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Calfee Design

Craig Calfee

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Craig Calfee: Fake it till you make it - as long as no one gets hurt

"It takes courage to build a bike that will be compared to the likes of Rob English or Steve Potts. But most are trying something completely different rather than compete on that level." Craig Calfee thinks new builders are a courageous breed, deserving support and encouragement from established masters.

Craig Calfee: Fake it till you make it - as long as no one gets hurt
Detail shot of Kevin Harvey frame in the new builders area, NAHBS 2014. Photo: Paul Skilbeck

The New Builder tables are where you'll find those willing to seriously investigate their interest in making bicycles. It takes courage to build something that will be compared to the likes of Rob English or Steve Potts. But most are trying something completely different rather than compete on that level. The inventiveness that bicycles inspire continues with no end in sight. Invention requires one to take a chance and build something the first time. Gotta respect that.

Some people learn faster than others. And I don't mean just the A students in school. I've taught a variety of people how to build bikes, from illiterate bushmeat hunters in the Congo to Stanford graduates. Some pick it up right away and others never get it. If one is motivated (by the prospect of employment or otherwise) and really interested in the subject matter, it's amazing to see how fast people can absorb the basics and eventually master the craft. If it doesn't feel like work when "working" then you've made a good career choice.

The old system of apprenticing to a master was designed to create skilled craftsmen - whether they liked it or not. And the requirement for doing years of repetitive production work was not so much for honing skills but the literal paying of dues for the education. Schools are there for those who can afford to pay dues in the form of tuition fees. Others can learn at the school of hard knocks and pay their dues with injuries, embarrassment and poverty. But all of those students can become masters if they stick with it. How fast one gets there depends on the commitment and some luck. I was building bikes for the defending Tour de France Champion's team only four years after building my first bike. I was living in the back of a garage, had a scar on my face from a broken experimental fork and was working part time in construction to support my bike habit. But I had already recognized that carbon fiber was going to be big in the bike world and I really enjoyed coming up with new ways to work it. And it didn't seem like work.

Kids these days have it easy!  They have the internet, forums on every topic and experts available to ask questions, all in the palm of their hand. They have Mcmaster.com, Craigslist.org, UBI, CAD modeling and 3D printing. Not only can skills be acquired more quickly, they can obtain or make shop tools and jigs for less. They have Kickstarter and Indiegogo, NAHBS and the regional shows, and Facebook and Instagram (and very soon they will have Handbuiltbicycleguide.com too - ed). Market access has never been easier. I try to keep up and make use of these resources and opportunities. They are more efficient than ever before and that allows me the time to try new things.

I still enjoy the Zen of getting a perfect miter on the first try, or solving a client's lifelong cycling pain by quickly diagnosing what needs to change on the bike. Refining those skills is fun and boils down to being in the right frame of mind regardless of the distractions (both internal and external). But it's not something I need or want to do eight hours a day. Figuring out precisely why suspension on a road bike is faster or designing a totally new water bottle cage manufacturing method is also fun. But it forces me outside my comfort zone. Perhaps that's where the school of hard knocks has the advantage: the willingness to take risks. The people standing behind the New Builder tables are like that, submitting their fresh work to the scrutiny of the grouchy old framebuilders who stand comfortable in their highly practiced worlds. Sure, there may be some extra filler under that paint, and maybe it took three tubes to get the miters right. But it's OK to fake it til you make it - so long as no one gets hurt.