An Interview with Bill Stevenson
The Greatest Unknown Frame Builder - An Interview with Bill Stevenson
by Russ Howe
Unless you are an avid cyclist living in the Pacific Northwest you may not be familiar with Bill Stevenson. Yet, you are probably familiar with his work. Bill designed and built frames for Gary Fisher, Ross Bicycles and Alpinestars USA. Additionally, Bill built Albert Eisentraut “Limited” frames in the early seventies. No longer content to be a product manager and designer for others, Bill is now producing the finest custom frames available. The change is that the Stevenson name graces the downtubes, and it is doubtful he will remain unknown for long.
Bill Stevenson started building custom frames over twenty five years ago. At the age of twenty, he took up cycling and worked in a local bike shop as a mechanic. In 1971, he took one of Albert Eisentraut’s frame building classes in Olympia, Washington. Excelling in the class, Albert offered him a job on the spot. In 1972, he worked the Albert Eisentraut in Oakland, CA. He brazed frames while other workers completed the clean-up. This “apprenticeship” lasted only six months, as he returned to Washington and continued to build custom frames at his own shop.
In 1985, Bill embarked on an “around the world” odyssey that would last seven years. The first stop was Ross Bicycles in Allentown, PA., where he was hired as the primary designer and product manager (Tom Kellogg and Jim Redcay preceded Bill as Ross’s Signature Custom frame builders). Eventually, Ross transferred Bill and his family to Taiwan so he could supervise production and quality control for Ross’s mass produced frames. This experience gave Bill a unique glimpse of the industry that most small custom builders never see. How many builders can say that they once rejected 3,000 frames in a single day?
What interested you about frame building?
In 1970, I ordered an Eisentraut frame and I waited two years before it arrived. I can remember taking the frame out of the box and being completely floored by the level of workmanship and sheer beauty of the frame. The lugs were paper-thin and the frame really had a unique style all of its own. I built the frame up and took it for a ride, and was again, completely blown away. The bike rode so well, it seemed that all I had to do was “think it through a corner” and it automatically did what I desired. After this experience, I wanted to be able to make people feel great about a bike the way I felt about the Eisentraut.
You began as a "Roadie" and ended up designing mountain bikes for Gary Fisher, How did that transition occur?
Prior to 1980, I had done some contract building (fillet brazed Mt. Tams and Comps) for Gary Fisher. In addition; I began to experiment on my own by building a couple of mountain bike frames and riding them in the Capital Forest (near Olyimpia, WA).
In the fall of 1985, I went to work for Ross Bicycles to run their Signature department. This was kind of a Schwinn Paramount-style operation inside a mass production factory. One of my main responsibilities was to provide frames for the Ross Pro team which was one of the first professional off-road teams. Even my first mountain frames were much different than what was being made in California at that time. I immediately kicked the seat tube and head tube angles up about 3 degrees and added radical things like toe clips. Being a roadie, the slack seat angle hurt my knees and the wheel flop of a 68 degree head angle was intolerable. The bikes worked better and the racers loved them. These modifications impressed the Ross management and they began to realize that I might have talent outside of brazing. I eventually ended up designing most of the frames in the Ross Line, including BMX and Freestyle. I was sent to Taiwan for a year to help Ross move their production there. I gained some background in Quality Control Process Management and Fixture Design. It was an early stage of the Taiwan Bicycle Industry and we constantly “pushed the envelope” for what could be done there.
That led to my job at Gary Fisher (another story), which led to Alpinestars. I’d become a “hired gun” product designer/product manager. But to answer your question, I was still a “roadie” at heart. I appreciate the opportunities and design challenges that mountain bikes have provided. In fact, I really enjoy riding mountain bikes, but building and riding road bikes is my first love.
What is your focus now?
I still consider myself a commercial designer and builder. Currently, my focus is on custom road frames. I guess a simple answer to your question is that I try to “focus” on the bike we are building at the time. These are predominantly made utilizing fillet brazed construction, as this is the method most often requested by our customers. That’s fine with me as I enjoy designing and building this type of frame. At the same time, I have recently built myself a lugged winter training bike utilizing hand cut lugs.
Certainly, one of the most attractive parts of custom frame building for me is the diversity of projects. Also, there is the satisfaction of providing customers with a frame which fits correctly and is designed for their intended use. In fact, in many ways, the ultimate satisfaction is riding with the new frame owner and finding them riding faster and more comfortably on their new bike.
In your sales brochure, you write " we covet our retro status". What is your Retro status and how does it apply to your frames?
Frankly, I find this whole “Retro” thing a little upsetting. Much of what is now being called Retro was the “latest and greatest” when I started riding! But seriously, my preference is to take that “Retro” style and update it with better tubing, such as Reynolds 853 or True Temper OXIII tubing, and investment cast lugs. A recent customer had always lusted over a Cinelli Supercorsa when he was young. So, I built him a frame using a Cinelli fork crown and lugs with True Temper OXIII tubing. I drilled holes in the lugs, had them chromed, and attached the seatstays in the Cinelli fastback style. The customer loved the bike and I was confident that I was able to blend the best of technology with a classic style to provide a great riding bike. Having ridden good frames in the early seventies, I know what was superior about those products and concepts. I have continued to build and ride into the 90’s and know what and where improvements can be made. I don’t think we should honor or prefer something just because it happens to be old. Many thirty-five year old frames and components were mediocre at best. At the same time, the seeming inability of some riders to survive without being the “newest and greatest” is hardly healthy. Just as an example, my “daily rider” is built of a prototype True Temper tube set and has 1971 Nuovo Record derailleurs. Both provide superior performance. In my opinion, honoring the history of cycling is laudable but copying the equipment and style of another time without thought or consideration is foolish.
How has your technical background enhanced and/or influenced your frame building?
I come from a family of engineers and architects. From an early age, it seemed natural to conceive, design and fabricate projects. My formal education naturally veered in that direction. I hope my informal education is continuing. The most ringing condemnation I can imagine is, “He had thirty years experience but didn’t learn much after the first year.” I think my formal background in engineering and Bio-mechanics gave me a structure on which to hang the information I collected as a cyclist, mechanic and frame builder. I also think it reinforced the concept of process. In other words, to reach a successful conclusion to a project, you must follow certain steps. When designing and fabricating a bike frame the steps include, measuring the rider, computing tube lengths,and choosing materials. Even the tube joining method, fillet brazed or lugged, is based on rider size and the intended use of the frame. The next step is creating a full sized frame drawing and finally, building the frame. In our business, the customer is a part of the whole process. Personally, I can’t imagine skipping a step. Most unsuccessful frames that I see are not a result of fabrication errors but rather the result of conceptual omissions or mistakes. Simply following the traditional methods of engineering and manufacturing hardly seems unusual, but my experience in the bicycle business leads me to believe it makes us unique.
What is your sizing procedure?
My sizing system is based on the Italian Cycling Federation, C.O.N.I., method. Over the years it has evolved a bit and I have modernized it. In other words, by measuring inside inseam, torso, and arm length and multiplying those measurements by a percentage, we can develop a seat and top tube measurement. I feel the method is more accurate because my method gives an exact number, not what I consider a useless range (2-4 cm) as with the C.O.N.I . method. I consider it modernized in that it takes into account the trend towards shorter seat tubes and longer top rubes over the past 25 years. In addition, my preference is to use a Serotta sizing bike to act as a proof of measurements, to help establish seat tube angle, and to come up with stem length. In many ways, the method has evolved to the point where the only similarity it bears to the original is that it is based on measurement of body parts!
Who has influenced your style?
When it comes to influences, I think they come in positive and negative flavors. I have had a lot of shop experience, so I’ve had the opportunities to see a large number of bikes. My focus is to avoid problems I have encountered on other people’s frames. The shop that I have been involved with for much of my professional life is “The Bike Stand” in Olympia, WA. We once imported Jack Taylors and Mercians, directly. In addition, we sold Cinellis, Colnagos, etc., as they were available. Our main line of frames were Eisentrauts. I personally assembled and test rode all of the “high end” frames that we sold. This gave me the opportunity to appreciate the positive and negative aspects of some of the most respected frames of that period. Relatively early on we purchased a Campagnolo tool kit and frame alignment equipment. Frequently, I found myself performing what should have been the final manufacturing steps, and dealing with conceptual problems. At about the same time, after a two year wait I received my own custom Eisentraut and retired my Mercier 300. I was riding a great deal and the Eisentraut was a revelation both from a performance and aesthetic standpoint. The lugs were paper thin, everything blended together, and, of course, it had the Eisentraut Seat Stay Attachment. Viewed objectively, the frame was exceptional for the period. At the time, it was outrageous to think that American frames could compete with the European ones. It completely changed the way I thought about frames. It was American and every part seemed perfect. Filed, sanded, polished… a whole new style. Not a derivative of the style of Cinelli, Masi, or anything else, but rather a unique American style
Another significant influence was Spence Wolf. I met Spence a few times and I was always impressed at how meticulous he was in setting up a bike. Spence would tie and solder most of the wheels he built and I gleaned much from him such as what gauge wires to use, how to build better wheels, how to set up a bike,