Ahearne Cycles


The Business of Building Bicycles

News, ProcessJulie2 Comments

Building BicyclesThis past week I finished up teaching a class at UBI. It was a great group, and everyone took home a frame that they’d built. They all seemed pretty happy at the end. Happy and tired. 

Usually on the last day of class we have a discussion about frame finishing and paint, equipment to buy if they want to keep building, lingering questions about the next step to take to set themselves up to build another bicycle frame on their own.  If people have questions about the business of frame building I do my best to answer them. 

“How do you make a business building bicycles?” That’s not an easy question, and there is a large range of possible answers based on the temperament of the builder, and what sort of business they want to have. 

The craft of building bikes holds an image of one person in their shop, using the skills they’ve acquired over the years to hand make each unique frame. It’s a practice and an art, and each finished frame has the unique signature of the builder who constructed it. But this is only one way to do it.

Other business models work toward higher production, which limits the capacities for uniqueness in each bike, but allows the builder to focus on a particular style and repeat it, refining the design process and the efficiency of manufacturing. A different set of skills, it allows a builder to take what they feel to be a “good” bike design and offer it to more people. 

But to a new builder, how do you even wrap your head around all this? How can you consider building bicycles as a business when really, you hardly know enough to build a frame from start to finish? All you really know is that it’s hard work, there are about a million steps to it, and at least that many tricks along the way. Planning Your Bicycle

You probably need to consider the business side of things at the beginning for one main reason, which is that it takes a fairly substantial initial investment to build a bicycle frame. This investment is in time; it will take you months and years to learn the skills needed to build a great bike. And, you'll invest money in the equipment you're going to use. Most people who come to frame building don’t have a bottomless bank account from which to purchase a frame and fork fixture, a vice, files, torch, grinders, a mill, lathe, and the million and one other tools that will assist you in making a bike. What tooling you'll want and need is wide open for interpretation, and is another discussion entirely. 

So, what's your plan? Are you investing in tools in the hope that down the road you’ll learn the craft and be able to make the money back? Or, are you saving your pennies and buying the equipment you can afford, knowing that eventually you’ll have accumulated what you need to build another bike, and you just want to have fun with it, build for yourself, for family and friends?

It’s good to have some ideas going into it. It’s also good to be adaptable. Learning to build bikes and making money at it takes a lot of time. Anyone can learn the craft, but not everyone is going to make money doing it. Nor is everyone is going to enjoy the hours spent alone in a shop working. 

Another thing to consider: Like any activity that you may love, are you still going to love it when you’re trying to put a price tag on it and sell it to others? Are you still going to love it when you're totally immersed, sort of suffocating in poverty and it looks like there's no way out? I bet if you were to talk to a lot of established builders out there you'd be able to get them to admit that there is some element of ass-stubborn masochism that has kept them doing it for as long as they have. There is love, surely, but there is also something else. Something darker. 

Maybe I’ll talk more about the business of building bikes later. But this past Friday, the last day of class, I saw people thinking about their future and all the great plans that were formulating. I didn’t feel like there was enough time to go into an answer in-depth. 

Frame Building ToolProbably the one, most important thing that I’ve learned about the business of bike building over the years is not so much the process of building bikes. That’s important, obviously, but that’s also the fun part, and so is easier to learn. The hardest part for me was learning the business itself. 

You have to learn the numbers and how to use them in your favor. How to keep doing it and not starve. How to keep doing it in a way that is sane, sustainable, in a way that isn’t going to grind you into a blubbering pulp on your shop floor. 

If you don’t know anything about business, it’s a really good idea to take a business class. Learn something about how to run a business, how to look at your business and see it for what it is. There is a lot of potential for fantasy, the most fatal of which could be: “I just need to work harder, longer hours, I need to make more bikes!” When you’re in the thick of it, there may be truth to this, but there may also be a whole lot of other things to think about, and if your business has a bunch of holes in it, like a colander, it’s never going to stay a-float. 

Happy New Frame BuildersI’m not trying to dissuade people from trying to build bikes for a living, I’m just saying, go into it with as many tools as you can get your hands on. I currently spend approximately half of my working hours making bikes. The other half is all about the business. The tools I need for that are knowledge. Knowledge about all the hidden costs of doing business; knowledge about marketing and shipping and the website and paint costs and branding and consumables and avoiding the millions of pit-falls along the way. Being realistic about what you have, what you need, and what you want, is probably going to be the best way to approach it. Knowledge is key. 

Alright, enough said. Happy Monday. And best of luck to all you newly aspiring bicycle frame builders. 

UBI Class Nearly Finished


Today is the last day of class at UBI. The students have spent the last two weeks learning the process of brazing a bicycle together. I think everyone is pretty tired by this point, and the bikes are mostly finished. The only thing left for most of the students is the final reaming, facing and chasing of threads, and then whatever finish filing they want to do. 


They're tired, but I think most everyone is excited and relieved, feeling like they've accomplished something. Oh, and they have. They've earned it. It's kind of like having a baby. You spend a lot of time, sweat and energy making something that was once only an idea into reality. And there it is, right in front of you. You can sit back and look at it and you know every little detail very intimately; each brazing success and blemish and the places that everything worked out exactly like you wanted. You know all the things about it you like, and you probably have a list of things that, if you could do it all over again you would do differently. And all of this leads you directly into thinking about the next bike you want to build. 


Building bikes is fun. It's a lot of work, and there are a million little details that you have to remember, but it is very satisfying to use your hands to make something as cool as a bike, and to then be able to build it up and ride it, to test out your work. And for me, teaching this class reminds me that the fundamentals are essential, and it freshens the idea that bike building really is fun. Not that I've ever forgotten this, but when I'm buried in "the business" of bike building rather than actually filing and brazing, sometimes the fun of it is overshadowed by the stress of small business ownership. Teaching a class and watching people light up as they get to the end of constructing their own bike, when they stick the wheels in and stand back admiring what they've done, a small internal grin of complete and genuine satisfaction -- I see this, I feel it, I know it. It's an awesome thing. Where else in life are you going to find that? Very gratifying. 


These guys should definitely be proud. They've done good work. They stuck with it all through the difficult parts, and now they've got a new bicycle, built by their own hands, built specifically for them. 

Frame Building Class Video

News, VideoJulie2 Comments

Here it is -- the long awaited (or not really all that long awaited) video of the frame building class at UBI. The class was from 31 January to 11 February, and each student (8 of them) built their very own bicycle frame. This is a time lapse video that covers day 5 through day 10 of the class in about 8 minutes.

The camera shows seven of the eight work benches, and there are no breaks delineating the passage of days. It starts on day five and moves through the final day, and then myself and several students leave the school and ride our bikes down the road to my workshop for a brief tour (which is at the very end when the camera view goes dark). 

I think it's interesting seeing the progression of the bike frames as they come together. Everybody looks so busy! They did, in fact, work very hard, and each one of them has a bike frame to show for it. Enjoy the video!

Frame Building Class Feb. '11 from Joseph Ahearne on Vimeo.

This video shows day five through day ten of the UBI frame building class I taught from 31 Jan. to 11 Feb. There were eight students in the class, but the camera could only take in seven of the benches (sorry Daniel!).
There are no breaks in the video as one day moves into the next, so you just have to pay attention to what people are wearing -- if you see someone jump into a different outfit, then a new day has started.
I could have edited out more of the times where no one is working, but I feel like those give you a chance to take in the benches and the progress as the bicycle frames come together.
I've found it helpful to focus on one person's workbench for a few seconds at a time to watch their progress, because the whole view of everyone working can be very "busy."
I hope you enjoy it!
Music by Audion


Frame Building Class Complete

NewsJulie1 Comment

Students & Their Hand Built Frames

My second frame building class at UBI is finished. My first post-class impression is that it went really well. Everybody came away with a frame they built with their own hands and they all seemed really pleased with what they’d accomplished. I haven’t taught enough classes to know if this is going to happen to me, personally, every time, but I feel fairly attached to this group. We spent a lot of time together over the past two weeks. We’ve gone through it together, you know -- it's kind of like childbirth -- and I’ve watched as they’ve struggled to grasp a huge load of new information and then translate this into a tangible, useful machine. It requires not only a sustained level of concentration that most people aren’t accustomed to, but also the physical practice of transforming ideas into steal using heat and tools in ways that most of these people hadn’t ever done before. It can be stressful, and it’s really tiring. Two weeks is a long time to intently focus your attention on any new subject, and this group was awesome. And they did it. They worked it out and built their frames and I think each of them had a good experience doing it.

Full Size Frame Drawing

For myself, I learned some things about the process of teaching, and feel like I became a little better at breaking down the steps of building a bike frame into bite-sized portions so that others can follow along. There are some parts of the process that I want to focus on and improve, and there are always things that I can learn about how to present such a large amount of information in a way that doesn’t put people to sleep or stress them out and mire them in so many possibilities that it immobilizes their brains. This really happens, and people seem especially susceptible in the afternoon, an hour or so after lunch when food is still heavy and soporiferous, and their minds and hands have been active since early in the morning. There were a couple of times when I prattled on about some bike this-&-that and saw people’s eyes spiral off into a sort of semi-conscious open-eyed state that reminds one of zombies or the severely damaged, and I had to stop talking and snap my fingers in front of their eyes, send them back to their work benches to move around, file, slot and burn more steel to stay awake. 

The "Classroom"

Teaching is an art form unto itself. Group psychology and all that. I feel like I did a decent job of it, and I enjoy it, and want to keep doing it. There’s a lot to learn from each class, and I’m going to work to refine what I do and how I do it. Just like anything, I guess. It really makes me respect those people I’ve come across in my life who’ve had that special ability to teach, to share ideas in a way that invites people to learn. 

I want to thank each of you who were in my class for putting up with me and for sticking it out and building yourselves a bike. That’s really something to be proud of. I won’t name you all here, but each of you did a great job. Here below are a few more photos of the class. And yes, coming very soon is the video…


Teaching Frame Building at UBI

NewsJulie1 Comment
This coming Monday, the 31st of January, I will begin teaching another frame building class at UBI. For those of you not familiar with it, the United Bicycle Institute holds all sorts of bicycle related classes: Mechanics certification classes; wheel building classes; and a couple of different types of frame building classes, including TIG welding and brazing. I’ll be the guest lecturer for this next brazing class. The class is two weeks long, and usually has about eight students. Each student will leave the class with a bicycle frame that they have built with their own hands. I’ll be there to demonstrate and to guide people along. This said, I will be checking e-mails and returning phone calls as I can. But if it takes a few days for me to get back to you, please understand that I’m not ignoring you, I’m just occupied. I’ll post news about the class along the way. Photos, words, maybe some video