Saturday, November 30, 2013

Torchbearer Daydreaming

I know I've mentioned this in other posts, but I am a teacher in a public school. There was a time in my life when I could barely imagine doing anything else. After twenty years, I still like teaching -- that is, I like the actual act of teaching and being in the classroom with the kids. That is by far the best part of the job, and I like to think that I'm good at what I do. Lately though, I keep finding myself thinking about other things -- other possibilities -- like building bicycles.

As much as I love working with the kids, being an educator today -- especially in public schools -- is getting to be really difficult because of things that have nothing to do with the job of actually teaching. Enemies of public education, politicians and corporate/business interests, have their hands in every part of education now -- with rallying cries of "school choice" and "breaking the public school monopoly" and demanding "accountability" while expecting teachers to "do more with less"-- more standardized testing, more mandates, more bureaucracy -- with less funding, lower pay, fewer benefits.

People across the country blame public school teachers for all the supposed problems of public education -- calling us "glorified babysitters" and repeating the age-old (and offensive, if you ask me) joke "those who can't do, teach." The real problems in education are actually much more complex, but it's much easier to blame the teachers than to deal with the real problems and find (and fund) real solutions.

Still -- it all makes for a pretty unpleasant work environment with much more stress than I'd like. My fear is that it won't start taking a turn for the better before I get to retirement age. Nowadays, when I'm sitting in meetings about the latest new standards (which seem to be updated and revised monthly) and newest mandates -- I find myself more and more thinking about doing other things. Building bicycles is the main thing that keeps coming to mind. That, and maybe running my own bike shop. Possibly both.

Could wielding a brazing torch be in my future?
Even before I started college I thought I'd like to build bikes. But I was pretty well focused on my plans to teach, so it always seemed to be little more than a whim. What can I say? Today, it seems more like a dream that I should consider making a reality.

I would really like to take some framebuilding courses. It would be a pretty big investment in time and money, but I'd like to learn how to build with lugs, and possibly even to weld (I prefer frames with lugs, but I'd like to be able to do both). I've been reading about different framebuilding classes in different parts of the country. Prices seem to vary a bit but most seem to be several weeks long and several thousand dollars -- not counting things like lodging and other expenses. Then there would be the investment in equipment in order to set up my own shop. Things like jigs and alignment tables, torches and cutters and other metalworking tools can't be cheap. Coming up with the money would be pretty tough. That's why it's all just a daydream so far.

I think about being able to build bike frames, and perform repairs and modifications, and I think that even if I continued to teach, it would be a great side-line. For years, I've taken summer jobs to supplement my income (it was necessary, believe me), so this would just allow me to be self-employed. From what I know about the custom frame business, it can take time for a builder to gain the kind of following and build up the business to the point where they can make a decent living out of it. Doing it just as a sideline would be a great way to slowly gain that experience and respect without feeling like I have to live in poverty for a labor of love.

I'd love to be able to custom-build bikes for people, or even just repair damaged frames. I think it would also be fun to take tired old bike-boom era 10-speeds and breathe some new life into them and sell them on the side. Maybe over time, if my name got out there and if enough orders started coming in that I could turn it into a full-time job, then I could re-evaluate the priorities.

Oh well -- it's all just a daydream, for now. Something to get me through those depressing meetings. But who knows. . .


  1. Too bad you're so far from Boston, I know Mike Flannigan ( teaches a course in frame building that also includes all the fixtures you would need to go into production. Not a cheap course by any means, but you'd be learning from one of the best.

    I'm at the start of my working life, and considering buying an existing bike shop. The cost of that is heart-stopping.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Nathan. Mike Flannigan's course is one of those that I've read about. Sounds like a good one. I wish the investment was a little easier to make. You're right -- heart-stopping.

  2. You don't need all that stuff to build a frame. In fact a fair number of builders will tell you that you will understand the process better if you do the 1st few without a frame jig. My first frame, the mixte I built my wife in '79, still draws compliments.

    Now with the internet there is so much information out there I don't see a need for a class just to build a few. A class might be useful to help you speed up production. Also there are now computer programs online for printing templates for "Mitering" tubes. Only cyclists call coping "mitering".

    When I built Jane's mixte I had a few hand files, a roll of 1" 80 grit sanding cloth, a pair of very true wheels, a handheld electric drill, some drill bits, a hacksaw, a vice, a borrowed set of leaky torches & regs and a few other minor tools and a draftsman's adjustable triangle. With these I was able to cobble together a fork jig. A friend with a drill press made me some wooden blocks for holding tubes in the vice.

    I'd had a gas welding class at a community college years earlier when I was racing motorbikes, so I knew how to keep from blowing myself up.

    A Park type stand is nice for brazing. as you will want to keep re-orienting the joints to keep gravity working for you instead of against. Jigs are for tacking only, you will get a lot of distortion, brazing in one. A few pros can do it, you can't.

    A frame jig will speed things up, but build yourself and family a few frames first to see if you are cut out for doing it as a business, before spending the money. I've never used one as I'm not trying to make money. A good plan might be to only buy advanced tooling with money you've made without it.