Part of the Job

by | Sep 10, 1994

Hand labor is so expensive that most products are designed to minimize it. Either that or their manufacture is farmed out to non-industrialized countries where labor is still cheap. Artisans such as Richard Sachs actually like working with their hands, and their efforts remind us that in certain applications, there’s no substitute for human labor. Richard can afford his own labor because he does not answer to stockholders or investors who demand maximum return on investment. He is a craftsman of the old school, and naturally his frames cost a lot—from $1,500 to $2,300 each in 1994—but what a bargain!

In 1974, I bought several thousand sets of Nervex Professional frame lugs through M. Yvars & Cie. of Paris. Yvars was a parts distributor for the cycle trade in Europe and specialized in French products. They were distributors for DuBois lugs, of which Nervex was one model. The company’s full name was Établissement Aime DuBois.

I recall feeling that I could make a superior frame joint with these crude lugs than I could with all other available types. I still believe that, even now, when investment cast lugs are so popular. The Nervex lugs seemed softer and thicker. They held up better during brazing, and wouldn’t heat up faster than the tubes. They came in a terribly crude state, so it was up to me as a frame maker to reshape them. That was part of the job, and I looked forward to all the filing needed to make them beautiful. It’s a good thing, because I’d already sent in the order.

Months later, when all the correspondence, wire transfers, catalogues, and wooden shipping crates arrived, I had to question my own judgment-I now had more lugs in stock than I thought I would make into frames in my lifetime. I spent more money for this folly than I could ever expect to recoup. In time I would come to believe it was the right thing to do, and I expected I wouldn’t need any more lugs for decades!

DuBois stopped making lugs long ago; I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps it was in response to the investment-cast era ushered in during the 1980s. Maybe it was in response to the growing popularity of non-steel frames. Certainly it was in response to the bicycle industry’s move away from hand-made products, forsaking generations of tradition, and towards frames made with the aid of pre-heaters, robots, and disinterested line-workers.

I have used up most of those lugs now, but the packing papers and boxes are still here, and I like having them around. They remind me of how beautiful frames once were—the result of hours of skilled hand labor. Those days are gone, but many of the bikes are still around. If you have one, hold onto it. If it is damaged, it can be fixed, and you can ride it almost forever, as its maker intended.

The above article (including prices) originally appeared in the 1994 Bridgestone Bicycle Catalogue, reprinted courtesy of Grant Petersen, Rivendell Bicycle Works.