Tim Isaac’s Match

Tim Isaac's Match

(for historical reasons only – the lugged Paramount project was ended by Schwinn and Match did not have enough work to continue. All the employees managed to find gainful employment, and Curt from Match is now one of our two top builders.)

“Match” doesn’t roll off the tongue like De Rosa or Colnago But there’s a ton of skill and experience and potential in a tidy little frame shop way up there in Woodinville (Washington).

RR: How old are you and what’s your history with bikes?
Tim Isaac: I’m 50. I started building frames half my lifetime ago, 1974. I was a competitive cyclist for several years in Colorado, where I grew up, and there were a few guys putting frames together. They did pretty good work, and I thought I should try it myself.

RR: Did they teach you?
TI: No, I took a job for a guy who imported Italian-style frames from Mexico, and needed someone to do quality control at the factory down there. So, I interviewed for the job, quit my perfectly good engineering job, and headed for Guadalajara. I spent a couple years watching Mexicans build bicycles and trying to find ways to do it better. I made my first frame there‹I carved up some lugs to make it look like a De Rosa. At the time, they brazed the Italian way‹pinning the lugs to the tubes, and freeform brazing the joints over bricks.

RR: That sounds charming.
TI: Yes, but brazing’s better with acetylene. You can select a tip and a gas pressure combination that results in a quiet, but hot-enough flame that wraps itself around the lug and produces a very uniform heat envelope. You get uniform brazing temperatures, and the the flux doesn’t get blown off the tubing.

RR: How did you come to build your own frames?
TI: Well, when I decided to start making frames in 1974, the first thing I did was build a fixture, to hold the tubes, and then I drew up the frame on paper. It must have taken a month. I was self-taught, but it was hard. Painful, actually. But after my sixth bike, a guy came in the shop and insisted he needed a custom frame. He was sure he knew what he wanted. He said “I’ve seen your bicycles everywhere,” but there were only six. I attributed that to the decals, which looked really good. I should mention that after two years of solo building, Jock Fisher joined me.

RR: Who’s Jock Fisher?
TI: He was a good bike rider in Denver. A tourist, a wood craftsman, and he wanted to learn how to build frames, so he joined me in 1976, and we learned a lot from each other. Three years later he died of a heart attack, in a bike race, and I just couldn’t go back in the shop and make frames by myself. From working with Jock, I learned that, at least for me, it’s better to work with other people, or at least one other person. The interaction between workers, craftsmen, can be quite positive. You learn from each other.

RR: How many frames did you build as a custom builder, and what were they like?
TI: I built about 450 frames. They were traditional frames, built with Reynolds or Columbus tubes. Mostly road racing frames. I always liked the appearance of fastback stays with an integral binder bolt. Very compact and extremely strong. I built all of my frames that way, except for the first five. One of my early customers, Ron Hill, suggested I try to make a frame for him. He showed me a photo of a custom frame with fastback stays. I thought they looked great and have made all my frames that way ever since.

RR: Why did you stop being a custom builder?
TI: I was starving to death. Getting skinnier and skinnier. And it’s even harder today. Custom builders today are selling to a smaller market, and in that small market, they’re competing with cheaper-to-make TIG welded bicycles with the images created by professional marketing staffs with millions of dollars to spend. And besides that, it’s pretty much a mountain bike world out there, and a big company can make or have made a full suspension mountain bike frame in an hour and a half. So the guy with the torch and the file and the traditional methods doesn’t really have anywhere to go with it. Nobody’s asking.

RR: Yeah yeah yeah. How did you get together with Trek?
TI: I attended a bicycle show in Ohio, one bleak January or February in 1978. I rented a hotel suite to show my frames and try to sell some. About half a dozen of my recent customers in Denver were nice enough to loan me theirs, so I showed up with what looked like a complete line of frames. I took a bunch of orders at that show and started selling to shops back east. Two fellows from Trek were at that show. I was looking over their bicycles and admiring them. Later, one of the Trek lads came to my both and complimented me on the lighting and the general impression my frames made. He complained that he couldn’t find a single flood light in any of the hardware stores, which didn’t surprise me, because I bought them all two days before. I loaned him a few of mine, and within a year we were talking about a position. Dick Burke and Bevil Hogg‹the two top men at Trek‹were looking for changes, and wanted me there, and the security of a larger company, the chance to control the general direction of design and fabrication were more than I could resist. Plus, it would mean a regular paycheck, and I couldn’t say no to that one, either.

RR: Why you? They could have hired another custom builder.
TI: Well, they’d seen the bikes I made for the Olympic team, so I had a good reputation.

RR: When did you start at Trek, and what did you do, exactly?
TI: In 1979. At that time, the frame factory was like a high volume custom shop, with a high volume of custom shop problems. My plan was to design fixtures that guaranteed consistency from one frame to the next. It required new machining operations, semi-automated brazing, and electrostatic painting. Our assembly area was also in need of a new layout.

RR: But how did your experience as a custom builder in a two-guy shop help you there? It seems like it wouldn’t help at all. It seems like it might even hurt.
TI: Well, I had an engineering background, also, so that helped. And I traveled to bike factories around the world, studied them, and I brought back the best ideas. It was a lucky break, though.

RR: What was your most challenging design at Trek?
TI: It must have been the road frame from Reynolds 753. The challenge was to engineer a frame that could be built with a minimal amount of heat, so the metal wouldn’t suffer, and could be built efficiently. So I designed special investment castings that made that possible. The seat tube was captured by a nifty little shelf, so instead of sticking the seat tube all the way through the lug, we could just cut it off straight and butt it up against this shelf near the top of the lug. That’s the way all seat lugs are made these days‹it’s just a better way. Then there were sockets to hold the seat stays, and the sockets were designed with similar shelves, which eliminated mitering the seat stays, too. The seat post binder boss was also built in, so we didn’t have to braze that on either. By eliminating caps and binder barrels and a seat tube that normally would pass through the seat lug, the brazing time was reduced by 60 percent, and the metal suffered less. I learned a lot from that project, and later I designed other castings based on the same idea, for other parts of the bike-dropouts with built-in cable guides and chain hangers, and so on.

RR: They sound like clever short-cuts.
TI: They were clever, and the only thing they short cutted were things that were problematic in the build, or harder to control. Smart castings often allow you to build a better bicycle. Using castings in this way makes the outcome more precise and consistent and predictable. Don’t call it a short-cut.

RR: Rivendells are notorious as being really labor-intensive. Waterford thought so, Joe says the same, and that seems to go against your engineering values.
TI: They’re a lot of work now, but I think any good bicycle evolves. You believe in the design, but “design” to you means something different than it does to me. For you it means how the customer sits on it, and how parts fit on it‹tire clearance and chainring clearance, and all those details we’ve been working out on your All-Rounders, and how it behaves when you ride it. For me, it means how is it built? We have to be sensitive to your definition, but for our definition, that’s where I look at them evolving. We’ll be able to evolve the design so it’s easier for us to build it, and the the frame will be improved. There are things right now that are difficult, but it’ll be easier later on.

RR: What changes would you make?
TI: Um…well, the way the All-Rounder is currently configured, there’s more labor than there needs to be. Assemblying chainstays and working out seat lug shapes. You know, we’re carving up Road seat lugs to shape them like All-Rounder lugs. The seat stay plug has a radius on it that creats a gap between the tube and shoulder‹it’s an excellent plug with some unique design features that I really like, but I’d change that one detail on it. And fitting up the rear dropouts to the chainstays could be easier. Functionally there’s no problem, but from a builder’s point of view, it could be improvedŠand all those things are in our plans for revision. And when that’s complete, they’ll be as strong and straight and pretty, but easier to make.

RR: Since Joe’s been building our frames for a year and a half now, and you’re just coming on board, do you see him as competition, and how does it feel to chronologically follow a guy who you hired for his first brazing job?

TI: I am not just coming on board with Rivendell. Rivendell is coming on board with Match! I’ve been at this a long time, and Match may be new, but inexperienced we are NOT. We’ve got one of Joe’s frames here, and it’s a really fine frame. Good details, lots of care in it, and there’s nothing to take away from it, at all. But we build bikes as good, and as pretty, as anybody’s. We have the skills and we care as much, so it’s just a matter of putting the time into it.

RR: Well, what I meant was, he has a history with us and you’re just starting to. Anyway, why did you leave Trek, and where did you go next?
TI: Trek became a very stressful company, a huge company. There were so many changes, so fast. I was ready for a change, and for warmer winters.

RR: And then where to? You’re building Schwinn Paramounts these days‹how did that happen?
TI: It’s a long story. In 1988 I started working for Diamond Back, trying to help them get their Chinese bike production under control, and I spent so much time traveling to China, that I finally ended up living there. It was a tough environment to work in. Every thing I communicated required translation. Diamond Back was buying bikes from China Bicycle Company (CBC). CBC at the time lacked the technological advancement of the Taiwanese, but with a relatively new factory, I had the kind of influence I was looking for. They wanted more export business, and I wanted them to be more reliable before I’d approve bicycles from them for Diamond Back. After a few QC trips to CBC, they offered me a permanent job as VP of Engineering-another once in a lifetime opportunity. They planned to build the world’s biggest bicycle factory, and I couldn’t resist. My wife, Judy, and our children‹we moved to Hong Kong. I commuted across the border to the factory, and our children went to British schools. That this had all stemmed from making custom frames in Denver, still amazes me. But I wanted to be making fine bicycles again, and we wanted our children to go to English schools and have normal American upbringings, so I gave it up and came home. Judy and I decided we’d start a small company to make really fine lugged frames.

RR: What was the first step? And don’t forget to talk about the Paramounts.
TI: Well, I went to Taiwan to investigate the cost of specific machines I’d already used and had lots of experience with-machines that are indestructable and operated with high precision and eliminate the time-consuming steps that machines simply do faster and more accurately than people can. I wanted to eliminate the tedious work, and the things that present so many opportunities for human error, so I could concentrate on brazing and finishing. I knew of two places making these machines and went to visit both of them.

I stayed at a hotel not far from the machine factory and was waiting for an elevator, and when the door opened, there was Skip Hess. {Skip Hess’s dad started Mongoose, and Skip Hess Jr. recently quit as Schwinn’s Sr. VP.-ed}. We were both surprised, and we chatted a bit, then went our own ways.

The factory visit went well, and I went back home to Hong Kong that same evening. The next day I set off walking to the American Consulate’s office in Hong Kong to get a fresh new thin passport to start this next phase of my life with, and saw an American coming down the hill, and it was Skip again. This second encounter was too coincidental-remember, I’d seen him in another country just the day before‹and we talked about what caused us to find each other in different countries two days in a row on the far side of the planet. We had dinner that evening and I told him my plans to leave CBC and to start Match Bicycle Company in the states. Schwinn was then buying more than 150,000 bicycles from CBC, so we had that in common already. Skip divulged the plan to revive the Paramount, and my next challenge was right in front of me again. My first custom frame had been a Paramount. It was built as the result of a visit to the Schwinn factory. Frank Brilando showed the factory to me. I was 16 years old visiting Chicago for the chance to compete in the Nationals at Northbrook. I’d won the state championship in Colorado and was off the races. Now, half way around the world, I sat with a friend discussing the future of that same bicycle. Within a year I’d set up Match, and we got the Schwinn Paramount contract.

RR: Would you have started Match without the Schwinn contract? And how many Paramounts did you build?
TI: Well, sure I would have. I just told you I was over there this time on Match business, getting the machinery lined up. But the Paramount deal was a great way to get started, that’s for sure.

RR: Skip Hess recently quit Schwinn and joined Giant. Does that jeopardize your Paramout deal?
TI: It’s hard to say. The bike is good enough that it should be able to stand on its own merits. Schwinn’s own testing has proven it to be the toughest frame they have, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t sell a lot of them. But we’ll see. How well a frame sells depends so much on how much support it gets. How it’s promoted, and other things.

RR: It’s pretty amazing to me that you’d start a frame shop and specialize in lugged frames. But why now? Don’t you wish Match could have begun at a time when people aspired to own a handmade, lugged bike, rather than saw it as a “retro” statement, good for a chuckle and a warm thought?
TI: Why now? The answer seems so obvious when you are dedicated to a good idea. I like lugs. I believe in them. I’ve spent untold hours working out designs for lugs, and of all the frames I’ve had a hand in, and there have been millions, I’m most proud of the lugged ones.

RR: You’ve had a hand in millions of TIG-welded frames by now, so you must believe they’re strong and reliable, and it’s pretty clear that people aren’t aching for lugged frames these days, so why did you decide to build them? And, is there a Match brand frame in the future?
TI: Well, sure I know TIG-welded frames are reliable, but I still think brazing with lugs is the best way to build frames. It’s just more difficult. Well-designed and brazed lugged joints are much stronger, and it’s fairly easy to understand why that is. The lower temperature of brazing preserves much of the tubing’s original mechanical properties, and the lug itself is an external butt right where the stress is greatest. So, with reasonable tubing and good brazing, a lugged frame can easily last a lifetime. But lugged frames are just more expensive to build. You can get entire frames made in Taiwan or mainland China for less than the cost of a good set of lugs.

As far as a Match-brand frame goes, I don’t see it happening. I don’t want to sell bikes, I just want to build them. Certainly, we’d like the Paramount orders to keep coming in, and we’re glad to be making Rivendells, but we’d like to get a few more frames coming our way, too. But, as I said, it’s hard to compete in price with TIG-welded frames. They’re much less expensive to build and far more profittable to sell, since they cost almost as much and sometimes even more than a nice lugged frame.

RR: You don’t see of a lot of cracked TIG-welded frames though. It happens, but it’s not an epidemic, and with oversized CrMo tubes and the city-use most people subject their bikes to, durability isn’t likely to be a problem. And the low cost of TIG-welding, especially in Taiwan or China-well, the natural conclusion is that those bikes are just great values.
TI: Well, Grant, they are great values! What the factories have accomplished, in building those bikes, is minimizing the effort and expense to construct the frame, with as little human physical skill as possible. In some cases they’ve eliminated it entirely, with robotics. So where does that take it? They’re using the same material as weŠ so the distinction comes from using lugs and the labor, and you either like it or you don’t. It’s a wonderful way to build a frame, and it’s extremely strong. It comes down to what the rider wants-craftsmanship or pure engineering. They both get you the same thing, functionally, but one has more “people” in it. Whether one is a better value than the other depends on what you value.

You know, it seems like we’re always defending lugged frames. Over and over we’re explaining and defending them, and that can’t sit well with everyone, especially those people who think a tig-welded frame is great. It’s a distasteful part of the business, and an uncomfortable part of this interview, to me. I don’t like to defend lugs, you know. I just like to make lugged frames. But it seems like we’re fighting for our lives with things that matter only to us and a few others, and I don’t want to convey that idea, that negativity. I don’t want to resort to selling lugged frames by trodding on TIG-welded frames. I don’t like TIG welded frames, but I’ve had a lot of great rides on them. I like the rides, but not the frames. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good, or great values. I’m talking for me, personally. Anyway, to always put TIG frame against lugged frames… is not what we’re about. The success of TIG-welded frames is the result of millions of marketng dollars, and the frames are successful. The manufacturers are survivors. We’re never going to be able to compete with Chinese labor, but that’s not what I even want to do. And, I’m not the kind who says “Buy American,” out of hat, either. I know what I like, and I liked lugged frames, and I do like American lugged frames, and I think their survival is important, but not from a functional-value perspective where it comes down to “performance per dollar.” Does a $1,500 lugged Rivendell-designed, Match-built or Joe-Starck built bicycle frame have to compete with an engineered frame made either by robots or Chinese labor? I hope it doesn’t. I hope there are still people who want certain refinements and styling and the type of craftsmanship that you can get only in a lugged frame. Those are the people we’re serving. But it’s even more than that. I started off building lugged frames, and it’s still what I like to do, and that’s why I started Match–so I could do that.

RR: Okay, no more TIG-talk. I would like to add, though, that I’m not anti-TIG. That’s a pretty dumb thing to be anti-. I bring up TIG-welded frames because they’re the standard these days, and lugged frames are the odd ones, and to appreciate a good lugged frame, it helps to compare it, in as many ways as possible, with the standard frame of today, that’s all. So, let’s forget about TIG and talk about lugs for a while. TIG-welded frames are fine. No need to rustle any feathers.
TI: That sounds good to me.

RR: How do you distinguish a good lug design from a bad one?
TI: Well, a lug needs to meet a lot of different requirements. One, the design must be brazable. Two, it should be something that is reasonably economical to make. And three, it should be beautiful, elegant, and look purposeful at the same time. The lug gives the frame a character, or personality. Lugs are a big part of what distinguish one frame from another, even among lugged frames. The curves of a lug set a mood for putting a frame together. It starts when a frame is tacked-that’s where the frame’s geometry is set and where the tubes fit together, never to come apart again. If the lug fits poorly, the tacking operation can start a sequence of events that leads to a misaligned frame. A proper lug reduces the amount of heat required during tacking, reduces the amount a filler metal to hold the frame in proper alignment.

RR: How would you describe or explain brazing to someone who doesn’t know exactly what it is, and how it works?
TI: The molten brazing materia l- brass or silver – gets drawn into the gap between the lug and the tube, by capillary action, and it goes to where the heat is. So, that being the case, I’d say brazing is observing and understanding heat flow. You have to be aware of what’s hot and what isn’t hot, so you know where the brass or silver is going to go. That’s the essense of brazing. When you’re starting out, you’re seeing colors and watching the heat flow, but you don’t know how to respond to it, so you try things, and some don’t work. When you start making the right decisions, when you can read the heat flow and know when to add the filler metal, how much to put in, how long to maintain the heat, knowing whether you should allow it to cool, or to heat it moreŠ that’s brazing. What the brazer tries to do is not only braze the joint thoroughly, but to use the minimal amount of brazing material to do that, so that when he’s done working, there’s almost no need to filing, sandblast, or rebrazing, to make the edge clean and sharp. Reheating isn’t good for the joint or the metal, and having to go back like that won’t be necessary if you’ve done a good job the first time. From a production point of view, it’s just so inefficient, so expensive to have to go back and fix up your problems. We can’t have that at Match.

RR: And what makes a good brazer?
TI: I think one of the things that makes a good brazer is knowing how to approach each lug. Each style lug is different, and you need to practice on them in order to work out the sequence, and the path you take, before you do it on a frame. So “a good brazer” is creative and experienced. If one guy has brazed a thousand frames, all with the same type of lug, and is then given a completely different set of lugs, he’ll have a good idea of the best way to braze it. But if you have another guy with equal aptitude and less overall brazing experience, but with more experience on a particular lug, he’ll probably do a better job on that lug, because he knows how it responds to heat.

RR: When you get a new set of lugs, what do you do?
TI: Do you mean, for instance, what will we do when we get your new lugs?

RR: Okay. I mean, we are getting new lugs, and that remark about how you have to “learn” lugs makes me wonder how long it’s going to take, and does that mean the first few frames will be crummier than the ones that follow.
TI: No, no, no! We’ll figure them out before building with them. First we’ll braze some with surplus tubing‹”stumps,” which are just cut-off ends. Curt may start off, and he’ll give his feedback to Martin and Kirk, and then they’ll try some. Since they’ll be brazing with Curt’s feedback, they’ll be farther along with the lugs than they would if they started from scratch. Each brazer will share his observations, and in a short time, we’ll all know how the lug heats up and holds the heat, and where and when to add the brazing material. We’ll work it out before we use the lugs on real frames, so don’t worry.

RR: Are the new lugs going to be challenging? They’re fancy…
TI: All lugs are challenging!

RR: But these are fancier than most, so what I mean is, are they going to be harder to braze than Paramount lugs, for example?
TI: They’re fancier than the Paramount lugs, but they’re about the same in that way as the current Rivendell lugs. One nice feature is the reinforcing rings at the edges. They’ll take a little longer to heat up, but they’ll heat up more evenly, and will hold the heat well, and that’ll help the brazing. One of the advantages of doing large numbers of bicycles with the same lugs, is the extremely high level of skill you acquire because you’re so familiar with that particular lug. Repetition builds skill in a way that occassional building, or building with a wide variety of lugs or methods can’t.

RR: What do you think about “pinning” frames before brazing them?
TI: Some of the Italian builders do that‹they put steel nails through the lugs and tubes to hold the tubes and lugs together before and during brazing. They say it reduces the number of times the joint has to be heated. It’s impressive, to see those nails sticking in the lugs, but personally, I don’t like drilling holes in perfectly good tubing or lugs. If you ever have to replace a tube in a pinned frame, the filed-off nail could rip the lug when you pull out the tube. You have to find the nail and drill it out before pulling the tube. It’s not a quality difference, as much as a matter of style, though. I prefer to tack the tubes and lugs together using the same filler metal used in brazing, usually bronze. Then braze it carefully, so the tacked portion holds everything together while you work on another part of the lug. It takes concentration, timing and a good memory for what you’ve already done. The glasses we wear are a help, too. They enhance the glow of the metal and actually show us in advance where the brazing is best started and completed. They let you see when the brass starts to flow under the lug.

RR: What kind of glasses do that?
TI: We use a didymium lens with a 3.0 flip-up. They aren’t “the secret to good brazing,” and they won’t make a bad brazer good, but if you already have the skills and learn how to use these glasses, they do help you see beneath the lug.

RR: Why did you call your frame shop “Match”? That’s a choppy name for a bicycle company. It’s not a pretty name in the usual sense. It doesn’t roll off the tongue.
TI: But I like it! “Match” came from a famous magazine, Paris Match. My old friend Ron Hill subscribed to it and I thought it was a great name for a bicycle. When the time came to start my company, the name Match was still with me. So “match” it is, with a lower case “m.”

RR: O-kay. How did you get your match builders?
TI: They found me. Word got out that I was starting up, and a lot of builders applied for work. There were plenty of applicants, and I’ve turned away some people I didn’t want to turn away, but there’s only so much work here. It was interesting, though, seeing the reactions to the shop. It’s a close community here, and I’m not a native, so when the builders came by, they thought “Where did YOU come from?” If they have experience, they’re immediately impacted by the set-up, the dedicated stations and machinery that lets a builder concentrate on building, rather than being distracted by readjusting fixtures, or moving things out of the way, or having to walk over there find something he needs. They were surprised that suddenly, in the midst of their tight community where they thought they knew everybody who had anything to do with making bikes, here’s a “clean, well-lighted and professionally equipped place” ready to take on serious framebuilding.

RR: Is it bigger than it needs to be?
TI: I don’t think so. I don’t want to outgrow it and have to move. And understand, I’ve known shops where, for two things to happen at the same time, one guy has to move. It’s not uncommon. Sometimes it’s a matter of necessity, the builder can’t afford more space, but for good production, it helps to have room and organization. If you set up the shop right, good production is easier. If the flow isn’t in one direction, a certain inefficiency is created. But if you have enough space, it can notch up the quality, because there are fewer opportunities for mistakes. I had the whole shop laid out on paper before I owned a single tool or machine.

RR: How did you evaluate the builders, during the interview?
TI: It’s not easy work. You detect in some people that they’ll be great, that they’re committed and will make it work. And, there’s a way that builders can talk to other builders. I’m not saying I didn’t watch them braze, because I did, but if you’ve done a lot of brazing, and you’re good, and you’re competent, then certain things come out in a conversation. I talk to you about brazing one way, like we might do here, and I talk to them another way. It’s like, when I’m showing you a fixture we have, you can look at it through your eyes, and maybe it means something if you’ve seen other fixtures, but it means more if you’ve used other fixtures, or tried to build a certain joint, a fork or a bridge or whatever, without a fixture. An experienced builder can appreciate those things more. When I was showing Curt around, for example, I could I read a lot into his answers and responses. I’d show him our fixture for mitering seat stays, and he’d say “whoa,” and I knew exactly why, I knew what he was thinking about it.

RR: Is there a “match” way to braze frames, or do you hire experienced builders and let them do it the way they’ve always done it?
TI: We share our skills and learn from each other, as I alluded to earlier, and what evolves from that is a consistent way to braze. I think any good frame shop would do the same, so I’m not going to say there’s a “match method,” or anything like that. We’re after the best joints humanly possible, and we’re after consistency, from frame to frame. Good brazing is gentle. We’re not in a hurry. Good brazing has a natural speed to it, that results in a clean joint that needs very little clean up. If you go too slow, you bake off the flux, and if you go too fast, you make mistakes, you force things and cause more rework. We use dedicated machines to cut the tubes consistently and accurately, and non-adjustable fixtures-as opposed to adjustable ones-that always put the bridges in the right spot. Those machines make the bikes more accurate and consistent, and they also free up time for humans to do their best brazing.

RR: What’s the easiest frame joint to braze?
TI: It depends on the lug shape. On the All-Rounder? It’s got to be the seat lug. It takes about five minutes with the torch. But there’s more to brazing than just the “torch time,” There’s the set up, tacking, fluxing, brazing, cleaning up the flux.

RR: That’s enough about brazing. You’re married and have three children at home still. What does your wife think about starting up a frame shop and specializing in the least popular style of frame today?
TI: Judy’s faith in this project and her support have given me the energy and enthusiasm to make it work. Moving around was hard. I was away for a year at a time, twice, and our family lived in China for a few years, too. It wasn’t easy. But Judy knew the plan all along was to get the experience that would prepare us to open the shop and build lugged frames. And, she has lots of bicycle experience herself. I met her at Trek, and she worked there for six years, buying all the parts for the complete bikes and frame production-wheels, rims, tubes, lugs, seat stays. Buying those parts is a huge responsibility, making sure the hundreds of parts from dozens of vendors show up on time, so you can get the bikes out. Then she did the same thing another four years at Diamondback. She’s supportive, but not just supportive. She knows the business, and she knows the pressures, and she’s committed to Match, too.

RR: But it seems like really crummy timing. I sometimes think the big share of the new bike market is half young kids who grew up on BMX or mountain bikes and lack any warm-fuzzy feelings for lugs, and half midlife crisis guys who don’t have a history with lugged bikes, and just want something really “high tech.” I think Rivendell can squeak by, but our volume requirements have to be smaller than yours.
TI: We want more work, that’s for sure. As far as the timing goes‹it’s taken this long to learn what I have to know, to do it right! So the time is right. There are still cyclists who respect craftsmanship and the best materials. I know I’m not following the market trends, but even if nobody else was building lugged frames, even if match was the last place on earth building them, this is what I’d do.

RR: But don’t wish you could turn back the clock to the mid’70s, when everybody wanted frame was lugged, or at least steel?
TI: Well, if you’re asking: Do I wish that the cycling populace was aching for fine, lugged steel bikes?- the answer has to be yes, but it’s not going to happen. But don’t think the mid ’70s were the golden age in terms of quality, so that’s to our advantage.

RR: There were many of nice bikes back then. If you take any mid-to-upper end road frame from 20 years ago and compare it to what you get today for an equivalent dollarŠ
TI: Šwhat you get is a certain look, and a certain value system that contributed to that look, and looking back, we call that whole thing “classic.” But there are a lot of misconceptions about the “hallowed frames” of the ’70s. You’ve got to understand that the European frames were new to Americans, who were comparing them to ballooners and other bikes that cost a lot less and weren’t so fancy. The brands were exotic, and our eyes were glazed over. Some of the frames were very good, even by today’s standards, but if you stripped them of paint and decals and rated them objectively, by looking at the miters and brazing quality and finish work, most of the “best brands” were nothing special, and in some cases were pretty shabby by any standards. In those days, a prestigious name that rolled off the tongue was a smokescreen. When the Americans started building frames, a lot of this became evident. Eisentrauts and Ritcheys and a dozen others – including my own – were at least as good, and usually better than the even the best European frames. I still stop in my tracks when I see a 1972 Colnago, but I look at it as a symbol of a time when cycling was simpler, and cyclists had a passion and a reverence that’s just different from what it’s like today. It reminds me of good times, for sure, but I don’t worship it as a work of art. It’s not like a Rembrandt, it’s just a Colnago. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way, but objectively, it’s not the epitome of the art.

RR: Materials have gotten better-
TI: A lot better. Precision castings, stronger steel alloys, and better paint. It’s still possible to take good materials and braze or weld them into garbage, but when you do a good job, a great job, then you have something special. Our brazers are as good as anybody. They’ve had intense training, lots of experience in a relatively short time, and each has an aptitude for it to begin with. The match method of brazing is, well, I’ve already said it’s probably not unique, but I can say it’s a refined, systematic approach that uses material and flame economically, and treats the metal well, and gives a clean, beautiful result that I’d put up against anybody’s. And we do it over and over again, consistently. It’s too bad we have to paint the frames, because the paint covers up things we’d like to show off.

RR: One more brazing question, even though I said no more: How active are you in the brazing? Do you still braze at all? And if you don’t, how do you spend your days?
TI: I could sit down and braze all day, but I’m not the best brazer because I’m out of practice. I’m rusty, so I restrict myself to jobs where other can make me look good. I get to do that. And, as you should know, I’ve put in a lot of time doing the cad drawings for your new lug designs, because the casters don’t work off sketches, you know. I still find great satisfaction designing things and setting up a frame shop that’s both small and personal, and efficient – not in terms of speed, but accuracy and precision that are consistent, which means we don’t have to undo our mistakes. We don’t cover up brazing by excess filing or clean-up. We don’t spend undo time aligning frames, because they come out so straight the first time. Our fixtures are dedicated to each frame, so there’s no chance of us building a Paramount with a Rivendell dimension, or vice versa. Mostly, I have a great crew. They solve problems and create solutions. They figure things out, and they care about what they’re doing. They know match is important to me, but I know it’s important to them, too. It’s a good arrangement. I wish we had more business, and maybe that’ll happen, but in the meantime, I’m happy.

© Rivendell Bicycle Works 1999