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Custom bike manufacturers face challenges in Portland

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High Five
Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Despite Portland's much-lauded bicycle culture, the local bike manufacturing industry faces many challenges.

Frame builders, many of whom studied at the United Bicycle Institute of Ashland (the only bicycle frame-building school in the world, according to owner Ron Sutphin), are the most common type of bicycle artisan in Portland, though there are also craftsmen who build wheels, bike tools, and even ultra-specialized products like handmade wooden bicycle fenders...Building a bicycle frame is very labor-intensive, and each frame can take up to several months to make. The individual nature of the work and the handcrafting aspects of the process mean that, over time, frame builders can develop distinctive styles, says Sutphin, often incorporating subtle touches imperceptible to laypeople, which distinguish them from their colleagues. Many of these styles, especially among frame builders who specialize in steelwork, are inspired by historical bicycles of Europe.
Independent, labor-intensive work may provide great opportunities for artistry, but it is difficult to make a living that way. Since most frame builders are independent businesspeople, they must devote time to marketing, sales, finance, supply, and other business functions that take time away from actually producing bikes and generating income. This helps explain the top-notch prices handmade frames command. After the cost of materials, tools, and shop space, frame builders may make a profit of $1,000 to $1,500. With an output of perhaps two frames a month, “you end up making less than a barista,” says [Ben Farver of Argonaut Cycles]. What’s more, it’s tough to charge more money for a hand-built frame because Portland is home to so many skilled frame builders—charging too much drives customers to other frame builders and prevents a craftsman from making a sale at all. To support themselves, many frame builders take second jobs as bike mechanics for other businesses.

Read more about the artisan bicycle manufacturing industry at Neighborhood Notes.

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