When I decided to build a bike for the summer, I already knew I wanted to build it on a steel frame. I’ve been riding a steel frame bike for the last 7 years and have come to love the benefits. Flexibility, durability, ease of repair (although I haven’t needed that so far, it’s more the knowledge that it’s reassuring to have when I’m in a place like that), a sense of uniqueness. The weight and… In the league where and how I roll, it doesn’t make that much difference.
I would not have insisted on a custom frame, but very few frames have the parameters I was looking for. Especially now, with the increased demand due to the pandemic, getting anything is a matter of months or even longer. But I was running out of time.
What the frame needed to know:
- MTB-ATB geometry (should be suitable for long off-road bikepacking rides, e.g. Tumbleweed Prospector, Kona Unit, Brother Cycles Big Bro)
- Wheel size 29, enough space for at least 2.6 inch tyres (+ mud)
- be able to accept a 135 mm rear hub (I wanted to continue to use the Rohloff hub)
- Slip-on slipper, or drop-out slipper if possible, with eccentric midsole due to Rohloff
And that’s where most steel frame manufacturers bled to death. In recent years, they have completely switched to 142 or 148mm rear wheelbase (thanks to 1x systems). Surly frames were a possibility, but they were nowhere to be found in the area. And to tell you the truth, I’m not that moved by the brand.
The frame for the eccentric centre section has been a white crow’s nest, even though it allows much more precise adjustment than its slider brother.
So I had no choice (sticking with steel) but to look for someone whose knowledge and work I trusted to the full. It was decided that I will have a Hunor vase again.
András Horváth (the owner of Hunor Craftsman Bike Workshop, the maker of the Hunor frames) made our previous expedition Hunor 26 frames. Probably few bikes get as much abuse in their lifetime as ours did in a year and a half of riding (constant loads of luggage and the elements) and yet other than chipped paint, we never had any problems with the frames. After long rides, mine served as a bikepacking touring and racing bike. However, the wheel size and mud room proved to be insufficient, so the need for a new chassis slowly emerged.
András undertook the construction, followed by the never-ending consultation and brainstorming. It all starts when I tell you what the use will be. Then there is the geometry, the mudguard and its design, the quantity and location of the canteen/package eyes, the dimensions and type of components to be fitted, their compatibility, etc., etc.
There’s a lot you can’t find on the internet, especially the explanation of why each manufacturer uses the geo data they do. As a layman, you can get into the thick of it. But here I was not alone, András was patient and conscientious. If I didn’t understand something, why he thought it was right, he explained it and asked me what I was doing (e.g. for geometry data I asked for or gave him). I had some good insights, but there were also times when he talked me out of something I wanted to do and I could easily see that it would be fine the way he wanted to do it. Dare I say it, it was a collective effort to decide what would be best for me (or my frame) in all respects.
And if it’s a custom steel frame, it should have everything you need! I requested a larger quantity of keyhole eyes from Andreas. The essence of bikepacking is clever packing, and it doesn’t hurt to make good use of the frame’s potential. The pipes were so “punched out” that a brass band would have envied them!
In early June, Andrew told me that he had finished preparing the tubes (cutting to size, bending, sanding (lots and lots of sanding), placing the keyhole eyes, preparing the flip-flops) and would start assembling the frame, I could go take photos. I visited him on a Wednesday at his workshop-supplement on Szentendre Island, as he calls it. (The Andráss have started to build a house and are now temporarily in the house where the workshop allowance has been replaced).
András assembles the prepared tubes on a “template” he designed and manufactured. All elements of the template are movable, so all distances and angles can be easily changed. There are no computers, no robots, just a calculator, a ruler, a caliper and András’s experienced eye and hand to make the frame accurate to the hundredth of a millimetre. With the template holding the tubes in place, it’s time to braze!
Great care must be taken when soldering to ensure that the pipes are exposed to just enough heat to prevent damage, but to create a proper joint. This is no longer the “I’ll weld it up at home in the shed with a welder” level.
After soldering, the next step is to wash off and remove excess material. That means sanding, polishing and more polishing.
When Andrew had all the pieces assembled and the bowden guide eyes fitted, he phosphated the frame and sent it off for painting. I opted for sintering. I don’t deny that the financial issues weighed a lot. A decent painting starts with 6 digits. The sinter was bought for 20.000 Ft. Another reason, besides the financial consideration, is the quality of use. I hit and cut the frame, and the sinter takes the physical impact better. In return, you can be less artistic (I think). After a long selection and consideration I decided to use RAL 5003.
The painter and I agreed on the colour and finish (matte, silk, etc.) and all we had to do was wait patiently for the sintering to be done.
After that the frame was returned to András for cavity protection, thread cleaning, the headstock was installed, the neck plate and the inscriptions were added. Nothing really separated me from the construction. Or so I thought at the time.
Having a custom frame made is not cheap (certainly more expensive than a dozen steel frames from the factory). However, it is worth bearing in mind the amount of work involved in making such a frame. According to András, it is close to 100 man-hours. And then there is the huge cost of materials, which is getting more expensive by the day, thanks to the fluctuating euro/dollar exchange rate. I would also say that you have to wait longer than for frames in the shops, but since the epidemic started, when people wait months or even a year for bikes, frames and parts, this is not the case.
But the other side of the coin is: it’s unique, it’s made for you and your needs, it’s made of much better tubing than most “factory” steel frames, it doesn’t come across dozens of them on the street, it puts more people to work locally.
Put all this together and a custom Hunor steel frame doesn’t seem so expensive. I think value for money is not really value for money.
Contact details of András Horváth, the frame maker:
Boros Balázs Squirrel
Text and editing:
Boros Balázs Squirrel