Choosing the right tools.

Last week I was asked to speak to an industrial design class at the art institute of Portland about framebuilding and bike design. The class is participating in the Oregon Manifest Builder’s Challenge, and I think they have one of the most exciting challenges of all. That is, they are starting as complete beginners to bike construction. And you can only be brand spankin’ new once.

I found myself wanting to impart equal parts pep talk, myth-busting, and practical advice.  Among these tidbits were:

  • Keep your hands in check with your brain. Draw your construction drawings by hand, at scale. This keeps the thinking in check with the making, and helps you catch errors before they are rendered permanent in steel.
  • Know where your bottom bracket is at all times.
  • Bike building is a totally learnable craft – you don’t need a blessing or a blood transfusion of some ancient cranky framebuilder in order to get ‘er done.

Sometimes when you are talking about your work, a belief that you have held close but never articulated tumbles out of your mouth in word form for the first time. When the conversation turned to jigs and fixtures, I got up on a bit of a soapbox:

When your tools tell you that “it can’t be done” you need to dismantle them, use them in a new way, or throw them away and invent new ones.

Tools embody wisdom and working methods. They are useful guides for physical problem solving, but they can sometimes get downright didactic once you’ve got them in your head and in your hands. Whether it is the bike that is too small, too large, too awesome to fit in your standard frame jig or whether it is the tubing bender you need to hack in order to realize the beautiful curve in your mind, the better tool is the one you set aside when it gets in your way.

This class can learn the craft of frame building.
They can build a rad little bike in the five weeks they have left.

But their real challenge is to build something that has never been built before. From what I’ve seen they have all of the creativity and design thinking they need. But whether you are brand new or have been at it for years, one of the most important tools you can deploy is fearlessness.

From → Design, How To, Pacific NW


  1. Great post with a useful application not just in the concrete (steel) realm, but also in the world of essential thinking. “When your [assumptions] tell you that “it can’t be done” you need to dismantle them, use them in a new way, or throw them away and invent new ones.


  2. kate

    I’m a new builder working in the depths of Yosemite with only a year of framebuilding apprenticeship and a Paterek manual in my arsenal. It restores my thrill over my fear to think about these words. Thanks Natalie!

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