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The Dream Works: Inside Saffron Frameworks

James Spender
17 Jan 2017

The Dream Works: Inside Saffron Frameworks

Writing books and discussing Buddhism might not seem the preserve of the traditional framebuilder, but take a look at Sowter’s creations and you’ll realise he’s not about the traditional.

There are such elements in his bikes – he works almost exclusively in steel and never TIG welds, only brazes – but beyond that Saffron frames have a thoroughly modern design that is about more than intricate paintjobs and painstakingly polished metal.

‘I love smooth integration from one tube to the next. It gives a frame a homogenous look like it’s one intentional, complete product.

‘I find lugwork is more rigid – it has constrictions that go along with it.’

Not what it seems

There are lugs in the Saffron back catalogue, but they’re not necessarily what they seem.

Picking up a head tube that looks like it’s had half of its lugs cut off, Sowter explains the sometimes illusory world of the bi-laminate lug.

‘Here are two sleeves cut away to look like lugs that I then slide over the ends of the head tube and braze in place.

‘The top tube and down tube get mitred and fillet-brazed to the area, so you can get the look of a cast lug while being able to choose your own frame angles [since lugs are cast, meaning their angles are predetermined].

‘This one was for a customer who then decided he wasn’t keen on the shape, which was a bit unfortunate as I had to make something else.’

It turns out the customer was the owner of a Saffron bike that Cyclist awarded Best Road Bike to at the Bespoked Handmade Bicycle Show earlier this year.

Of all Saffron’s creations it’s arguably the most complicated, with a curved seat tube, a host of bi-laminate lugs and a GT-esque ‘triple triangle’ design.

Sowter admits it took him to the limits of his framebuilding abilities, not least in terms of time: the project took nearly three years to come to fruition, in part due to the customer stipulating changes mid-build, such as to the head tube.

Yet quite apart from this being a drag, Sowter talks fondly about the ongoing customer-builder dialogue.

Get out what you put in

Depending on the framebuilder, a customer might be expected to wait up to two years for his or her frame to get made. Things at Saffron, however, are notably quicker.

‘I couldn’t wait more than six months for something and I wouldn’t expect other people to either,’ says Sowter.

‘It means I’m on a tight schedule, and since time is money and there’s limited time, I’ve only really been able to afford a decent bike for myself recently.

Like most framebuilders, Sowter’s process is straightforward – he invites customers to visit him in his workshop, then starts hashing out details. There is a bit of a caveat, though.

‘I’ve got two rules. If I have someone dictating what I should do I’ll be reluctant to build them a frame, but on the other hand if someone walks in and says, “Here’s some cash, build me something,” I won’t do it either.

‘There needs to be a decent amount of input from the customer. 

‘I don’t think I’ve ever turned anyone away, but I’ve probably come across in a certain way in the first consultation and they’ve not come back.

‘I don’t mean that to sound harsh, it’s just I want someone to ride out of the workshop on something they feel they’ve been a part of. It has to have meaning for them.’

That ‘something’ is not inconsiderable in terms of cost. A basic Columbus Zona or Reynolds 631 frame starts at £1,320.

That includes a bike fit at London’s Bespoke Cycling, because, as Sowter says, ‘It doesn’t matter how beautiful your bike is if it doesn’t fit,’ but be warned: there are a host of desirable options that will see the price ramp up.

A question of time

As Sowter explains, the real cost is time, and the more detailed the build the longer it will take. It’s here that Cyclist can’t help positing the analogy between top framebuilders and top chefs.

What you’re really paying for is the meticulous attention to detail and skilful execution, right?

‘I guess that’s true to a degree. Framebuilding is a bit like cheffing – you need to be really organised and precise about what you do.

‘It’s that or have someone throw a plate at you. But I wouldn’t say there’s any similarity between the skills and process.

‘Cheffing you do all your prep work in the morning, then it’s all consumed in 15 minutes at lunchtime service. Then you have to do it all again in the afternoon for the evening service.

‘What I really like about framebuilding is it takes such a long time to make a frame – start to finish five days – and you’re making it for people who have been dreaming about it and are going to have a really awesome time riding it. It’s a joyous process.’

Looking at Sowter it would seem that life is pretty good. He’s making things he loves for people that value them, the order book is full and the plaudits are rolling in.

Yet one gets the impression it’s not nearly as simple as being able to make beautiful custom bicycles. First off, the bike needs to ride well too. It’s hard work and the industry can be cynical. 

‘The last few months I’ve been trying to bring my working hours down to something more sensible, from 8am to between 5pm and 8pm, maybe only five or six days a week.

Hard work

‘Luckily I now have Andy [Matthews] on board, who takes care of all the day-to-day stuff. It’s still hard graft though, and it’s even harder when you get people trying to sell things off the back of claims to be doing what builders like me do, saying they make this custom carbon stuff or that custom steel stuff in-house when they’re not doing that. 

‘About eight months ago I had to pick up the phone to a framebuilder and say, “It’s really unfair you’re doing this [claiming to build in the UK],” because ultimately they can charge the same prices as me but can have higher margins as they’re not actually making the stuff here.

‘And that affects the integrity of all our businesses. They subsequently took it off their website, which was good of them I suppose.’

So what next for Sowter? Would he ever go into larger volumes, different materials or employ people to make Saffron frames for him?

‘I’ve been working for quite some time with somebody on a carbon frame, which we’re going to make in-house, all custom.

‘If it comes off I can see myself upscaling that part of the business and still being able to produce 10-15 steel frames a year for my own satisfaction.

‘I’d never want to do larger volumes if it meant getting someone else to make Saffron frames – it would go against the ethos of what I’m trying to do.

‘I can see why someone would go that way, though. It’s a good way to supplement your revenue stream. Let’s face it, you don’t do this for the money.

But you have to think, we spend so much of our lives working, why don’t we enjoy it? There’s nothing wrong with doing a job you hate and making lots of money if you’re OK with that, but I’m not.

‘I love what I do and don’t want to change it.’

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What lies beneath

A beautiful custom bike is more than just a fancy lick of paint (although that helps)

‘I work on the principle that if you draw a line from the rear dropout to the top of the head tube, below that line is where all the pedalling stresses happen, so that can be built stiff. Then above that line I work on the comfort,’ says Sowter.

‘The bigger your down tube, the stiffer your bottom bracket section can be. The skinnier your top tube and seatstays, the more flex you can build in for comfort.

‘Companies such as Columbus are now making down tubes 44mm wide with wall thickness down to 0.35mm, which is great for stiff, light steel frames.

‘I’d still like to see wall thicknesses get even thinner or certain tubes wider – increase a tube diameter from 10mm to 20mm and the stiffness goes up by 700% for the same wall thickness – but for the time being there’s lots of choice in the market.

‘I usually build in Columbus or Reynolds as that’s what most people have heard of, but there’s also Tange, Deda, KVA and still some True Temper stuff available.

‘I like to mix tubesets to get a mixture of characteristics. It’s all about choosing the right tube for the right ride feel and performance.

‘The bike has to fit and ride well, otherwise it’s game over from the start, but it’s nice if it looks beautiful, so I use a couple of different painters.

‘Some people just come with a colour, others have a theme. One I’m working on at the moment is “autumn”, so that will be lots of red, browns and blacks.

‘But it’s always the most nervewracking thing when someone rides away on their bike for the first time.’ 

Page 2 of 2The Dream Works: Inside Saffron Frameworks part 2

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Page 2 of 2The Dream Works: Inside Saffron Frameworks part 2