Craft Culture: Custom Bike Frames at Prairie Crow Bikeworks

 

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The frame tubes, which are made in the US by Henry James Bicycles, arrive in a slim box and look oddly bland before they are joined together with the lugs. Alone, lugs resemble spiky, medieval helmets. Since the lugs are casted they require filing to take down and remove pits from the casting process. Alex takes up a metal file not much bigger than an emery board nail file and gets to work. His strokes are purposeful and measured, swiping to match the curve of the lug. He has a variety of hand files and sometimes, on tough jobs, pulls out the die grinder. This process can take about half an hour; drilling the holes takes another two-and-a-half.

When this is done, the tubes must be cut to fit the lugs watertight, which requires checking and re-checking. He fits each tube into the tubing block, closes the bench vise on the block, and grabs what looks like a serrated knife. Alex starts cutting in long, steady strokes, twisting the blade slightly to work in a curve. He has the steady hand of a fly fisherman, and you can tell it’s something he’s worked at. “You can use a machine,” Alex says, “but this is a lot faster.” I get the sense that this isn’t the case for all frame builders.

After dry fitting comes the mitering, and after the mitering, the fillet brazing. Alex applies a paste to the tube and dons goggles. The paste is called flux, which seals the metal from oxygen and allows the silver, melted from a large roll, to stick. “It’s the hardest part,” Alex says as a he lights the blow torch, “it takes a lot of patience and gentleness.” He waxes philosophical: “You can’t make the materials do exactly what you want, steel is steel, so you have to surrender to it… Brazing feels like asking.”

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He checks for alignment—checks, re-checks, re-checks again. Then there’s “a mountain of lug work, looking out for what my old teacher called ‘little uglies.’” This entails three to four hours of filing with a strap the size of a shoelace. Alex used to to hate this, but now loves it, because it’s where your accuracy shows. “Woodworking and building canoes taught me to love this part.”

It seems that legacy is on Alex’s mind a lot. When asked what his grand aspirations are for Prairie Crow Bikeworks, Alex replied, “Keep building and keep having people ride my frames and be happy. I either want people to ride it into the ground or see people pass them along to their kids or grandkids.” The thing that keeps Alex inspired is when his clients tell him, “‘I rode all last Saturday and love my bike’ […] The response is really different from people in bike shops saying, ‘You sold me a good bike, thanks.’ There’s a different relationship and risk, but my one hope is that it meets their grandest expectations.”

After all this work, it’s a wonder that Alex finds time for anything else, but he tries to stay connected to life around him. When not at the shop Alex bikes, gardens, and camps. Anything to get out. And did I mention that he brews beer? The last success was a black IPA, and next up: barley wine.

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