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27/01/2012 - Experience
My name is Chris Dekerf and I have been building bicycles for 25 years. I first started as an apprentice when I was 21 years old. I am now 46. So after 25 years, what is the value of the experience I've gained along the way? What does this experience lend to actually making Dekerf bike frames better? One could argue that building a bicycle isn't that complicated. Heck you can now simply lay down your cash and sign up for a 2 week course where you can learn it all! Or so it might seem.

The experience I've gained in building literally thousands of bicycle frames has obviously taught me many skills about the actual process of frame building. But it has also allowed me to gain a deep knowledge of different materials, and especially good quality steels and titanium tubes. It takes time to gain an appreciation and understanding of how different tubes will change the ride and feel of bicycle. It starts with the basic material choice, and goes right on down to the details of diameter, wall thickness, and even butting patterns. This is one reason why, over the years I have not quickly switched from one tubing type to another as the various fads have come and gone. It is or course important to stay current with materials, but I see more benefit in have a large and broad inventory of a particular material. This way I can choose from a huge range of tubing options that I can have in stock and thereby fine tune my selections and how the frame will ultimately ride. This level of material knowledge can only come with experience.

In addition to materials there is of course the whole realm of designing a frame which is also very important. And by designing I mean not just the sizing and geometry, but also the details of how exactly the tubes fit and join together. One of the beauties of working with steel is that it can be joined together in so many different ways. It can be fillet brazed, lugged, tig welded, and even silver soldiered. Figuring out creative but more importantly functional ways to join the tubes is a big part of what the Dekerf reputation is built upon; the Dekerf wishbone being the most recognized example. But beyond this, the ability to have seen so many frames go out new and be ridden for 5, 10, 15 years or more, and then come back into the shop for repairs, or modifications and paint, offers invaluable insight into what really works and what doesn't. It forces you as a builder and designer to take a slightly more conservative approach knowing what it truly means to build something that will last a lifetime. Again this is knowledge that can really only be gained over time.

There is of course also the question of quality and finishing. These aspects span a range of tasks from geometric accuracy (the angles and lengths are exactly as we say they are), to mitring fit-up, weld bead strength and look, brazing and finishing work, and final finishing and paint. To get these parts right certainly requires knowledge, but more importantly it requires caring. You need to want to get these details right. Over the years I have had the opportunity to teach and share with some people what I have learned. One thing I have come to notice is that its much easier to take a person who likes to do things well, and teach them how to do it efficiently and properly. Its much harder to take a person who likes to do things quickly and haphazardly and teach them to slow down and take more care. It is as if caring about quality is less of a learned thing and more of an inherent character trait. At least this has been my experience. And it also explains in part why I tend to work alone now more than ever before; no one is a picky as I am!

If there is one aspect of bike building that can truly cross over into the art realm, it is painting. Painting a bicycle frame is quite difficult because of all the curved surfaces joining together at so many different angles. To take control of this critical aspect of bike building, all Dekerf frames are painted in-house, as they have been for many years now. It took the experience of outsourcing paint work years ago to come to realize that the only way to make sure it was done right every time was to do it ourselves. Again to become a great bike painter takes years of experience and also the best of equipment. This is especially true if you demand not only beautiful and artistic paint work, but also the knowledge of what is the right paint to use, and the technical knowledge of how to apply it correctly. This is how we can ensure the paint on Dekerf frames not only looks amazing but is also super strong.

If I had to boil it down, I would have to say that the most important thing the last 25 years of bike building has taught me is patience. Building a beautiful bicycle starts with a mindset. Be calm, focus on the task, don't forget the bigger picture, apply your skills, be confident, but above all be patient.

Let me finish with one little anecdote about experience. Over the years I have often been complimented on my Tig welding which has been nice to hear. But what people probably don't realize is how I acquired those welding skills. Tig welding is not a complicated task. The principals and actually quite simple, yet Tig welding thin wall cro-moly or Titanium is quite difficult for most people to learn. It takes a great deal of practice to learn to do it well. In one hand you hold a torch with a finely pointed electrode that creates a tiny electric arc. That arc is your heat source and with it you can with pinpoint accuracy melt steel. In the other hand you carefully add small amounts of thin wire which melts into the molten puddle. With these two things you can then stitch the tubes together. The whole process requires very steady hands and a careful eye for what's going on. In my shop the filler wire we use when Tig welding is a very thin ( little less than a millimeter in diameter) wire. The wire comes on a large 60 lb spool. Stretched out straight, there are about 5 miles of wire on a spool. With a single spool I can build about 2000 bike frames. I just recently started on my 4th spool. So how did I become a good welder? In a word, experience.

Thanks for reading this. Chris.
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