I am a little late posting this report, but I figure its better to be a little late than not at all.
Two weekends ago I had the pleasure of spending the weekend with Carl and Loretta Strong at their house and shop. I detailed the genesis of this trip in an earlier post. If I thought about it too much the whole thing seemed surreal, so I didn’t allow myself to. I figured if he was cool with it, then I should be too. The week prior I sent out my 14lb Miller Maxstar welder, AD helmet, foot pedal, torch, a bunch of mitered tube stubs and mitered tubes for my new personal road bike. A new pulsing welder is not in my budget right now, so I didn’t think learning his welding technique on his welder would be the direction I needed. Framebuilding is such a unique trade where direct competitors share minute details of their process and answer anything you ask them. In any other trade that I’ve witnessed Carl should not have brought me into his world and he certainly shouldn’t have answered some of the questions he did. While it might be hubris to say, we are direct competitors. We both have tailored our businesses to provide refined TIG welded road and cross frames by way of an efficient manufacturing process. I want his customers (in a figurative sense…I like the guy too much to want to take food off his table). Yet, there were no insecurities, no curtains hid behind, and no question went unanswered all weekend.
Friday night was coincidentally his apprentice Erik Rolf’s going away party and I had the great pleasure of talking shop with he and Dave Kirk. I also met a lot of the Stong’s close friends from Bozeman; many of whom were successful local small business owners…funny how like minded people attract each other. The next day started with a critique of my Flickr photostream over coffee. We reviewed a lot of the things I thought I did well, things I thought I needed improvement on and his impressions of both. I established early that I had a thick skin, so the feedback was honest and to the point. With a system revved in caffeine and some jumping off points for improvement based on my photos we made the short 1 mile ride to his shop. His shop is amazing. While, even under his own admission, its big for what he needs currently due to it once being more of a production line shop, the extra space allows for a very open and well organized working space. Carl keeps his space meticulously clean and everything is logically placed for its intended use. We wasted no time getting at with the mitered tube stubs I sent out and were able to make some immediate improvements in my welding technique from the start. Small nuances in how I held the torch and where I rested the heel of my hand made substantial improvements in my bead spacing and bead width. I experimented with his welder and he experimented with mine. Suffice to say, we both were more comfortable with our welders. In this case familiarity did not breed contempt; rather it bred better welds! After welding 10 or so practice joints working on different exercises we proceeded to welding my frame using my welder so I could bring home as many tangible and useable nuggets of information as possible.
Carl and I both have Anvil frame fixtures, but his is the Super Master, while mine is the original Journey Man. The Super Master is nice…real nice. I brought my BikeCAD sheet with me and within a few minutes the fixture was setup for my frame and the tubes were placed in. We had to touch up the down tube/head tube miter, but generally the miters were very tight. We spent a considerable amount of time reviewing sequence; this was one of the most important lessons of the day. He showed me his tacking and welding sequence (which I meticulously wrote down) and impressed upon me that it wasn’t the only way to do it, but it was his way and he knows what he gets out of it. We built a frame the exact way he does, with all of his intermediate inspection procedures. Our processes overlap in many ways, which was encouraging to me, but it was great to see a Professional at work. The education entailed Carl doing a dry run of an area (or multiple areas) with no arc, walking away to do some other work and me calling him back over when I was done. Repeat. I am good enough that I didn’t need him hovering over my shoulder for every bead; just having the new process and hand position techniques made a substantial improvement. We reviewed the process of “welding into alignment” and how to achieve a straight frame without cold setting. I had also sent out the rear triangle as unmitered tubes in case things flowed smoothly and we got to it. Things did progress smoothly and by mid-afternoon we were ready to attach the rear triangle to a perfectly straight and complete front triangle. Carl and I miter our rear triangles the same way and we both face the same problems. I was nervous about starting to weld 19 mm Life fastback seat stays to a Life seat tube at 4pm (welding when I’m frazzled doesn’t go well, especially on the hardest joint on the bike with the most difficult material), but after we reviewed a better way to get the torch in the “crotch” under the stays it seemed a lot easier than my way, so I decided to give it a go. 10 minutes later the stays had complete and smooth welds and the frame was ready for stay bridges. We boxed up the frame and my welder and they came home on the plane with me the next morning. That night Carl took me to a local brew-pub a friend of his owns and we talked Business 201 (much more in depth than what he covers in his NAHBS seminar) over a couple/three/four beer.
The frame made it back to Logan Airport in Boston unscathed and I added the last few brazeons in my my shop. The frame is now ready for paint and will be in my booth at NAHBS.
I have obviously touched base with Carl privately to thank he and his wife for their hospitality and “everything”, but I would like to do it again publicly. Thank you.