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The world of Independent Fabrication

James Spender
19 May 2016

In an old shoe factory in New England lies one of cycling's most revered framebuilders.

‘Sometimes it’s the situation of having too many cooks in the kitchen,’ says the then-president of Independent Fabrication, Matt Bracken in the opening scene of The Turnaround. That was back in 2005, when Independent Fabrication was the subject of an episode of the CNN reality television series that matched struggling businesses with successful, high-profile mentors in a bid to turn around their commercial fortunes. 

By the end of the programme, host Ali Velshi proclaims with typical US-television chutzpah that, ‘This turnaround is over.’ Yet, it seems this episode represents only a few stitches in the East Coast framebuilder’s elaborate tapestry. For while it might appear to exist in an artisanal niche, Independent Fabrication is actually at the heart of the American cycling story, a keystone in a framebuilding dynasty that helped shape the early days of mountain biking then carried on through to the current boom in bespoke bicycles. 

They say that in life there are never more than six degrees of separation between you and the next person, and at Independent Fabrication you’ll probably find all six.

Friends and family

The Thai takeaway menu has done the rounds, and after a motherly roll-call from owner Toni Smith, Independent Fabrication’s eight-strong workforce reluctantly downs tools to gather round the counter for lunch.

‘Gary works as a mechanic here on Saturdays which is pretty awesome,’ says IF’s lead painter Chris Rowe, motioning towards the bike stand in the open-plan workshop. ‘It’s funny to come in here and see him changing the tyre on some old lady’s hybrid. Toni pretty much runs the show day-to-day.’

‘Here’ is IF’s boutique bike shop, and ‘Gary’ is Gary Smith, who – together with wife Toni – proved to be IF’s saviour when he bought a majority stake in the company in 2008, buying out Bracken among others.

‘CNN did The Turnaround show on us because we were successful in terms of our bikes and reputation, but we weren’t doing so well financially,’ Rowe adds. ‘Gary was our business mentor on the show. At the time we were a cooperative – every employee owned a piece of the company – so we had like 10 owners [there were in fact 13], but none of us knew how to run a business. We didn’t really follow his advice, though,’ Rowe laughs. ‘But he kept in touch – he’s a cycling nut and owned one of our bikes, the XS, and he eventually said, “You guys need help.” He stepped in and he definitely saved the business.’

At that time Gary Smith was senior vice-president at clothing and footwear giant Timberland, so perhaps it’s more than a coincidence that in 2011 he moved the company (then based at Somerville, just outside Boston, Massachusetts) to a converted shoe factory in New England that now houses IF’s production facility, adjacent bike shop and sister company BaileyWorks, which makes high-end messenger bags. However, the IF seeds were sown long before the Smiths took over.

‘A guy called Chris Chance started Fat City Cycles back in the 1980s making mountain bikes,’ says IF’s frame designer Jesse Fox. ‘It got bought out and everything moved to the Serotta factory in Saratoga in the mid-1990s. Lots of folks didn’t want to go, so they stayed in Boston and continued to build frames, and that’s pretty much how IF began.

‘Somebody made a family tree of New England framebuilders and a lot of branches can be traced back to Fat City, and even further back than that. I believe Chris Chance was involved in Witcomb USA, along with Richard Sachs and Peter Weigle in the 1970s.’

While some of those names might not be familiar in the UK, the tones in which they’re spoken make it clear they’re held in high regard in the USA, and before long a complicated web of movers and shakers is being constructed around the bike shop counter. To recount it all would read something like the offspring of Jacob and Esau in Genesis, but a potted version goes something like this…

Ernie Witcomb founded Witcomb Lightweight Cycles in 1952 in South London. In the 1970s he trained Ben Serotta, Richard Sachs, Chris Chance and Peter Weigle. Ben Serotta founded Serotta in New York in 1972 (defunct since 2013), while the others set up Witcomb USA in Connecticut. Witcomb disbanded in 1977, leaving Peter Weigle and Richard Sachs to build frames under their own names and Chris Chance to start Fat City Cycles with Gary Helfrich in 1982, pioneering TIG welded steel mountain bikes such as the Yo Eddy, which would become cult classics in the emerging US mountain bike scene. 

In 1986 Helfrich stepped out with the latest wonder material, titanium, and set up Merlin Metalworks. In 1997 Merlin welder Rob Vandermark also left Fat City Cycles to start titanium specialist Seven Cycles, taking several employees with him. Chance’s fortunes, meanwhile, had waned, and Fat City departed Somerville to be rolled into Serotta, leaving behind IF’s founding members (Ben Cole, Jeff Buchholz, Mike Flanigan, Steven Elmes,  Lloyd Groves and Sue Kirby) to start the new company in 1995. 

Fox explains that all of the original cast are now gone, but as we finish lunch and head out onto the factory floor, it’s obvious they’re not forgotten. ‘Lloyd is over at Seven now, and so is Mike Flanigan, and we even had our own offshoot, Tyler Evans, who came from Merlin, worked with us a number of years then started Firefly Bicycles down in Boston.’

Quality, quantity

Having evolved out of a mountain bike brand in Fat City it’s no surprise that IF’s first production cycles were steel mountain bikes, the Special and the Deluxe, the latter of which is still made today. It soon added the Crown Jewel road racer, and now its road collection outnumbers the off-road (which includes cross, mountain and fat bikes) seven to four. 

Despite this skew, the young upstart’s mountain bike quality is still present across IF’s portfolio, from the typeface ‘based on the punk band Black Flag’s logo’ to the bold colour schemes that many see as the IF trademark. Even the factory space encapsulates the brand ethos.

Light floods through a multitude of tall period windows, illuminating a host of great cast-iron milling machines to create an atmosphere of eclectic, hipster cool. It’s a far cry from the mystical realm of the European artisan slaving away in his dusty atelier, but yet the work here is serious and, bar a few exceptions, everything is locally sourced and proudly made in-house.

‘We get the majority of our materials from the US,’ says Fox. ‘We work in steel, titanium, carbon and mixed materials, like our XS frame, which is titanium lugged and has carbon tubes. The tubes for the lugs are laser cut by a company in Chicago, and we work with Paragon Machine Works in California to make things like dropouts. But all the cutting, welding, finishing and painting is done here. That includes our full-carbon Corvid bike. We had Enve Composites make adjustable moulds that can create almost any angle lug, and they supply the tubing too, but we cut, mitre, wrap and bond it all up here. We even made most of the fixtures for the tools. Jeff Buchhloz, one of the IF originals, made these,’ says Fox, gesturing to two well-used frame jigs. ‘He now makes frame jigs under the name Sputnik Tools. We’ve designed and built IFs in-house since the very beginning, so every frame that’s come out of this shop since day one has been made on one of those jigs.’ So how many frames is that? 

‘We’ve been in business for 20 years, and currently do around 400 frames per year, though for a few years in the late 1990s and early 2000s we were making close to 1,000 a year. The decrease is largely because we only do custom frames now, not stock, and just about every frame has custom paint. And the market has moved on. It used to just be one-inch headsets and threaded steerers, but it’s more complex now, and the bikes are more expensive.’

With that, Fox picks up a head tube from a stack of trays containing component parts. ‘Take this titanium head tube. It’s oversized and specially made, so it costs us around $200. Then the titanium tubing is between 40-60 bucks a foot. Part that out individually and add labour, laser cutting, shipping and so forth, and it adds up.’ Little wonder that IF’s cheapest titanium road frameset starts at £2,900 for the Crown Jewel or Club Racer, and its order book tops out at £4,250 for the mixed-material XS. 

Customer satisfied

The factory floor is split into four stations: tacking, where tubes are cut, shaped, mitred then lightly tacked in place for welding; the weld stations themselves behind heavy vinyl curtains; finishing, where frames are faced, reamed and alignment is checked; and finally, paint. 

While every step is important, it’s traditionally the welding that gets handmade-bike enthusiasts cooing, so we stop to observe lead welder Keith Rouse doing what he does best. Like fellow welder and fabricator Shawn Estes and lead painter Chris Rowe, Rouse is a veteran of the East Coast framebuilding scene with his own story to tell.

‘I used to work at Merlin,’ Rouse explains, flicking up his welding mask with a deft nod. ‘Then one day we all came to work and there was a police officer at the front door, and we were told if we came in we couldn’t leave. I guess he was there to stop us stealing stuff,’ he adds with a rueful chuckle. ‘We hung around, then at 9 o’clock they called this meeting and said they’d sold the company and they were moving it to Tennessee. We could go out back and pick a frame to take home, but that was it, we were laid off that day. At one point Merlin had 45 employees making 3,000 frames a year, it was incredible. Then the economy shrank and Merlin went with it. That’s when I came to IF. I left for a bit to work on renovating some houses, but I missed this. I was so psyched to come back.’

For many people getting ‘psyched’ to return to a job that involves hours of intense concentration and repetition might sound odd, but employees such as Rouse don’t think like that. ‘Everyone here is a rider first who just happens to be a fabricator,’ says Fox. ‘Everyone builds their own personal bikes to test out new ideas, but the others will have a hand in it. So if Keith builds a bike, he’ll probably weld it, but Shawn will tack it and Chris will paint it, so there’s lots of back and forth which is crucial for product development. Our Gravel Royale bike came through that process.’

It is literally a winning formula. Over the years IF has scooped four awards at the prestigious North American Handmade Bicycle Show, most recently in 2014 for Best Finish. But it’s not always easy keeping everyone happy.

‘We used to have this custom option called painter’s choice, where the painter would get to do whatever they liked,’ says Fox. ‘The customer would open the box and that would be the first time they’d see it. There was this big guy from somewhere down south, Carolina or Virginia, and our painter did his bike in pink with pink decals. Poor dude! That frame came back, and actually that was the last time we did painter’s choice.’ Still, it doesn’t seem to have dampened IF’s creative flair and attention to detail. Winding up our tour in the paint booth, Fox introduces us to Chris Rowe, who’s putting the finishing touches to a blue-tinted carbon Corvid frameset.

‘This bike has four different types of clear coat, and the blue is a dye that’s sandwiched in between layers. The base is clear, used on carbon fibre golf clubs, so it’s rock hard. Then you put in the blue, then another clear coat, more golf club clear coat, then a “show” clear top coat. It sometimes feels like an impossible math problem, because if you do the process a little bit of the dye will bleed through the decal and whatever graphics you spray on.’ Yet Rowe seems largely unfazed at the prospect of potentially ruining a £4,000 frame.

‘I had a hiatus from IF and started my own paintshop,’ says Rowe. ‘I somehow got connected with a really high-end motorcycle collection. Trying to paint a 1903 French motorised tricycle period correct, now that’s hard. Those people are so picky, you could paint a BMW motorcycle from the 1930s and they’d tell you the drips in the lacquer were wrong, because back then they’d lacquer them then hang them at a certain angle to dry, and the lacquer would pool in certain spots. All that makes painting a bike look easy.’

It takes Rowe between 10 and 30 hours to paint a frame, but it’s worth it. The Corvid shines with a luminous iridescence that you’ll not see on any mass-produced bicycle, although if you’re lucky, you might just see this very one out on the road. It’s bound for London, to a customer called Caroline. But strangely the guys at IF seem sceptical of Cyclist’s offer to hand deliver it.

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