Interview: Matthew Sowter, Saffron Frameworks, Part Two
Part Two of Anna Schwinn's talk with Matthew Sowter goes into detail about his design and frame building process and methods.
AS You always look for naked frames in process when you come into a shop.
MS I haven’t built anything for the last week and a half because I’ve been getting ready for the show.
AS I don’t expect that I’ll see a lot of bikes in process this soon after the show. So your bikes, what’s interesting to me about the bikes that you produce, this style in the US would be tig welded instead of fillet brazed. But otherwise, you’ve got a very modern steel frame style with your massive Columbus Spirit HSS squoval downtube and fastback stays and tapered headtube. Your bikes were exceptional at the show (Bespoked 2016) because they were so clean and relatively modern compared to a lot of others.
MS Thank you or not, I don’t know.
AS I was starting to realize my American biases walking around the show. Nothing there was big and crazy and fat, the paint wasn’t hot rod-ish enough for me. The tubes that were bent weren’t bent enough. American builders seem to take it to that kind of extreme. But this is a very solid modern steel frame, and it was an exception to everything. All the lines seem to be where they are supposed to be.
MS I see imperfections in everything I do, to tell you the truth. You say that and it’s nice to hear it, but I just think, “Fucking hell, I hope she doesn’t see that or that.”
AS No. It was cool to see, cool from my perspective to walk in and go, okay, this is familiar, I see what you’re doing here. I see your bike here and it’s bananas.
MS It’s not my bike.
AS Well you built it. What do you perceive as being your imperfections on this?
MS So that’s a little bit too high for my liking. My thing is that your seat stays should always, if you run a line, should almost always go to the center of your top tube.
Another little issue here is that, unfortunately the painter… look he’s done an amazing job, but he’s put about five coats of lacquer on here so he’s lost the edge of this.
AS The shoreline is filled.
MS Which I’m not too keen on. For me and my philosophy is that I can build you a beautiful bike and someone can paint it and it can look absolutely horrendous. Like a really shitty paint job. The customer who picks up the bike or ride it is going to think “fucking hell, this is a rubbish bike” just based upon the paint. I almost have no control over it because I don’t do it in house. I would rather spend the money on doing that. You want the other imperfections?
AS Yeah, yeah! I’m always interested to see. I’ve made other people do this, it says a lot about what you see and think about and agonize over as a builder.
MS If you have a look at this chainstay broach, you see that it has a little sharp edge like that. I’m not a big fan of a massive 90 degree, specially on a high stress area. I should have had a bit more of a smoother fillet that goes into the chainstay.
AS Nice little chain keeper there.
MS Unfortunately, though, it’s stainless steel...
AS … and it’s not masked.
MS It’s not masked. Basically the really skinny bit and the mushroom head should be left exposed. But it wasn’t, unfortunately.
AS The thing is y’all builders over here put braze-ons where you wouldn’t see them on American bikes (which are) very clean, no pump pegs, no anything else. Chain keepers are, unfortunately, becoming more of a rare thing.
MS The thing is that it makes so much sense having a chain peg. If you’ve got bikes in your house everywhere and you don’t have a work stand and you go to take your rear wheel off, your chains is just going to hang loose. It could potentially hang on the ground. So you’re going to to dirty your floor and so on and so forth. If you’re out riding somewhere, you could literally use a stick, and just put your chain on your chain peg.
AS Why have you chosen to take this, versus the rest of the market here, this really modern approach?
MS My background is racing bikes, that’s what I enjoy riding. I think that’s where steel’s got a bit of a shortfall. There’s a massive misconception in the market that all steel frames are floppy and unresponsive. So, intentionally, I increased the diameter of the tubes as much as possible to get the most stiffness out of it. You can still have your Sunday best bike, but it can still be quick enough and responsive enough that you can keep up with your mates when you’re doing a ride.
AS Why are you doing brass and not welding?
MS Two reasons: One, my tig welding is not that good, I’ll be honest. It’s a little bit rough. Two, I’m not really keen on the aesthetic finish of it. I don’t like it. Some people do an amazing job of tig welding, like Aaron from Mosaic does a super job.
I love the smooth integration from one tube to the next. That’s kind of what does it for me. Economically, it doesn’t do it for me because it takes such a long time to clean everything and the flux is messy, but I like the aesthetic of it, so that’s what I do.
AS I was noticing your seat stay bridges. It’s a curved tube on an otherwise straight bike.
MS The only reason is it curves the same as the tire. It’s purely aesthetic, like mountain bikes. It’s a lot more more effective to have a straight bar when it comes to mounting a brake on it, but if you have to mount a fender or mud guard, why not have the same mud guard as the bridget you are attaching it to?
AS Your seat clusters change from bike to bike. Four bikes here, four different seat clusters. Are you having fun? Are you narrowing down on a style you like?
MS No, I make to a model. Everything is a one off. It’s not the most economic way of working, but it just means that I can play the devil’s advocate when somebody says, “I want a pinch bolt. I want a braze on. I want an integrated seat post. I want a seat clamp.” You can give them the pros and the cons and let them make a choice.
A big part of it for me is not to always dictate of what someone should have. I kind of try to emphasize that it’s a collaboration between myself and the rider. I want the person’s money, there’s no two ways about it, but I want them to walk away that they’ve spent money on something. They are paying me for it, but also what’s really important is I want them to give me their input. I want them to take time out to make a decision that hey, I want that pinch bolt and I’ve been informed the pros and cons of all of them, and I’ve made that choice to do that. So basically, when someone walks away with the bike, they feel like they’ve invested something in it besides cash.
AS I saw a lot of that through the seat stay, away from the cluster seat bolts. It seems like that would be the absolute most nerve-wracking way to do it. Why is that popular?
MS I don’t know.
AS You personally like it for yourself.
MS Yeah. I’ve done it on my builds. It’s an educated decision from a customer’s point of view. Does it cost them more money? Sure it does, because of the time it takes to do it. By the way, it’s not the strongest way to clamp your seatpost in. By far, it’s the least out of all the mechanism.
AS Especially if you’ve got that seatstay bridge right there.
MS Exactly. There’s pretty much no flex in it. Your clamping mechanism comes from that point, as you just said, to here. You’re bending this tube, so you can imagine the amount of stress that goes into a seat stay, that’s not supposed to have that that lateral stress in it.
AS You’ve got some pretty robust seatstays too.
MS That’s 17mm with a wall thickness of .7mm.
AS Ah, so it’s just oversized.
MS In this section from here to here, there is actually a solid bar that’s brazed in, and then it’s machined after. I machine a thread and a step in it.
AS After the bike’s been built. Of course.
MS Yeah, at the last stage when you think, “Fuck, if I fuck this up, I have to start all over again…” Well, I mean, you obviously don’t have to start all over again.
AS I’m looking at your tattoo bike. You were talking about it. DotstoLines.
MS Yes. DotstoLines. This Israeli fellow who lives in Germany.
Photo: Ben Broomfield
AS I think it’s interesting that he found tattooing later in life, and you’ve found framebuilding similarly.
MS Have you done some research?
AS Yeah. I wrote it down and looked it up. I thought it was interesting because some framebuilders don’t often build themselves bikes because it’s expensive and you need to have income. For you to build a bike like this and to choose that particular artist as your visual theme was really interesting for this reason. Here’s a guy who basically went, “Hey, shit’s not working. This is what I want to do, this is where I want to do it. I’m doing it.” You’ve essentially done the same thing but with bikes. Was that a deliberate association?
MS No. I love his clean lines the simplicity. I really like this notion of less is more. It’s not obviously evident in what you see here, but my personal style, that’s very much the case. Even though it’s super intricate and everything, but it basically stems from a very basic line. That’s all it is. It’s very well thought out, the placement of it.
AS With your particular process, from bike to bike, what is exciting for you that your consumers might not see or understand? What’s the difference between a bike you made 3 months ago and a bike you made right now?
MS It’s my process. It’s just honing my technique all the time. What’s pretty exciting, and this sounds a bit weird, is the mistakes that I make. Every single time I make a mistake, I generally see the mistake and I generally do something about it. As time goes on, you hone it in, you make things more efficient. It’s like when you’re learning to do something and there are certain aspects of it that you don’t enjoy. A lot of time it’s because you don’t get on with it or you don’t have the ability to do it. But as you progress, those things become second nature and you get a bit of enjoyment from it. Even if it’s just my clean up method, or the best way to get the flux off my fillets, or so on and so forth, it really does it for me.
AS Which is why that headtube reinforcement ring is weighing on you.
MS Exactly. It’s true.
AS I’m seeing what you were saying about the stays before. These are all too high then, huh?
AS Huh. So why are they too high? Why haven’t you fixed that?
MS That’s a good point. This one does it for me. It shoots to the center a bit.
AS I would think that there would be one bike, then you’d be like “no, not doing that again.”
MS It’s always a bit of a toss up for me. The further down you bring your stays, the less strength you’re adding to that area because having four tubes meeting at one point is far stronger than having two. So it’s always a toss up between the two. That’s kind of the reason why.
AS So where do you want to go from here? You said you were in-process here with your shop, that you were setting it up. It looks pretty together to me.
MS I’m in the process of trying to create a little more space for other bits of machinery. When I refer to trying to set up my shop, I’m trying to speed up my process a little bit, and buying machines that do a specific task is doing that so I need space for them. So that’s what I’ve been doing.
AS What are you looking at getting?
MS I’m looking to get quite a big fly press, which is pretty handy. I’ve considered getting a lathe, but I work with a pretty good engineer who does a fair bit of machining for me. I just feel that to do the type of machining I’d like to do, I’d need a pretty big lathe for the stability I would need it for. So there’s a fly press I’ve got my eyes on. I need another alignment table, and potentially another vertical milling machine and a drill press
AS You don’t have a drill press in here, do you? Huh.
MS Basically, my big vertical milling machine gets used for three different jobs. I would prefer to have it set up for one because then you don’t have to change things around a bit.
AS Where are you going to put all this stuff? You going to knock down a wall or something?
MS No. I’ve got this wall and everything against that wall as well. The problem is that I do all my photography in here.
AS That’s tricky. Who are your favorite builders in the UK? Who do you consider influences?
MS I don’t have a particular builder in the UK. I think everybody does things slightly differently. I seem to pick up on different people’s works. I look at everyone, everyone all the way down to someone like Quirk who has just started out. He’s got some super interesting branding going on with his stuff.
AS It’s Quirky!
MS It’s interesting. Then you have someone who is a little more technically proficient like Winston Vaz who was a framebuilder at Chaz Roberts. He’s technical, but he’s super, super good. He’s been building for something like 25 years.
AS It’s interesting, this bike here looks like it’s much more heavily influenced by American builders. Is that deliberate?
MS It’s not a conscious thing. I like the look of a clean bike
AS Clean bike with oversized tubes.
MS Well, I suppose everyone has a perception of what’s clean, what’s nice and what’s not.
AS You could drop this right into NAHBS and it would feel right at home. That was really striking with respect to the rest of the Bespoked show.
MS That’s really interesting. When I build bikes, I don’t always look at what other people are doing. I look at what is available to me as far as materials, and things that inspire me, which doesn’t specifically have to be framebuilders.
AS What inspires you besides framebuilders?
MS Architecture. I’m a pretty great fan of nature. That’s a big part of my life.
AS You’ve got animals and curvilinear things going on all over your paint jobs here.
Photo: Ben Broomfield
MS I suppose, in a weird kind of way. Other things that inspire me- I suppose people inspire me. But really where I get the majority of my inspiration is from nature, that’s the biggest player as far as symmetry goes.
AS So this seems like an obvious question, but why “Saffron?”
MS Because I spent the majority of my working life as a chef.
AS … the most expensive spice?
MS Yeah, but that wasn’t the reason for it. It’s got a very soft tone to it, the word “saffron.” It’s very light off the tongue and it’s quite strong in the same breath, the sound and the tone of it. It’s a crossover between being a chef and doing something else I love, which is bicycles.
AS It’s a really light word and it seems to go with the aesthetic, I think. So you’ve been doing this for six years, and you’ve got a very distinctive style within this market. What do you tell the kid that loves your style and is really stoked on what you do- and who wants to do the same thing? What’s the advice that you give that person?
MS Always be self-critical. Never feel that you’re at a point where you’ve got this down and you’ve got this covered because then you stop progressing. The most self-critical you are, the more that you need to get involved in the detail. I think once you start doing that, you start evolving.
Saffron Frameworks photo gallery link for MOBILE PHONES (if you cannot see the embedded gallery below):
All photos by Anna Schwinn unless otherwise credited.