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Custom Bicycles: A Passionate Pursuit

Review, Road Bike 18 375

As Cyclelicious mentioned in a post earlier this month, the 2009 North American Handmade Bike Show was the biggest one yet. That is great news, but it shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Notwithstanding current economic conditions, it seems like interest in custom bicycles is at a high point (in recent memory at least). There are many more custom frame builders working today than there were 10 or 15 years ago, and it seems like they are collectively creating a greater variety of bicycle types and styles than ever before. A new book by Christine Elliott and David Jablonka, Custom Bicycles: A Passionate Pursuit, celebrates the work of 39 of those builders from the United States, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, the U.K., and Australia. The book has not yet been released, but you can preorder a copy at Amazon if you are interested.

I have really enjoyed looking though an advance copy of the book over the course of the last few weeks, so I want to share my impressions with you. First, let me say that I do not at all profess to be an expert on the subject of custom bicycles. I have never brazed or welded a complete frame and all of the bikes that I have ever owned, even the old lugged steel ones that were made by hand, have been standard production geometries and sizes. I certainly have an interest in custom framebuilding though. For several years I used to subscribe (mainly as a lurker) to the framebuilders list at I was always interested to see how the builders on the list openly shared information with each other. It was also cool to see the exchanges between the well-known master framebuilders on the list and some of the relative newbies who posted questions. It has been several years since I have been subscribed to that list, but my interest in hand built bikes is still very much alive. Anyway, when I first flipped though this book, it was great to see many of the names that I remember from that email list as the featured builders.

If traditional lugs and steel tubing are the only things that come to your mind when you hear the term “custom bicycle”, this book might surprise you. Certainly the book contains profiles of several builders who are primarily (or exclusively) known for creating lugged steel road bikes, but in this book you will also see many very interesting mountain bikes, cruisers, commuters, kid’s bikes, utility bikes, etc. The custom bikes from the featured builders are made from a variety of materials including steel, aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, and even bamboo. Each of the 39 builders are profiled in separate chapters with a write-up and several pages of pictures. I found it particularly interesting to read how they each got started in framebuilding. In fact, getting to the root of that “passion for the craft” seemed to be a common theme throughout the book and it is something that I think the authors’ did well. In each profile, the reader gets a feel for the builder’s personal philosophy and sees how that philosophy influences the builder’s techniques and material chooses.

Needless to say, I enjoyed seeing the photos of completed bikes, but some of the pictures that interested me the most were the ones of bikes in various stages of the construction process. I also really enjoyed seeing photos of the different workspaces where these frames are created. Not every builder’s space is shown in the book (it is mainly a celebration of the final product after all), but it was interesting to get a peek into the workshops of many of these custom builders.

My only minor criticism (well, really more of an observation) is that the quality of the photography in the book varies. Based on the photo credits, it appears that the builders themselves provided many of the images of their completed bikes. Many of the framebuilders obviously do recognize that good photography makes a huge difference in how their work is perceived, but I was surprised to see a few pictures of custom frames and bikes that were not much better than snapshots. I won’t call out any particular builder, but I certainly would have taken the time to represent my work in the best possible light for inclusion in a beautiful book like this. That said, the vast majority of the builders profiled did submit nice photos, like the shots of the Vanilla that was featured on the cover and in the sample pages shown with this post.

All in all, I think Custom Bicycles: A Passionate Pursuit is a great book that anyone with an interest in bicycles and design will thoroughly enjoy. Of course, that is probably exactly what you would expect to hear from a bike fanatic like me. True, I like to look at bikes more than some, but everyone else who has picked up my copy, cyclist or not, has found it to be quite interesting. Phil Liggett made that same point in his foreword when he wrote; “You will love browsing through this book, even if you have little or no interest on cycling.” In addition to those of us who already love bicycles, I really do think this book will appeal to other who appreciate art, design, and craftsmanship. Who knows? It may even introduce a few of those people to the joy of cycling.

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  1. Yokota Fritz April 2, 2009 at 2:23 pm -  Reply

    It *is* a nice book isn’t it?

  2. Yokota Fritz April 2, 2009 at 3:14 pm -  Reply

    AoK — you’re comment spam is getting annoying. Throttle it back a bit will ya?

  3. James April 2, 2009 at 8:14 pm -  Reply

    Yeah Fritz, a nice book indeed…

    …agreed about the comment spam as well. That one was a bit annoying, and now it is gone.

  4. Anonymous April 2, 2009 at 9:19 pm -  Reply

    In regard to the builders who don’t stack up to the photography quality of the others, a designer is sensitive to that, more sensitive than the average person, and while an average person might enjoy good photography when they see it, paying for it, and art directing it, as not all pro photographers are equal in the art direction dept. are different things.

    Many of these small builders are not earning a big income, they just cannot afford better.

  5. James April 3, 2009 at 8:48 am -  Reply

    I don’t know, Anon 10:19. Maybe as a designer I am more sensitive to the quality of the photography, but maybe not. When someone sees a photograph, they immediately form an impression- positive, negative, or somewhere in between. That person may not even consciously consider whether it is the subject of the photograph, the background, the composition, or other elements, but for one reason or another certain images will have more appeal than others. All I am saying is that it is in the builder’s best interest to consider the overall composition when staging the shots. I am not saying that they all need to hire professional photographers, but unflattering angles and wrinkled sheets as backdrops do little to showcase the bikes that these guys put so much time into.

    As I stated in the post, most of the builders submitted nice photographs. Some of them hired professional photographers, but it is obvious from the photo credits that many of them chose to take their own photos. The vast majority of those who did their own photography obviously put some effort into it and the results are good. I was really only referring to maybe two builders whose photographs, I felt, detracted from their work, especially when compared to the other shots in the book.

    Furthermore, in my opinion, the builders who had better photography in the book are the ones who make the best looking bikes. Why? Because those guys have an eye for aesthetics and they realize that every point of interaction with a potential customer is important. Whether it is the frame details, paint, graphics, or a photograph of the final product, they take the extra step to make sure everything is just right. To give a few examples, I will point out Vanilla, Signal, Jeff Jones, Baum, Crisp, Kish, Richard Sachs, Bilenky, Llewellyn, I could go on and on. All of those builders are successful because of attention to detail and an obvious eye for aesthetics. Again my opinion, but the craftsman’s eye for aesthetics should be enough to ensure that the work is always presented in its best light. If I were in the market for a custom frame, you can bet that I would talk to one of the builders I just mentioned and not someone who couldn’t (or didn’t care enough to) take a good shot of a bike they put so much time into.

  6. dudeonabike May 11, 2009 at 12:14 pm -  Reply

    Not a fan of coffee table books, but it would be hard to pass up this one. Looking forward to some eye candy. (Checkpoint.)

  7. Anonymous May 11, 2009 at 12:42 pm -  Reply

    checking in

  8. kit May 11, 2009 at 12:51 pm -  Reply

    wahoo! i'm checking in and rolling by. gotta <3 ecovelo.

  9. Gunnar May 11, 2009 at 1:22 pm -  Reply

    Just rolling along.

  10. Cyclin’ Missy May 11, 2009 at 1:41 pm -  Reply

    I hope checking in isn’t considered comment spam. I just want to play the game!

  11. James May 11, 2009 at 1:51 pm -  Reply

    Cyclin’ Missy, I don’t consider checkpoint comments to be spam at all. In fact, I am very happy that my blog is one of the stops on the 2009 Cyclelicious “virtual alleycat.

    Good luck to all of you who are playing! The book is worth the effort.

  12. Leighton Reuss May 11, 2009 at 2:20 pm -  Reply


  13. Gavin May 11, 2009 at 4:18 pm -  Reply

    Check in … and out.

  14. Jon May 11, 2009 at 6:34 pm -  Reply


  15. redfieldbikes May 12, 2009 at 12:07 pm -  Reply


  16. Roush May 13, 2009 at 9:11 am -  Reply


    Love the blog!

  17. wombatgrrl May 13, 2009 at 2:17 pm -  Reply

    check! yet another easy one. The only hard one has been the one on Needed a hint to find that one….

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