We’ve been searching far and wide to meet up with British Frame builders, first of all we ventured into the big smoke to visit Ted James, you can read the interview here. Next we the headed down to Southampton, to see Tom Warmerdam and his company Demon Frameworks. Tom’s bikes speak for themselves really, I mean just look at them! We asked Tom about everything and anything….
You can read the article in Dirt #137.
How did you get started in frame building?
Being Dutch, I guess, bikes are what you do – they’re a way of getting around, and it’s what we do for leisure. But it was really growing up in Switzerland where it was all about mountain bikes – I did an awful lot of that all the time with a friend of mine, and loved it. We spent lesson times sketching out frames and just discussing stuff – what we’d want to do, and making stems and cranks and pedals and things… But yeah we were very heavily leaning towards mountain bikes.
Then I moved to England, and like I was saying, drink, drugs and girls got in my way and clouded my vision… And then I did my A-levels, and it was time to re-assess and at that point I wanted to become a cabinet-maker, following in my Grandfather’s footsteps. But that didn’t go down too well so I started a mechanical engineering degree to, well, I was actually at that time thinking of getting into motorsport, but well everyone does mechanical engineering with dreams of getting into motorsport, and nobody ever does… So eventually I dropped out of that because it didn’t suit the way I like to learn – I’m not good in lectures and I needed to be making something, that’s what I really wanted.
So, again, time to reassess, and I did a few odd jobs for a little while and then I looked into the idea of building frames, and at the time when I started thinking about it again it was going to be producing small batches of mountain bikes. But I needed to learn how to do that, so I phoned some frame builders around the country to see if they had room for an apprentice and I got turned down a lot – no time, no money, no need…
I didn’t want to have that put me off so I phoned around in Southampton to see if there was a way of getting somewhere and I found a place not far from here, called the ‘Engineering training association’, and I talked to them about why I wanted to build frames and we sat down together and tailor made a course that took me through all the individual processes – brazing, welding, general fabrication, sheet metal work, milling, turning, and just for a bit of fun I thought I’d throw in a bit of CNC machining as well…
So I spent a few months with them learning all the individual bits and then I finally found this workspace and started renting it – it was cheap, and just with a few tools I started practicing… And after a fair amount of practice I thought yeah, these are alright, let’s see if we can maybe make a business out of it. And at that point, my brother in law made me a website and kind of took it from there I guess.
So here we are…
Here we are…
Was there a point at which you had another job that you had to give up to do this?
I was doing pretty random crap actually… Yeah, really random…
Was there a specific point at which you thought right, I’m going to be a frame builder full time?
Yeah, I mean I had a bit of money in my back pocket that sort of bridged the gaps as it were, but yeah I did quit glazing pottery which I did for a little while which was pretty tedious so I was pleased to stop that…
Mike (Rose) will be interested to hear Pottery…
Fair enough, fair enough… Well, pottery is alright; just glazing it is pretty dull… You’ve got these big pots and you just, well, pick a pot and dunk it in what, that glazing stuff and put it in a kiln… Woo!
Pretty tedious… So then you just thought “right”…?
Right, yeah lets do it. Exactly, its definitely not been easy, being self taught is definitely a more protracted way to do it, but you get there in the end… I think because I am self taught you have a slightly different way of doing things, different way of looking at things, so I guess maybe that helped my work on some level to be slightly different? Maybe, I don’t know…
Do you think individuality is important in making bikes?
I think it’s crucial – in this hand-built market if you’re not going to make stuff that different to what other people are doing, then I don’t really see the point…
So what do you reckon about mass produced bikes – all identical?
I think mass produced bikes have their place – I think not everybody has a grand in their back pocket to spend on a custom frame; we want people to cycle, and if they’ve only got a couple of hundred quid to do that then yeah they’re gonna have to get a mass produced bike… So I think there’s a time and a place, but I can’t quite understand how people can produce a complete bike and then sell it for 60 quid – that doesn’t compute… I can’t understand that. I cannot understand that.
I can’t either… Tubing for that…
Exactly, that seat-tube on that frame there, that’s 50 quid a tube… That’s 50 quid, so to make a whole bike for the cost of that tube is insane… But what I think is more important is…trying to bring the frame building industry back to the UK. I think that’s what’s important. I have absolutely no issue with mass produced stuff, I just don’t see why it has to be produced somewhere else – it can be produced here. We have a frame building heritage.
It started with Raleigh and Reynolds…
Exactly, 531… And yeah, I guess the 60’s was the heyday, I don’t really know, I wasn’t even born yet! But yeah, we’ve just lost it, and that was mass produced bikes coming from Taiwan that did that, it was mountain bikes that really killed it. That’s the way it looked… And when everything started getting tig-welded as well… That killed it for us… But I think there’s a resurgence in frame building, whether its ever going to be the way it used to be, whether we’re ever going to have dirty great factories producing large numbers of hand-built frames here in the UK, I don’t know… I don’t think so. These days, with insurance, health and safety and all that? It’s just too expensive…
So, leading on from that, do you think most people really appreciate hand-built frames, and the time and love and effort and technology that goes into it?
I think it’s a growing appreciation, when I did a cycle show in London a few years ago, I was just met continuously with comments like- “oh that’s really expensive”, “Oh that’s’ really expensive”, “Oh that’s so expensive”, “Oh why is it so expensive?”… But it’s made by hand, lovingly made by hand… And to a very high standard… And the last time I went to a cycle show last September, there was a completely different attitude. “Oh that’s quite reasonable actually”; “for a hand-built bike that’s pretty good”… And then people look in more detail – “That’s really clean and tidy”, “That’s really interesting”, “That’s really sharp”… So yeah, I think the appreciation is growing… Definitely.
Well, with places like Bespoke Bristol, that’s getting bigger every year as well…
It is, yes this is going to be its third year, and I think it’s double the size it was last year. So that’s already raising awareness. I’m quite happy with the way it is at the moment, I think we’re sort of riding the crest of a wave of frame building, I guess. But I do still think we’re a good few years behind the situation they have in the US. But I think its also its not just about bikes, its just about people appreciating things that are handmade, and made in the UK, and I think that’s growing, and I think actually a recession really helps that sort of thing to blossom.
We always find in a recession people become more creative – “I can’t get a job, so lets think about what I can do myself”, you get loads of small businesses popping up making stuff, so yeah. I think it’s a combination of stuff all happening at the same time. I’m not saying I’m happy with the recession, but I think something good can come out of it.
Have you had orders from other countries as well?
Yeah! Sure! Let me see, US, Japan, Greece, Germany, Holland, Belgium, no-one in France though, oh no there was a chap in France but then he heard the waiting time and changed his mind…
Do you get lots of complaints about price and waiting time for people who don’t ‘get it’?
You can usually tell from the first e-mail whether they ‘get it’ or not, yeah there’s plenty of people who don’t ‘get it’ at all, and don’t understand why they need to wait nine months, they just don’t understand that… Really don’t get it. But I’m getting a lot less of that, I think people know me now, they know what to expect, you’re going have to wait…
… But that it’s going to be good!
Going to be good, hopefully, and it is going to be a bit expensive… But I’d like to think you get what you pay for. So no, I’d like to say nowadays people know what to expect.
So what would you say is the difference then between a custom bike and a mass production bike, bar the head tube badge? (Just say why you’re awesome!)
Nah, its alright, I don’t think I’m that awesome…
Everyone else seems to…
Well they don’t know what they’re looking at! Nah, I’m ridiculously self-deprecating, in fact I hate myself most of the time… But you know, that’s what drives me…
So why is it different?
Ok, firstly, mass produced bikes are stock sizes, custom bikes are always made to measure – I make bikes to fit people, I don’t fit people to bikes, and that’s completely different. It’s not just a question of saying “I’m going to raise your saddle a bit, and I’m going to give you a longer stem” – no, that’s not how it works. When you go to a tailor, you have two ways of doing it.
You either go to say, Moss Brothers, you pick a suit and you put up with it – rough measurements, they may take up the trousers a little, and that’s one way of doing it, but the other way is to go to a proper tailor and getting them to measure you up completely. You come back a week later and they’ve got something approximately the right size, you stand there, choose your lining, choose your fabric, and that’s what this is about – this is about making bike for individual people because people are individual so they deserve an individual bike. But that’s not just where the differences are, the differences are the attention to detail and the standards of quality and the alignment.
I have seen production frames that are 5mm out of alignment, which is just insane, so we are working with tolerances that are fractions of a millimetre. That’s a difference in quality, and as you can see from that frame right there in front of you, I don’t need to hide stuff with paint, and that’s something that you will find in production bikes, you’ll see big gaps, and they’re just painted over, that’s not how we roll with custom bikes.
That’s quite scary…
Yeah, I’ve seen people that have hammered dropouts into the chainstays, literally hammered it, I just though oh my God this is insane, this is crazy.
So if I phone you up and ask for angles on the bespoke frame…
Yeah, I’ve got my own leanings on geometry, I’ve got my own opinions on how I want my bikes to ride, but if you want a really steep head angle and very quick handling then yeah, that’s fine, yeah we can do that, but I tend to go for a fairly racy, Italian sort of approach to the whole geometry and fit. It’s definitely a racing fit.
If someone rang you up and asked for a frame which you thought was not going to work, would you tell them it wasn’t going to work?
And say we’re not doing that?
Yeah, I don’t want to build shit.
Not with your name on it?
And even now, I won’t even build bikes with other people’s lugs, if someone asked me if I could build a bike with traditional long point lugs, no. I want to build an epic bike, with epic lugs – that’s what its all about.
Yeah, so attention to detail…?
Yeah, custom fit, custom geometry, attention to detail, alignment, just the quality of it is better, genuinely, hopefully, should be, can’t speak for everyone… Other differences…
Well, on that point, if you take somebody, a massive bike company will do stress tests on dedicated machines and things, how do you make sure you stay with that?
Well, we now have a new European standard. We’ve got a new European standard of what a bike should be like – they should work, and at the moment, we’re, (I say we, it’s not just me), that’s something that we’re working on – to have a standard for custom frame builders, so the plan is for frame builders to do a fairly standard frame, their standard work and send it up to people who have a jig to destroy your bike for you, and to see if it passes.
Yeah, but the thing that makes it more confusing with custom bikes is for example if I’ve got a girl that comes to me and she’s say 5ft 1”, weighs 45 kilos, just a skinny girl, size 8, you know, she races, she’s fit, but very light, I can build her a bike with ridiculously light tubes which is obviously perfectly suited to her but then if you stick, you know, a slightly chubby chap on there that weighs 100 kilos… If you do that, they will eventually break it, though not straight away.
So that’s what makes testing for custom bikes quite complicated. The important thing is to build with proven techniques, that’s why I fillet brazing and lug work – I know that works, I’ve tested plenty of my own joints and know that they’re sound, I know they’re strong, and just don’t deviate from that – don’t try and re-invent the wheel, there’s no point, it works… And just make sure that you know what you’re doing.
Have you ever thought about experimenting with putting a linkage in, making a full sus bike?
Yes, yes I have a lot. I got quite a long way at some point… But yes, I have been working on full suspension stuff, and I would love to put that linkage on that frame to give it like 3 and a half/4 inch travel. That would be awesome. I would love that.
In the future…
One day. We’ll get there. At the moment, I’m focussing more on road and stuff because in terms of the custom market, yeah, custom road.
Ok, so what about hard-core hardtails – long travel…? Is that something you’ve been doing?
I’ve got somebody who wants a bike, I guess its not that long travel, people used to think 100mm was long travel…
I’m thinking 150, 160…?
Yeah, yeah I’ve got a mountain bike hardtail for a 150 fork that’s in the book, I’d do that, yeah! No-ones asked me for any longer that 150 at the moment though. But yeah, I’ve got a few mountain bikes but they’re all XC-ish type things. I’m doing a dirt frame for a friend of mine who lives in Australia.
Do you get much time to work on your own projects?
Not to play around and experiment…?
I’d love to have a bit more time, but no, not much. I try to find time, but weekends are precious, you know? You do need to think about something other than bikes at some point because otherwise it just gets so crazy…
It drives you mad.
Yeah, yeah it does drive you a bit mad, and you don’t want to fall out of love with it, so no. I need to make sure I do other stuff at the weekend, other hobbies.
I suppose you can take on custom frames that will let you experiment?
Well exactly, I do have some customers that are really kind and do allow me to have some creative freedom so I get to put some of my ideas into it. So yeah, that’s exactly the way to do it.
So do you get much time? Do you get to ride what you’ve made? Do you get to spend much time on bikes?
I would love to spend a lot more time on bikes, as it is, nowhere near enough. Slightly depressing, but yeah, if I do ride, it tends to be the stuff I’ve made. It has to be. Although my main ride is a 1964 Triumph 3-speed Roadster which I love, so I’m into vintage stuff too.
BMX frames, off mountain bikes completely…?
Yeah, I want to do BMX frames, but people who ride BMX don’t often want to spend much on them… That’s the problem, but when you start looking at race BMXs, people spend more on racing BMX’s but they want them to be super-light aluminium or Carbon fibre now, don’t they?
That’s a tricky thing for me, I’d love to build a signature style BMX with lugs and stuff like that, it would be awesome!
Let’s talk industry standards. Headsets, bottom brackets – do they make you angry, and what’s the future?
I have no idea, someone else will have to tell me what the future is, it’s out of my hands! I’ve got no control over that. Headsets… Well Cane Creek are trying to make sense of it, good luck to them – I don’t get it. It just confuses the shit out of me. Yeah.
What about pigeonholing bikes into disciplines – ‘Enduro’, ‘All Mountain’, ‘Cross Country’, ‘Downhill’ – the travel is what it is…?
People have this obsession with putting labels on things, if it does what you want it to do, then its what you want. That’s it. Simple. I take my 1960’s roadster on fire tracks in the New Forest; it works, so I think there is an over-emphasis on putting bikes into particular disciplines. That’s it.
Have you got any mad ideas floating around at the moment?
Completely mad ideas? No, not completely mad…
Mildly mad, yeah. I like to make life quite difficult by setting the bar quite high – I was going to try and do… Well I guess the maddest idea I have at the moment is doing a lugged aero-tube frame.
Which means (to the normal person)…?
Well its basically that [the road frame in the jig], as you see it with lug work, but on tear-drop shaped aero tubes, so all the lugs need to be bashed out of sheet metal first, round a mandrill and then seam-welded and then cut, so yeah, that’s my craziest idea. Well, yeah. Take a lifetime to do it… Would look fucking awesome.
Do you reckon with materials getting better, and machining getting easier and stronger that you can end up with one bike to do it all?
I’d like to see it… One bike that does everything?
One bike that does everything well. Jack-of-all-trades.
One bike that does everything well… Jack-of-all-trades but that can do road riding and mountain biking and everything all at the same time?
I’m thinking from the Dirt perspective inside mountain bikes, so you can take it for a cross country ride and then hit thrash out the downhill’s…
I see no reason why not, companies like Intense, they’re making pretty cool full sus bikes that pretty much do most things…? Am I right?
Yeah, yeah 160mm on each end…
Still in retro stage, aren’t you!
Well, I know what I was saying about bikes being pigeonholed and stuff like that, but I’m not really a big one bike does it all fan.
Well I’ve got one bike for every discipline, it doesn’t mean I don’t mix things up, but yeah, I like my downhill bike being a downhill bike, so I’ve got a fucking heavy one… And I like my dirt jump frames to last, to be pretty heavy too, and Cross Country fames, you know, you want them to be pretty light and nimble… So yeah, as for one bike to do it all? Yeah, maybe, but I’m not going to be the one to make it…
Great, cheers Tom!