The Art of the Framebuilder

You might think that Richard Sachs is a selfish man. If he were a rock star—and he certainly could look the part, considering the thin gold earring that dangles from his left ear, the close cropped hair, the sunken features, and his large, intense grey-blue eyes—he would be one of those cranky Neil Young-like recluses that disappear into the hills and surround themselves with everything they need to exclude everyone else from the creative process, so they can piss off record companies and turn out an album every ten years that is made to please no one else but themselves.

That’s how Richard Sachs makes bicycles. After interning for the English framebuilding firm of Witcomb in the early seventies, he decided to open up his own shop in 1975, and he has been holed up in various workrooms in the quaint, tiny and very isolated town of Chester, Connecticut, ever since. In all those years he’s never made a frame for anyone but himself. Certainly, he’s made lots of frames and sold them to lots of different people, but that doesn’t matter in the least to Sachs. What matters is whether the frames are right.

And the things that make them right to Sachs aren’t even visible. Those supposed hallmarks of American framebuilding, the smooth sculpted lines of the lugs and flawless finish work, are rote to Sachs.

He does that kind of work on every frame, and he does it as well as anyone in the world, but he considers it the least important part of his frames. He doesn’t even paint the frames himself; he prefers to ship them off to Joe Bell in San Diego, California, to give himself more time for what he sees as the essence of framebuilding: the brazing and aligning process.

“The finish work is of second nature,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’ve been doing it so long that I could mail it in. What’s left now is how to construct the frames better. Over the last five to eight years I’ve tried to dial in to making the frames as though the assembly process itself was the craft I was selling, not the finish work. The brazing and the alignment—making the frame free of defects—that’s the grey area of framebuilding that can’t be quantified on a computer.”

He works alone because the frames have his name on them and he wouldn’t trust someone else with that responsibility. He pays $300 a month for his shop space, and $300 a month for his tiny garage apartment just across the town square in Chester, and that gives him the freedom to fuss over details that few production bike companies bother with, and to go out and train with his racing team in the mornings. With his low overhead and fanatical standards, output has become irrelevant. He estimates that in the late seventies, he was making as many as 140 frames a year. Now, he says, he makes 80 or 90.

That’s because as the years have passed and Sachs has learned more about making the bicycles, he has greedily hoarded all that knowledge and put every bit of it into every frame. You’d think that learning would breed efficiency, but for Sachs it means just another step inserted into the already maniacally precise process used to make sure the frames are dead straight when they’re checked on the alignment table for the umpteenth time.

He’s not arrogant about all this, although he’s very proud of his work and his abilities as a framebuilder. He is in fact a cordial, quiet man who spends many hours talking on the phone with potential clients about what he does. But like so many other craftsmen, Sachs “gets used to the silence,” as he puts it, of working alone. That’s what he looks forward to every day after he finishes his 24-point-something miles—the silence of the frames, and the selfish, infinite quest to make them better.

The above article (including prices) originally appeared in the June 1990 issue of Bicycle Guide, reprinted courtesy of Christopher Koch. Click the images below to view the article in its original form.