Sunday, December 4, 2011

Lugged Steel Fixed Gear Commuter Bicycle: Riding, Reading, and Reflecting on the Path to Enlightenment

Is this the beginning, middle, or end of a journey?

It's Books and Bikes Week here on OSG. This is the final post in the series.

In the post where I talked about the book Lugged Bicycle Frame Construction, a Manual for the First Time Builder, by Marc-Andre R. Chimonas, (Expanded Second Edition), I think I sounded enthusiastic and optimistic about the idea of brazing up a lugged steel bicycle frame of my own. Acknowledging that it would be a challenging project, before I actually read the the whole book mind you, I felt cautiously confident. Now though, after finishing the book, I have to say my confidence has been shattered. And I mean that in a good way. 

Before I read the book, I was pretty ignorant at a detailed level of the processes and tools used to make a lugged steel bicycle frame using a MAPP torch and silver brazing rods. After reading LBFC,AMFTFTB, though, my ignorance has been replaced with knowledge, and my enthusiasm for jumping in and making one myself replaced by respect for people who are skilled at this technique of bicycle frame fabrication. This doesn't mean that I won't try it myself. Still digesting that concept now that it has been flavored with the sauce of knowledge. 

My first lugged steel fixed gear commuter bicycle

This book helped correct the error I had made of over-simplifying the process of building a lugged bicycle frame. Which is, to me, one of the best kinds of learning experiences, that of gaining new knowledge which corrects existing errors in my thinking. When my ideas are patently incorrect in some way, I want to correct them. And I am extremely appreciative of a book which makes that happen. LBFC,AMFTFTB also resolved the tunnel vision view I had about it, that it was mainly steel tube cutting and brazing, broadening it into a more complete understanding of what's actually involved: planning, jig making, measuring, cutting and mitering, cleaning, fluxing, brazing, cleaning again, drilling, cutting, reaming, tapping, facing, chasing, painting, testing and possibly breaking, rebrazing, and final painting, all these operations are required to be done to create the triangle plus quadrilateral of a bicycle frame. Each of the operations requires skill and care, and several of them if done incorrectly can screw up the whole project.

Holiday decorations, Arizona-style

In addition to broadening my understanding of basic lugged frame construction, LBFC,AMFTFTB also gave me greater appreciation for some components of frames that I had little or no understanding of before. Seat stay caps, for instance. Brake bridges and chain stay braces, for another. Calculating and mitering steel tubes which meet other steel tubes at interesting angles inside of lugs, for yet another. Ovalized tubes. Bending chain stays to handle fatter tires. And several others. Above all, it caused me to take another look at the lugged steel frame fixed gear commuter bike I already have, and ask: isn't that enough?

Why worry about the horses' spouting water, when they are delightful to look at?

It may be. For my uses, commuting and riding around looking at art and people, buying books, riding for coffee, running the occasional errand, this machine seems to work very well. I am curiously happy with the 52x18 gearing: run what you brung, I suppose. As picky as I am about handlebars and stems, the ones that I got with this bike seem perfect for me. Once I got the right sized seat post, and sorted out the bottom bracket and chain line, it rides quiet, smooth, and comfortable. So why even contemplate brazing up a lugged steel frame on my own? Am I nuts?

Today is the middle of the journey to tomorrow

Allow me to quote Marc-Andre from Chapter 20, at the end of LBFC,AMFTFTB, by way of explanation, because I found this profound and inspiring: "Currently we live in a consumer society with mass-produced goods that are made as cheaply as possible and built to be replaced and not repaired. Many people have become intimidated by the idea of actually building something 'from scratch' like a bicycle frame. They often wonder why they should put forth the time and effort to actually make something themselves when they can buy it from a store. Once they actually put forth the time and effort to create something with their hands, however, they often find the whole process extremely rewarding (I know I did). By fabricating his own bicycle frame, a person creates a type of folk art and becomes more than just a consumer." -LBFC,AMFTFTB   

That makes sense to me. It feels right. Like commuting on a re-purposed lugged steel road bike from 1973, in a way. Except possibly more. Who cares if you spend 100 hours on all the operations listed above to fabricate a lugged steel bicycle frame yourself, only to discover through iterative load testing, also known as "crashing is a hard way to find out you suck at brazing lugs," that you have to remove all the components off the Thing You Made, scour off some of the paint you put on yourself, and go all the way back to re-read the early chapter in the book about fluxing and brazing? It's a journey, a learning experience of gaining knowledge, correcting errors and mistakes, and refining your abilities. Nobody said the path to enlightenment would be an easy ride. But with a MAPP torch in one hand and a silver brazing rod in the other, it seems like it would be my path to ride down, my destination to find and define. I love that idea.



  1. Do it.
    You know you want to.

    Oh and I think we're all still waiting for them horsey thingys to spout water.
    Let me send you some rain.

  2. I am on the same journey to building a frame. I have been trying my hand at small repairs with the torch, dropouts and such, hoping to eventually gain enough skill and confidence to dive into the deep end. Good luck with your journey.

    I like your commuter, btw.

  3. Building a frame is only one short step from building your own house. Yourself.

  4. limom, you enable me! In a good way. I think. Maybe. Horsey spouts: pumps have been installed, and I took photos of the pump installation and pumps, but they look like...pumps. Although I may still do a late-night monsoon run to catch them in the act, I'm pinning my hopes on some sort of demonstration by SPA... :)

    Jon, hello, the more I think about it, the more I want to try to take a class or find a mentor to practice frame building with. For if it is possible (and it is) to build a paint a frame yourself and then have it fail catastrophically after it's all assembled, I would figure out how to do that, so instead maybe I could make lots of little mistakes and have an expert correct me along the way...I dunno.

    Steve A, yes! Except with less lifting. I have built small structures and done cement work, so I have respect for skilled constructors. Bicycle frame building is more micro-scaled, though, nearer to my preference I think.

  5. If I was you, I'd go check out someone like Steve Garro of Coconino or some other "local" builder.
    If only for a day, I bet you could pick up a lot!
    Or find "Welding Skills" by Moniz and Miller, I used it college and we use it in school.
    Brazing is only one chapter but it covers everything and you'll get interested in TIG anyways.
    I still have some reservations about using MAPP, seems to me after a while it'll seem slow to you and you'll want an oxy-acetylene rig.
    Victor makes a tiny portable set for under $500, though I'm not sure how long the tanks will last, especially if you're just practicing and fooling around.
    From what I know, and it ain't much, you don't have a lot of options with MAPP, ie turn on and go.
    At least with O-A, there are different torch tips and by messing with the gas mixture you can regulate the heat.
    Which IMO, is what gas welding/brazing is all about.
    Boy, I want to have a go at this, but right now, I got other fish to well, fish for.

  6. limom those sound like very good ideas, thanks. I read most every post of Garro's, and looking at his work, it would be like Fred Flintstone (moi) watching Michelangelo at work. It takes a lifetime to get that good, and that precise. So you're saying I should just pop for the O-A and go get some OX Platinum tubes and give it a go, though? I like options! And in terms of wasting thousands of dollars to learn how to do something, it may help to know that I was into RC Helicopters for some time.

  7. I myself was thinking of getting the cheapest tubes and lugs I could find and practicing on them.
    You can cut the tubes in half and work the thicker end sections and if anything you'll be making some nice screwdriver holders.
    Might be good to find an old lugged frame to use as a test vehicle for smaller parts like your braze ons and such.
    Could be the MAPP works out, if not seek out the O-A goodness.
    I figure once I get the brazing down, I'd start on the jig.
    Checked out any 80/20 homebrew designs yet?
    Oh and far as finish and detail goes, and seeing folks like Garro, remember with brazing you have a wider margin of error, you just need to file more than the good guys.
    I figure on burning out a Dremel or two.
    If you know what I mean.


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