Pimp that steel: framebuilding courses in the UK
Ever thought about having a custom bike frame designed and built uniquely for you? What about taking it one step further and actually building the frame yourself? Making your own bespoke bicycle frame from scratch is something which is on the bucket list for many cyclists. Getting to ride around on a bike which you have designed and created yourself would after all be pretty damn cool.
But is it really true that anybody can build their own bicycle frame without any prior knowledge or experience? Would a frame built by you be as good as if a professional frame builder had built one for you? And just how hard/expensive/time-intensive is a framebuilding course? Severely tempted to go down the custom bike route myself, I took the opportunity to find out more about bike framebuilding courses whilst at the Bespoked UK Handbuilt Bicycle Show in Bristol this year. This is what I found out.
Is framebuilding for me?
The answer to this is a resounding yes! At Bespoked I spoke to both The Bicycle Academy and Downland Cycles about their framebuilding courses. Both reassured me that virtually anyone can go on a framebuilding course and come away with a finished frame which they have built themselves (minus the paint job) at the end of it. You don’t need any previous experience in metalwork, welding or brazing to successfully build your own frame on one of the courses. In fact, you don’t even need to be interested in cycling. Most people who go on a framebuilding course are well into their bikes, with some even wanting to get into framebuilding at a professional level after completing the course. However, some course attendees just want the opportunity to make something beautiful by hand and are far more interested in the craftmanship aspect of everything.
What will I learn on a framebuilding course?
The exact content of a framebuilding course does vary by provider and course length, but you can expect to go through every stage of the framebuilding process from start to finish. This includes designing your frame, learning how to use all tools safely, cutting tubes to length, practising how to braze, brazing the tubes together to form your frame, then checking the frame and preparing it for painting and turning into a fully functioning bike - that is, assuming that you want to actually ride your finished frame and are not just planning on making something pretty to hang on the wall!
What about painting?
None of the framebuilding courses currently include painting as a part of the course but will generally be able to recommend a range of frame painters to suit various styles and budgets.
How will my handbuilt frame compare to one made by a professional framebuilder, or a high end off-the-peg bike?
Realistically, you are not going to braze or weld like a pro the first time you do it. The superiority of professional brazing is partly down to aesthetics as well as structural integrity. You'll leave a framebuilding course with a bike frame which is structurally sound but might not have such pristine joins as if a professional had built it for you. When you ride your handbuilt bike you will be familiar with the creation of every weld and join, unlike if somebody else (either in a factory or professional framebuilding workshop) built it for you.
Is a framebuilding course an opportunity to build my dream bike?
I think the answer to this one is mostly yes! If your dream bike is carbon, then obviously you won’t be making your dream bike on a steel framebuilding course! But aside from this you’ll be able to do pretty much what you want within a few limitations. Custom building yourself a bike is also an opportunity to have everything on the bike (from bottle cage mounts and cable routing to gear and brake combinations) exactly how you want it. Additionally, if you have problems finding a bike that fits you well, a framebuilding course offers an opportunity to address this. This is a big bonus if you are particularly tall or small and find mass-market frames a compromise, or struggle to get the bike you want in your size.
What can and can't I do, as a beginner?
As a beginner, there are some styles of bike and types of tubing that are not suitable because they are too complex for a newbie to work with. Tandems, trikes and recumbents are generally ruled out, but any variation on a regular diamond frame (such as a road bike, track bike, city bike, cross bike, gravel bike, touring bike, hardtail mountain bike and so on) is generally fine. Stainless steel tubing requires a different brazing method than regular steel so can’t be used, and some higher end steel tubing is also ruled out (the tubing gets harder to work with the more expensive it is).
In terms of the actual type of framebuilding you can do, most courses will offer to teach you either classic-looking lugged joins or more modern-styled fillet brazing. Downland Cycles in Kent also offers a TIG-welding course. So, within some basic limitations you are pretty free to do what you want!
What do I need to know before choosing a framebuilding course?
It helps to have an idea of what type of bike you want to build as this will allow you to check that your chosen course will be suitable for your needs. The various courses in the UK offer different styles of delivery and different set-ups, so it is worth looking into this to help decide which course will suit you best. Price and location are also important factors, check out the information below for further details.
Framebuilding courses in the UK
There are a handful of well-established framebuilding courses in the UK, mainly concentrated in the south-east and south-west of the country (so you may end up having to travel a bit further if you’re based in the north).
Location: Frome, Somerset
Cost: £750 (5 day course), £1,500 (10 day course)
Type of frame building: fillet brazing
Find out more here
Location: Coalport, Shropshire
Cost: £1,400 (5 day course)
Type of frame building: lugged
Find out more here
Location: Boreham Street, East Sussex
Cost: £1,200 (5 day course)
Type of frame building: lugged
Find out more here
The Bicycle Academy also offers workshop hire and one-day masterclasses. These are often attended by professional framebuilders wanting to brush up on their skills in a particular area. Downland Cycles offers a 19 day Level 3 VRQ Frame Building Course and a 30 day Professional Development Programme which is designed to enable you to set up as a professional frame builder at the end of it. They also let you hire their workshop space once you have completed one of their courses.
In addition to the course costs you’ll need to cover the cost of your frame building materials, which will add on around £100-400 depending on what you build. Unless you live locally you’ll also need to cover the cost of accommodation and food during your time on the course. Downland Cycles offers a very reasonable bunkhouse set-up including accommodation and all meals for £35 a night. Other course providers can recommend local accommodation to suit your needs.
Weighing up the costs
There are various ways of looking at the cost of going on a framebuilding course (which is, undeniably, a significant outlay for most of us). It is likely to be comparable to getting a custom bike made for you by someone else, and whilst it won't have been built by one of the professionals with a back-catalogue of x-hundred or x-thousand frames, you do get to have the amazing experience of building a bike yourself, and then riding round on it afterwards with the smug feeling of it being built by your own hands and not somebody else's. It is also comparable to going on an expensive holiday, and for many of us bike-lovers it is a bit of a dream come true. Yes, it is going to be an incredible amount of hard work, but the experience will be incomparable and the satisfaction of what you achieve is going to be pretty awesome.
If I do get to fulfil my dream of building my own bike at some point in the future, I'll report back on what the experience was like on here - watch this space!