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Article updated: 10/11/2013 2:37 PM

Moving Picture: W. Chicago man builds bikes of steel

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In the world of high-tech and lightweight bicycles, frames made of carbon fiber, aluminum and titanium usually take center stage.

There are, though, still a handful of frame builders who prefer to work with steel, including Jeff Smith, a West Chicago resident and owner of Saga Cycles LLC.

Smith uses steel lugs and a process called fillet brazing to create the joints on his custom steel cycles to ensure they adhere to the aesthetics of classically-built steel bicycles. Fillet brazing is regarded as a higher quality method of heating and joining the various tubes on the frame, as opposed to a welded joint which is created at a higher temperature.

He says he likes to build with steel because it's resilient, relatively easy to repair and offers the custom geometry and tube selection that allow him to build custom bikes that fit like a glove and will last for years and years.

People like steel bikes for both the look and quality of the ride, he says.

When fabricating bicycles, he often turns to steel frames from the mid to late 20th century for inspiration.

Smith says his interest in building steel bikes began in 2007. He was visiting his father in California when he attended a show in San Jose featuring custom, hand-built bicycles.

"I was blown away by the creativity and the ingenious ways people were coming up with to find solutions to problems and just creating really neat bikes," he says.

The experience piqued his interest, and he began collecting used frame-building tools.

Over the next six years, he acquired all the tools necessary to build custom frames while honing the skills he needed to successfully build attractive bikes. He also built several frames for himself and a few clients.

Working part time now on the bikes, it takes him two to four months to complete a frame, depending on the complexity of the build and the painting required to finish the job. He talks with each client to discuss their dream steel bicycle and then creates a life-size drawing to work from.

When he's ready, he orders the steel tubes and begins the fabrication process. When that's complete, he sends the frames to be painted.

"I would like to produce anywhere between six to 12 bicycles a year," he says.

His long-term goal is to parlay his frame building into something he could do in retirement -- not that he's in any hurry.

"It's 10 years away," he says. "It's a long way away."

In the meantime, he says, he wants to build a reputation for his building skills and ability to create what he calls "a rolling piece of art."

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