Hand-built bikes are trendy these days. The North American Handmade Bicycle Show attracts thousands of visitors and hundreds of exhibitors. Most of them build bikes from steel or titanium — that is, they weld.
Craig Calfee is different. Since 1987, he has been constructing bicycles by hand, not from weldable metal, but from carbon fiber. That makes him somewhat of a pioneer — that’s around the time of the first carbon bikes, and it was his success in this field that led him to start Calfee Designs.
“Metal fabrication for bikes has about a hundred years head start, so those materials and techniques are highly evolved,” says Calfee. “But there’s a lot of room for innovation in the world of composites and that’s what I really enjoy about it.”
Carbon has become the preferred material for high-end bikes, thanks to its light weight and the way it dampens bumps. As the technology has improved, bike manufacturers, who usually work with factories in Taiwan, have been able to make frames better and stronger using bladder molding, in which a bladder inside the material is inflated under pressure to press the material against a mold.
Instead, he uses direct lamination, tube and lug bonding, and hand-wrapping. According to Calfee, these three different processes allow his company to build a wide variety of sizes and geometries. Ultimately, each involves the same basic steps. He starts by buying carbon as fabric. Once he has it, his first step is to orient it correctly to resist stress. Then, it’s wet with epoxy, compressed to remove the excess (and air bubbles), and sanded to finish.
Each frame takes from 30 to 50 hours to build, but most of that is the finishing process. “It’s possible to build a functional frame in less time — but you might not want to be seen riding it,” he says.
Calfee Designs is now a 14,000-square-foot shop with 30 employees and a penchant for off-the-wall side projects, like a motorcycle-powered gyrocopter.
“People can understand and relate to a bike, which is why the bicycle probably has the most person-hours of technical development of any human creation,” says Calfee. “I like the challenge of making a better bike. Because the development of the bicycle has such a long and intensive history, real innovation is rare.”