When I walked through the door of Joseph Ahearne’s new shop in North Portland, he didn’t even look up. Hunched over and deep in concentration, he gazed into a white-hot flame and danced around a frame clasped into the stand; constantly tweaking it to get just the right angle for his torch and flux. Like the conductor of an alchemy orchestra, he moved his torch up-and-down, working to get just the right combination of heat and flux to make the fillet-brazed joints as smooth and clean as possible.
Watching a framebuilder at work is sometimes just as beautiful as the final product.
This is the third shop I’ve visited Joseph in. Back in October of 2005, when I profiled him for Dirt Rag Magazine, he worked in a studio in an old building in the Central Eastside. After that, he moved up North, to a warehouse under the St. Johns Bridge, a space that is now being developed into townhomes.
In the last few months Joseph has come a long way. He now offers a limited batch of semi-production bikes, he’s added two employees (one full, one part-time), and he has seen demand for his popular cargo racks skyrocket.
Ahearne is optimistic about his new “custom-stock” option. He has pre-made three stock sizes of front triangles that are based on 29-inch mountain bike geometry. The customer can then choose any rear triangle they want and use their creativity to build out the rest of the bike. It’s a new direction and it enables Joseph to offer a semi-custom bike at a more affordable price while cutting down on production time.
Never one to simply be a “bike producer”, Joseph says that once this small batch (about 20-25 frames) is sold, he will move on to another limited run based on a completely different style.
Making semi-custom frames helps Joseph keep up with demand, but it wasn’t enough.
“I got to the point where I couldn’t keep up with making all the racks, frames, and forks. I could have worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week and still not get everything done.”
This led to Joseph hiring his first full-time employee, Peter Hedman. Hedman is a mechanical engineer who left Portland three years ago to run the R&D department at Answer Products in Valencia California. Peter says he’s glad to be out of the corporate side of the bike business and is excited to be working in the shop with Joseph,
“Joseph and I are a good fit. We’re similar enough to get along, but our differences really complement each other. He’s the artistic one…I’m more worried about tolerances and ISO standards.”
Peter’s background at Answer has brought Ahearne Cycles to a “whole new level.” Now, when customers put a deposit down for a bike, they are sent a Computer Aided Design (CAD) drawing with exact specifications within a week.
While his career got a jump start with his well-known Flask Holster, Ahearne’s cargo racks have reached a critical mass of popularity and he can barely keep up with demand. Very few builders offer high-quality, made-to-order cargo racks. Add to that Ahearne’s gift for making them both functional and beautiful and you can see why word has spread so quickly.
The trick now is how to keep up with building frames, racks, and the everyday challenges of running a small business.
Things are even a more hectic this time of year. In early March, Joseph and Peter will attend the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in San Jose, California. Like several other Portland frame builders, Joseph is busy making sure his frames are completed, painted and ready for the show. This year he plans to unveil a very special bike. He wouldn’t let me photograph it or reveal any of its surprises, but he did say that so far he has put in about 80 hours into making it (stay tuned for photos).
To me, Joseph truly embodies what is so special about small, independent bike builders. While he has one foot firmly planted in the rich, centuries-old traditions of the master builders that have come before him, he also boldly steps into the future to try out new ideas while at the same time infusing his work with a unique and personal artistic flair.
Here’s a little photo essay of some things I came across in his shop:
on a fillet-brazed frame is a
painstaking process but the
result is well worth it.]
For more photos of the Ahearne Cycles shop, check out the gallery.
[This is the second installment in my occassional “In the Shop” series. Read my first one on Tony Pereira.]