I initially learned my framebuilding skills from a man known as Albert “Pop” Hodge. Born in 1877, he was almost 80 when I first met him in the mid 1950s; he had been building frames since 1907.
Pop assembled his frames without the use of jigs. He measured and cut the tubes and measured the angles with a protractor. He drilled and pinned the tubes in the lugs with penny nails. He then laid the frame on the brick floor of his shop; the lines made by the mortar between the bricks told him if the geometry was right.
He brazed the lugged joints, blacksmith style, in a hearth of hot coals. He had a hand held torch which he used to add braze-ons; it was fueled by the town gas supply, which at that time was coal gas. The flame was boosted by compressed air supplied by a small compressor.
The air compressor was the only piece of electrical equipment Pop used, he had a bench drill and a hand drill, both were hand cranked.
I learned the basic skills from Pop Hodge, but in later years when I started my own framebuilding business, I no longer brazed in a hearth. I used an oxy-acetylene torch with a small but extremely hot flame, and controlled the heat by working quickly. I used jigs to assemble the frames, and aligning tools to ensure accuracy. I had taken framebuilding to the next level.
Fast forward to 1985, when a young Native American boy named Russell Denny came to work for me. 18 years old, and fresh out of high school, Russ became my apprentice. He learned every aspect of the craft of framebuilding; learning and mastering one task at a time before moving onto the next. Learning is like climbing a tree in the dark, one needs to be firmly placed on each branch before moving to the next.
By the end of the 1980s and in the early part of the 1990s the bike business was going through some drastic changes. An ugly beast had appeared known as the Mountain bike, and like some strange species introduced to a new environment, it took over and destroyed the road bike.
I knew that change had come but I wanted no part of it; I was bitter and burned out. I was ready to liquidate everything and leave. Russ Denny begged me not to, and I felt I had a certain obligation to him. I had taught him a skill, the only skill he knew. I stayed on as long as I could but in the end had to leave and turned the whole thing over to Russ.
For the next ten years I turned my back on the bike business, and even lost touch with Russ Denny. When I did finally get back in touch, Russ was doing well and had taken framebuilding to the next level, just as I had done.
He was building racing frames in aluminum, and carbon fiber. By this time I was living on the East Coast and Russ was still in Southern California. I have yet to get back for a visit or to see firsthand what Russ Denny is doing.
I was pleased when recently a good friend, Steve Farner (Picture at top of page.) who lives in So. Cal. Decided to start racing again after a break of twenty some years, and needed a modern bike to do so. He had Russ build him a custom frame. Here was someone I trusted that could truly compare the old with the new, and give me feed back.
Above: Russ Denny with his new creation
Russ Denny can build a frame in aluminum or carbon tubes with aluminum lugs, or any combination of the two, like aluminum main triangle with carbon fork and rear triangle. He can also still build a steel frame, lugged or filet brazed if you so desire.
Steve Farner chose an all aluminum frame with a carbon fork, simply for reasons of cost. Russ built him a custom fitted 52 cm. frame. Writing about the bike, Steve said:
From sitting position the top tube looks round and the same diameter; from the side it goes from diamond to oval, and Russ made it only slightly sloping, which I like better than “compact” frames. The seat tube is an oversize single diameter. The down tube is fat, sort of clover shaped and highlights Russ Denny’s decals, including his feather. The entire bike is painted metallic red, screaming speed like a Ferrari Dino. I have always liked red bikes.
Steve previously owned a custom frame that I built in 1984 a year before Russ Denny came to work for me, and incidentally the year I met Steve as a twenty-something young racer. His ‘dave moulton’ weighed 21 lbs. The Denny weighs slightly over 16 lbs. The ride was of course totally different, but it took Steve only about a week to grow to love his new ride. He said:
The Denny absorbs rough sections similar to steel bikes, which was surprising. The harder I push it, the more it gives back in forward motion. This bike tracks absolutely dead-on: throw it into a corner, sprint as powerful as you can, emergency brake, shift in a corner, hit potholes and it doesn’t flinch (or flex out of control). Of course Russ knows how to weld a straight frame.
When Pop Hodge built frames from 1907 until the early 1960s they were the racing frames of the day. The 1922 World Road Championship was won on one of his bikes.
The bikes I built were the racing bikes of the 1970s and 1980s, and now Russ Denny has taken frame building to the next level and into the 21st Century.
We can all lament about the beauty and the passing of lugged steel, but the sport of bicycle racing has changed and if someone wants to compete seriously he must do so on a modern machine.
As is evident by the North American Handmade Bicycle Show there are still plenty of builders offering “Pieces of Art,” lugged steel, for those who want that; I am pleased to see this tradition carried on. But how many framebuilders can build you a one off custom frame, that builds into a modern bike that you can race on, and more importantly, someone who knows what he is are doing.
I doubt if there are more than a handful of framebuilders in the whole world who can boast a direct unbroken connection of 100 years of framebuilding. I am proud to be that living connection between the old and the new.