Saturday, March 8, 2014

Inspired by Beauty: The Aesthetics of Work

Portland Design Works Big Silver pump: thoughts on beautiful tools

It ought to be possible, I thought while pondering the mechanics of pumping up a bicycle tire, to put together an assembly such that by slowly raising a suitable heavy weight, a car, for example, by means of a slow-operating mechanical advantage like a large block and tackle or else a combination of a pump jack and stands, to raise the weight by human power alone to a sufficient height so that its controlled descent could inflate a high-pressure bicycle tire via a very fat pump cylinder and perhaps a pressure control valve with a single stroke. There's no practical reason for doing this, certainly, but still, a human might just undertake such an exercise because it would be beautiful in a certain understanding of the term to inflate a bicycle tire that way, and because as humans we are capable both of imagining such things and also doing them.

It must be similar to my early obsession with the fabled One Match Campfire back when I hiked and camped a lot more than I do currently. This particular obsession arose in my head out of a desire to achieve what seemed like the most aesthetically pleasing camp fire setup: engineer a stack of flammable stuff such that it would only require one match to ignite a veritable blazing bonfire visible potentially from space, using no accelerants, and only with materials gathered from nearby the campsite along with a knife and one match. I not only accomplished this in a fire-and-forget hands-off manner, but did so alone, on a summer evening when monsoon-powered gusts of wind seemed intent on keeping me from success, on the first try, and such that the resulting blaze served as a guide in the darkness to help my companions locate me. 

With a small pit, and some stones from nearby, I protected the initial bundle enough from the winds so it would catch, and by the time the larger pieces were burning, the winds helped my fire to rise up to a mightly blaze. These winds inspired my fire with the spirits of their breath, if you consider the older meanings and sources of the word.

Another reason to perform the single-stroke bicycle tire inflation exercise, though, would be to show the relationships between pump barrel diameter, target pressure, required number of strokes, air volume, and work. If you ignore losses via friction and heat, which, I realize, is anathema to cyclists, you more or less have to do the same amount of work to pump up a bicycle tire to a given pressure, regardless of the type or size of pump you use. A larger pump requires harder strokes but goes faster. A smaller pump requires easier strokes but many more of them. I've explored the boundaries of these relationships via products I've purchased:

A bracket of mechanisms for exploring effort vs. number of strokes to inflate a bicycle tire

After working through this range, and not having actually executed the single-stroke exercise (yet), I have previously settled on the top two in the photo above: a rather traditional frame pump, and the very good Topeak Road Morph. I also have a Mountain Morph, both of which show a lot of thought going into what it takes to convert getting a flat tire somewhere away from your home base pumping station into a tolerable or even enjoyable experience. Somehow, though, over time, the lazy, impatient, and demanding side of me has settled on the traditional frame pump, probably because it's an extremely reliable way to inflate a high-pressure tire with a minimum number of strokes.

The opposite tool on the number of strokes dimension is probably the Crank Bros. device at the bottom of the photo. It has a lot going for it, including its diminutive size, excellent design, reliability, and perhaps greatest of all, a switch which changes it from high-volume pumping for the beginning of the job to high-pressure to finish it off. This is an intellectually pleasing concept which almost motivates me to stick with it through the high number of strokes such a small pump requires. Almost. But not enough, so it spends its days snuggled in the spare tools bin next to the Park Tool mini pump, which unfortunately seems to embody almost all the drawbacks of a mini pump except that it's made by Park Tool and seems pretty tough.

The latest addition to this range of my pumps is the PDW Big Silver in the middle. It's gorgeous: made of forged and machined aluminum, polished and precise, all internals replaceable, mounts out of the way beside the water bottle cage, and includes a feature not even boasted of in its marketing copy: there is a magnet inside which retains the handle in the compressed position with just the right amount of force to prevent in-motion rattles.

All of the pumps above will inflate a tire. The PDW Big Silver, though, with its particular combination of beauty and features, appears poised to upset my lazy mind from its minimum number of strokes stubbornness over to the side of aesthetics and overall pump experience. Because, as I've blogged about before, well-built precision stuff makes me happy

Out there, with a fresh or patched tube in place, the work of inflation must be done. Barring [ha ha pressure pun] CO2 cartridge "cheater" devices (unless themselves filled by ratcheting up by hand a car to a certain height over a fat-barreled pump and storing the results of that exertion of work inside said cartridge, which, hmmmm). Previously, my mind seemed to settle by lazy preference on the reliable one requiring the least number of strokes. However, when the beauty of the thing enters the equation, the PDW Big Silver may just displace the old frame pump, since in addition to everything else I've mentioned, the PDW's mounting location does not break up the lines of the bike frame like the frame pump. I'm going to try it for a while, and see how it goes. (For at-home tool aesthetics, go and drool over J.A. Stein, and EVT, including relevant to this post the BAM BAM inflator, ooh la la).

In the end, though, the most aesthetically pleasing bicycle tire experience is one in which they don't go flat in the first place. This is why I commute with Slime in my tires, and ride on the weekends with Continental Gator Hardshells. When you live in a place rife with goathead thorns, broken glass, and roofing staples, the most beautiful bike pump is the one that almost never gets used, but is ready when needed. 

I will mount the Big Silver in its rightful place, gaze upon its silvery beauty, and hope that on its day of final need, the beauty of the ride remains whole via the bending of the mind to the task of operating the pump for the required number of strokes. The aesthetics of work is a complex subject. But in the end, it's why we need pretty things in our lives, like precision tools, and beautiful art, to inspire the tasks we must perform.

as usual, the blog disclaimer covers this post, too.


  1. In truth, there is another form of beauty to a minimalist CO2 pump...

    1. Indeed, right up to the moment that you need more gas than you got with you, then not so much.

  2. Indeed, rarely does using a pump on the side of the road put a smile on my face, though it sure beats being miles from anywhere without one.

    Is your "venerable frame pump" a Planet bike? I've had mixed results with mine. The pump works great on presta valves, but is a struggle to get mounted to a Schraeder, especially on cold days.

    The PDW pump looks lovely, and the bottle cage mount is very nice.

    1. That's a Nashbar frame pump, which by the way would be more pleasing if it fit onto the pump peg on my frame. But it pumps up high-pressure tires nicely, with little trouble.

  3. OK, now I have to check out the Lezyne Road Drive mini-pump (probably the aluminum one, although a carbon fibre one would also be appealing) due to the positive review in BQ. More on that later, I suppose.


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