We’ve enlisted the help of Tom Donhou, the man behind Donhou Bicycles, a frame building workshop to explain all things custom bicycle.
So you’ve been flicking through Instagram and searching through the web, enviously eyeing up beautiful handcrafted exotica from NAHBS (North American Handmade Bike Show) and Bespoked (NAHBS’ UK equivalent) – bikes with beautifully slender steel tubes and fastidiously finished joints all wrapped up in the finest paint the world has to offer. Or perhaps it’s a custom carbon lay-up that’s caught your eye, and you’re thinking ‘how do I own one of these?’
It’s a big investment, both in personal commitment and, of course, monetarily too. Perhaps it just simply all seems too daunting to bear thinking about? It shouldn’t do. Remember that you reap what you sow; put the effort in and the rewards are great. Choosing the right builder is key. We’ll talk about why, how, and what you need to be thinking about. By the end you’ll be armed with the info you need to find the right builder for you and create that dream bike.
Why go Custom?
There are many reasons why someone might choose to go custom, here are some of the main ones.
Fit / Geometry
Sometimes you simply can’t find a bike that fits you or one that looks well proportioned once it has been set up for you. A custom builder can take your measurements (this may be a service a builder offers, or they may send you to a 3rd party fitter) and tweak geometries, size and proportions to get a perfect fit for you.
Owning a one-off
By going custom you have a much better appreciation for, and bond with your bike. People often see buying custom as their bike for life, so they want to make it as personal as possible.
Investing in someone you believe in and whose philosophy you value
This is becoming more and more important in a world of mass globalisation and not-particularly-strong company ethics. A reason you may go to a custom builder is due to transparency and – buzzword alert! – authenticity. By going to an independent frame builder you have a much better understanding of where your money goes and you can support something you believe in.
Supporting local manufacturing
A follow on from above, this is important to a lot of people and if you’re lucky enough to have a builder on your doorstep (and they allow you!), it’s great to be able to pop in and see your bike develop. There are even frame builders who open their workshops for classes, so you could have a truly one off frame you have built for yourself. Read more about our adventure into steel frame bike building from a couple years ago.
Key considerations when choosing a spec
It’s likely that you may have been brewing your perfect bike in your mind for many months, or even years, and indeed the spec’ is wholly down to you and your intended use. However, often it’s great to get some fresh eyes on something, so listen to your builder’s input. Remember they are the professionals.
What do you want your bike to achieve? One thing, for example, is you may have a grand plan for having this ‘do everything super bike’, when the reality is you’ll be riding one style for 95% of the time. Don’t sacrifice that 95% for the 5%.
Material? There’s titanium, carbon, steel and stainless steel, even bamboo and wood to choose from. Do your research and once chosen, get your builder’s advice on the finer details. For example, if you think steel is the material for you, listen to your builder when it comes to choosing tube sets. Also, remember there is a whole bike to consider. If you don’t have an endless budget, rather than simply going for the most exotic material, think about where your money might go a little further. For example, I’d opt for steel over stainless every time and invest the saved money into an amazing set of hand-built wheels.
Then finally there’s paint. This is usually the part people find the most difficult. With endless options, all I can say is good luck! The best place to start is just collect anything you see and like: pics of other bikes; a paint swatch you saw in B&Q; or a design you spotted on a sneaker (a mood board or Pinterest page is great for this). Remember, your painter will enjoy a challenge!
How to pick your builder
As the frame building resurgence has been blossoming in the last few years there are now more and more builders to choose from. A builder will have a different level of experience, style and manner. I often compare commissioning a custom bike to working with a surfboard shaper to shape your new board – it’s a lot to do with trust.
You’ll be speaking and emailing a lot and it’s meant to be an enjoyable process, so make sure you choose someone that you vibe with and that you both understand each other. This may be a new builder where, perhaps, you are saving a little money in return for a frame built by someone with a relatively small amount of experience, or it may be a more established builder that you have been following for years.
Obviously, not all builders may make the kind of bike you are after. If you wanted a tough as nails hardtail MTB you wouldn’t go to someone who only builds lugged road frames and vice versa. Some builders are known for their elaborate hand carved lugs, some for their amazing paint jobs and others for their sleek race machines.
Have a look around on the web or go to a show. CycleExif and The Radavist are two of the stand-out blogs for custom builds, but there are more. Show wise, if you’re based in the UK, then you’re lucky enough to have the Bespoked show, which showcases the work of builders from around the UK and further afield. If you really want to go deep into the subject, there are books available to refer to like Rob Penn’s ‘It’s All About the Bike’.
The important thing is to take your time with it, talk to a few builders, collate your thoughts. Don’t rush, trust your builder, savour the process and enjoy that amazing one-of-a-kind bike at the end of it all.