How to Choose a Custom Bike Builder

Given my background writing about custom builders and judging bikes at the North American Handmade Bicycle show, I’m often asked not who to pick, but how to pick. (In fact, I’m sometimes asked who to pick, but I always answer how to pick.)

I love the question. It’s one I’ve been fielding for a solid 25 years. Permit me a short story here: I was working for Bicycle Guide in 1997 when a listener got our number somehow and called our offices. They got through to an editorial assistant who yelled to us that there was a reader with a question and would we be willing to answer it? My co-workers shook their heads no and I, the introvert, said, yeah, I’d be happy to talk to him. So the reader says, “I’m going to buy a handbuilt frame. I’ve narrowed it down to either Peter Weigle or Richard Sachs. Who should I order my frame from?” 

I began laughing. 

He got alarmed and asked if he’d screwed up and if there was someone else he should be considering. I finally caught my breath and said, “No, that’s not it at all.” I said, “You have the best dilemma ever; you can’t eff this up. No matter who you choose, you’ll end up with an amazing bike.” 

He lived somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic, but his mom was in New Haven. I told him to schedule a visit with his mom; that would make her happy. Then, make an appointment with Sachs and Weigle to take them to lunch and do that on his visit to her. They lived eight miles apart, and a half hour from New Haven so getting them together would be easy. I said that at worst, he’d have a delightful lunch with two amazing human beings. By the end of the lunch, he’d have an affinity for one of them and that’s the guy he’d buy his bike from. I’m assuming it went well because our offices were never bombed. 

Okay, so buying a custom bike. In order to pick a builder, you have to decide your priorities. To do that, you have to ask yourself some questions. 

  1. How much are you willing to spend? Some builders can run more than $5 grand for a frame and fork even before paint. You may need a separate budget for paint.
  2. How long are you willing to wait? Some builders may make you wait a couple of years. 
  3. What sort of a frame do you want? You have to decide on steel vs. titanium vs. aluminum vs. carbon fiber. And with steel you have to decide lugs vs. TIG welding.
  4. What style of bike are you buying? Some builders are known for their gravel bike or their track bikes or their touring bikes. Pick a builder who is already known for making that kind of bike. Don’t ask Richard Sachs to build a full-suspension mountain bike. 
  5. Do you want to be able to work on your fitting face-to-face with the builder? Geography will matter unless you’re willing to make a flight to a place like Boston or Baltimore.
  6. Do you have any unusual fit requirements? For really big riders, I just send them to Lennard Zinn at VeloNews. The Zinn brand is alive and well and he’s had other builders building for him under contract. Lennard knows more about how to make a big bike stiff enough and handle well than any other three builders combined. 
  7. Finally, do you want a really incredible paint job? Fancy paint is never included, so that *will* require a separate budget. 

Now, I’ve given these priorities in a particular order. Everyone should shuffle these priorities as befits their needs. One person may want their frame ASAP, while another may want titanium, but isn’t sure whether to talk to Seven, No. 22, etc. Someone may be pinching every penny. Your priorities are your priorities and any good builder will be cool with your priorities. If someone questions your priorities … next!

One piece of advice: Most people buying a fancy once-in-a-lifetime custom bike are doing this out of the dribs and drabs of their monthly budget. Many builders are happy to let you pay your deposit and then just send them $100 or two as you free it up. Trickling the payment in over a year can make the purchase nearly painless. 

The last thing I’ll say is that going to an event like the Philly Show put on by Bina Bilenky is a great place to meet builders and see their work. The Made show happening August 24-27 in Portland will be bigger than NAHBS ever was and will be well worth the ticket to visit Portland. 

Join the conversation
  1. alanm9 says

    Padraig, cant agree more, my wife still loves her custom Steve Rex you connected us with years ago.

  2. khal spencer says

    I’ve never bought a custom bike because, well, first, I’m able to fit standard factory frames with a bit of fussing with seatpost offsets, stems, and a few extra spacers. Secondly, I’m not that picky that Cannondale, Co-Motion, Specialized, Litespeed, and my old Salsa leave me grumpy.

    For someone who finds nothing off the shelf works right, perhaps a custom job is a must. Or if someone just has money burning a hole in their pocket, well, I can’t think of a better way to spend it than to contact a good frame builder.

    My only regret is not having bought a Spectrum when Tom was running the show. He built beautiful bikes and we were classmates at the U of Rochester, so some loyalty woulda been in play. But when I had legs, the checkbook was pretty slim. Now that the checkbook is a little more robust, well, you know the rest.

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