Monday, September 19, 2011

Tinker, tinker, tinker: And so it begins

I was looking at an airplane when it struck me that I was going to build a bike frame from scratch. My sibs and I were at the airport in Midland, picking up relatives who were flying in for my mother's funeral. Because everyone was coming in on different flights, but within an hour of each other, we'd decided to just make one trip to the airport. It meant a little extra waiting, but we had each other for company.

Conversation lagged after awhile, as it sometimes does even among family. I got up to stretch my legs and while I was walking around, I noticed an old airplane hanging from the ceiling. And when I say old, I mean that it was from sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, as in pre-Sopwith Camel.

This old bird was hardly bigger than the pilot who must have sat in it, and everything was exposed on it--struts and wires and pulleys. Because nothing was hidden by fabric or metal, I could stand there and puzzle out how it worked. If the pilot pushed down on that stick, then this flap would move. A push of that pedal would move a rudder. And so on.

The more I looked at it, the more it became clear that it was really a very simple machine. In fact, the more I looked at it, the more it seemed like something I could make, were I not terrified of flying in general and therefore unlikely ever to build an airplane, much less fly it when I was finished. Still, if I were to make one, it would be fun.

That's the way I've always been. I'm more interested in building something than actually using it. I've always, for instance, wanted to build a greenhouse. I don't want to use  one, as it seems like a lot of work to do so. I'd sure like to build one, though.

I've always wanted to build a sailboat, too, though I've never lived anywhere near an ocean. And I went through a period where I did a lot of fly-tying and even dreamed of building fly rods, though there is not a fishable stream around for miles.

I do sometimes build things I use. I built a telescope once that I carted outside several nights for about a year, until a car accident left me with chronic vertigo that often bothers me when I look at the night sky. It doesn't matter, though, since it was really about the joy of making the telescope, and not the galaxy itself. I don't miss the planets and stars. I still have the telescope.

So given my history, it is not so far-fetched to imagine me building an airplane without any expectation of ever using it.

Thankfully*, as I was standing there looking at the plane, it occurred to me that it wasn't much more complicated than a bicycle. And then I remembered that Orville and Wilbur Wright were bicycle mechanics before they were airplane builders, and so of course it made sense that one could see elements of that simple and elegant machine in the primitive airplane that hung from the ceiling.

And I thought, "How hard could it be to build a bicycle? Those Wright boys did it. What makes them so different from me?"

Maybe it seems strange that I was thinking about building a bicycle when the matter at hand was my mother's funeral. But as has happened so often in my life, the thought of a project steadied me. It also made me think of my father, who was a tinkerer like me, and that felt right, as if something was coming full circle in those moments between puzzling out the airplane, musing about those other tinkerers, the Wrights, and deciding to make the bike.

*I say "thankfully," not just because I was saved from building an airplane, but because a bicycle is something I might use.

And so it begins. I got a book, Lugged Bicycle Frame Construction, A Manual for the First Time Builder, by Marc-Andre R. Chimonas, read it more or less cover-to-cover four times during the past month (though simple, the individual steps are many and critical to do in the right order), found a set of tubes and lugs on sale at Nova Cycles, took a deep breath, and plunged right in. Here are some pictures of the progress I made this weekend.

I put the dimensions of the tubes and frame into a free software program on Nova Cycles called "Tube Notcher," which prints out a paper template for the individual miters that I attached to the tubes as a guide for cutting:
(The bottom line is the "cut" line.)

I made the first, rough cut using a Dremel tool:

Cleaned it up using a grinding tip on the Dremel, and a bastard file:

The goal, according to the book, is for a miter that fits with gaps no bigger than a fingernail. It's hard to tell from this photo, but the gaps fit the criteria:

Subsequent cuts on the top tube are aligned using the lugs and protractor:

Starting to look like a frame:

My miters kept improving as the weekend progressed, partly because I was putting a beveled finish on the edge to accomodate the dimensions of the mating tube:

Figuring the length of the downtube:

Et voila! 

I made one fairly significant mistake when I misunderstood how to measure the length of the head tube, and so I wound up cutting it too short. A new head tube only costs eight bucks, however, so if that's the only mistake I make on the frame, I'll be more than satisfied. Everything I've read over the past month on frame building forums suggests that the first frame is all about learning how to make the second frame.

I ordered a new head tube yesterday, along with all the bits and pieces I will need to finish out (seat stay caps, dropouts, etc.) and it should all be here by the weekend. Hopefully, Ill be able to start brazing this weekend or the next.

So far so good. If I had to rank it, I'd say this project ultimately will be slightly more complicated than a telescope, but probably less so than an airplane.


  1. I admire your spunk. There are things I will try but building a biycle is not one of them. But it is looking good.

  2. Oh, my -- I'm so impressed by your ability to build things I don't know what to say.

    But, keep going! (I'm not going to write the common substitute for that!)


  3. Hey, Lisa! How's it going over in your part of the world?

  4. That's pretty cool. I rebuilt a few bikes, but to build the frame from scratch - awesome.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.