The Magic of Making a Bicycle By Hand

Posted by Colin Owen

The joint between top and head tube of a bicycle is a wondrous thing. 

To make such a joint is its own wonder as well. The operation starts simply enough—the tubes are gingerly secured by a jig and located in relation to one another and the welder's reach. The spark and weld begins with elaborate body and hand positioning and the press of a foot-pedal. The flow of electrons superheats a target point, which transmogrifies from an aluminum-titanium-steel shaft into a pool of liquid metal. This moment is magic of the highest order. It is a wonder too few humans experience in these times.

The welder then guides the liquid bead, like a marble in a groove. Due to a nasty trick of geometry, the line of intersection between cylinders writhes in all three axes. The welder hovers above the surface and follows the path with the electrode as it twists, turns, and falls away from his or her body. The welder moves the electrode and rod rhythmically, heating and dabbing. Working in unbroken series of motions, the metal is joined, then left to cool. Consider conducting surgery in glacier glasses and leather gloves in an environment more than 1400 degrees above sunny day temps, all while keeping a beat.  

A beautiful weld is a strong weld.

There are many mostly invisible variables involved in welding, from changes in the distance, angle, or timing of the electrode position, to impurities in the metal or weld surface, to your body position and pace. Master all these and the assortment of flimsy pipes becomes a rigid, precise machine. Screw up any and you have a scabrous sore between pieces of ruined, worthless tubing.

This is what ran through my mind a few years back, while surveying jaw-dropping craft at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. The hands-on ingenuity wows, the whole event buzzing about precision and innovation.

As a professor at California College of the Arts, I've pondered how to bring that spark home. How to get more students building as a means of thinking. How to get more people engaging in high-craft endeavors? I've contemplated how to parse design and the knowledge of how things actually go together. It struck that more building needed to happen for more students.

Design students find themselves adrift in the ocean of necessary tools and skills. The toolkit continues to expand. With the proliferation and sex appeal of digital tools, physical making can get short shrift in the overall arc of a design education. Who doesn't love the shiny render? Yet there are greater arguments than, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could all weld?" for limbering up your torch hand. Procedures inherent in physical making commute to rational decision-making. 

This inherent truth: Students (and experienced designers) must understand how things are constructed. 

My trip to the Handmade Bicycle Show fueled a summer course on how to design and fabricate bicycles at CCA. That was three years ago. The course, open to both CCA students and the larger community, has been a wild success.

Now we are expanding. We've teamed up with the local IDSA and are throwing our doors open to the public. Over the next three months, we want more people to share our passion. We have launched a lecture series focused on the design and craft of bicycle making and culture. Expect lively discussions and cold beer.

The first session focuses on history and legacy, featuring amazing bay area builders. The second focuses on bicycle technology and innovation. The third discusses 'Everything But the Bike'. A few more events will join the mix as we firm up dates. Stay tuned.

Join us for our Fix Your Street Challenge on the last Saturday of May. Click here to say you'll Do It and be sure to share stories of transportation innovation all month.

Original top image screenshot from Bowery Lanes Bicycles video; handmade bicycle closeup courtesy of Urban Velo