A lot of guys start out saying what an honor it is to be selected to be Smoked Out. I find myself like the kid in the back of the room waving his hand around frantically saying, “Pick me! Pick me!” I don’t know if it so much an honor, as it is Richard Sachs trying to get me to shut up. Of course I got side tracked along the way, working on a project with some of the Eagle Scouts from our Scout Troop. Went to the track in Atlanta, met Jeff Hopkins, the track director, whose dad was a frame builder in Oz. Went to Philly for the Bike Expo. Now I’m snowed in and working on the backlog of stuff in the computer.
Building frames is like one of those “if I knew then what I know now” things. Back in the ’70’s my two brothers and I were racing, and my older brother and I needed new bikes. We went to this guy named McLean Fonvielle who was building frames outside of Chapel Hill N.C. Imagine driving for an hour, getting on a dirt road for a couple of miles, then finding a gate in a rundown fence and still not seeing his house. I’m talking country. But it was the right place, and when McLean took us into his shop it was like magic. There was the smell of oil and steel, a big marble slab that he built on, walls filled with tools from the Middle Ages. It was a real Lord of the Rings moment. The elfin workshop scene, and all that. After getting measured we just sat and talked for a while, stuff like, “what kind of riding do you do?” Out of that came two completely different bikes. Made from the same tubes, at the same time, painted the same color, but ride and handling poles apart. How did he do that? That made me read my copy of the CONI manual again and pay more attention to frame angles, study the frame charts in the back of brochures and ride other bikes to get their feel.
Unfortunately a couple of years later I found myself with no money, no girl friend, no car, bad knees, and a big pile of busted old bike stuff. So I went back to school and got my degree in History. Now I have a “real job” in a hospital, which is sort of like working in a big factory that has lots of blood, and crap, and crazy people. But in the back of my mind was always the question of frames and how they worked. So after doing the Assault on Mt. Mitchell a couple of years, I decided the bike thing wasn’t going away, and I signed up for the steel frame building course at United Bicycle Institute.
That was the best two week vacation I’ve ever had. Walking distance to a micro brewery, a bunch of guys in a shed, 120 degree heat, playing with explosive gasses, and not knowing what they were doing. Best of all, 30 minutes before the taxi came to take me to the airport, I put my new road frame in the box. Of course I was pumped, I got a loan from the bank for tools and stuff, ordered a jig from Henry James, ordered some tubes and lugs, registered my name, Mills Brothers Bicycle Company. Then Hank was redesigning his jigs so it took nine months to get one. It took six months to have a buddy wire the shed I was using for a shop. It was hard to get fired back up after that.
Why Mills Brothers? No, the other two brothers are not involved in the shop. When we raced, “back in the day” we would show up and people would say, “the Mills brothers are here.” One day we were sitting around talking about how it would be cool to have a Mills Brothers Bike shop. Neat name and it stuck in my head. I was always considered the equipment freak, because I wouldn’t race on patched tubulars. We were also known for using the heaviest parts (not completely true), and our training rides were so hard people would come from other states to ride with us. That make it so it won’t break attitude is what I bring to frames. After I came back from UBI, the typical response when I showed people what I had done was “Fantastic! That’s Awesome! What do you like better, Treks or Cannondales?” I figured out that there was virtually no market for handmade bikes in this area. I was the only one in the state that was trying to build. There were several around that had built in the past, but moved on. I was back to, not square one, maybe, square three.
So I took the tube sets I had on hand and started making track bikes. I like track. I set myself design challenges, like homework, design a sprint bike, design a road bike for a pacer etc. I went to Dale Brown’s Cirque de Cyclisme in Greensboro. Met Richard Sachs and Peter Weigle, and some others, had my lettering made by Gary Prange, so my bikes would look professional. Stopped at Spectrum and met Jeff Duser and Tom Kellogg one time when my son was doing Jr. Track Nats. Each time asking more questions, seeing someone else’s shop. I’m not in square three anymore. I think I’m in square five. The Cirque helps, NAHBS is huge, and the Philly Bike Expo, all these shows, and the people that put them on are changing the face of cycling. It’s not racer-centric, it’s bike culture centric. That helps all of us. There are now three guys starting to build frames in Raleigh, one in Asheboro, another one here in Winston-Salem, three up in the mountains. I have to take my shoes off to figure out what serial number goes on a frame now.
The coolest thing is when someone says, “Wow! What do I have to do to build frames?” When a guy named Steve in one of the bike shops said that, I invited him over and let him use my jig and torch. I was amazed at how much I was able to teach him. Maybe I know more than I thought. It also gave me a window on the more established builders, for example why Dazza was willing to take ten minutes at NAHBS to talk to me about track bike design. Aside from wanting to blow away all the old school ideas that were stuck in my head, teaching someone clarifies your own ideas, you can tap into someone else’s enthusiasm.
For the new guys, who want to get started, nobody is going to beat a path to your door. Sorry, it’s not going to happen. Plan on five years just to get your name out there. And even then don’t quit your day job.
Go to a frame building school, or get a job with a frame builder, serve some sort of apprenticeship. Then when a customer asks tell him you are a journeyman framebuilder, not a master. That way he knows where he stands, and that you aren’t passing yourself off. If someone calls you a hobby builder, punch his lights out.
There will be ups and downs. I would go to the Cirque one year and be pumped up, and then the next year I would be completely deflated. I had to figure out that I don’t want to build bikes like those guys; I want to build bikes like me. I love to look at the cut lugs, and all the details that others put in their bikes, but I just want clean and simple. Nice spear point lugs, a frame that will last.
Open a free checking account at the bank; have $20 drafted into it from your regular job each payday. When you have enough in the account, buy tubes and build a bike. It doesn’t matter what or for whom.
You need a hacksaw, good files, a good torch, and a work bench with a vise. Everything else is gravy. You aren’t going to NEED a milling machine for a very long time. A jig as soon as you can afford it, or make it.
Be really, really nice to your suppliers. When you are doing something stupid, you can call and they will help you.
People want you to succeed. People think it is cool that you are building bikes. My mother helped with the paint job of one of the bikes I had at the Philly Bike Expo. A girl gave me a big hug one day (which I really liked). But I love the zingers. When I am at a ride and someone is looking at my bike and says “Mills Brothers, I don’t think I’ve heard of that brand.” Then I reach out my hand and shake theirs and say, “Hi. My name is Dave Mills.” Their eyes get big, and they look at the bike, look at me, back to the bike, and go “Oooh!” Sometimes it is the little things.
Most of all some famous guy once said, “Nothing gets done without enthusiasm.” Might have been Edison, or Chairman Mao, maybe Mark Twain. He said a lot of stuff.