The Day After an Evening with Richard Sachs

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You may have heard of Richard Sachs.  Or perhaps you haven’t.  In that case:  You should know that Richard is the dean of American bicycle frame builders.  He takes steel tubing and cast parts and combines them into the foundations of truly wonderful bicycles.  People pay large amounts of money and wait years to get a Sachs frame.  Richard, now 66, works alone.  When you get one of his frames, you are getting his craft, and no other.

I do not have one of his frames.  Anyway–

Last night, Richard Sachs spoke at The Devil’s Gear, which is (IMO) New Haven’s, Connecticut’s, and quite possibly the United States’ finest bike shop.  He told us of the changes he’s seen in the bicycle industry, why he’s not going to write an article in favor of rim brakes for Bicycling, and the story of how his failures (1) to get into one of the four liberal arts colleges to which he initially applied and (2) to get a job as a bike mechanic ultimately led him to become the dean of American frame builders.  But mostly the talk was not about bicycles, though some of it was.

I’m not going to repeat his talk, but I would like to use it as a jumping off point for a little crankiness.

Richard points out that the vast majority of bicycle frames are produced in a handful of factories.  And that this is where the industry is going–and has gone.  There’s nothing wrong with a factory-produced frame, to be sure.  As Richard points out, they stay together.  They’re functional.  But they’re not crafted.

This is because crafting is not something in which you can be trained.  You can’t get it from the internet, or from college, or from a summer job.  It takes natural talent, and it takes time.  There is a reason that the term for a great work is Masterpiece.  A couple of entries back, I drew a distinction between things that are made and things that are built.  I argued that few people build things any more, and that fewer still make things.

Fewer still craft things.

In a world that increasingly values consistency (which is by no means a bad thing to value), sameness is a virtue.  And once you have sameness, the price to the consumer is what matters.

For builders, this is in some respects a Good Thing, because the sameness of components means that we can build things as though we were reaching into a box of Lego.  If I want to build a guitar with humbucking pickups, I know what their dimensions will be, and so I can purchase the parts I need to work with them–they drop right in.  If I want to put a water bottle holder on my bike, I know exactly what kind of bolt I will need.

It was not always so.  Builders (of everything) made parts that fit their products.  Studs in houses were not necessarily on 16″ or 24″ centers.  Not all sheets of paper were the same size.  Different manufacturers used different threads on their screws.  Roof trusses for houses were made on the spot, not produced in factories to fixed dimensions.

When I got seriously into cycling (the 1990s), some of this idiosyncratic stuff remained, but not much.

Now, I said above that sameness was a virtue, and that price mattered.  There’s an important corollary:  The more things remain the same, and the samer those things remain, the more price can be reduced.  That is, if you build bicycles (for example), you need to build them in a range of sizes, because people are not all the same size.  A five foot tall woman cannot fit on the same bicycle as her six foot sister who happens to play for UConn basketball.  And vice-versa.  There was a time when bicycles were sold in a range of sizes divided into 1- or 2-cm classes.  You could learn what size frame you needed, and then that’s the size you bought.

If you can reduce the number of sizes, you can produce more of each, and each will cost less to manufacture.

With factory production, increasingly we see bicycles (and clothing, and many other things) coming in “Small, Medium, and Large” sizes.  Sometimes there is an XL as well.  Fountain pens (one of my vices) used to come in a range of nib sizes, from XF (extra fine) through B (broad).  Some still do, but (M) medium dominates, and many pens no longer bother to specify.  I wear a 13B (narrow) shoe.  Fortunately for me, cycling footwear tends to run narrow, because for most of my walking life, I have had to wear shoes that only sort of fit.

Most of the time, that’s fine.  You can buy a Fender Stratocaster and it’s a really great guitar.

Crafting is at the far end of the scale.  What you get from a craftsman is not a uniform product.  It is the result of an interaction between you and the maker.  If you get a Richard Sachs frame, you do not get a Richard Sachs frame.  You get your Richard Sachs frame.  In much the same way as one does not get a Mona Lisa.

Or an Alembic guitar.

I don’t necessarily mean by this that Richard’s frames or Alembic guitars are high art.  What they are is unique in a way that virtually nothing we use or wear or eat today is unique.

I guess that’s where I want to get to, with all this rambling around.  We will probably never go back to a universal model of crafting (unless, gods forbid, we experience something like a cometary impact or nuclear war).  But where craft continues, it’s not a bad idea to seek it out.  And it’s not a terrible idea, either, to think about where craft exists within each one of us and within each one of our lives.

Buy < Build < Make < Craft.

Value that which is unique.

And perhaps–just perhaps–another takeaway.  In his talk last night, Richard referred several times to having roots in the late ’60s/early ’70s hippie culture.  So here, in closing, is something to consider from 1971:

 

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