Calfee Factory Tour: Part One – How They Make Bikes

Calfee Factory Tour workshop overview

Calfee is a very interesting brand. For some, it immediately conjures images of bamboo bikes. Others, high end lugged carbon bikes. And then there’s the ultralight molded carbon fiber tandem bikes always on display at NAHBS.

Superficially, it’d be easy to just say Calfee makes some really nice, really interesting bikes. That would only scratch the surface of what they do at their La Selva Beach, California facility. The building itself is fairly massive, and it was rebuilt to resemble its original function as a tank factory. Which is why they have a 5 ton sliding lift in the middle. It comes in handy for moving around pallets and their flying gyrocopter.

Our tour will be broken up into three parts because, well, there’s just so much to see. We’ll touch on that ‘copter separately, along with all the various bikes we saw while there. Part One will show you how they make their frames, components, tooling and everything else…

MAKING THEIR OWN PARTS

Calfee Factory Tour tooling

Really, every bike has its start here. They machine and make every jig fixture, mold, mandrel and piece of tooling used to make the frames in house. The only part they don’t make themselves are the the tubes, which are crafted by ENVE Composites…so it’s still all US made.

Calfee Factory Tour tooling

Alloy bottom bracket inserts are cut and grooved in house. These monsters are for the new Manta endurance road bike we saw in prototype form before Sea Otter.

Calfee Factory Tour machined molds for custom bicycle manufacturing

Molds and mandrels are made here, too. Lots of them, one for every joint of every model in every frame size. They’re toying with the idea of 3D printing molds for random angles on “non conforming” geometries.

Calfee Factory Tour machined molds for custom bicycle manufacturing

Bottom bracket molds on the left, headtube and seat/top tube clusters on the right.

Calfee Factory Tour tooling

These are the mandrels for forming the bottom brackets, all sized for different frame sizes. The top right ones are for the Tetra and Dragonfly, the larger ones in the middle are for the Manta’s ZED2 crankset, the slightly smaller ones are for the headtube. There are also mandrels for the top tube…basically everything they need to create the parts for each frame. All are machined in house.

Calfee Factory Tour bike frame jigs

 The jigs have a million holes drilled in them, each one positioned to hold different molds.

Calfee Factory Tour bike frame jigs

Simple templates are labeled for each model/size and let them know which holes to bolt a particular piece into.

Calfee Factory Tour carbon fiber bicycle lugs and parts construction

These are the molds that form the Manta’s bottom bracket/chainstay assembly. The finished product is shown further down, but basically the tubes are wet laid into a lugged BB shell with molded chainstay yoke, then the slightly phallic mandrel on the left is slid between the chainstays and the BB plugs are threaded in and the whole assembly is tightened down so it can cure.

Calfee Factory Tour carbon fiber bicycle lugs and parts construction

Sheets of woven carbon are laid up in a pattern then compressed to form brake bridges…

Calfee Factory Tour carbon fiber bicycle lugs and parts construction
…water bottle boss mounts…

Calfee Factory Tour carbon fiber bicycle lugs and parts construction

…and lugs.

Calfee Factory Tour housemade carbon fiber bicycle lugs
Lots of lugs. The lugs are created around metal mandrels, and it takes about 10 hours to create a set of lugs. During assembly, the carbon frame tubes bonded in.

Calfee Factory Tour housemade carbon fiber bicycle lugs

The Manta uses a quasi one-piece chainstay bottom bracket assembly. It uses the lugged BB shell of their Dragonfly bikes with the chainstays laid into a wet layup with a metal mandrel between them to form the chainstay yoke (see prior images). The latter is the same process used in their non-lugged Tetra platform, so it’s a blend of methods learned from everything they’ve done thus far. The result is a smooth aesthetic that’s not quite monocoque, not quite lugged. They use external lugs because the tube wall thickness of the Manta and Dragonfly are too thin to use standard compression molding, hence the lugged or quasi-lugged construction.

Calfee Factory Tour housemade carbon fiber bicycle lugs

FRAME CONSTRUCTION

Calfee Factory Tour housemade carbon fiber bicycle lugs

UD tubes are made for them by ENVE. These are sample tubes for the new Manta, which was unnamed when we were there. It’ll be available in Pro, Adventure and CX versions. Tubes are about the only part they don’t make in house. They prefer to keep it all in house because it lets them “say yes to everything” with regards to custom builds, says Michael Moore, head sales guy at Calfee.

Calfee Factory Tour raw carbon fiber for bicycle frame construction

They use rolls of dry (not pre-preg) woven carbon fiber (3K, 6K and 12K) to create the joints and lugs of the bikes as well as carbon fiber frame repair. They have patterns for each lug and size and cut shapes. Resin, which is a plant-based eco-resin, is measured out. Fabric dragged through the resin and laid around a mold. The process is called wet layup, and it’s messy. It’s all put into a static metal die that’s bolted together to squeeze it all around the mandrel to squeeze layers together and excess resin out.

Calfee Factory Tour raw carbon fiber for bicycle frame construction

This is 50,000 strand 1/2″ ribbon of carbon tow. Here’s how it’s used:

Calfee Factory Tour carbon fiber bicycle frame construction

On their Tetra frames, tubes are wrapped in tow to form the joints. The plastic wrap is just to protect the tube from aesthetic damage.

Calfee Factory Tour carbon fiber bicycle frame construction

 From here, it gets bound in nylon to compress it and undergoes a low temp cure. This is shown already compressed and cured and the nylon had just been removed. It’s now moving on to power trim, which means power sanding. After that, it’s hand sanded to the appropriate finish. Note the metal rod wrapped in – it’ll be removed to form a cable pathway.

Calfee Factory Tour carbon fiber bicycle frame construction

The pic on the left shows a half-finished project, possibly part of a repair on the chainstays.

Calfee Factory Tour carbon fiber bicycle frame construction

They also do contract work. This is the main beam for a Volae recumbent.

Calfee Factory Tour carbon fiber bicycle frame construction

The wrapped junctions after rough sanding.

Calfee Factory Tour custom carbon fiber tandem bicycle

A finished frame, ready for final prep.

Calfee Factory Tour custom carbon fiber tandem bicycle

Closeup of the integrated cable stops – pretty clean!

Calfee Factory Tour carbon cable stop and bottle boss bonding to frames

Remember those molded water bottle mounts? The pieces are cut into small circles, then bonded onto the frame (right). Cable stops are placed in the same fashion. The eliminates rivets or holes in the frame, which keeps the tubes lighter and without any potential stress points.

Calfee Factory Tour custom bicycle painting

From there, things move onto paint. And they do some pretty amazing work:

Calfee Factory Tour custom bicycle painting

Looks like candy!

Calfee Factory Tour custom bicycle painting

The Dragonfly is their lugged bike format.

Calfee Factory Tour custom bicycle painting

CARBON FIBER BICYCLE REPAIR

Calfee Factory Tour carbon fiber bicycle repair

Moore says they do around 2,000 carbon repairs per year, which accounts for the bulk of the units moving through their warehouse. In terms of business, new bikes are the driving force.

Calfee Factory Tour carbon fiber bicycle repair

A couple of repairs toward the end of the process.

Calfee Factory Tour carbon fiber bicycle repair

Others sit and cure.

BAMBOO & WOOD BICYCLES

Calfee Factory Tour Bamboosero bicycle frames ready to ship

Bamboosero is one of Craig Calfee’s projects that teaches folks in economically struggling areas to build bicycles both for themselves and for others. These finished frames are awaiting final inspection and delivery.

Calfee Factory Tour Bamboosero bicycle frames ready to ship

Check out the cargo version with rear fender and carbon fiber sections in the foreground!

Calfee Factory Tour DIY wooden bicycle kit assembly test

Another pet project going on is a DIY wood bike kit. When I made the visit, it was pretty early in the process. They’re shooting stop motion video of the entire assembly process and Moore says the video (and bike) is close to completion.

Calfee Factory Tour DIY wooden bicycle kit assembly test

The wood tubes are hollowed out to save weight. It’s not uncommon to do so, we saw this on other bikes at NAHBS, too.

Calfee Factory Tour DIY wooden bicycle kit assembly test

Some of the tools you’ll need if you want to build your own wood bike.

Calfee Factory Tour bamboo bicycle tubes test samples

Part of the job means testing new materials. These are two different bamboo “tubes” under consideration.

ELECTRONICS & OTHER THINGS

Calfee Factory Tour internal seatpost battery for Di2 with custom electronics

Calfee’s been making their own internal Di2 battery kits pretty much since Di2 came out. With Shimano now offering their own kit, Moore says they’ll likely scale back production.

Calfee Factory Tour internal seatpost battery for Di2 with custom electronics

We’re betting they’ll simply come up with something else.

Calfee Factory Tour prototype carbon fiver barstem combo with internal Di2 electronics

Here’s an early version of their integrated bar stem with hidden electronics and such. Check out the finished version in this post…it’s even bigger!

Calfee Factory Tour Adventure Road Bike Woundup touring bike fork with rack and fender mounts

This is a custom spec Wound Up fork for their adventure platform, and they’ll sell it separately, too. Retail starts at $600 and can be had with rim or disc brake mounts. This one’s a rim brake version, the long reach brake mount bolt hole is a bit hard to see on the dark crown. It’s spec’d with a 380mm axle to crown height, splitting the difference between road and ‘cross.

Stay tuned for Part Two: The Bikes and Part Three: The Gyrocopter soon!

Comments

ccolagio - 06/07/13 - 4:14pm

AMAZING photos/visit and write up! i look forward to the next 2 parts!

yojo - 06/07/13 - 6:46pm

Way cool words and photos bike-rumor… also worth a mention of what a great reputation Calfee and his company deserve to be sharing with their incredible craft.
Radical!

Edward Casey - 06/07/13 - 9:57pm

I have over 4000 miles on my custom Calfee Tetra pro bicycle. I am very happy with the bike. At this point in time, I can just about every part wearing out on my bicycle except the frame. Its that good a frame. I was a bit leery when I began riding a carbon frame since there was a lot of negative buzz going around in the early days about how they were not crash-worthy. I have since learned to trust how strong my bike is.

thrice - 06/08/13 - 7:38am

I’ve lusted after a Calfee every since Lemond won the Tour on his. Nice article.

Brattercakes - 06/08/13 - 8:24am

Are tours available for the public? This article makes me wanna take a trip. Very cool article, Bikerumor.com!

Bob - 06/08/13 - 10:47am

Great, great article!!! Calfee is an awesome company, I have done business with them several times through my shop and their work is absolutely top notch. Looking forward to learning more about that gyrocopter!

Ben - 06/08/13 - 1:41pm

As a recent proud second owner of a Calfee Tetra Tandem, seeing this makes me happy. The bike is wonderful and the customer service from Calfee as I was building up the frame was top-notch. Note, this was customer service for someone who technically wasn’t their customer since I bought the frame used from the previous owner (who sold it to get a coupled Tetra tandem). When I’m in the market for another bike, I’ll definitely be looking seriously at Calfee.

Dontcoast - 06/09/13 - 12:51am

Great carbon repair. Thanks Calfee!

hello? - 06/09/13 - 2:14am

Got to pass a sweet dark blue Calfee on my commute to work today. I’m sure the guy knew I was racing him….

Paul - 06/09/13 - 1:51pm

Well Done! Craig Calfee is one of my (very few heroes). Exceptional craftsmanship combined with heart (Bamboosero). Thanks .

iceman - 06/13/13 - 5:04pm

Have they tried any more versions of hidden Campy EPS?

Dale Arnold - 08/16/13 - 7:58pm

Still riding strong my Calfee Tetra Pro. Best bike I have

Tony - 10/03/13 - 6:10pm

Bought my Luna in 2003. Always desired this frame after seeing Greg Lemond ride it in the tour. Have over 15,000 miles on it and still love. 2 years ago I sent it back for a complete re-strip and new paint job. Wow! Love it even more now. They noticed I had a slight crack it the fork and they repaired it for free as it was till under warranty. Glad I sent the frame back in for re-paint. Calfee makes the best riding frames around. Stiffer and more compliant than these latest frames from Trek and Specialized.

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