"There are no compromises in performance for aesthetic reasons - the bike should be able to perform and look beautiful"
London framebuilder Saffron Frameworks has been creating bespoke bikes and winning awards for doing so for five years. Founded by Matthew Sowter, who honed his skills at Enigma Bikes, and now joined by Andy Matthews formerly of Kinoko Cycles, Saffron create beautiful and functional handcrafted bikes tailored specifically to their lucky owners.
We had a chat with Andy about the world of framebulding in Woolwich.
Andy, it’s just the two of you - is frame building a team affair, how does work divide at Saffron?
My role at Saffron is the customer facing side, as well as organisation / scheduling and assembling the bikes when the frames are finished. Matthew is the framebuilder and me being in the company gives him time to concentrate fully on that.
I imagine scheduling is vital with such a time intensive process, how long does a ‘typical’ commission take on average and can you take on multiple commissions at a time?
We run a tight ship and keep to our quoted 6 month lead time from point of deposit. We’re rarely more than a couple of days out either way....
Frame building seems like a dream job to a lot of cyclists, how did you get into it — what was your experience of frame building before joining Saffron?
I first started to take an interest in frame design when working at Kinoko Cycles. We had frames manufactured in China and I worked in conjunction with the factory to specify and design these. We also used to sell many different brands of custom frame so I had to learn to speak framebuilder the language.
You recently built a bike for yourself with S&S torque couplings, meaning the bike can pack down small. I’d only ever seen this on tandems before, is it common for a road bike? Did having wireless groupset make the design easier? Are there any downsides to the setup?
Being so tall my bikes don’t generally fit in “normal” bike boxes for travel, and with the fact I’m getting away to ride more these days it made sense for me to add the couplers to the bike Matthew was working on for me. It allows the bike to pack into a box not too much bigger than it’s wheel (and importantly well within the size/weight for “normal” airline luggage). The wireless group just makes the process of packing even easier - around 20 mins and it’s all boxed up and ready to go. The only downside is a small weight penalty for the frame - a couple of hundred grams.
Do you have personal preferences in frame building and finishing kit specifications and do they ever conflict with a clients wishes? Do clients usually have a firm idea of a build or do they rely on your expertise?
Along with making beautiful frames, one of Matthew’s great strengths is specifying a frame correctly for each rider’s individual needs. The skill and understanding required to translate their answers to certain questions into tubing specification and frame geometry is something that comes from years of experience. Customers tend to be quite open to what we have to say - it’s always a collaborative process, but some come to us with a firmer idea than others. My job is to continue this “best for purpose” understanding into specifying components for the complete bike.
Do you favour any particular tubing, either for ease of working or aesthetics reasons for instance?
Again it’s all about choosing what’s right for the rider and the intended use of the bike. Each tube has it’s advantages when used in the correct way, and Matthew often mix tubes from different sets and even different manufacturers in the same frame to achieve the best results.
What’s 'better' welding or brazing?
We only braze here at the workshop - either with bronze or silver. Matthew’s preference is for a smooth integration from tube to tube and fillet brazing allows for us to do this. TIG welding has it’s place, and can make for a lighter frame than brazing, but it’s not as beautiful or tactile a finish in his opinion.
For you, where does frame building lie between art and engineering?
Like many crafts you’re constantly moving to either side of that line. I think the Matthew’s skill lies in making sure there are no compromises in performance for aesthetic reasons - the bike should be able to perform and look beautiful.
What do you think motivates clients to commission a custom frame, is it invest in something unique or to have something for a specific need?
Often a customer’s Saffron is their 3rd or 4th bike. They come to us having ridden many other bikes in past and after realising that it’s worth investing in their chosen pass time. Some want a bike that isn’t fits a certain use that isn’t quite commercially available, others just want something beautiful that will inspire them to get out and ride on the weekend.
Are there any common traits to Saffron commissions? Is there something you specialise in that attracts clients?
That’s an interesting question. I would say we have a certain aesthetic that sits well with some people’s tastes. When you see a number of Saffron’s together you really get a feel for that, but I think this is just a byproduct of Matthew’s designer’s eye. Aside from that we really do try and make each frame as best suited to it’s rider as possible, meaning we don’t limit ourselves to “normal” specification or common traits from frame to frame or bike to bike.
How closely do you work with your frame painter, is it always a case of handing over a finished frame or does there have be some collaboration earlier in the process?
We have paint specification decided long before work on the frame is even started - it’s important for Matthew to know what the plan is when making the frame, especially when working with Stainless steel which could be left unpainted. Some customers know exactly what they want from the paint, but most will have a rough idea and will listen to our input at would could be best for the frame. We also occasionally work with a graphic designer for the “louder” complicated schemes..
Are there any (types of) builds you haven’t done but would like to? Do you have any others in mind for yourself?
As I think is the trend at the moment we’re building lots of bikes with disc brakes designed to be ridden on mixed terrain, and I’m certainly feeling the want for a gravel bike for myself after seeing all these cool bikes leaving the workshop! For me though the builds I really like to be involved in are the simple steel race bikes that we get to make. I love the aesthetic and honesty of a steel bike with a “old fashioned” cable-pull group and rim brakes.
Is there a community of frame builders, is there a sense of competition?
There’s a definite sense of community - we talk to other builders regularly about various things. As you would expect there’s also some friendly competition, but everyone is always very respectful of other’s skills and design ideas!
You have your own bike fitting company too, do the two disciplines cross over?
Yes I would say so, knowledge of bike fit is important when you’re working in any part of the cycling industry in my opinion. I don’t fit for Saffron as I don’t own a frame jig which you need for working towards fully custom frames. I concentrate on fitting people onto their current bikes to make them more comfortable and efficient.
How important an investment is a bike fitting and when should a cyclist have one? Before getting a new bike presumably but does the fit need to be monitored as the body changes / adapts?
In my opinion it’s the most important investment for pretty much any rider. Basic fitting is available pretty cheaply these days and I think even new cyclists should spend the money on making sure they’re in the right position. As you become more experienced your body and therefor fit will change, so there are certainly advantages to seeing someone for advice relatively regularly. Each frame we sell here at Saffron includes a full fitting session - it really is the foundation to a successful custom frame.
If you’re in the market for a new bike maybe bespoke is the way to go. Whet your appetite and find out more at Saffron Frameworks.