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 phred.org. 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.