A week at the Bicycle Academy

Learning to build bikes

It's a beautiful sunny day and i'm heading towards Frome to The Bicycle Academy for a week of framebuilding. I'll be learning to build the TBA Africa bike, a bike that once painted is sent to Africa to be built up with components and then donated to someone who needs it.

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The bike is super strong and built to last being engineered specifically for rural African terrain. That’s why those rear dropouts are so big, the bike can carry a load of 100kg. To finish off i’ve also booked a fillet brazing masterclass where i’m hoping to improve on what i’ve already learnt from building the Africa bike.

In the early days of Headset Press we featured The Bicycle Academy, a crowd funded startup founded by Andrew Denham that raised the £40,000 startup costs within 6 days of going live with backing from 180 people. I’d hoped to get myself a place on the framebuilding course but had missed out they had sold so quickly so it was some time later before i finally got myself down there.

I arrive and meet Sam. He’s the apprentice and offered his time to help get things started in the early days of The Bicycle Academy. He also wanted to work off the cost of a framebuilding course which led to being offered a job. Impressive. He introduces me to Chris who will be teaching us how to build the frame and as i’ve chosen to learn on a 2:1 basis rather than 1:1 i’ll be learning with Fred.

After a chat and cup of tea Andrew arrives and we get down to business. He explains what we will be doing and how the course is works. It’s setup in a way that we learn and do rather than just watch how it’s done. We will have to figure out how to solve problems and why. This is good. It means by the end of the week we will have learnt the skills needed to be able to build more frames and develop those skills. It’s a better way to learn and a different approach to traditional framebuilding courses.

STACKING COINS

Andrew was taught by Brian Curtis how to Fillet Braze, a technique for joining metal together that involves melting brass or silver between the join using a brazing torch. Fillet brazing a frame together means you can create frames with custom tubing angles and with any design you see fit. You can also smooth the joints so it appears that the tubing blends into each other.

Brian is famous for his technique. It’s super neat and smooth straight out of the torch that requires only a minimal brush up of the flux. Spend a few minutes looking at fillet brazing online and it takes no time at all to see someone with a red hot torch heating a huge pool of brass and a glowing red bike frame. This kind of heat stress is not good for bike frames and the lower the brazing temperature the better. The technique you learn at The Bicycle Academy is better, cleaner and causes less stress on the materials involved. What is more remarkable is that you’ll be doing quality brazes at the end of the first day.

We start with Andrew teaching us about how brazing works and then see how it’s done which is followed by having a go. Then another go, and another. Each time evaluating, discovering and improving. Take a look at the photo above with lots of golden lines of braze on a steel block. You’ll see sausage shaped splodgey brazes and then glimpses of the stacked coin effect that is the sign of a neat and precise braze. We then move on to joining tubes before putting together a bottom bracket. See the third photo along for my first go.

FILING

Brazing is a little bit intense. It would be, there’s a hot flame pretty close to your face. To effectively take in what we’ve been learning we take a break and move onto cutting tubes and creating mitres. Chris takes over the tuition for the next few days guides us through the design of the bike frame, mitring, bending and assembly in the jig. There’s a lot of filing to do. All mitres are created by hand, no cutting tools other than a handsaw and set of hand files. You learn the hard way and it’s the good way.

BRAZING

There’s a few surprises in store as you build the frame. Without spoiling it for those who are going to do the course this is how this frame building course is different to others. One surprise causes you to fix a problem using the skills you’ve previously learnt. However, it does mean lots more filing. You get good at filing. I didn’t get so good at cutting and while working on the seat tube I lost concentration by talking too much and went off at the wrong angle. No harm done thankfully.

Once all the tubes are mitred and fitted in the jig the next step is to tack all the joints before brazing them together. On my final day i was a little nervous. I didn’t want to get anything wrong and wanted every braze to be the best i could do. It’s hard not to want it to be perfect. Once you get started it’s no harder than all the work you’ve previously been doing and you get into your brazing zone. Brian’s secret to neat brazing is Don Williams, I had Paul Weller playing. I’m not sure how long it took to braze up the frame, maybe an hour but i lost all sense of time. There were one or two brazes that were not as neat as i’d hoped but plenty of areas I was extremely happy with. It’s quite a sense of elation when you finish. To have built a steel bicycle frame with your own hands.

After brazing the frame it’s time to finish it. Frame alignment and cold setting come next. This is where you discover another surprise and need to work something out to get the frame set correctly. Next up is chasing and facing the bottom bracket and to ream and face the head tube before the final touch, writing your name on the frame. Every person to have built a frame at the Bicycle Academy has a photo taken with their frame. The photos’s are displayed in the workshop. It’s quite something to see and to think that all those bikes have gone to Africa for other people to use.

MASTERCLASS

My final day was a 1:1 Fillet Brazing Masterclass. Andrew took me through perfecting my technique, working with different materials with varying thicknesses, difficult joins, different flux, brazing on bosses and finally having a go at the Oxy-Propane set-up that Brian had been perfecting (as apposed to the Oxy-Acetylene I had been using). There’s a stack of test pieces in one of the photos, one with ‘SHIT’ written on it. That’s the one Brian was happy with.

Another difference with this frame building course compared to others is that once you have graduated you can hire the use of a frame-building bench to work on your own projects. All materials can be bought too from brazing rods to Columbus tubing.

If you’ve ever wondered how bikes are built, wanted to try brazing, build your own frame or just interested in having a week off work doing something different then take a look at all the courses offered. Since I spent my time at the Bicycle Academy the course has changed to The Classic course and now includes fork building. While i was there Made Good visited and produced a film for the Guardian which you can view on our blog.

I had a great time building my frame and feel more than happy that I can continue building on the skills I learnt to create the bikes i’ve been planning (currently numbering 4). Andrew and the team are all friendly and you will definitely enjoy the experience. I wonder who is using the frame I built!

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