Independent Fabrication: part two

Back to the job in hand, touring the new facility and meeting the guys who put these bikes together.
Chris Rowe, who I mentioned in part one, is the spraygun wizard and one of those returning for a second stint at a more ordered Indy Fab. His able assistant, Phil Harwood, is a relative new boy, the pair of them having served their time as cycle couriers before settling in the paintbooth. “He was a bike messenger for a long time. I saved him from the streets,” says Rowe, only half joking. “I saw him on the street one day when I was riding to work. He was a bike messenger and he was miserable and hung over ‘cause he’d been to a Red Sox game until 4am. He was like: ‘I hate my life’. I said: ‘Do you want to move to New Hampshire with me and paint bikes?’ and he was like: ‘Yes!’ He had to quit his band, break up with his girlfriend…”
We wind up getting sidetracked, talking about the good old days of the courier industry, when a reasonable living could be made by riding your bike all day: that freedom of the streets cliché rang true for many. “Yeah, it is a weird job,” Harwood agrees. “One of my friends probably summed it up in the best way. On the nice warm days, it’s the best job in the world but on the winter days, it’s the worst job you could ever have.
“But the thing is that on the nice days there was never any work, and on the shitty days we were busy and making money, and that’s what kind of evened it out for me. The thought that it’s horrible, I’m cold, I’m wet, but at least I’m making decent money here. Yeah, you spend some money on good riding gear and it’s like you go to work ready to suffer.”
The more bike producers we visit in the States, the more former couriers and musicians we unearth. Rowe and Harwood both play bass and both have toured the UK, having firsthand experience of the country falling apart at the first hint of snow, which makes them chuckle having worked through many a Boston winter. As Harwood lines up a transfer and stares long and hard at the seat tube of the frame in the stand – making minute adjustments to alignment, checking and re-checking – I wonder if the Steady-Eddy mentality of a bassist lends itself to the meticulous application of paint and decals. “The whole process is an eye for detail thing. There’s no room for imperfections,” Rowe confirms.
The duo have a target of three frames per day painted, decaled and cleared, then three more primed for overnight curing. Come show time, there are extra machines to be prepared. “The week before NAHBS Chris and I were here every night until midnight,” says Harwood. “That was a crazy week doing all that stuff but for something like NAHBS it’s important to go there with something pretty special. Everybody’s going to raise their game for that one.”
We leave them to it, mindful of putting anybody’s order behind schedule. Turning the corner we see welder Keith Rouse, another recent returnee to the IF fold, levering the rear triangle of a frame into alignment with a big iron bar resting on a metal fulcrum, then checking with an IF-made gauge. It is quite alarming to watch. The chances of something giving way must be quite high. “Oh yeah,” says Rowse between levering.
“They say if you don’t break at least one every year you’re not doing the job right. You push it to the limit, you know? Some of the stuff we do is extremely thin, really thin. So it doesn’t really take much. If you’re lifting it or twisting it there’ll be that point where it doesn’t want to go any more. With the thicker tubing you’ve got a lot more leeway and you know you can get away with more.
“It’s the materials too. You know stainless steel, regular steel and titanium are all different. They all react differently and all move differently. Some move real easy, some don’t want to move. The titanium’s flexible so you move it and nothing happens, which is pretty amazing.” Rowse is a big fan of titanium, loves the look, the feel, appreciates its properties when welding.
We move on, finding framebuilder Brian Kelly assembling a Titanium Crown Jewel in his jig. Another returnee to the IF fold, he has already put together a steel frame in just over an hour this morning. Impressively fast work, I suggest. “Steel’s the easiest for me to work with because it’s the quickest,” Kelly says. “Titanium takes about twice as long: just the whole process of doing it, then cleaning it after everything is mitred – that adds some extra time.”
Kelly has no courier or musical backstory; three years at architecture school being his roundabout route to the world of bike building. “I didn’t want to do it any more and this just fell into my lap. I started as a shipper, then I started moving my way up through the system and at this point I can do anything here but painting. It’s fun. I get to come in and make stuff. I start out with just tubes and then I’ve got a frame in my hands before I know it. It’s a satisfying feeling seeing that finished.”
Shawn Estes, with 11 years’ unbroken service, has been responsible for thousands of IF frames, either tacking, welding or finishing. He is deeply appreciative of the air conditioning in the new factory on a sweltering hot day in Newmarket, having experience of a decade of sweating in Somerville. “I’m loving it. I love the town. The bad thing is my commute is an hour, but driving into Boston was sometimes an hour, so I’ll take it.”
We chat to Jesse Fox on our way round, frame designer and in-house drummer – a miniature kit sits atop his workspace. Then graphics designer Ryan Walters (guitar), a man with a spectacular array of tattoos and rings the size of headset spacers mounted in his earlobes. I am yet to find a singer for this Indy Fab supergroup. “Oh, if you put a couple of drinks in any of us, you will,” Walters suggests. Might try that later…
He, like most workers here, started in shipping and worked his way up. “When I started as the shipper you put quite a lot of decals on the bike and we had our old script logo. I’d have to constantly look at that when I put it down and I noticed that the letter spacing was weird. So in my own time I designed the new script logo and I showed it to Gary and he liked it so much that he replaced it.
“That was probably my first contribution as an artist here. The old one just didn’t really do it for me. See how all the letters are evenly spaced on this one? Someone who didn’t know what they were doing did the old logo, and it was like big space, then little space.”
Remember that “eye for detail, no room for imperfections” thing Chris Rowe mentioned earlier? That’s what Walters is talking about, as are the rest of the guys. As I have been told on many occasions, nobody goes into the bike business because they want to get rich. At a relatively small scale manufacturer like IF you really have to care about what is being produced, otherwise why bother? These guys evidently care. And they are all pulling in the same direction, each clear of their role within the overall structure, and clearly enjoying the sense of purpose. What a relief!
So we have gone full circle on the tour of the premises and ended up back in the showroom area with Gary Smith, who is grinning from ear to ear – most unlike David Byrne. Think I’ll let that notion quietly drop…
It is fair to say Smith has had a steep learning curve since putting all his eggs in the Indy Fab basket. He does not have a lifetime’s experience of cycling behind him but, boy, does he learn fast. So if, like me, you ever wondered what shot peening was and what the benefits are, Gary’s your man. Indy Fab’s titanium output all passes through a $2m aerospace machine in Massachusetts where tiny metal balls bombard the frames at a precise angle, giving the trademark IF lustrous finish and stress relieving the joints at the same time. That doubles the fatigue life, says Smith, of an already long lasting material. “It is like a Thai massage,” he says, in terms we can all understand.
Given that titanium supply is becoming increasingly erratic worldwide, and that Brian Kelly and the guys have to spend all that extra time working with it, there has to be a pretty compelling reason – profit margins aside – for ti frames’ presence in the range. Can Smith put his finger on the attraction? “It’s hard to articulate,” he confesses. “It’s a little like wine: I know a good wine from a bad one and that’s about it. Titanium bikes, the more you ride them, the more the subtleties become apparent. It takes out road buzz the way carbon fibre does. Carbon fibre is good at dissipating shock, but not absorbing shock mechanically. People who are usually steel or ti riders will initially describe carbon as ‘wooden’ – a pejorative thing but it’s actually pretty accurate. When you knock on it, it has that deadened sound because it is dissipating across the fibres. But it is very versatile, used appropriately. I am pretty agnostic about materials.”
Agnostic to the degree that the all-carbon Corvid was launched in 2009. The company founders would be spitting feathers… Smith would argue, and rightly so, that IF has to keep evolving or risk stagnation and ultimately failure.
“I wanted to offer a carbon fibre frame because you have a customer now who is coming into their own financially; they have an appreciation of cycling; they have grown up thinking, right or wrong, that carbon is the only bike material. You are not going to win that argument with them. So I wanted to do something that put us in that space, and done in a way that was consistent with us as a brand.”
The Corvid is heavier than some on the market but has had not one warranty issue since launching. And as Smith puts it: “I want to sleep well at night. It has been very well received. I took it to NAHBS in 2009 and stuck it at the back of the booth. It didn’t even have logos on it, and it won best carbon bike. My strategy was to not make a big splash with it, to not make it the defining thing with the brand. Seven and Serotta have made that mistake…”
Smith makes it all sound so simple, this marketing malarkey, and having been at global management consulting firm McKinsey and Company before his time at Timberland – tackling anything from fibre optics to South African mines – I guess bicycles are, indeed, pretty straightforward. “This is not complicated, it really isn’t,” he confirms.
“What is really fun about this is, each one is aesthetics. Everybody gets hung up on the ride tuning and the geometry. The place where we differentiate is the aesthetics. Our customers want their shit to be tight and look different. I’m one of those guys.”
The Englishman in me is not altogether comfortable with his ‘shit being tight’ but having translated the sentiment, I agree with Smith. And it doesn’t take a marketing genius to work out that Independent Fabrication is getting along very nicely indeed.
The day’s work is done. We head to a bar with some of the guys for pizza and fine local beers. Don’t you just love a happy ending?
Originally published in issue 33 of 1. Independent Fabrication: part one

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