Tam and Burf of BTR Fabrications have come a long way in a relatively short time. We sat down with them to find out where they’ve come from, where they are and where they are going
Hey Guys, So first up. How about a bit of a history lesson? How did you guys meet and how did you end up starting BTR Fabrications?
Tam- We met in Oxford in 2008 through K-9 Industries. After a bit of hanging out and riding bikes we both knew that we wanted to make bikes. I worked for K-9 until summer 2011, when I decided I wanted to build bikes my way. I knew Burf would be the perfect business partner because we both had the same goals and values, and our skills complement each other nicely. I think the conversation went “So shall we actually start this company then?” “Yeah, alright!”…little did we know the can of worms we were opening! We completed our first frame (‘Mark 1’, the Belter) in September 2011, and founded BTR Fabrications in January 2012.
Burf- I think we were in a pub after Uni lectures, half cut, when it came up in conversation that we both would like to run our own frame building company. For as long as I can remember I have wanted to run my own company building frames, so when Tam said he wanted to as well I was pretty stoked. He was on his placement year as K-9’s design engineer at the time, so he knew what he was doing with frame design. I flunked out of Uni in my second year and spent a fair few months on the doll trying to find a job. It was smack bang in the middle of the credit crunch when I landed an apprentice position at a sheet metal fabrication firm and cut my teeth with the TIG welder. A few months later I got “the call” from Tam one lunch time.
Starting your own business is a scary process no matter what industry you’re in. What did it take both financially and in terms of time and effort to get yourselves up and running as a legitimate bike frame manufacturer?
Tam- I don’t think either of us found it scary. Probably because we had no idea what we were getting into! We just got on with it, one step at a time. Burf held down a full-time job as well as BTR for the first 2 and a half years (and still works part-time for The Bicycle Academy now). I had left K-9 by the time we started BTR, so I muddled on as best I could with BTR full-time. BTR wasn’t providing any income at this stage so I lived in our workshop, sleeping on a shelf. The workshop was actually Burf’s dad’s garden shed, so it had no insulation and no facilities- showers and toilets were found in Burf and Ellie’s flat, and I had an electric blanket inside my sleeping bag to keep the chill off. I still don’t get as good a night’s sleep as I did on my shelf in the shed. In September 2013 BTR moved in next to The Bicycle Academy in Frome. This was a massive positive step for us, but was prompted by Burf being made redundant. I then moved into a mate’s canal boat, sleeping on the floor of the ‘living room’. Really it was all open-plan (except the bathroom), so Ant put up with me essentially sleeping in his bedroom for a total of 18 months- legend. We’re still developing, learning and improving on everything that we do (who isn’t??) but I now live in a flat and sleep in a proper bed!
Burf- We had no option but to start small and build up from there. I didn’t have any intention of getting a loan or quitting my job, so it wasn’t really that scary. My job was only paying £6 an hour at the time though, I didn’t have a penny to my name and everything I earned went on rent and food. We needed to buy a welder and the tubing to build a frame, so I had to come up with a plan to find some cash. But that’s a story for another time…
The strain wasn’t so much a financial one initially, but more one of time. Holding down a full time job and building frames in the evenings and weekends was a lot of hard work. To get to where we are now has been a long hard road, sometimes I have wanted to give up, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Building frames is something I have wanted to do for as long as I can remember, and when they are as good as our frames are, you cant help but be proud. What puts the cherry on top is getting great feedback from our customers, which happens pretty often! Also winning a race on a frame you have built is pretty sweet.
Quality is very much the ethos of BTR it’s fair to say. Why is that approach to bike building so important to you?
Tam- Yes, it’s the whole point of BTR! We don’t just make bikes as ornaments; we make them to be ridden, to be reliable and to perform well. Quality is crucial to performance, since broken bikes aren’t so very fast… We take immense pride in our work too, which is crucial to keeping us motivated.
Burf- Every time I build a frame I can see tiny details that could have been better. It’s this that drives me on, even if you would never notice
As it’s just the two of you hand building the frames, what’s the process of ensuring that every frame you build meets your high standards?
Tam- Every part of the process has to be done right for the frames to be top quality. A bike frame is only as strong as its weakest part, so nothing can be overlooked. We spend a massive portion of the build time just cleaning the tubes and components for welding- things that you can’t see or feel when it’s finished. Welding is probably the most important part of the process for us (and any welded bike frame) since it’s so sensitive to any discrepancy. You can tell we’ve done our job well when you notice nothing; nothing going wrong, no creaks or rattles, no blemishes, no weld defects. Anyhow, since there’s only the 2 of us doing everything on the frames we can check and double check every single part of the process, from bare tubes to finished frame- that’s how we know our frames are the best.
Burf- As its just the two of us it’s a lot easier to make sure everything meets our standards. We know what it takes to make it perfect, and we care deeply about the end product. If we employed an apprentice, or had the frames manufactured elsewhere, this third party more than likely will not have the same sentiment and probably wouldn’t think twice about cutting a few corners. “Good enough” isn’t good enough.
So, from the time you start making your first cuts and welds on a frame, how long before it’s boxed up ready to go out to a customer?
Tam- If we could focus 100% on working on one frame, it would take about 20 man-hours to get from bare tubes to a completed frame. We then take the frames to our finishers to have them powder coated, which normally takes about a week. Final finishing (head badge, stickers, fasteners, etc) takes a couple of hours, and then we can box it up and send it on it’s way. In reality it takes a lot longer, since we have to keep running the rest of the business and we build every frame to order so there are small delays in getting tubing delivered.
Can you give us an idea of the basic process of building a bike frame? Where do you start?
Sure, it goes a bit like this:
1. Order tubing
2. Clean and inspect tubing
3. Drill breathers, de-burr and clean the head tube and bottom bracket shell
4. Cut all tubes to length
5. Notch the front triangle tubes to fit together
6. Notch the chain stays
7. De-burr, clean and de-grease main frame and chain stays
8. Tack weld front triangle and chain stays
9. Notch the head gusset and seat stays
10. De-burr and clean the head gusset, seat stays and chain stay gussets
11. Fit the chain stay gussets
12. De-grease the head gusset, seat stays and chain stay gussets
13. Tack weld the seat stays
14. Notch and fit the rear brake mount
15. De-burr, clean and de-grease the rear brake mount
16. Tack weld the rear brake mount
17. Check frame alignment
18. Finish weld the frame
19. Tack and weld the gussets
20. Mill the chain ring clearance in the chain stay
21. De-burr the chain stay
22. Fit the chain stay cover sheet metal
23. Clean and de-grease the chain stay and cover
24. Tack and weld the chain stay cover
25. Clean and de-grease all cable guides, integrated seat clamp, ISCG mount, etc
26. Weld cable guides, seat clamp, ISCG, etc
27. Ream seat and head tubes, chase all threads
28. Final check of frame
29. Final alignment check
30. Weigh the frame
31. De-grease entire frame
32. Prepare for powder coat
33. Powder coat
34. Weigh the frame
35. Stamp the head badge
36. Attach head badge, stickers, rear axle, all fasteners
37. Apply corrosion inhibitor
40. (Receive, unpack, assemble, ride, go to the pub) -recommended steps for customers.
Obviously there are heaps of little things in between all of those steps- setting up jigs and fixtures, checking measurements, minor alignment checks, making cups of tea, eating biscuits, grinding tungstens, checking gas flow, borrowing tools from TBA, etc etc… But those are the major steps for a Ranger.
Performance is important at this level so, in terms of design and making sure these frame do what you want them to do out on the trails, how do you come up with the numbers and angles to get it right? Is it trial and error?
Tam- There is an element of trial and error, but we do a lot of testing, thinking (aka ‘mental simulations’), FEA (Finite Element Analysis- computerised simulations), checking, and checking again before we commit to a design. By the time we’ve built our first prototype of a frame, we’re already very confident that it will handle, perform and last as we intend it to. If a frame doesn’t perform how we want it to, we don’t take it to production. We have no interest in making a bike for the sake of making a bike; we have to add something to the mix like extra stability, or better durability, or better comfort. There are surprisingly few formulae to predict how a bike – especially a mountain bike – will handle, since it’s operating conditions are so variable. So it takes a lot of judgement and time to arrive at a finalised set of numbers for a design, and then we still need to select tubing and frame components which work how we want them to. A lot (probably actually the majority) of other frame builders use frame components (dropouts and other frame fittings) bought off the shelf; we will only do this if the part fits the application perfectly…which they rarely do, even simple parts like horizontal dropouts.
I guess being small and essentially making frames to order means that you can offer a really tailored and personable service? What can you guys do that pretty much every other manufacturer can’t?
Tam- We can offer customisations- geometry, materials, etc- but we often wonder why customers would want us to; in our eyes our standard frames are already as good as we can make them! I know, it’s very subjective, that’s one of the great things about cycling. But that aside, even seemingly trivial geometry changes actually take quite a lot of time to execute, so small changes are still very expensive. We do offer some optional extras though- different cable routing, ISCG mount, integrated seat clamp, bottle cage bosses, etc- these are included in the price of the frame. There are actually 208 possible different variations of Ranger, without even going for custom paint or geometry changes. Some of our other party tricks are sending photos of the build process of each customer’s frame, and adding custom text to the head badge. Customers can even arrange to come to our workshop and watch (or get involved!) with their frame build. We’re also happy for customers to bring their components to our workshop when their frame is finished and we’ll help to assemble the bike with them. That’s particularly nice because we get to share their new bike stoke!
Obviously going the Taiwanese route is a cheaper option for all involved. How come you guys have rejected that approach?
Tam- Mainly because we want to control our whole business ourselves- we want to be able to offer a personal service to our customers, we want to make the frames we sell, we want to be able to react quickly to ‘standard’ changes, we want to be able to implement new ideas or design updates quickly to ensure that they reach customers ASAP. We know that Taiwanese build quality can be exceptionally good (I’ve been and seen it with my own eyes!), but we fully believe that our frames are as good, if not better! Another factor is the minimum order values for buying from Taiwan which we don’t have the funds to cover, but this isn’t such a major bother for us because we’re set on doing it ourselves anyhow.
Burf- A cheap price doesn’t necessarily mean good value. “Fast, Good, Cheap. Pick Two.”
When buying a frame from us you know exactly where it has come from, who has built it and you become part of the story. Your hard earned becomes our hard earned, and gets put back into BTR in the form of better tooling, demo bikes or videos, maybe even a fresh set of brake pads or bearings for our own bikes. Not only that but your money stays in the UK, helping to strengthen our economy and secure a future for the next generation. When buying a mass produced frame from a far eastern manufacturer you get nothing but a cheap bike. People and the environment could well have been exploited along the way too.
Do you both share the ethos ‘steel is real’ when it comes to bike designing and building?
Tam- Slightly, but not exactly. We both like the way steel frames look and feel, and it’s a good material to work with, but the deciding factor is function; steel is strong, forgiving and predictable, and we can produce high strength welds without the need for any heat treatment. Another factor is that the range of aluminium tubing available in the UK is very very limited compared with Taiwan, and compared with the range of steel tubing. However, that’s something we could work around if we wanted to. We work in steel because it allows us to produce frames which perform flawlessly.
Burf- I (actually ‘We both’ – Tam) don’t really understand that saying, “steel is real”. Other materials are real too. I prefer “Reduce carbon, ride steel”
Are you going to work with other materials at any point?
Tam- Maybe, we’ll see. We won’t rule anything out just for the sake of sticking to traditions; we’ll choose the material which allows us to produce the best frame possible in every case. That being said, I don’t think it’s feasible for us to effectively work with carbon fibre in the near future.
Burf- It’s all about 3D printing at the moment, so I’ve heard.
What’s the future both short term and long term for BTR?
Tam- Short-term it’s keeping our heads down, and keeping working in the direction we’re set on. We’ll be improving our existing range wherever possible, and working on new bikes when we are inspired to bring something new to the world. I don’t have outlandish plans for BTR to become a huge, faceless organisation to earn millions; I just want to grow gradually by doing what we already do as well as we possibly can. Our mid-term goal is for BTR to provide a living wage for both of us. A long-term goal is for BTR to continue to provide a living wage for both of us. I have to admit that I do have small daydreams of bringing more of my favourite people to work with us at BTR- we both have friends who we’d dearly love to employ as they’d be great additions to BTR, and they’d help BTR realise its potential. So I do hope that some expansion will occur!
Burf- As Tam said above, getting BTR to pay a steady living wage is plan number one. This would allow me to work for BTR full time, allowing me to focus my efforts. It’s hard for me to do a good job at both TBA and BTR currently because I can’t think about one while working on the other. Long term; I’d love to have a World Cup race team, with a workshop at the bottom of a massive hill and test tracks finishing at the door. That was the dream as a teenager… Maybe one day?
Do you have any immediate projects that you can let us in on?
Tam- We’re gradually working our way towards road bikes, having started out with a downhill hardtail (the Belter). Our next release will still have knobbly tyres, but they’ll be pretty skinny…