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Art and Function

I love when a comment on one of my blog posts gives me food for thought, and better yet subject matter for another article. Steve wrote such a comment on my last tribute to Brian Baylis. He stated:

A bicycle, isn’t a piece of art, but something you ride. Because really, no frame builder builds all the components hung on his frame: wheels, tires, saddles, cables, brakes, derailleurs et al.

It is, in the end, a simple device envisioned hundreds of years ago as a means of moving men (yes, it was envisioned by men for men). So really, how much time should one spend building a frame, when all its components are produced by someone else?

(See the complete comment on my previous post.) 

So is a bicycle art or just something you ride? Well, yes and no. There is pure art, objects that serve no practical purpose other than to be pleasing to the eye. To live a life without art would be a pretty bland existence.

I am not a material person by any means. I do not place much importance on stuff, but I do have pictures on my walls, and a few pieces of handmade pottery around. They bring me pleasure, and my life and my home would be missing something if they weren’t there. That is the only purpose of these art objects.

Everything ‘man-made’ whether handmade or mass produced, is either pure art, completely practical, or mostly what I call ‘Functional Art.”

Because given a choice between two objects of equal performance and price, one will choose the one more pleasing to look at.

Furniture is a good example of functional art. A chair has to be comfortable to sit in, but also needs to be pleasing to look at, because it becomes part of the décor of our homes, along with the pictures on the wall.

There are degrees of function and art in functional art, and when one takes over from the other the product often suffers one way or another. But it all comes down to what the consumer or owner of the object wants, and what he can afford or is willing to pay.

When a chair becomes a piece of pure art, it may be uncomfortable to sit in, or too fragile for everyday use, and one might ask, what use is it.

If it brings pleasure to its owner just to look at it, that is its purpose. I would not criticize anyone for owning such a chair, or the person who made it.

So is a bicycle frame any different? I got into building frames to build a better bicycle. One that rode better, handled better, and was more comfortable. My customers in the UK were almost 100% racing cyclists. The bike was needed to compete in bike races, it sold because it was functional and the price was right.

When I came to the US I had to up the ante on my finish work because that is what the American consumer demanded. The bikes did not lose any of the ride or handling qualities, but I did reach a point where people began to say, “This is too beautiful to race, I will be afraid to crash it.”

This annoyed the hell out of me. I had been forced to move towards pure art in order to stay competitive, then the bike was no longer practical as a racing bike, because it was too fine and too expensive.

That is why I moved away from the pure custom frame to the limited production model like the Fuso. A Fuso will handle exactly the same as one of my super expensive customs, but the price was reasonable, and the degree of finish was acceptable to the people who wanted a piece of art.

On Steve’s point that the framebuilder only makes the frame, not the complete bike. It has always been that way. Even today, companies like Trek and Cannondale, design and produce a frame only, then assemble it with the same components as everyone else. And the bicycle always takes on the name of the frame builder or manufacturer. It becomes a Trek bicycle, or a Dave Moulton, a Fuso or a Brian Baylis bicycle.

Even lower end bicycles are built this way. The only exception I know to this was Raleigh Industries, in Nottingham, England. They had a huge factory that made everything. They had different thread standards, and even different rim and tire sizes, so if you bought a Raleigh bike, you were forced to buy spare parts and even tires from Raleigh. They went out of business some years ago, and I don’t know of anyone manufacturing the whole bike anymore.

To sum up, I believe there is room for art and room for function, and when you can successfully combine the two you have the best of both worlds. I never spent as much time building a bicycle frame as Brian Baylis, but I did spend a year and a half writing a novel. Was that a waste of time? You tell me, because I often wonder about that myself.


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R. Brian Baylis 1953 – 2016

It was a sad moment this morning when I learned that framebuilder and painter Brian Baylis had died the previous evening. I felt I definitely needed to write some sort of tribute, as Brian was one of the first people I met and worked along-side when I came to San Marcos, California in the early 1980s.

But what to say in writing such a piece, that is the problem. Brian Baylis was such a complex character, even when you knew him, you didn’t really understand exactly where he was coming from, so how does a person begin to explain that personality to others who never knew him. I’ll just have to start at the beginning and do the best I can.

October 1980 I arrived in San Marcos, San Diego County. Having come over from England just the previous year and landed in New Jersey. And if I found that strange, I may as well have landed on a different planet when I arrived in California. I had come to work for Ted Kirkbride, who was sub-contracted to build the Masi frames.

Ted had a frameshop and paint facility, and to defray some of the operating cost he rented space out as a co-op type of situation, to different framebuilders and painters who then shared the space and equipment. Brian was one of the builders who also painted his own frames.

Brian and I were worlds apart when it came to our approach to framebuilding. I set myself a certain high standard, and did my best to maintain that same standard over the years. I didn’t want my customers feeling I had built a better frame for someone else than I had for them. I tried to be consistent.

This is where explaining Brian Baylis is difficult, because I am not suggesting for one moment that he had inconsistent standards or ever turned out shoddy work. It was the exact opposite. He seemed to set some standard beyond even his own capabilities and strove towards that, until he thought he had reached it. Never caring for how long it was taking him to achieve this level of workmanship.

On hearing of his passing, for some reason I thought of a story I once heard of an old wood carver, working on a huge pair of double oak doors. The design was an intricate one with oak leaves and acorns, scrolls and winged cherubs in each corner. Someone asked him, “How do you know when it is finished?” He replied, “It is never finished, they just come and take it away from me.”

For some reason I feel that Brian was like that except there was no one to take it away from him. But he probably kept filing until the desire to paint it took over. Brian’s intricate lug work and filing, was only surpassed by his painting.

I owe a lot of my success to Brian Baylis and indeed the other painters, Jim Allen and Jim Cunningham who were there at that time. I had painted my own frames in the UK, but after arriving at the San Marcos shop, I realized the American market demanded paintwork that was at a whole different level.

Talking to a mutual friend, David Ball, this morning, I mentioned about the little painting tricks I had learned (or stolen.) from Brian. David said, “Brian learned a few tricks from you, in particular frame alignment tricks.”

Looking back, Brian Baylis was the only person who never gave me any grief, at that crazy San Marcs co-op. There was always conflict over the schedule for using the paint booth and other equipment. Brian took two weeks to build one frame so he was never tying up the paint booth or the frame jig.

When I left San Marcos I saw very little of Brian, but always heard how he was doing from our mutual friend. I would see him occasionally at cycling events and shows. It was from David Ball I heard of Brian’s passing this morning.

It is an understement to say Brian Baylis was a colorful character. If my writing here has not done him justice, I have no worries, because I know the body of work he leaves behind always will. I will miss you, Brian, rest in peace my friend.


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Rear Dropouts


Have you ever had the misfortune to break an adjuster screw in a rear dropout?

Or worse still a thread tap which is hardened and can’t be drilled out.

The best way to deal with this problem is to seek out an engineering company who have Electrical Discharge Machining (EDM) equipment. This machine can burn through steel with precision using very little heat.

I would occasionally break a tap in the dropout of a brand new painted and finished frame. I would take it to a local EDM shop where they would burn out the broken tap and not even touch or mar the paint work, and not charge me too much money. 

On another subject have you ever wondered what those two little threaded holes are for in the right hand side Campagnolo short rear dropout. Mostly seen on frames built through the 1980s. (See the picture above.)

This was for a special chain hanger Campagnolo introduced in 1977. Called a Portacatena, it consisted of a “C” shaped steel plate that attached to the inside of the rear dropout with two screws in the threaded holes I just pointed out.

The idea was in the event of a flat tire, with the aid of a special extra lever on your down tube shift lever, the chain could be shifted onto the Portacatena chain holder where it would stay while the wheel was being changed. 

After the wheel change, the rider got a push start and then shifted the chain onto the rear freewheel in the usual way. The idea never really caught on because it was only suited to a race team with support kind of situation. It was also necessary to use a five-speed freewheel on a six-speed hub spacing (125mm.) 

Soon after its introduction six speed freewheels became commonplace and the idea died a natural death. In spite of this Campagnola continued to produce rear dropouts with these two threaded holes to my knowledge through the early 1990s. Why? I have no idea.

Finally, while on the subject of rear dropouts, I have been selling stainless steel replacement dropout adjuster screws for about three years now.

Recently When I replenished my stock I decided to change over to Allen socket head screws.

These are fiddley little beggars to fit with a flat screwdriver, Allen head screws make the job a whole lot easier.

A long "T" handle Allen wrench would work nicely with these screws, as long as the handle clears the chainstays. The ideal tool is a nut driver, which takes a hex socket for tightening small hexagonal head screws and nuts. (Picture below.)

The required size 2.5mm. Allen tool bit then fits into the appropriate size socket and fitting these new screws is a walk ride in the park.

If the threads in your frame happen to be full of rust, or dirt and the screw comes to a grinding halt, don’t force it but rather apply some grease to the screw, and each time you come to a stop, back off (Unscrew) half a turn or so, then go forward again.

Each time you will usually progress a little further before having to back off again.

Patience is the key, rather than trying to force the screw in and end up breaking it.  (Which is where we started today.)

(Picture right.) I sell these new stainless screws on eBay for $9.50 a pair, and postage is free anywhere in the world. They weigh less than an ounce and go in a regular business envelope with a stamp. There is also a permanent ad in the right column of this page.


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Two from the Eight Decades 

I was born this day February 8th 1936, in a village called Dunsfold in Surrey England. Just South of London. I tried to write a brief decade by decade account of my life, but found 80 years was too long to summarise in a blog post. So gave up and decided to post some pictures from the first two. The earliest picture I have is the one above. Already learning to keep my head down and my eyes open.

With my Dad in my first year or so. He was so proud of me back then. WWII took him away for 5 years when I was 4 and when he came home I was 9 years old. I realize now how annoying 9 year old boys can be. No wonder he hated me.

My earliest picture with my mother, as she was usually the photographer. Aged about two I'm guessing.

1940 Aged 4. Why so serious? WWII had started.

About the same time. The tents in the background are an army camp. With my Uncle David, who I was named after.

1944. Left to right, my Mother, My younger sister Betty, my step-sister Joyce and myself.

A school picture. My mother wrote the date on the back, 1944. I was eight.

1948 The war was over, I was 12. Here with my sister.

1949. Aged 13, with my first new bike. A Hercules Roadster.

The local church choir. Me on the right age 13.

1950. Age 14, on a horse at my Aunt's Riding School.

1951, One of my last school pictures. Aged 15. (Is that a hint of a smile, or a fuck you smirk?)

1952. My first year racing. Age 16.

1952, At the end of my first season racing, collecting my trophies. After years of my father and school teachers telling me I was useless, people were praising me and telling me I was good at something. No wonder I fell in love with cycling.

1953. Aged 17. Riding in the National 12 Hour TT Championship. Covered 220 miles in the 12 hours.

1954. On the right aged 18. Wearing the fashion of the day, discovering girls. Into music, modern jazz mostly. Rock n' Roll was yet to burst on the scene a couple of years later. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were only 11 years of age. And People think those guys are old?


And that was only the beginning, I'm off to enjoy the rest of my day, after all I will only turn 80 once.


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The Importance of a Paint Facility

One of the largest outlays in setting up a framebuilding business is a paint facility, by that I mean to include a totaly enclosed, dust free paint booth.

It is a large expense to set up and maintain, because it takes up a lot of space. It therefore it prohibits one from working out of their home, or some tiny hole-in-the wall shop. In most places you can’t spray paint in a residential neighborhood anyway. You have to own or rent space in an industrial area.

Rent is a huge overhead when running any business. It is the reason I eventually went out of business in 1993 when the demand for road frames dropped to a level where I could not generate enough income to pay the rent on a 1500 sq. ft. industrial unit.

I could have maybe squeezed into a 1000 ft. space, but the rent would not have been that much lower, plus I would have had the expense of moving, costing money I didn’t have.

My paint booth was totally enclosed, it measured 20 x 20 feet. That is 400 sq. ft. and with at least a 3 foot space required all around it, you can maybe appreciate that any space under 1500 sq. ft. for the rest of the shop would be a squeeze.

At one end of the booth was a large fan that drew the air from inside the booth and exhausted it through a 2 ft. diameter vent through the roof. The air was drawn through replaceable filters that caught the paint over-spray.

 At the opposite end of the booth were air intake filters. These were “Sticky” so they caught dust and prevented it from entering the booth. The booth had a partition inside, one side to hang frames being painted, the other side was where the painting took place.

The partition prevented frames waiting and those just pained, and therefore still wet, from getting over-spray on them. I also had an electric paint curing oven that baked the paint to 250 degrees. This was another essential piece of equipment, as It allowed paint to be sanded for the next coat in an hour or so, rather than wait a day or more for it to air dry.

Owning a similar facility with a paint booth, is also the reason why I never started up again years later when the demand for road frames picked up. My shop cost $30,000 to set up in 1983, today that figure would be closer to $100,000. Too large an initial outlay, with no guarantee I would ever see a return on the investment.

Is it essential to have a paint facility? I am often asked. The answer is no, but it is for me. Many framebuilders build frames and ship them somewhere else to be painted. But the paint job is more than half the profit in building a frame.

To me, the paint is as important as the building of the frame, and the two go hand in hand. The paint is what the customer sees, it is too significant to be left in the hands of some outside entity. I would never build frames and not have total control over painting them.

There is the cost of shipping the frames both to and from the painter, and there is also the time factor. When you have your own facility you can handle a rush job easily. Mistakes and flaws can be fixed immediately, and even a complete strip and re-paint is not the end of the world.

The one drawback is, you have to produce enough frames to warrant the expense of owning your own paint facility. One or two frames a week won’t cut it. Initially I painted myself, but at the height of my production in the mid-1980s, it became necessary to train and employ a full time painter. I produced as many as 30 frames a month. It was a good and profitable business.

When the demand dropped below 20 frames a month, I could lay off employees, but I still had the rent and overhead on the fairly large industrial space. Times have changed. In the eighties if you wanted a top of the line bicycle frame, it was hand brazed, lugged steel.

Those days are gone forever, and it is the reason why builders like Ben Serotta, myself and others are no longer building frames. And really I do not need to build anymore frames, there are thousands of them still out there. They come up for sale ever week on eBay and Craig’s List, many of them hardly used and still in mint condition.

Even on frames that have had a lot of use, the paint has held up well, which speaks volumes for my always having my own paint facility.


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