Steel is Real Builder’s Interviews #1.
Ted James of Ted James Designs.
Interiew by Jamie Edwards / photos by Callum Philpott and TJD
The Steel is Real Demo Day was a rare chance to meet the guys that are crafting beautiful mountain bikes by hand from steel and titanium.
Our first in a series of builder’s interview is with Ted James of Ted James Designs – Ted wasn’t exhibiting at the demo but was along for the day and riding his hand made steel mountain bike with his two young sons, one of which was also on a hand made Ted James kids bike.
Ted comes across as you’d expect of a frame builder, a true one-off. Quiet but very open to a chat about bikes. Careful with his words but intensely passionate about bikes, building, his craft and his family.
Ted creates custom steel and titanium road, BMX and mountain bikes by hand in his workshop in Stroud and also teaches at The Bicycle Academy. BMX fans will know him better as “Super Ted” from countless magazine and video appearances. You can visit his website here.
First question then, who are you?
I’m Ted of Ted James Design LTD. I build custom frames.
Tell me about about your bikes.
I build all kinds of different bikes. BMX, road, mountain bikes.
I ride a lot so I build them to ride. That’s where it comes from, thinking about how I want a bike to ride and I build them to be able to handle that kind of riding and behave well.
Is this a full time thing for you, or do you have another job alongside?
It’s pretty much full time. I teach one week a month down at The Bicycle Academy frame building school as well.
Where did you learn to build?
I did some engineering stuff after finishing school but I’ve always been playing with bikes since real young. I started building bikes at 16 and always thought about building frames and was breaking BMXs.
I did build my first frame with Dave Yates in Lincolnshire, I built a road bike with him. A traditional road bike with lugs that I thought was good to get practice on brazing with the torch.
I’d done some welding before but not brazing so did that and then came away and made a jig and built a frame straight away after that. I did a lot of frame repairs and just started building more frames to get the experience.
How and where are you bikes made?
I started in London but I’m now in Gloucestershire, near Stroud.
At the moment it’s just me in the workshop with some tools and big lathes and I machine a lot of the components, the head tubes, the bottom brackets and things and do quite a lot of tube shaping. Mainly with steel but there’s quite a bit of titanium now as well. I braze and TIG weld.
And what are they actually made out of?
A lot of them are steel – I use a lot of Reynolds tubing. I’ve been working with them closely on quite a few projects.
I built my first frames with their stainless 921 tubing. I really like using their stuff and they do a lot of good tubes, for mountain bikes especially.
“And titanium is kind of just another step on, it’s quite similar to steel but it’s got sparkles.
It’s pretty crazy what it can offer”
And why steel?
I grew up racing mountain bikes in the early 90s and through the 90s and always rode steel bikes. They’ve definitely got a different feel to an aluminium frame and fabricating is easier if you’re a small, custom builder.
With aluminium there’s a lot of other things to consider with heat treatment and things.
Steel’s really good. It’s perfect for BMX. BMX is the first thing that really got me thinking about making frames and was a bit of a goal to try and achieve. It’s hard to make money out of them but they’re generally steel for freestyle and dirt bikes. Steel’s a real good one.
And titanium is kind of just another step on, it’s quite similar to steel but it’s got sparkles. It’s magical! It’s pretty crazy what it can offer.
When you sit down to design a bike, what do you think are the most important things to consider and build into the bike?
The first, most important thing with building a custom bike is speaking to the customer and finding out what kind of riding they want to do on it and what kind of abuse they’re going to give it. How they need it to handle.
It’s normally not what the customer wants, it’s more to do with what they’re going to do with the bike… To try and find out what they really need.
Often what they want isn’t what they really need! It’s trying to find that out, speaking to the customer.
It’s great if you can ride with them first and see how they ride and you really get to know what they need then.
“I didn’t set out to start a company. I started making bikes and needed to pay some bills and I tried to do it that way”
So you’re a guy with your own bike company and a family with two young kids. What have you had to sacrifice to get to this stage?
Uh … For me it’s always felt like a natural progression. I can’t think of any job that doesn’t involve bikes and it’s obviously very hard work starting a bike company.
I didn’t set out to start a company, I was just wanting to make bikes, I started making bikes and needed to pay some bills and I tried to do it that way.
I was lucky enough to be living in a warehouse with very low rent but things have changed. I’ve got two kids and I’ve had to try and make some money and try to pay bigger bills.
It’s hard work, not enough sleep and not enough money a lot of the time but I’ve got a bike to ride and that’s all that matters really?
Deep question. What does building bikes, riding bikes and bikes in general mean to you?
That’s a difficult one to really say… But I couldn’t imagine a life without bikes. It’s everything.
It’s amazing seeing my kids getting into it and getting them stoked on it as well and getting them into the workshop.
They’re still a bit young to focus for very long but it’s great getting them into the workshop and learn bits and pieces. Hopefully we’ll be building bikes together some time.
“I couldn’t imagine a life without bikes. It’s everything”
Your mountain bikes then, can you describe the feel of them to someone who hasn’t ridden one?
Because I build custom bikes, they do tend to be individual one off bikes for that particular customer. So they’ll ride very differently, depending on what the customer needs and how they want it.
So some people want an XC bike that’s light, nimble and fast. Other people want a burly bike that’s going to handle some battering and casing some jumps so it’s going to have a different feel.
What’s next for you then?
I’ve been trying to work towards some batches of frames so I can make things a little more affordable and a little easier to chose.
When a customer comes, when they can have anything, it’s difficult to make the choices. Narrowing it down a little bit will help with that and I’ll be able to make them a little more affordable. I enjoy working out the processes and getting down and making some bikes.
Tell me about your little lad’s bike.
So that’s the first bike I built for him, which he’s just about growing out of and his younger brother has got his eye on!
It’s a fully rigid, single speed mountain bike basically. It looks a bit like a BMX but it has a lower BB so he can pedal it around all day, climb on it and he can still jump it as well. It’s much lighter than the bikes you can get off the shelf.
When he got it it was a really good size that he couldn’t get from another bike off the shelf.
I got him in the workshop and got him involved with showing him some of it, tacking it all together, filing the tubes. We did start it quite a long time ago and he couldn’t really do much with the files but he loved the emery cloth and cleaning the tubes, he loved that.
I got him to braze the bottle bosses in, I got him to hold the torch and I held it with him. I brazed the first one and told him to watch the flux and showed him when it’s ready.
We put the silver in on the next and asked him “tell me when you think it’s ready?” and he said it at just the right time, he said “yeah now!” so we put the silver in and brazed it. That was a proud moment!
His brother will have it soon so I’ll have to build another one for him and find a good 20″ suspension fork that’s not crazy expensive.
“I got him in the workshop and got him involved with showing him some of it, tacking it all together, filing the tubes”
Any advice for any looking to do what you’re doing and starting building frames?
I guess if you really want to start building frames for a living …don’t do it how I did it!
Maybe plan how to run a business first. I didn’t plan to run a business, I just planned to make bikes. I’m not very good at the running of the business!
Thanks to Ted for taking the time to chat to us – and for his two young uns for their patience!
You can visit Ted’s website at Tedjamesdesign.com.