A journal of workers working
I kind of stumbled onto the idea of building bike frames when I had to have my messenger bike repaired. I took it to this guy I knew could do the job. When I took my bike in, he was building another frame -- from scratch. He was a master builder. I didn’t even know master builders existed. I realized then, I could be doing this. At the same time, I was feeling I had taken swapping and switching wheels and parts as far as I could. That only goes so deep. You can only change parts on your bikes so many times before it’s not meaningful anymore.
When I started building, I was really excited, but never felt I was going to make a business out of it. I wanted to build bikes for friends. My motivation came from going into fancy bike shops and seeing $3,000 price tags for frames, and wanting to build something beautiful for people who couldn’t necessarily afford the big ticket. Files and Hacksaws I come in here everyday and it’s about hard work. It’s cool I can put some of my design ideas into play, and get tons of praise from people and all of that. But once you step away from reading all the complimentary emails, you still have to come back and make frames. It’s still fifty hours to build one bike frame. It’s still all about files and hacksaws.
This is the kind of thing that goes through my mind all the time I’m working. I hear all the time, “Dude you’re an artist, those bikes are works of art. They’re way too beautiful to ride”. So that’s why “art” has almost become a bad word for me. I guess I understand if that’s the best they can do for a description; but to me, something that’s art and shouldn’t be ridden, is of no value.
I don’t necessarily think about the paint and the finish degrading, but I do think about someone checking it out in thirty or forty years – with all the paint stripped off, all the parts off, just hanging somewhere – and really appreciating the construction of the bottom bracket and dropouts. Because the glossy paint and shiny stainless stuff is like nice clothing, but it’s really about what’s underneath.
Normal course of action
I want to interact with people. I want direct communication with the people I’m building bikes for because I feel, as customers, they are a big part of making it right.
There is so much extra stuff that I don’t want to do. I have two other guys working with me – Ben and Scott – they handle all the stuff I feel isn’t essential to me. I think the normal course of action is for the boss to turn into the manager and spend time crunching numbers. Instead, I’ve been fortunate enough to have people handle that kind of stuff so I can focus on building.
The funny thing about commuting by bike is it seems hard and it seems crazy, but once you get into the groove, it’s not a big deal. We have a tight community. I live a mile from here; my daughter goes to school three blocks from here; we have New Seasons, Kinko’s, Freddie’s and Stumptown right in the neighborhood. The farthest we travel is a community-supported agriculture farm that’s out on 47th and Woodstock. I guess sometimes we don’t end up doing things because we don’t have a car, but we can always borrow a vehicle from our neighbors if we need to – like if I have a hardware store run and need to get lumber or something.
I think there’ll be more family-style vehicles coming out soon. Have you seen an xtracycle? So that kind of bike, but a little less of a bolt-on-rear-end and more of a built-in style. I’ve been borrowing an xtracycle, it has this nice big wooden platform big enough to fit grocery bags on either side.
My wife, her dad and his wife, and her step brother all rode Ragbrai – 450 miles in 7 days. It was awesome. I was little sad to see it end. It was more about solitary time where I didn’t have anything to do but pedal my bike. That’s a total dream for me.
I try to get a ride in whenever I can. Now, instead of having meetings here, I’ll try to do it on a bike. There are times when you have to sit down and take notes and get down to business, but when it’s more conceptual, then you can just talk and ride.
I’m not the kind of person to go and ride on my own. A huge part of my motivation is to go out because I’ve got someone to ride with.
I look at builders that have been doing their thing for like thirty, forty or fifty years, and some of their stuff is so crisp and so tight – unbelievable craftsmanship. So that’s another big motivator for me – seeing what other people do. There is a definite tangible benchmark there. Anybody with files, a hacksaw, basic measuring devices, and some fire, can make it happen. It is about handwork – but it’s more than that. It’s not as if I come in here just to make frames. I sweat the details. I want to produce what other people have produced. I don’t know if it’s good or bad but I’m totally motivated by levels other people have reached – levels of craft. I want to do shit that nobody has ever done before.
Like I said, I want a frame builder to be able to check out a frame I made forty years ago, and to be able to really appreciate it. It’s also probably the one thing that keeps me straight and keeps me from trying to cut corners. I know, you can put paint and stickers on anything and it’s gonna be like, “Whoa, sweet vanilla bro.” That’s the power of a brand. But no one is even close to as harsh a critic of my stuff as I am – and that’s what keeps me making things on the level I want. Otherwise you start thinking about how to make money and your start thinking about how you can cut corners and speed up.
People have tried to pay me some extra money, and I could see that maybe working if I was going to work on my off hours and over the weekend. I’ve tried that a couple of times and it means not seeing my family. It’s funny, I was talking with this guy from Southern California, and he’s all “I totally respect what you’re doing and I buy lots of custom stuff and I commission art work and bla bla bla. So I really want to have you build me a bike.” I told him my wait list is twenty-two months and he’s all, “Damn, twenty-two months, I was thinking ten or twelve. I don’t know if I can wait that long”. I asked him how important it was that I’m actually the one building his bike, and would he be satisfied if I had someone else build it. He said, “No, no, it’s 100% important that you’re the one building my bike”. Well, there’s sort of a disconnect there.
When I was approaching a year, I was like, fuck I don’t want to be a year out. After that, I was like, it’s not too big of a deal. Now it’s 2 years out. That’s just the way it is I guess.
For love or money
I never get into a project as much as I do when I’m building something that’s a gift for somebody. I’d like to take the business and the money out of the equation, and just build something for the love of it and – and for the love and appreciation of the person I’m building it for. Or even to simply surprise them. I built an extracycle for Ben and his girlfriend because they’re getting married later this month; it’s going to be a family vehicle for them. That’s the kinda stuff I could do all day long, if I could just be funded by some grant or something. But I think you have to have both – the paying part and the job part – to really appreciate being unleashed. I feel fortunate that it’s pretty rare that I get pressure from customers anymore. Even if I’m running late, nobody ever squawks about the price or the final total.
Photography by Daniel Sharp. Interview by Daniel Pasley.
Ragbrai – Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa – is the longest, largest and oldest touring bicycle ride in the world.
Last year, at the N. American Hand-Built Bicycles Show, Sacha won an award for the tricycle he built for his daughters – possibly the coolest kid bike ever built.
Sacha commissioned Dan Gilsdorf, a tattoo artist, to design a Nuevo bike poster for Vanilla. Limited edition numbered prints are available on his website.
To Sacha, Stumptown is symbolic of what he feels Portland is all about – a progressive environment, where independence, quality creativity, and cycling, are flourishing.
47th Avenue Farm is an urban farm in Portland dedicated to growing produce for Portland residents – seasonally and sustainably.