In the shop with Joseph Ahearne

[Joseph Ahearne, Ahearne Cycles]

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.

In the shop with Joseph Ahearne

[Joseph in his element.]

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.

[New “custom-stock” front triangles await their final incarnation.]

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.”

In the shop with Joseph Ahearne

[Peter Hedman takes input
from Joseph.]

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.

[A call from the painter.]

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:

In the shop with Joseph Ahearne

[A rear rack, inlaid
with exotic Wenge wood.]
In the shop with Joseph Ahearne

[This is Joseph’s “organic”
head badge with “petrified” carrots
(the apple fell off).]
In the shop with Joseph Ahearne

[Always blending art into his frames,
these seat stays were inspired
by the St. Johns Bridge.]
In the shop with Joseph Ahearne

[Smoothing out the joints
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.]

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15 years ago

I have an Ahearne that was made a little over a year ago and I am very pleased with the process and the product. I also have a Vanilla, and it is a night and day difference dealing with Joseph compared to Sasha. I think they are both very skilled artists, but Joseph is far, far superior in terms of customer service. Sasha’s attitude left a lot to be desired. I higlhy recommend getting a custom frame from Joseph.

SE biker
SE biker
15 years ago

So… the article was about Joseph. I don’t think it is necessary or responsible to try to establish some type of either/or binary, as to Vanilla or Ahearne; I don’t think that Sasha or Joseph would appreciate that. However in response I think that it is important to keep in mind that Sasha is a family man. I know from my experience that having a child and a partnership takes substantial time, let alone maintaining them and running a small business. Given such circumstances I for one would not have the ability or the patience to hold everyone’s hand through the frame building process, providing the adequate emotional and spiritual comfort to the class privileged (who think that they are entitled to such pampering). Sasha, like most people in his position, is a person who runs a small business not a public relations office. I don’t wish to insight a long string of unnecessary discussion, so please keep this about Joseph and his fabulous craftsmanship. I just felt it fair to dispute Jason’s opinion/perspective.

Sacha White
Sacha White
15 years ago

I certainly don’t want to detract from the excellent write up that Jonathan put together on a friend, and colleague, Joseph.

I do feel, however, that I need to address Jason’s comments here.

Early on in my life as a builder,My focus was more on my craft, and less on the business end of things. Vanilla gained popularity very quickly based on the quality of product that I was putting out and it took some time for my business skills to play catch up. At the time I was working with Jason, My interest lie squarely on making a bike that was as near perfect as I could make for him. I didn’t place the same importance on checking in and updates as I do now. I didn’t have the same perspective then, that I have today.

Being a business owner is a learning experience, and there are opportunities to improve everyday. There is no going back to change the past.The best I can do is to take this criticism and use it as fuel to be the very best that I can be in the future, and that’s what I’ll do.


Sacha White
Vanilla Bicycles

Tony Pereira
15 years ago

Hey Joseph, It’s great to see your business thriving. Can’t wait to see what you unveil at the show!

Jo Routens
Jo Routens
15 years ago

Wonderful to see another Northwestern custom bike builder thriving. A cookie-cutter Chinese carbon bike doesn’t suit every rider’s purposes! IN Joseph’s case it’s also nice to see practicality and aesthetics combined.

15 years ago

Wot?wot? I just wanted to say that I was all interested in checking out these bikes and like all good things in life, if you wait for it it will come to you(well, maybe)I had only to ride to a cafe to spy one locked up on the bike rack. Simple and splendid. I had to ooh and ahh at some of the components, what was that fork? But the label on the bike made me smile the most: “Made with love and fury in Portland,Or.”.
On a side note, I will not be able to afford any lovely custom bike any time in the near future, but if money was no issue of course I’d wanna support all the talented local builders,and I wish them all success in their businesses.