Meet the Maker: Frame Academy
How do you go from bracelet maker to blow-torch wielding bike builder? Kathi Hall gets the sparks flying with bespoke framebuilder Caren Hartley to find out…
When I interview Caren Hartley in her workshop in East Dulwich, she’s busy working on a new commission; her visor is down and there are sparks flying. It’s a bit like an amazing 80s music video, but with less hairspray. When we sit down for a cup of gin (it is after 3pm), she tells me how she fell into frame building through a succession of happy encounters.
“I first trained as a jeweller and silversmith in fine metalwork, but quickly got frustrated with the scale of jewellery. I wanted to work on something bigger, so moved into sculpture, installations and finally large-scale public art pieces from cast iron and bronze…
Holding a torch…
“When I moved to London, I started commuting on my bike and gradually started going on social rides. It was on one of those events that I met Andrew Denham, who started the Bicycle Academy. I’d spotted his gas torches and just had to talk to him to see what he was doing.
“He told me people were hand-building bikes and it sparked my imagination. I just knew I wanted to get more and more involved. I started out helping at places like Saffron Frameworks and Rusby Cycles – until my first commission came from Jenni Gwiazdowski at The London Bike Kitchen."
She paid for Caren to take a ten-day intensive course at the Bicycle Academy in return for whatever bespoke bike she then made. Jenni’s brief was for an audax-style frame designed for long-distance riding with light loads.
“Picking out the paint was the really fun part,” says Jenni. “We spent a good hour at the local auto shop and finally settled on a dark royal blue with lipstick red highlight. Initially I nicknamed her Diana, after those Wonder Woman colours, but I don't wash her much, so she's now a Dirty Diana."
It took off from there. “I guess you could say that it’s all her fault,” says Caren, who now has a six-month waiting list of customers.
It takes around a month for her to complete an order – with designs setting you back anything from £2,000 up to £8,000 – and her days are at least 10 hours long.
After an initial chat with a customer, Caren sends them to Le Beau Velo in Shoreditch to be measured. They capture a set of contact points for the saddle, feet and hands, then Caren designs the geometry of the bike around these. This means the fit is perfect for the person she’s creating for.
As Jenni says: “A custom-built bike is like a perfectly tailored suit. Imagine having something built specifically for your body and the way you cycle. The ride is so smooth. It's an absolute dream!"
More men than women tend to place orders but Caren reckons there’s probably even more of a need for bespoke bikes for women.
“If you’re 5ft, which is not uncommon for a lot of women, you can have a terrible time finding a bike that fits. I know a lot of women who are actually riding children’s bikes because they can’t find anything in the adult ranges. If you’re small, sometimes that’s the only thing that’s available for you.”
So, what does Caren, the woman who can make any bike she likes ride? “A 650c Road Bike I made myself that’s really light and nippy.”
Her favourite commission to date was for the Design Museum’s Cycle Revolution exhibition – a gravel bike in stainless steel. They said I could make anything I like, so I decided to work in steel as that’s what I specialise in. Half road, half gravel bike, I created a bike that could be used for anything and used everywhere."
My last question brings a laugh – ‘If you could build a bespoke bike for anyone in the world, who would it be?’ “David Bowie. I think he would have commissioned a really cool bike that would have been totally original.”
We can’t wait for the off-the-peg Bowie Stardust Women’s Bike to be a regular site on the UK’s roads.