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Life in full colour: Inside paintworks Fatcreations

In-depth
21 Jan 2021
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When a heart problem stopped Alistair McLean from cycling, a hobby became an obsession and Fatcreations Custom Paint was born

Words: Sam Challis Photography: Geoff Waugh

In front of me is a Cervélo S5, but to my eye it is more beautiful than anything the Canadian brand has ever produced. The frame is a lustrous, deep blue, as smooth as if it had been dipped into a pool of molten glass.

Under sunlight the lacquer reveals the frame’s carbon layup, which is still visible like the seabed in a crystal clear ocean. The beauty of the bare carbon plies are magically enhanced by their new ultramarine tint.

That isn’t the end of it. Adorning the frame are details of tattoo-like intricacy – a lion on the seat tube, a bumblebee at the bottom bracket – specified by the customer for sentimental importance.

Although water-slide decals would be far more convenient at this level of complexity, all of them have been painted using bespoke stencils so they don’t disturb the perfect evenness of the lacquer.

The frame captivates me for several minutes, but Alistair McLean can afford to give it no more than a fond glance. That was yesterday’s work, the customer is satisfied and so is McLean, so it’s time to move on.

McLean is the founder and owner of Fatcreations, a paintworks that has garnered global renown, although when Cyclist arrives the facility proves to be far from a palace of cycling dreams.

The set-up is a fairly rustic conglomeration of outbuildings in the back garden of McLean’s house in Chichester, near the West Sussex coast. The workshop is little more than a glorified shed with a tacked-on paint booth, but when you learn McLean’s back story the setting begins to make sense.

On the up

‘Fatcreations developed fairly organically, kickstarted initially when I had some time off the bike after breaking my collarbone racing elite-level downhill,’ McLean says. ‘I’d bought an airbrush 18 months prior, but never got the time to plug it in and try it. Out of nowhere I couldn’t do any riding for six weeks so I painted a motorbike helmet.

‘The injury came at the worst possible time in my season. I missed World Cup rounds and my sponsor wouldn’t honour my contract, so it was very stressful. I found that the painting helped – it was very therapeutic.’

McLean started asking his friends if they wanted their helmets painted, and his interest and ability grew from there.

‘It was always motorbike bits and bobs up until about 2012, even though I was obsessed with bicycles. I didn’t need it to be a job back then. I was in an incredibly privileged position where I was good enough to be paid by my mountain bike sponsors and had a well paid job as R&D manager at Ultimate Sports Engineering, the company behind USE components and Exposure lights, so I never had to earn much from painting.’

Some changes in personal circumstance meant McLean started saying yes to more paint work in 2012, around the time cycling exploded in the UK off the back of the exploits of Wiggins, Hoy and the rest at the Olympics and Tour de France.

‘Fatcreations was really born around that time,’ McLean says. ‘Then once the chaps I used to race against got wind of what I was doing they were keen for me to work on their bikes. Steve Peat was the first, then within a few months it was Aaron Gwin, Troy Brosnan and Bernard Kerr.

‘I still paint Danny Hart and Matt Walker’s World Championship Downhill bikes,’ he adds. ‘It was a massive springboard and gave Fatcreations an international reputation, which meant that by 2014 we were incredibly busy.’

 

Shifting perspective

How McLean would find the time to cope with demand was becoming a concern, until work issues were made to look trivial when out of the blue he developed a serious heart condition: arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy.

‘It means that if my heart goes above 100 beats per minute I’m at serious risk of my heart going into ventricular tachycardia, which means irregular electrical impulses make it beat exceptionally fast. This could lead to fatal cardiac arrest if a defibrillator I have implanted doesn’t succeed in getting my heart back into its normal rhythm,’ he says.

McLean’s demeanour changes when talk moves to his condition. It’s clear the situation has caused him a great deal of distress.

‘I was training and racing around 20 hours a week before the onset of my condition, and I had so much pent up frustration and energy that had nowhere to go. It could have been easy for me to spiral as the condition increasingly affected my life, but I’ve had friends with depression and knew enough to recognise the signs and do something about them. We had all these requests for work, so I threw myself into that.’

McLean’s pedigree in road cycling stems from the 2014 Bespoked Handmade Bicycle Show, where no fewer than 11 of the bikes that got awards were painted by him. Not all the awards were for the paint, but it was enough to generate demand for his services in the Lycra-clad community as well as riders in baggies. He has painted road frames for several national champions, including USA’s Larry Warbasse, Ireland’s Connor Dunne and Britain’s Ian Bibby.

 

‘I think it’s fair to say I’m obsessed with my work, because it’s one of the only things I feel I can do really well anymore,’ says McLean. ‘Always having something to do is the mark of an efficient process,’ he adds, gesturing behind me where Becky, his partner, is fastidiously masking off the main paintjob for today.

Coincidentally it’s another S5, which is due to receive something totally different to the finish I was ogling earlier – a black, white and grey camo scheme.

‘From the customer’s perspective, this is when our work begins,’ says McLean as he hangs the frame in his booth. ‘But there has already been almost 20 hours of labour to get the frame to this point. Hand-sanding off – “flatting back” – the original paint and prepping the carbon is a long job in itself.’

McLean dons his respirator and applies paint with a spray gun. He methodically covers the whole frame – the quirks, bends and angles of the tubes never disturb the even, fluid movement of his gun. Within minutes a coat is applied and it dries before McLean has finished cleaning his gun.

Immediately the frame is back in the hands of Becky, who begins masking off the next patches of camouflage with vinyl stickers that block the next colour of paint from covering sections of the one below.

‘Becky is extremely talented in a creative, artistic way. Where I’m weak, she’s stronger and vice versa, so we fit well,’ says McLean. To any other couple the homely workshop would be considered cramped.

It’s crammed full of equipment, bikes, tins of paint and the inevitable accumulation of sentimental objects that comes with years of working in the same space, yet the pair work seamlessly and efficiently around each other.

 

Painting tête-à-tête

While it looks as though the frame has only begun to be painted today, its journey started around eight months ago.

‘It begins with a call or email,’ McLean says. ‘We have a chat, I get an approximate idea of what the customer wants, they get a rough quote – road framesets start from around £575 – and we’ll book it in. Then nothing happens until the frame is here and prepped for colour. That day is quite a full-on experience for the customer.

‘I’ll have a picture dialogue going with them all the way through. We like to make it a back-and forth process – is the customer happy with the decals, the colour being applied? If not then we’ll sand it back, recut another stencil or remix a colour. The process is as fluid as the paint.’

That might add time to a job but McLean explains that it takes the stress out of it for him: ‘I’m not the sort of person to say “tough, that’s what was written down” to someone who’s not happy with an end product. I’d sooner flat it off and start again tomorrow.

‘Customers love it,’ he adds. ‘Without fail they’ll comment that the process is incredible, that they can tweak as we go. I don’t think there’s another painter in the country who does that because it’s so time-consuming. They can’t afford to do what we do – they have higher overheads, finite studio time, other priorities – but that’s where my illness works to my advantage. It keeps me close to home and limits what else I can fill my life with, so I’m much freer to pour time into Fatcreations.’

The S5 changes rapidly, switching from the paint booth to stencil mount several more times. ‘This frame was primed yesterday,’ says McLean. ‘The paints we use are acrylic-based and we use a 2K primer, which is no different to what you’d find in a car body shop. It’s not like 1K paint because it requires a catalyst, but 2K has etching properties that make it bind to the carbon better, meaning it’s harder wearing.

‘We make the finish even tougher by applying the base coats we’re doing now when the primer is still a little soft,’ he adds. ‘That way you get a mechanical bond of the primer to the frame and a chemical bond of the base coats to the primer.’

 

The process of Becky’s stencil work and McLean’s painting smoothly turns the once-black S5 into something worthy of a double take. It’s ironic really, considering the frame is getting a camouflage paint scheme.

‘There might be only 35 minutes of actual labour in the coats of paint, even though it’s a 27-hour job,’ says McLean. ‘After this phase the bike will look finished from a distance, but in fact there is at least another seven hours of work to do.’

Next comes a finicky process of masking up and painting in to perfect any tiny defects: ‘Things that no customer would ever notice, but I don’t want another painter who might be of my standard being able to look at my work and find fault in it,’ says McLean.

A progressive lacquering/sanding process then takes place over a few hours and the frame will be finished with a polish. Even that isn’t simple: ‘We use a course machine-operated polish, then go over again with a fine one. It gives the paint a glass-like quality.

‘While it sounds like a lot of paint will go on our frames, we use a lot of sacrificial coats for a better finish when it’s flatted back,’ McLean says. ‘Typically our work adds 60-90g to a frame, whereas stock paintjobs can add almost 200g. It’s bonkers when you think of the years of development that bike engineers go through to save that weight in the carbon layup.’

The growing reputation of Fatcreations means McLean has an increasing problem coping with demand.

‘It’s getting to the stage where I have to be careful. I’ve really got to grow in the next 18 months or I’ll be turning away too many people. The last thing I’d want is for the love we get to turn sour. We’ve got plans to expand but it’s been tricky. We’ve had to balance my health with work, plus plans to move into a bigger property recently fell through.

‘The demand is there, though, so it will happen – we’re going to employ a couple of other people and double our output to around 10 frames a week. There would still be a six-month lead time but hopefully that output is a good level to show people that we’re working as hard as we can.’

Six months may seem like a long time to get a bike frame painted, but anyone who sees the results will realise that it’s well worth the wait.

Finest Fatcreations No.1

 

Spring Classics Cannondale Synapse

‘This was a joint project between us and Cannondale for the 2017 Rouleur Classic show,’ says McLean. ‘The show includes an auction, and Cannondale put up a frame that included a custom paintjob from us as a prize. This one was painted to give bidders an idea of what they could own.

 

‘That year the theme of the show was the five Monuments, so the idea was conceived to weave the cobblestone logos from each of the races into the frame’s design. Each and every cobblestone in the pattern is unique – they were all cut and applied by Becky by hand. The racing stripes were added to make the frame more eye-catching.

‘The prize garnered a lot of interest and raised a decent amount of money. Cannondale recently gifted this frame to me, and it’s now my pride and joy.’

Finest Fatcreations No.2

 

Miguel Angel Lopez’s Argon 18 Gallium Pro

‘This was a last-minute job for Astana’s young star,’ says McLean. ‘We’ve painted a few custom colour frames for Miguel in the past so we usually have a suitable Argon 18 frame in the workshop just in case.

‘Miguel rode into some good form during last year’s Vuelta – had Simon Yates faded like he did at the Giro, Lopez could have taken the lead – so Astana wanted a frame painted for him to ride to match his potential leader’s jersey.

 

‘We got the go-ahead in the early hours of a Wednesday morning and had 48 hours to finish the project. Becky was primed to fly it out to the team in Barcelona on the Friday afternoon but unfortunately for Astana, Yates held onto the race lead so the frame wasn’t needed.’

Finest Fatcreations No.3

 

Anodised Vaaru Cycles Octane 6-4

‘The founder of Vaaru Cycles, James Beresford, and I have a long history both as friends and on a professional level,’ says McLean. ‘We learned how to anodise together over the course of about a year.

‘As I’m not good at marketing Fatcreations, people don’t really know I can anodise, so the idea behind this frame was to show multiple finishes in one design. That way it could be used as a demonstration piece in the Vaaru studio, showcasing my finishes and James’s frames.

 

‘It has been anodised in a wide spectrum of colours, glass-bead blasted, aluminium-oxide blasted, polished and brushed but still designed to look like a single cohesive design,’ McLean adds.

‘The glass-bead blasting gives a satin finish and the oxide blasting a more matte/coarse finish, but I think both contrast nicely with the polished anodising.’

This article was originally published in issue 90 of Cyclist magazine