Here’s the score… a while back I got into a bit of a disagreement with Andrew Denham (who runs the Bicycle Academy, a place where you can learn how to make a bike frame) about whether or not you could realistically teach someone how to braze to a respectable level in a relatively short amount of time. He said you can. I thought you couldn’t…
From Dirt Issue 138 – August 2013
Words by Ed H. Photos by Ben Winder.
For those of you that don’t know, I myself used to make custom fillet brazed frames, and I was basing my thoughts upon my experience, and those of the countless other frame builders that I’ve met over the years. The thinking goes that brazing is a skill that takes years to master, and whilst I would have considered myself to be fairly good at it, I would never have considered myself a master at it. In fact there’s really only one person who I would have considered a master at it, and that’s Brian Curtis, who also happens to be a kind of ‘artist in residence’ at the Bicycle Academy. I could never quite get my head around how he was so bloody good at it, it just didn’t seem possible. I thought he must have sold his soul to the devil or something.
Anyway, as Andrew and I got further into this ‘debate’ he started sending me photos of the work that his students had done, and you know what, they blew me away. In fact they were so good that I could hardly believe it, especially as he told me that many of them had learnt to braze that well in just one day! He then said something along the lines of “well the only real way for me to prove it to you is for you to come and do the one day ‘fillet brazing masterclass’ course, and see for yourself”. So that’s exactly what I did, and because I already had some experience in brazing it wouldn’t really have been a true test to just send me, so Dirt’s chief tea boy, Ben Winder, also came along for the day as he’d never been anywhere near a welding torch.
When we arrived we found ourselves in the very pleasant and spacious new Bicycle Academy (BA) premises. Every bit of equipment that you’d need to make a bike was on hand, but we weren’t here to make a bike, we were here to learn how to braze. The day started off with a reasonable chunk of theory before then being gradually introduced to the brazing itself. This theory, and the gradual introduction to the various skills is the key to all of this. When the BA first opened its doors Brian Curtis did all the teaching, and he believed that the best way to learn was just to get straight in and just practice, practice, practice. All the time though Andrew was sure that there had to be a better way to teach someone how to braze, and eventually he came up with his unique method. Brian was still not convinced that Andrew was right, but after Andrew got the chance to put his teaching method into practice it quickly became apparent that he was consistently getting better results from his students than Brian was. I think Brian was actually quite pleased about this because he reckoned the teaching was actually putting him off his game, and at the end of the day he just loves making stuff, he’d much rather leave the teaching to someone else.
I’m not going to try and explain exactly how Andrew teaches brazing, but there are two major things that struck me. Firstly is that he doesn’t really show you how to braze, instead he teaches you all the ‘why’s, how’s and what’s’. This means that you fully understand why things are happening, both good and bad, and it means that you can apply the skill to different circumstances. This is crucial as every joint is different, and with this knowledge you can adjust things in an educated way rather than resorting to simple trial and error. It also means that once you leave the Bicycle Academy you won’t be left floundering on your own, you’ll know exactly what needs doing yourself, even if at first you can’t always get it spot on. That’s where a bit of practice will come in, but like I said it won’t be guesswork, it will be intelligent practice.
The other key thing is the brazing technique itself. This is considerably different to the traditional techniques that I’ve seen and used before, and those that the vast majority of fillet brazed frame builders use. It quickly became apparent to me that Brian hadn’t sold his soul to the devil, instead he’d just come up with an incredibly good technique, and then Andrew had worked out an equally impressive way to teach it. Apart from the great finish that this technique helps to produce it also saves a lot of time and keeps the heating of the tubes to an absolute minimum, which is want you want for the best possible structural integrity.
So what was the outcome of the day? Well normally this course is run ‘one to one’, and so Andrew had actually made his life harder as he really only had half a day to teach each of us, but by the end of it I was doing the best brazing that I’d ever done (but I was still super critical about it because I now had the knowledge of how I could do it even better), and Ben, the absolute beginner, was now brazing considerably better than many frame builders who charge thousands for their frames. I’m not joking either, that is the truth. So yeah, to say that Andrew proved me wrong about being able to teach great brazing in a short amount of time is a massive understatement, but I think the combination of his teaching method and Brian’s brazing technique is something very special indeed. It’s so good in fact that I would seriously recommend that even the most respected frame builders forget about any ego for a minute and go and experience what this guy can teach you. No matter who you are though, I can’t recommend the Bicycle Academy highly enough.
Check it out for yourself, www.thebicycleacademy.org