Brazed Alchemy

by | Jul 1, 2004

At the heart of a great wristwatch is a handcrafted mechanical caliber and at the heart of a great bicycle is a handmade frame. Richard Sachs is on the cognoscenti’s short list as the best framebuilder in the history of the craft.

No doubt about it, Lance Armstrong could ride circles around most of us even if he were sitting atop a 1970s Schwinn Varsity, and that’s because the most important factor in making a bicycle go fast is the rider riding it. Still, the more involved you get in the sport of cycling, even at a recreational level, the more important your machine becomes, which is why the quest to own the perfect bike, like the quest to own the perfect watch, has always had a Holy Grail quality to it.

The bicycle industry is a big business and that means lots of marketing talk and the need to always push new “product.” And, just as most of the wristwatches that you see out there rely on quartz or ETA mechanical movements, most of the racing bikes you see today use mass-produced frames made out of carbon fiber (light, but extremely delicate), aluminum (light, but delicate and brittle to ride) and titanium (light and durable, but aesthetically crude). Because of economic reasons, the handmade lugged steel bicycle frame has become practically extinct. In the long run it’s much less labor intensive to create molded carbon fiber frames or TIG welded aluminum frames than it is to join steel tubes together with a 56% silver brazing compound and a set of lugs (the metal fittings that link the tubes together).

In other words, the cycling world is currently going through what the watch industry went through during the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s. Prior to the Mechanical Renaissance of the 1980s, the mechanical watch was all but dead and one has to hope that Richard Sachs and the 10 or so other accomplished American framebuilders out there are at the cutting edge of what might someday be called the Lugged Steel Renaissance.

The manufacture frame (to use the watch parallel) is still made by hand out of lugged steel. It might weigh as much as a pound more than the lighter nonferrous materials, but steel will offer a much more fluid ride … one that’s both lively and forgiving while lasting for decades of hard use. What’s more, a steel frame is simply more beautiful, and for most of us the aesthetics of a ride (fresh air, rolling hills, a mind and body boosted by adrenaline and endorphins, the flawless performance of a machine that pleases the eye and ear) are a huge part of the sport’s appeal.

Connecticut-based Richard Sachs (51) began building frames in the early 1970s. A defining moment for him came later in the decade when he tuned in to a television series produced by National Geographic called Living Treasures of Japan. In it, nine of Japan’s most revered craftsmen are portrayed including a sword maker who designs according to a secret ritual and a bronze bell maker.

Another defining moment was when a customer pointed out the similarities between what he does and what the English shotgun manufacturer James Purdey & Sons has been doing since 1814. Since then, as the Links page on his website would suggest, he takes less inspiration from the bicycle industry than he does from the world of other high-craft objects such as Longmire cufflinks; Patek Philippe and Roger W. Smith wristwatches; Marinella neckties; C.H. Becksvoort furniture and Monteleone guitars.

Like most Americans, Sachs had always looked to Europe for inspiration and the English builder W.B. Hurlow was his earliest influence. From there he moved on to the Italian framebuilders, because Sachs, a racer himself, was passionate about the functional geometry found in a great frame and didn’t want to embellish his work with the froufrou lugs that the English tended to use.

By the mid 1980s, after five or six trips to Italy, he came to realize that he had projected an ideal of framebuilding onto their craftsmen that didn’t really exist. With a few exceptions, most Italian work was outsourced or done in an assembly line atmosphere. The American framebuilders of the 1970s … through an act of creative misunderstanding … had invented artisanal framebuilding done in a one-man shop.

Like anything that’s truly worth doing there’s a romance to the process of brazing. You’re taking metal and heating it up with a hand-held torch to the point that it changes color…and then you have about 10 minutes to feed the brazing material in order to give the joint its integrity.

A poorly-brazed joint that’s been cleaned-up after the fact is second rate. There’s a delicate balancing act involving heat, time and the texture of the metals involved. You have to get it perfect in one pass. “I never clean up lug edges, ” Sachs puts it, “when I get the temperature up and the heat is reflecting off of the joints into my face and the smell of hot metal is in the air, especially in the winter … to me that’s what it’s all about. That’s heaven. It’s just immensely satisfying when you turn off the torch and everything cools and you see what you did.”

Sachs can only create 80 frames a year and is admirably supportive of young framebuilders who are just starting out. When he began, it was accepted that the best bikes were made by hand, and his main challenge was in overcoming the reverence for things European.

Today’s young craftsmen are facing a much more hostile environment, but perhaps the fact that Richard Sachs has a 28-month waiting list for his $3,000 frames (a Campagnolo build kit adds another $2,500 to the total cost) and is happy to refer customers who can’t wait that long to other framebuilders is a sign that the Lugged Steel Renaissance has already begun.

The following article was originally written for WatchTime magazine by Matthew Morse, appearing in the July/August 2004 issue. Click here to see the article in its original format (PDF; Adobe Reader required).