Factory Tour – Independent Fabrication’s Steel, Ti & Carbon Custom Bicycle Shop
Tucked away in a the cozy little town of Newmarket, NH, Independent Fabrication has a complete shop set up for building custom steel, titanium and carbon fiber bicycles.
The original IF was an employee owned company that, by 2007, was insolvent. Gary and wife, Toni, bought the company in 2008 to save it. They had to “shovel a lot of money into a hole that had been dug” in order to start again.
Part of the restructuring meant moving it physically from a run down location near Boston. Zoning issues kept them from wanting to stay there, so they moved it to Newmarket, NH. Local ordinances there allowed them to combine office, retail and light manufacturing into the same space. That’s why they have a killer bike shop and showroom where you can peer through large windows and watch the bikes and bags being built. They even paint the frames in house.
Their space is shared with sister company Baileyworks Bags, with their bike shop, Bike Factory, at the front of the whole operation. It’s all tucked into a refurbished industrial building with tons of character that’s being redone as a mix of business and residential. They’re also just a couple blocks from excellent road and mountain bike riding.
Read on to see the facility and learn how they make their NAHBS-award winning bikes…
Independent Fabrication works in steel, stainless steel, titanium and carbon fiber. Most of their business in the last three years has been titanium bikes.
Titanium comes in as mill runs of 20ft long aerospace grade tubing. A mill run, by the way, is 500 feet of tubing, and it has to be ordered about 18 months in advance. And prepaid. So, small builders have a very capital intensive business if they want to keep a good inventory of tubing and not have to buy from a middle man in smaller batches. IF’s tubing comes from either Hanes or Sandvik. From there, it’s taken to an aerospace company outside of Boston for surface butting in a process called center grinding. For hydroformed shaped tubes, they order from Reynolds in the UK.
IF owner Gary Smith says 3/2.5 is more common in tubing because that’s where the butting, forming and shaping is done. The 6/4 is less resilient after butting, so it’s primarily used for dropouts and tubes that aren’t being butted or shaped. Smith says the process of working the tubes is far more important than getting more 6/4 Ti on your frame, that titanium is very sensitive to residual stress, so it’s important to relieve the stress in the tubing after it’s drawn out, formed or butted.
He says modern ti bikes are nothing like the noodly bikes from a decade or so ago when titanium was the premium frame building material and builders were going for light weight over ultimate performance, before carbon took over. Nowadays, tubes are fatter and shapelier, letting builders make a bike as stiff as is necessary without giving up ti’s renowned ride quality.
Machines are from the 40’s and 50’s with tooling made in house for tube cutting. As perfect as they are for cutting and mitering bicycle tubes, Smith says it’s getting harder and harder to find these machines because they’re worth more as scrap metal than as functional tools anymore.
Just one of the cutting machines. This one’s mitering a chainstay bridge.
Smith is particularly proud of how tight their cutting and mitering tolerances are, something that comes from years of experience. A small gap can be made up for with the 6/4 ti (or whatever’s being used) “filler” during the welding process, but a tighter fit definitely makes for a better frame.
Once the tubes are cut, they’re placed in one of two jigs to be tacked. Then it’s placed on an alignment table to ensure it’s straight. The builder determines where the centerline needs to be trued and sequences the welds to use heat to pull the frame into near perfect alignment. Throughout the welding process frames will be put back on the alignment table to check progress.
From there, it goes to welding. Two welding stations are behind the yellow curtain, placed there to protect passersby’s eyes from the bright lights.
IF frames are all made with manual double pass welding. What this means is they’re not using automated pulse welding, the welder is controlling the frequency and intensity of each pulse. The pulse is the amperage (heat) that’s applied into the welding wire and frame, and it’s what creates each “dime stack” on the weld. By manually controlling each pulse, the frame builder can vary it at each point. The benefit is that each part of the joint is given only the amount of penetration needed, yielding a frame that is as strong as possible. It may not yield the most cosmetically beautiful welds, but the frame is better.
For example, where the top tube and seatstays meet on the seat tube, Smith says you need deeper weld penetration because you’re going through two layers of metal when joining the top tube over the tip of the stays. (note: these two pics are not a before/after of the same frame.)
Because you can’t really braze Ti, all cable stops and such have to be welded on. Besides raw material costs, this helps explain why Ti bikes are more expensive – more labor. Above, the cable stops are tacked for now, the brake cable mounts have been welded.
After it’s all put together, alignment is checked a final time and any minute (as in a fraction of a millimeter) “cold setting” adjustments are made. Since titanium doesn’t like to be stressed, they make any larger corrections (still, talking a millimeter or two) by welding in the dropouts last. This gives them a final opportunity to ensure a straight centerline for the wheels.
Once the frames are done being made, they wait for finishing and/or painting. IF bonds carbon fiber inserts into larger steel and Ti seat tubes to reduce them down to 27.2.
CARBON FRAME BUILDING
If you recall from our ENVE factory tour, IF’s carbon tubes and lugs are made there then shipped to NH to be mitered and assembled. It’s a little blurry here, but this 20×12 foot space is the entirety of their carbon frame building space.
All tube cutting and mitering is done with a single machine and various diameter diamond cutting tips. Compare this to the metal workshop where there’s a different machine and set of jigs for every tube.
All tubes are mitered and cut to fit up against each tube under the lugs, just like if you were doing an over wrap like Parlee or Crumpton. That’s about the end of the similarities. Smith chose tube and lug construction rather than tube to tube because he says it’s a much more consistent process. That, and he wanted to make a visual statement.
Tubes on the performance bikes are molded, not rolled. This lets them make them squarish-circular and butted, which lets them fine tune the ride characteristics and makes assembly easier.
Lugs are made with woven carbon fiber because the sheets are all prepreg and this gets the resin equally distributed throughout the lug. They tried doing that with UD fibers, but ended up with too many pits and resin deposits when getting the crown shape they wanted. They make thirty three different molds for the tubes and lugs, which allows them to do about 85% of all custom sizes.
Their very first model won best carbon bike at NAHBS in 2009. It also passed the CEN tests without breaking, and it’s still Gary’s personal bike.
Paint box is a large white room that separates the two sides of the metal working areas and is good example of the favorable zoning here. There’s two floors of residential above them, and this area lets them mix light industrial (frame building) with retail (bike shop) and residential, something many municipalities frown upon…which apparently included the Boston area. Massive air handlers pull fresh air in from the roof, condition and warm it, then two more vents suck in the air and vent it out the side of the building.
Filters are on both ends of the intake and output vents to keep the air clean, and they’re positioned to pull spray down and out quickly, which is why the walls are so clean inside the booth. They’re also wrapped with a clear wrap that they can pull off once a year or so to keep the room bright white. This helps keep it bright so the painter can better see what they’re doing. BTW, the two frames hanging in there were two of the purple Deluxe Redux limited edition bikes!
Paint process involves multiple steps of primer, paint and clearcoat, much like the automotive industry. Paint prep and finishing is done in a comparatively large, open space.
They even have the ability to gild parts after having a gold gilder train them. This bike was at NAHBS.
They can create custom paint schemes based on customer art or, for this particular project, a rider’s favorite team colors.
THE BIKE SHOP, CUSTOM FITS & MORE FUN STUFF
The Bike Factory is a full service, full size bike shop that sells IF and Ridley bikes. They chose Ridley because they wanted an off-the-shelf brand they liked as an alternative to the full custom Indy Fab bikes. View here is from just inside the front door. They have their Retul own fit station at the back, just before the cubicles. They can take measurements from dealers with Serotta, Retul or other popular systems, too. Walk in and look right and you’ll peer into the workshop.
As expected, there are lots of killer IF bikes hanging around. There’s also this original Fat Chance.
This was done as a promotion for the Pablove Foundation.
This kids road bike was made for Smith’s daughter. Now that she’s outgrown it, he’s going to repaint it for his son. The Mixte was also shown at NAHBS.
Don’t tread on me.
Custom logo-cut locker room cabinets. There’s also a sizable kitchen area, and behind the bike shop’s counter (which, conveniently, is bar height and has stools in front of it) are a few flat screens for watching the classics and other great cycling film.
Smith says “there are a lot of people that can make bikes. What makes us special is the ability to make any kind of bike -road, mountain, cyclocross, commuter, etc.- and that we can do it in so many different materials. This lets us really make the right bike from the right material for each rider.”