your legal system is derived from Westminster so you will have the doctrine of joint and several liability in all cases where it has not been removed by legislative fiat. You'd be mad not to carry liability insurance.
I think the spell checker made 'severable' into 'several' liability...
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Old 10-05-12, 03:22 PM
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That is just theory. Local jurisdictions can limit liability, or lower it's costs. The insurance market can also vary greatly. The fact you are liable is a different issue from what you should do about it. But he may have simply been asking the question of whether it is mandatory, and to that I think the answer is no. Oz is a lot more namby than Canada. You can get away with all sorts of stuff here, like rules regarding trailering boats, or owning guns etc... You have a big nanny state.
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