Frames of Mind
Most two-wheelers in the city are produced in China and Taiwan where labor isn’t much of a cost and factories are a dime a dozen. Like many manufactured goods, bikes are made faster and cheaper abroad.
However, there are a handful of bicycle-frame builders toiling away in warehouses, home garages, and tiny workshops making handcrafted bikes of all shapes and sizes that can take the brunt of the rough city streets, yet look like an artisan product.
Despite competing with big brand names and manufacturing in an expensive city, there's a small subset of these builders making it happen, one pedal-driven vehicle at a time.
San Francisco, meet your local bike builders.
Andrew Low was born a builder. As a kid, he spent hours building things in his mind. His passion for making things continued during and after college, where he majored in fine art, built Jeep roll cages, and worked in construction.
Three years ago, Andrew set out to create his dream ride – an aluminum fixed gear bike with oversized tubes. People told him it was impossible; the costs are too high and the welding too difficult. However, his instructor and mentor, Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster Bicycles in Santa Cruz, encouraged him to do it.
“When you're a small company you start with steel – but Paul was the first person that told me it's not that big a deal to start with aluminum,” Andrew tells me. “I had to be more patient to make it happen. If I wanted to do a steel bike, I could have been up and running in a year."
Instead, Andrew took his time to acquire his materials and learn the craft. He started working out of CELLspace, a communal art studio and workshop space in the Mission. In his first year he slowly acquired all the right tools and machinery. After that, he practiced welding bikes every night. He didn’t start building frames until his third year, when he went to the United Bicycle Institute in Ashland, Oregon, to solidify his skills. It was only in the last six months of his courses that he actually started building.
Nowadays he hand-makes aluminum track frames in a 516-square-foot workshop in the Mission with walls decked out in colorful Low decals and racing stripes. He produces two models, the Pursuit (a lightweight frame with a low front end profile, made for shorter, faster sprints) and Track Standard (a more stable, more versatile frame, made for long distance riding). Bike messengers (like the folks from TCB Courier) and track racers can be seen riding his work around town.
The appeal of Low frames is the speed. "My bikes have a steep, forward-facing geometry, which gives a much different ride,” Andrew explains. “You're really over the front wheel, which changes the way you pedal. It's not as comfortable, but it allows you to crank hard. I build bikes that make you want to go fast."
Rafi Ajl is a design school dropout. In 2009, he left his master’s program in landscape architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design because he wanted to be doing something with his hands. So he moved back to SF, found tools and a garage workshop off Craigslist, and decided to jump headfirst into his longtime passion: steel bicycles. One year and 15 bikes later, the self-taught bike builder is proud to make custom rides of all shapes and sizes.
Rafi starts creating after having “a visual dialogue” with a client. The customer sends him pictures of what he wants – whether it’s a road bike, track bike, a mountain bike, or a town cruiser. From there, the client gets fitted, and they trade ideas on structural details, and paint colors. Once the frame is built, Rafi helps the customer pick out parts that top off the bike.
Although he puts pride on communicating his customer’s desires, Rafi also brings his design aesthetic to the mix. Inspired by industrial designer Dieter Rams, who once said, “Good design is as little design as possible,” Rafi brings his architecture background to build functional modern and minimal bikes. Says Rafi: “It’s not easy, but it’s a goal.”
Dan Nelson of NTP Bikes moved into his Bayview workshop seven years ago after transitioning careers from a special effects person in the film business to a custom bike builder.
“The film work slowed down a bit, so I was riding bikes at the time, and Laurie [his wife] found the United Bicycle Institute and suggested I take a class,” he recounts. After a two-week titanium welding class, he started building bikes, one at a time. His count so far: 73 titanium bikes, about 10 bikes for each year of his career.
Although he crafts all types of frames from road to commuter bicycles, mountain bikes are Dan’s biggest passion. When he’s not busy building, he can be found racing mountain bikes (and he’s got plenty of medals in his office to show for it) or fixing customers’ bikes, since they all come with a lifetime warranty.
Dan doesn’t plan on expanding his one-person operation, where he can carefully craft his bicycles one at a time. “I don't have this vision of being a big name thing,” he says. “I want people to know that I build for the love of the craft and creating a customized product. As soon as you’re a big company, you’re designing for yourself instead of what the customer needs.”
Unlike Andrew, Rafi, and Dan who are newer to the scene, Tom Schoeniger has been working on bikes since the late ’80s, when he apprenticed with Ibis and Salsa Cycles – some of the first handcrafted bike companies in the Bay Area. His more than 20-year love affair with metal goes beyond bikes – he’s built airplanes and is an instructor of industrial design at the Academy of Art University.
Immersed in teaching, Tom took a six-year hiatus from bike building until 2006 when a few of his students egged him on to teach a summer school class on bike building at the Academy. The summer course reignited his passion, so he started 4130 Inc., a line of custom steel bicycles named after the American Iron & Steel Institute’s code for the chemical compound of steel.
Tom set up a workshop in the garage of his Palo Alto home, created a website, and started making bikes. One of his first customers was local tattoo artist Mike Giant, with whom he bartered custom bikes in exchange for getting inked.
Tom builds a variety of custom bikes, but the Dutch bike is where his passion lies: classic steel bicycles with leather grips, Brooks saddles, and front baskets for holding groceries or a six-pack of beer.
“I love the upright style, with leather, wood, and nice paint,” he says. Tom finishes off his bikes with custom colors mixed in the Academy of Art’s paint room.
Although Tom currently builds most bikes in his Palo Alto garage, he plans to move back to San Francisco to build his bikes with more of an art twist – collaborations with local artists, and shows in galleries rather than bike shops.
Make the bike you’ve always wanted. Raphael Cycles, NTP Bikes, 4130 Inc., will help you build one fit perfectly to your body, so send them an email to inquire about fittings and prices.
Prices start out with just the frame, but the bike builders can also help you select parts for a full build-out. Low Bicycles sells only the frame and fork in specific sizes.
Bicycles take about 1–8 months, depending on the waitlist. After all, good things take time.
Aluminum track bikes
Price | Starts at $945 for a frame and fork
Check him out at Freewheel Bike Shop (Hayes Street) or lowbicycles.com
Custom steel bicycle frames
Price | Starts at $1,250 for a frame, fork, and paint, full build-out available
More at raphaelcycles.com
Mountain bikes and custom titanium bikes
Price | Starts at $2,000 for a frame, full build-out available
More at ntpbikes.com
Dutch/townie bikes and custom steel bicycles
Price | Starts at $2,000 for a frame
More at 4130inc.com