Editor’s Note: In this series, Grannygear introduces us to some custom frame builders and takes a closer look at the process of making and delivering a custom, handmade bicycle to a customer. In these e-mailed interviews, you will learn a lot about some of the best frame builders in three different materials.

We continue our series on the Custom Framebuilder Experience with a talk with two of the premier builders in aluminum. Aluminum….it is not just for beer cans anymore.

The Aluminum Guys:

The Master – Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster Cycles.

“Let’s see if we can get America building stuff more than importing stuff from far away places.”

Twentynineinches.com – So, who are you? Please introduce yourself.

Paul – Who am I? My company is Rock Lobster and I am Paul H. Sadoff. I built my first frame in 1978 and went fulltime in 1988 as a framebuilder in Santa Cruz, California. At the time I started I was racing on the road and was working in a bike shop as a sales/service person. I wasn’t much of a racer but I did win one race in 1980.

TNI: Who is your typical customer?

Paul: Most folks who come to my shop for a frame are avid riders and/or racers. I don’t get collectors or the folks looking to have some sort of ‘object du art ‘….trophy bikes as I like to refer to them. Arty bikes are really great and I initially thought that was what I wanted to build but the riding was much more important. The idea that I could build a bike that would put smiles on people’s faces when they rode won out. Fulfilling a need in your cycling community is the framebuilder’s first job and that is what keeps me employed.

TNI: Why custom? Why not just an off-the-rack bike? They work well, don’t they?

Paul: If a person goes shopping for a bike and does not find what fits their body or their projected use, the option of custom is a way to fulfill what the production bikes can’t or won’t offer.

Partially finished Rock Lobsters

TNI: Why did you choose the particular medium to work with, be it steel, Ti, or aluminum?

Paul: Everyone with few exceptions starts with steel as it is easy to work with and not too expensive. I started working with aluminum about 9 years ago in response to what I was hearing from racers. I had built one aluminum MTB prototype back in 1992 and remembered really liking the ride characteristics. Also, I was ready for a new challenge after working with steel for 22 years. I have also been using some carbon pieces on my road and ‘cross frames to tune the dampening characteristics for certain conditions and customer requests.

TNI: I know it is a complicated procedure in many ways, but how do you approach the challenge of assessing the needs of your customers? How does that process work?

Paul: Most folks have a good idea of what they want by the time they come to my shop. Those that don’t, get a lot of questions from me and I go over body and current bike measurements to see what I can do to improve their comfort and efficiency on the bike. I also ask about what the bike will mostly be used for, i.e. racing, training, commuting, touring-whatever. I also ask what they would like to see out of the new bike besides a better fit: stuff like downhill stability, positive power transfer, better balance for slow speed technical dirt riding, anything right down to the placement of water bottle cages. It can get very detailed. Not too many folks leave everything up to me and say “Just wing it”. There’s too much money, time, and resources at stake in a custom bike.

TNI: Let’s get this out of the way. The biggest knock against the small builder is the often shabby track record of missed deadlines, poor communication, etc. How do you run your business to avoid those issues?

Paul: I try to be on time with my building and I do not give people an unrealistic delivery time that I cannot possibly make to ensure a sale. If I am not fast enough, the customer can go to someone else…..it’s a custom bike, not a hamburger. Staying truthful and not taking in jobs that are going to wind up screwing up the general flow in the shop are key. I won’t build anything that I am not tooled up to do in a competent way….no trikes, no recumbents, no BMX (sadly…..), etc. I make an effort to keep customers in the loop at many times over the course of the build so they know what’s going on and so they feel that they are dealing with someone who values the fact that they have chosen me to build their custom bike.

TNI: How do stay passionate about bikes? What keeps you stoked?

Paul: I feel that you are either passionate about bikes or you are not. It’s easy to work with what you like and it’s worth making a serious effort and enduring some frustration and hard times to pursue what you care about. Riding and keeping active in the racing community in either a participatory or supportive role is a big boost to the enthusiasm. So is hearing from a customer who has one of my bikes and is super stoked, especially after a number of years. It keeps me enthusiastic.

TNI: Twenty Niners gave the custom builder a boost, what do you see as being the latest trend? Are 29″ers still a strong seller?

Paul: There is a definite buzz about 29ers and even a builder such as myself who doesn’t have a lot of info on my website dedicated to 29ers specifically will still get an order for one every 4-6 weeks. This would make 29ers account for 10% of my annual production, almost equal to track frames.

TNI: What do you feel is the future of the custom builder especially now, in very challenging times?

Paul: I think that the future will be tough but in reality it will be as tough as we make it for ourselves. Guys who do not listen to their customers, do not return emails or phone calls promptly or are really late on deliveries will most likely have a rough go. Builders who listen to their cycling community and really build what is needed rather than trying to get folks ‘educated’ into buying your own pet project for ego fulfillment, might make it through this recession o.k. It’s like this: The guy who does the best job really deserves the customer, which is why I share anything I know with whoever wants to try to build frames. If someone comes along with a ton of drive and talent and can do my job better than I, they deserve to succeed and they will elevate the craft and if I’m lucky, I’ll benefit from their inspiration.

Paul Sadoff weld

TNI: Anything else you want to say? Future plans, goals, visions, final words of wisdom to folks considering a frame build?

Paul: Assuming I have a future (You never know in this business…) I want to do more teaching at U.B.I. where I have taught a tig-welding framebuilding class. I would like to groom a successor in 8-10 years to take over my business, assuming that there will be a need for it to continue. Words for those considering a frame: Find the local builder who doesn’t do all the talking, one who will listen to what you want, not try and talk you into something that might turn out to be a waste of money. Let’s see if we can get America building stuff more than importing stuff from far away places. A good bike will make you drive your car less, not need as much time at the doctor’s office and maybe elevate your mood in these trying times…that’s what it does for me. If I weren’t a bike builder I would still ride …….that’s the most important thing-getting out and riding.

Paul.

Rock Lobster website
Rock Lobster Blog

The New Guy – Brendan Collier, Siren Bicycles.

“My typical customer is driven.”

Song in the jig

Twentynineinches.com – So, who are you? Please introduce yourself.

Brendan Collier: Chicagoan, bike lover. I more or less grew up working in bike shops, starting the day I was old enough to get a work permit, through my time in the Air Force (I was a helicopter mechanic) and in the trenches through college. I made the jump from shop rat to industry rat when we moved to California in ’05 and I got the Quality Control job at Intense.

I soaked up as much knowledge as I could from Jeff Steber (Intense founder) and the other employees, especially Mike and Rick the Welder, and Phil Strong. Phil and I used to commute together from Idyllwild and I spent a lot of drive time picking his brain. At some point, I decided it was a good idea to build a frame or two of my own.

The first Siren was on the trail in ’06, a Fifty-Five singlespeed built with old Tracer tubing Jeff had donated. It might seem odd that I was building while working for a bike company, but you’ve got to understand – I was possessed. At the end of a long day of tackling production issues, all I wanted to do was go home and do more of the same. At first I built bikes for Mary, my friends, and myself but before long I had people offering money for them. I started Siren officially while working at Intense, and there was a period of overlap, more than a year, when I was building in the Idyllwild garage part time and putting in a full work week in Temecula. By the time I left Intense I was the company’s Project Manager and was having a ton of fun…it was a sad decision to leave.

TNI: Who is your typical customer?

Brendan: My typical customer is driven. I build for a lot of young professionals as well as family men and women… a lot of women. They work hard and want to maximize their time off. In many cases, they may have a goal or race in mind (Leadville 100, their first solo 24, etc) or they just want to gain better trail skills.

TNI: Why custom? Why not just an off-the-rack bike? They work well, don’t they?

Brendan: The bike I build for you shines when you clean that rock garden, or shave time off your PR on the racecourse. It has a responsive tube selection, or the right bottom bracket height for your trails, or the standover clearance you need. It works better because it was built for you.

TNI: Why did you choose the particular medium to work with, be it steel, Ti, or aluminum?

Brendan: I’m open to all materials, and have used a little of everything at one time or another. I like to think I put the right material in the right place… That’s what I’m after in the Song design- isolated flex, simplicity. Lately I’ve built a couple experimental bikes with aluminum main tubes and carbon fiber or titanium stays, with the Song plate positioned in such a way as to provide a small amount of passive suspension.

I do build primarily with aluminum though. I know it well. And it makes a lot of sense for my designs, especially the Song and the 4″ travel bike I’m developing. It’s light, stiff, and much more tunable than many builders seem to realize.

Steel? Well, I’m tinkering with steel too. I’ve got something I’m working on in that realm, but I won’t put forth a new bike unless it really brings something new and novel to market.

TNI: I know it is a complicated procedure in many ways, but how do you approach the challenge of assessing the needs of your customers? How does that process work?

Brendan: My clients and I have to get to know one another. I will build a better bike with a clearer picture of the rider’s goals, riding style… and their personality. It makes a difference. I spend a lot of time communicating with my customers on the phone, and in email correspondence… even Facebook. The measurements only tell half the story, the rider’s experience and goals are a huge part of the equation.

TNI: Let’s get this out of the way. The biggest knock against the small builder is the often shabby track record of missed deadlines, poor communication, etc. How do you run your business to avoid those issues?

Brendan: My Blackberry runs the show. Ha! I try to keep my clients informed while they’re waiting for their bike to come up. This is easier said than done, of course, and I have missed deadlines, as many builders have, but that’s not an acceptable status quo. My current thinking is to move toward even more transparency- a real time build queue that shows current progress on a timeline for each frame. We can do it perhaps on the website or shop blog, this is something I’ll be talking with my new web guy about.

I will continue to embrace emerging media- being on Facebook and Twitter has helped my clients be more connected with the process without taking too much of my work time away. That better connectivity and communication can help us all stay on the same page, and it can help me set realistic project goals as well.

TNI: How do you stay passionate about bikes? What keeps you stoked?

Brendan: The irony of working in the bike industry, for me anyway, is that I ride a bit less than I used to. Not long ago I could knock out dirt centuries at the drop of a hat. Now I’m lucky to get a few hours in a couple times a week. Not that I’m complaining – not at all. I love my job and look forward to it every day. But I like to sneak away from time to time. Overnighters are my latest passion. I like to pack light and disappear into the wilderness for a night under the stars.

The lighter the better, so I can enjoy the ride out and back. That’s my reward for a job well done, or a hard earned week.

Brendan's personal rig

TNI: Twenty Niners gave the custom builder a boost, what do you see as being the latest trend? Are 29″ers still a strong seller?

Brendan: To date, I’ve built mostly 29″ers, and mixed wheel bikes… it’s been perfect for the custom builder as it ushered in a new, creative design palette to play with, for sure.

TNI: What do you feel is the future of the custom builder especially now, in very challenging times?

Brendan: We’re in a recession- I choose to face it, to call it by its name. I will face the fact that people are watching their money. So am I. I believe there will always be a place for good mountain bikes, and as we collectively buckle down for some hard work we’ll need to hit the trails and blow off some steam. I’ll continue to build custom bikes and love it, but I’ll also be leaning on my production experience to branch out into batch building.

The latest trend, from my perspective, is urban/utility bikes. They make a lot of sense for a lot of reasons right now – high energy costs, environmental consciousness, traffic congestion…well designed commuter bikes help address all this, with the added benefit of physical exercise and sunshine as you go about your daily errands.

TNI: Anything else you want to say? Future plans, goals, visions, final words of wisdom to folks considering a frame build?

Brendan: What’s on the horizon? I’ve been working on a 4″ travel suspension design for a while, in the same vein as the Song insofar as I’m pushing for a very simple, reliable design. I’ll continue to offer as much technology as possible in a custom package.

I’m also very excited about a small collaboration, three or four guys with complimentary minds, for a domestic-built, cost-effective line of production Siren commuter bikes. Yeah, it’s a biggie for me right now, and I’m going to hold firm to certain design constraints and a reasonable retail price for the consumer. That’s all I care to divulge at the moment…exciting times ahead!

Brendan

Siren Bicycles Website
Siren Blog