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Buyer's guide: five things to consider when buying a handbuilt bike

Tempted by a custom frame? Here are five things to consider before taking the plunge.

Why go custom?

When it comes to buying a new bike there are almost limitless options and there should be a bike for you. Then again, what happens if you fall outside of the usual size ranges, want geometry that doesn’t fit with current trends or fancy something unique? The answer is to go custom.

Handbuilt frame builders have enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years, and to find out more about why some people choose to go custom and just what is possible in the world of bespoke bicycle frames, we spoke to Tom Donhou of the eponymously named Donhou Bicycles, and Adam Roberts of London-based Comtat.

Donhou has established himself as one of the UK’s foremost frame builders, specialising in steel (and, increasingly, stainless steel), and took the covered ‘best road bike’ award at this year’s Bespoked handmade bicycle show. Roberts, meanwhile, offers custom, Italian-built, carbon fibre frames from both his own Comtat brand and also Italian brands Casati, Tommasini and Chesini, as well as offering steel and titanium frames to customers.

“People want to go custom 50% of the time because they are an odd shape and have realised that, even with a bike fit, an off-the-shelf frame will never work properly for them. The other 50% are choosing to go custom because they want something different,” says Roberts.

Geometry plays a big part in why many riders choose to go custom, Donhou says, with customers drawn in by the prospect of buying a machine which is made to measure. He also believes much of the appeal in buying a handmade bicycle comes in owning something unique, locally made and built for the job in hand.

“Everyone has a different reason for going custom,” says Donhou. “A lot of people say, ‘I’ve been riding carbon and now I want to get a steel frame.’ Generally, they are looking for something that isn’t so race-focused, that is more comfortable and more of a joy to ride.

“Being a custom builder I get a lot of orders for frames that are unusual sizes, that makes up a lot of my work. People come to me because they want to know where their bike came from and they like the idea that their frame was built locally, rather than having something that was built anonymously somewhere else in the world.”

Material choice

While there was a time when all bike frames were handmade from steel, stretching back only a couple of decades, now there’s plenty of choice when it comes to material. Steel remains the go-to option for a handbuilt frame, but titanium, carbon fibre and even aluminium are all popular alternatives. We asked Donhou and Roberts about the pros and cons of each.

Just as bicycle technology has advanced, so has the quality of materials available to a frame builder. Metal frames can now be built lighter than ever and steel has made something of a low-key comeback as a viable material from which to make a performance-focused bicycle, with the UCI Continental-registered Madison-Genesis team using the Genesis Volare 953 in the Tour Series.

Indeed, steel is still the most commonly used material for custom frames, simply as it is the easiest to work with. It also allows builders to easily tune the ride using tube diameters, wall thicknesses and butt lengths by picking and choosing tubes from different manufacturers. Donhou says when he builds steel frames for touring use, he will often select a larger diameter or thicker walled option for the top tube to prevent the bike from shimmying when fully loaded. When asked why they chose to go with steel for a custom build, many people will cite the fact that a well-built steel frame has a character to it and a springiness that other materials cannot match.

“With steel there is so much choice. I mainly work with Reynolds 853 tubing,” says Donhou. “It’s a great steel and there’re a lot of different options within the range: tube diameters, butt profiles, wall thicknesses. That choice allows me to fine-tune the ride of the bike to the customer’s needs. I also use a lot of stainless steel tubing. Most of the time I use Columbus XCR, but I also use Reynolds 953. The choices with stainless are limited at the moment, but there are more options becoming available all of the time. The benefit of using stainless steel is that it is resistant to corrosion, which means in that in theory a stainless frame should last a lifetime.”

Carbon fibre is the material of choice for Comtat and Roberts says, as well as offering an unbeatable stiffness-to-weight ratio, it can also be fine-tuned according to the customer’s preferences. However, while low weight is the main benefit of carbon fibre, the need for specialist manufacturing processes means that very few businesses are able to offer it as an option and the setup costs for producing custom carbon frames are reflected in the final cost.

“For Comtat frames, either 3K or 1K weave carbon tubes are used, and the choice comes down to cost and final weight. 1K is the lightest option and also give a more supple ride thanks to the narrowness of the threads used. If the thicker 3K weave is used the bike can be made a lot stiffer and the price is relatively lower,” says Roberts. “With titanium frames, the geometry is custom on Comtat frames, but the tubing remains the same diameter due to limited availability. The tubes we use are all double-butted and are drawn to order for the builder.”

The lively feel of a well-built steel frame can also be achieved with the use of titanium tubing with the advantage of less overall weight. Titanium is also often considered as the material of choice if you want a frame for life, due to its resistance to corrosion. However, stainless steel offers that corrosion resistance and is not as expensive a titanium, though it is still considerably more costly than regular steel.

Alongside the options of steel, stainless steel, titanium and carbon fibre there are also a small, but steadily increasing number of bespoke builders working with aluminium.

How custom is custom?

The level to which a rider can go custom varies as much as the number of custom frame builders operating. At a basic level, it can be as simple as just buying a stock-sized frame that is built by hand, and Donhou has introduced a Signature Steel range as an accessible (read: more affordable) route into owning a handbuilt bike.

However, for riders with a greater budget, there is no limit to what Donhou will undertake and the devil is in the detail, he says, with many riders who choose to go custom searching for that something special which sets their machine apart.

“I haven’t said no to any customer requests yet. We’re not a frame builder in the traditional sense; we’re happy to spend a lot of time doing little custom bits that make a difference on the entire frame when it’s finished. We’ve built one-off gear shifters and chain guards, which is not what a traditional frame builder will offer.”

However, it’s not only in the fine detailing that a frame builder can add a custom touch. The way the bike rides can also be tweaked for different riders, riding styles and disciplines. Through the careful selection of tube diameters and wall thickness with metal frames, and the tube diameters and the number of wraps at the joints on carbon frames, the stiffness and comfort of a frame can be tuned.

“The custom element is not just concerned with the length of the tubes and how the bike fits the rider, but also how the tube joints are wrapped – the number of layers – is individual to each customer,” says Roberts of Comtat’s carbon frame. “The feel of the bike can be tuned. You might have a stiffer head tube or bottom bracket area for instance or a higher level of comfort with more flex built in.”

When Roberts speaks about the lengths of tubes, he is referring to a key part of getting a custom frame made, the design process. Included in the cost of a custom frame from Comtat is a complete bike fitting session using the Retul system. This gives Roberts the necessary dimensions to design a frame to fit the customer.

However, it’s not always necessary for a potential buyer to visit the builder. “Fitting is a whole different profession to frame building,” says Donhou. “We have fitters that we recommend and we then ask the customer to supply the fit details, so I can then design the frame around those figures. I start the design with the fit triangle, the three rider contact points and then through discussion with the customer, either face-to-face, via telephone or by email, about how they want the bike to handle, what the intended use is and where they are planning on riding, I finalise the design.” By working this way, and in some cases never actually meeting his clients, Donhou has supplied bespoke frames to customers around the world.

Ultimately, how custom you want to go will depend on your personal requirements and budget, but one of the main benefits of buying a handbuilt bike is that you can have a significant say on how it will ride.

How to choose a frame builder

Having made the decision to go custom, the most difficult decision you will likely face is having to choose which frame builder to use.

For some, the choice will be narrowed by material preference; carbon, titanium and, to a lesser extent, stainless steel are materials used only by a select number of builders. Opt for regular steel, on the other hand, and you’ll have no shortage of choice.

Other factors that can influence the selection of a builder include reputation, cost and wait times, with the latter two factors often influenced by the first. Whether you are willing to wait months, and in some cases, years, rather than weeks should be factored in when choosing who to go custom with.

The specialisms of a particular builder should also be considered. Donhou, for example, is known not only for his ability to work with stainless steel, but also for his paint work, and the finish on his Signature Steel frame, with its deep granite grey and pink to lime fade, is stunning. “Paint jobs are getting more and more involved, and I really enjoy that because my background is in design. We’ve become known for offering a very high level of finish and we’re one of the few builders in the UK that finishes its own frames.”

Some builders will also specialise in a particular ‘type’ of bike, whether it’s for road racing, touring, cyclocross or mountain biking, and naturally, their expertise will lie in the area at which they are most au fait. Similarly, if you have an idea for a radically different frame, then approaching one of the new generation of builders may be a better move than talking to an established business that is known for traditional designs.

Cost

Your budget will also have a significant impact on your choice of frame builder and, of course, the material from which you want your frame to be made, but the resurgence of handbuilt bikes means there’s also plenty of choice, for a range of budgets.

Cost will vary from builder to builder but, as an example, Donhou’s regular steel frames start at around £1,400, but make the move to a full stainless steel tubeset and prices begin at £2,200. Donhou’s Signature Steel machine retails at £4,385 as a complete bike built with a Shimano Ultegra groupset and hydraulic disc brakes.

Comtat’s Velluto steel frame costs £2,050 but the cost of going custom rises even further when the material choice moves away from traditional options, with Comtat’s carbon offerings starting at £2,499 and titanium frames rising from £3,399.

There are many more options for custom steel frames, though, with a range of prices to match. Long-established companies such as Brian Rourke offer road frames built from Reynolds 631 steel with a standard paint job from as little as £995 including a carbon fork, while a Reynolds 953 oversized stainless frame starts at £1,745.

It’s a similar story with other frame materials, too. A custom titanium frame can cost from as little as £1,075 from Burls, rising to £2,099 for an Etape Caliper Ti from Enigma. The price difference between the frames coming down to the grade of titanium used and the country of origin.

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