Build a Bike
November 5, 2008 4:50 PM   Subscribe

I want to build a custom bike, and I've got a few questions...

First of all, are there any recommended online guides for doing this? Where online can I order the individual parts, preferably in custom colors? As an alternative to custom colored parts, what company makes the best spray paint that holds well on metal, in a wide variety of colors? I believe I used Krylon spray paint for my old bike, but I'd like more color options that I see on their site.
My current bike is a Trek mountain bike that's several years old. I really like the sturdiness of mountain bikes; I feel like they can handle any terrain and all sorts of bumps and potholes in the road - I think it has something to do with the frame and the wide wheels. Also, I feel like mountain bikes are more maneuverable, but that might just be because I've had much more experience on them than on road bikes.
I admire the speed and elegance of road bikes - is there anyway to incorporate the speed of a road bike and the stability/sturdiness/maneuverability(?) of a mountain bike? I'm not too well versed on the physical differences between road bikes and mountain bikes, other than that road bikes are usually lighter and have larger wheels (and have different handlebars).
Finally, I'm thinking that I will want this bike to have only a single gear, since I rarely switch gears anyways and it will probably be easier to build and maintain that way. When I was a kid, my first bike had only one gear (I think) and no handbrakes. The way you braked was by backpedalling. I found this to be really intuitive as I was learning and was really weirded out by handbrakes, although now I'm used to general, how does the backpedalling breaking system compare to the handbrake system? The handbrake system seems like it would be more complicated to install (as mentioned here), with the cables running everywhere, but I'm not sure if they're safer than the backpedalling breaks.
I'm not necessarily looking for recommendations for each component, though that would certainly help.
I'm not looking to build the bike out of scratch (ie put the wheels together myself), but buy the individual parts myself and then assemble those.
And finally, this bike will be used for riding around the city, so I don't need state-of-the-art super-lightweight carbon parts or anything like that.

And one more question - are all the parts of a bicycle pretty much interchangeable, or are there only parts that will only work with other certain parts? (for example, are all the seatposts standardized? will I buy a nice seat and then find that its post doesnt fit into the frame?)

posted by god particle to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
if you start spending money before you have a serious plan you will be in a world of hurt.

No, bike parts are *not* interchangeable.
really, really, not. Everything has a size, threading, etc. that interchange with other parts of that type, but not with everything ever.
The number of different types of things is [potentially] larger than you'd like to know.

Yes, things like seatposts can be different sizes, even though it seems that they're just a simple metal tube. There are different matings with the seat, different diameters, and crazy new things like seatmasts [that you don't need to worry about until you become insane and rich].

Yes, one gear can save you money, time, maintenance, but you need to know *which* gear/chainring/crank/wheelsize combo makes you happiest.

Yes, "hand" brakes are much safer than coaster brakes unless you plan on never going any decent speed ever. They are not complicated to install [until you try!], and don't significantly increase your maintenance workload [if you keep on top of it], but there are lots of options and compatilbility issues between the brakes, the levers, the frame mount points, and your ideal wheels.

There is a lot to consider, and it's easy to overlook things that seem like they should be obvious.

What I recommend for you is to :
talk to your local bike shop
tell them what 'feel' you want
work with them to find you a combo of parts that fits together and makes you happy.
Take it slow.
Buy a copy of Zinn's bike book and read it all the way through.
Read Sheldon Brown's website and branch from there.

And find a friend who wants to help you out.

Sorry for the disjointedness of the answer but i'm kind of hurried.
have fun!
posted by Acari at 5:15 PM on November 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Rather than outline everything you should know about putting a bike together, I think it might be a good idea to check out a book like Zinn And The Art Of Road Bike Maintenance or take a gander at these Sheldon Brown articles. Once you have a basic grasp of how a bike is put together and the differences in materials (i.e. a steel frame vs aluminum) then it will be easier to make recommendations and help with potential problems based on what you need.

Aside from that, the bike you are describing is a simple bike to build. A single-speed or fixed-gear bike is super simple to put together, but you still should have something to reference if this is your first time building one.
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 5:20 PM on November 5, 2008

Ha! I like how we referenced the exact same information. Guess it goes to show that it's good info though.
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 5:22 PM on November 5, 2008

Two things that jump out:

1) A coaster brake just locks the back wheel, especially if you're in an emergency. Locking the wheel causes you to lose traction, which isn't the best way to stop. To my knowledge there are no front-wheel coaster brakes, and braking with the front wheel is a zillion times more effective than rear wheel braking, so much so that many times front caliper brakes are built physically larger than the rears.

2) Assembling a bicycle requires several tools that are not used for anything else in the world. The cost of these may be more than the cost of the bike itself, depending on what parts you choose.
posted by rhizome at 5:26 PM on November 5, 2008

Handbrakes are definitely the way to go. As Acari said, they're more complicated to install, but they're much, much better.

But that isn't the end of the story. You also have to decide whether you want disc brakes or rim brakes, each of which has advantages and disadvantages. Disc brakes tend to be more powerful, but their chief advantage is that they don't lose much braking power when wet, whereas rim brakes can be significantly impaired. On the other hand, disc brakes are quite a bit more complicated to set up and install and not every frame/wheel combination will work. Even if you decide which style of brake to use, there are choices to be made. Disc brakes can be either hydraulic or mechanical, and rim brakes come in over half a dozen forms.

Seriously, you need to make friends with your local bike shop. This isn't like building a computer, where once you've got a few core components matched you can throw a bunch of standardized parts at it. Pretty much everything is sized, but there's more to it than just that: some parts won't work with other parts regardless of the size they come in because of the way they're laid out. This set of wheels may not work with that style of brake, which may not fit with this frame, but will with that one, which needs a different set of wheels, etc.
posted by valkyryn at 5:34 PM on November 5, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, I wasn't aware it was really this complicated, I had assumed it was more or less like building a computer. Thanks for all the responses so far, but perhaps this question needs a change of direction...
So I guess starting with a cheap (single-geared) bike and then just swapping out parts would probably be easier? If this is the case, can anyone recommend sites to start looking at?
posted by god particle at 5:44 PM on November 5, 2008

I don't really understand your question. Are you seeking to design and weld together a frame, or to buy individual components -- frame, wheels, and so on -- and assemble them into a bike? Because most frames come painted (spray paint makes me shudder). If you're doing the later, you will be joining a very large group of people. Fanciers of road and mountain bikes routinely assemble their own from parts.

Mountain bikes are more study than road bikes, but even road bikes are over-built to handle the stresses they incur plus a lot of extra. See Paris-Roubaix, also known as Hell of the North, for examples of road bikes ridden on miles of cobbles in the mud. Road bikes are much more maneuverable than mountain bikes, but it's really a function of how the frame is built -- shorter chain stays equals faster response, usually. That's something you should look into when picking out your frame. Consider the difference in comparing a Porsche to a Hummer.

A good compromise might be cyclo-cross. This is a road bike with mountain bike features.

I despise single speed bikes as a trend with a narrow band of usefulness, but I think you're correct in guessing that they are easier to build and maintain. But they're not that much easier, and they are a lot more limited. I hope you consider installing a shifting system. They amazingly perfect little innovations addressing the problem of optimum cadence.

The pedal brake is limited in several ways. The biggest is that you only have braking control of your rear wheel. Just like in cars, in bikes the front is the prominent braking wheel that takes the brunt of the force, but being able to use both or one or the other has pretty big advantages. Hand brakes are safer and can stop quicker and with more control. Again, you're right that they're more difficult to install.

Check out the Park Tool website for a great mechanical breakdown of the bike. Competitive Cyclist allows you to virtually assemble bikes, which might be useful in getting to know the components. There are tons of websites selling components so I'm not going to bother linking those.

Finally, things are different sizes but also standardized. Handlebars, for example, can be numerous sizes (44cm, 42cm) but also over-sized and regular. The thing to do is match each component to it's partner properly. In the case of over-sized handlebars, you need an over-sized stem as well. Just move outward -- from frame to components -- and match sizes along the way and you'll be fine.
posted by luckypozzo at 5:56 PM on November 5, 2008

If you truly want to learn to work on and build a bike yourself you should start by buying an old road bike, and then learning how to to disassemble and reassemble it. Along the way you'll be forced to familiarize yourself with parts and tools.

It's not a cheap undertaking as many of the tools are specialized. You can tune most bikes with a 5mm hex wrench, but if you want to true a wheel, swap a headset, change out a crank then you're going to be out hundreds of dollars on specific tools.

I've built bikes from scratch, but it's best to start with a donor bike that either has a good frame or good parts you can cannibalize. This is pretty much what I do nowadays when I trade up. My handlebars, brake levers, wheels, saddle, and other parts follow me from bike to bike.

I like - but the site is maddening sometimes because it is over run with noobs - no offense.

The late Sheldon Brown's website is still a great resource, particularly if you're working on 70s and 80s bikes.

When shopping for a bike that you're going to ride, size is the most important feature, followed by quality. NEVAR FORGET.
posted by wfrgms at 6:06 PM on November 5, 2008

Have you considered picking up an old dead bike of of the curb on trash day and rebuilding it? That would get you into the shallow end of things and let you pick up the skills you'd need.

Also, what tools do you have access to? I mean, if you can get to a milling machine, metal lathe and a mig welder or ox/acetylene torch you can pretty much do anything.

Also check out Rivendell Cycle Works - the "Read" drop down gives you their opinion on a lot of things, but will do quite a bit to educate you on the various schools of thought that are out there. (Sheldon Brown created the Rivendell Sauron in one of his annual April Fools day gags, which is about as high as bicycle building praise gets.)
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:33 PM on November 5, 2008

Do you want to build it because you are a hobbyist who likes to tinker? Or because you want to save money?

I can promise you without fail that doing it yourself will be more expensive than just buying something off-the-shelf. There are so many options available these days that you should be able to buy a bike that suits 95% of your criteria.

Custom bikes will end up being much more expensive because retailers and distributors have to charge a higher margin on parts/accessories for all the overhead. Whole bikes will be much cheaper to buy.
posted by randomstriker at 6:39 PM on November 5, 2008

ok i have to disagree really hard with some of those point on brakes.

i've ridden both kinds pretty hard, and went with a coaster brake as the better system for several reasons.

1. you should NOT be relying on the front brake. if you are at any kind of speed and hit the front brake, the back end wants to keep going, often throwing the rider or toppling the bike. even if you have hand brakes USE THE BACK ONE

2. a coaster does not just lock the wheel. press back a little you slow the wheel, press back hard and you lock it. i find you have more control over your speed this way.

3. since it is internal, the coaster brake works exactly the same in all weather conditions. when it's raining or snowing and your rims are wet those hand brakes are seriously affected.

4. also if your rims are not 100% true (straight) the effectiveness of your handbrakes is likewise diminished
posted by swbarrett at 7:08 PM on November 5, 2008

@swbarrett: There's the risk of endo'ing with the front brake, but if you put your weight over the back wheel it's not an extreme risk, and from everything I've heard, the front brake provides the majority of stopping power on most bikes.

It sounds like you want a single-speed mountain bike with slim tires, or possibly a messenger bike with large tires. Look around craigslist if there are hipsters in your city. Otherwise, there are a few single-speeders which are affordable in a bike shop and darn cheap on the street (look at the Giant Bowery, etc).

As in: sizing parts, building bikes, etc., is an art of refinement. Buy something that works somewhat, and make it yours slowly instead of starting with something awkward and potentially dangerous.
posted by tmcw at 7:26 PM on November 5, 2008

here's how you answer all your many good questions:

a) stop reading this post in 15 seconds.
b) walk into a well-recommended local bike shop.
c) ask your many good questions of them.
d) allow them to sell you a bike/order you a bike/recommend a custom builder to you.
posted by RockyChrysler at 7:32 PM on November 5, 2008

swbarrett is dead wrong. The back brake should not be your primary handbrake - it's significantly less efficient. See Sheldon Brown's article on this for the full details:

"With bicycles, as with virtually all wheeled vehicles, the front brake is the more important and effective brake. The front brake by itself will stop a standard bicycle twice as fast as a rear brake by itself."
posted by ellF at 8:20 PM on November 5, 2008

swbarrett, you may not agree, but physics is against your argument. In short, while the back tire can skid on a bike, the front cannot---one endo's first, barring a few unusual situations. This is caused by the weight of the bike being primarily on the front wheel when stopping. In practice, one can break on a bike at a maximum of about 0.6G (depending on how far back one can get one's butt), using the front only. Rear-only results in much longer stopping distances. Front+rear offers no advantage over front only, as the limiting factor is a front wheel skid and/or endo.

But don't take my word for it: John Forrester and Sheldon Brown have both written on the matter. Jobst Brandt dismisses the rear-only technique also, and he's gone down much steeper hills, faster than most of us ever will.
posted by bonehead at 8:38 PM on November 5, 2008

ellF: Jinx!
posted by bonehead at 8:40 PM on November 5, 2008

Another vote from me that starting with an inexpensive (but good-quality) used bike is the way to go. There will be stuff you'll want to upgrade and plenty of maintenance to learn, and you can buy the tools you need as you go along. Read Sheldon Brown's pages on singlespeed conversions. Once you've gotten to know most of the components, you can strip them off and think about custom painting.

Home Depot will have lots of paint colors, and a paint store can mix any color and put it in a rattle can (for a hefty fee). A high-quality job from spray cans isn't easy. You'll want to remove the old paint, or at least sand off all the gloss and smooth out the chips and scratches (if your frame has posts for shifter levers you may want to grind them off). Then it'll be multiple coats of primer (with a light sanding between coats), then color(s), then multiple coats of a clear enamel finish. Of course, you'll want to do tests on scrap metal beforehand to make sure you don't get any weird reactions between your paints. Of course you'll want to do this in a very well-ventilated area that's also low on air-borne particles. Here are some instructions.

The other route is to have your frame custom powdercoated. Provided your frame is prepped correctly and the painting is done right, powdercoating is a lot more durable than spray paint, and may be the cheaper option compared it to several spray cans. Your local bike shop may have somebody to recommend.

Another option I've heard of is to bring the frame to an auto-body shop and ask them to coat it with whatever color they happen to have mixed up. If you're lucky it'll be a perfect match for your car.
posted by hydrophonic at 8:41 PM on November 5, 2008

I think the best choice might be working on the bike you already have.

You can convert your mountain bike to singlespeed with a couple inexpensive tools and some time and patience (well, and some spacers and a tensioner--Surly, among others (Paul, Rennen, Endless) makes one or both). Putting slick tires on it (Ritchey Tom Slicks are 1.4", Schwalbe Big Apples and Maxxis Hookworms are, both, I believe, 2.5", and there's a wide variety of slick/city/urban tires in between) is much faster and easier.

If these changes don't make it as road-bike-ish as you prefer, you can also swap out the stem and/or handlebars. You can also buy color-coordinated jazz from local bike shops, websites and eBay (there are a lot of cool color-anodized aluminum aftermarket parts for mountain bikes, and most of them date to the early '90s, a heyday for tiny, now-defunct cnc-shop manufacturers).

All of this, of course, will require throwing some money at the problem. And you'll want to spend some time learning how to work on the thing. Sheldon Brown's website, and the Park Tool website, both mentioned above, are excellent online sources of information. A book like the Zinn ones (consider buying a used previous edition--Zinn likes the latest stuff) is often easier to refer to when you're working on the bike, though. Start with basic maintenance and tuning--later for building wheels and welding frames.

And putting slick tires on your mountain bike, and converting it to singlespeed, is likely to be cheaper than buying a new bike. It might even be so cheap that you could make this kind of conversion, and still, if you wanted to, y'know, a little while later, buy another bike.
posted by box at 8:41 PM on November 5, 2008

If you'set on staring with a virgin frame, at least get a bike shop to fit the headset and face the bottom bracket for you. Those potential frame-wreckers aren't easily done with common tools, nor are they easy for a novice mechanic to attempt. If you don't want to wheel build, a much easier task, you don't want to tackle headsets or bb facing either.

box has a great idea: if you like your current bike, why not do a conversion on it? That's the way I started, and it worked well for me. Singleate your current bike, swap handlebars, put on weird brake levers, all good fun, and much cheaper than starting from scratch. A parts-built bike is by far the most expensive. Auto bodyshop paint will be much more durable and possibly cheaper than a few spray-bombs too.
posted by bonehead at 9:45 PM on November 5, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses, in case anyone is interested, here's what I've done/am planning to do:

In terms of the bike parts...
I'm buying a frame (custom colored), with the headset and bottom bracket all set for me, and then I will buy a front wheel and a fixed rear wheel (with the proper track hub, all prebuilt). Everything else I'll try to get secondhand and then upgrade in the future. I will install a front handbrake since it sounds like is worth having, at least until I get confident on the fixed gear. I'm not building the bike in order to save money so I'm willing to spend a bit on it. I'm building the bike because I love bikes and I'm really interested in learning all I can about them. And because I want a really sweet custom ride.

I fortunately live right next to this bike organization and will go to them for help, as well as local shops and my school's cycling club. Are there any MeFites in Philly who would be willing to train me?
I've also been and will continue scouring the internet for information on all the parts of a bike.

I don't want to convert my old bike since its really old (it was the second bike I ever had, after that aforementioned fixie, so I outgrew it awhile ago).
posted by god particle at 5:25 PM on November 6, 2008

Response by poster: For anyone reading this later, here's a followup.

It took me about a month but I finished building the bike. It was not nearly as difficult as a lot of posters made it seem. After a bit of reading (Sheldon Brown's site became my go-to source) I manage to figure out how things fit together, how to determine which pieces were compatible, and pretty much whatever else I needed to know.

The entire project was fairly costly, but it wasn't too bad. Total, it costed me a little bit more than $600 to build the entire thing. This includes both parts and labor costs for the few things I didn't do myself (having the bottom bracket installed and having the chain length all figured out). I was going to build my own rear wheel, but that ended up being more expensive so I just bought one (later I might get a better rim and try building one on my own).
I bought some parts used, some parts new. Craigslist was helpful, I managed to find an old frame that worked perfectly for $60. I stripped a couple of parts off of my old bike.
The process was not as hard as I was expecting it to be, but it was pretty stressful. Mostly the stress was just coming from being impatient in waiting for things to get here and dealing with return policies when I ordered the wrong part. The actual assembly of the bike is surprisingly easy, the real challenge is getting compatible parts.

I'm fortunate enough to live right across the street from a bike co-op where you can use their tools and stands for free. However, the installation of a lot of parts can be done with a bike tool and some grease. I did have a shop do some of the more complicated things that the co-op suggested I go to a shop for.

Anyways, here's the final creation:

Thanks again for your help. This experience has inspired me to volunteer at the bike co-op.
posted by god particle at 12:46 PM on December 5, 2008

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