Harvest Century September 22nd

Vanilla Bicycles founder gets into the paint business

Posted by on December 17th, 2007 at 11:11 am

CoatCustomPaintShop-10.jpg

Painter Jason Varney
in the Coat shop.
(Photos © Jonathan Maus)

For small, independent framebuilders, each bike that rolls out of the shop takes months to create. From getting to know the customer and purchasing and prepping the frame tubes, to welding and laboring over all the details.

Then, at the end of that process, the frames are usually boxed up and shipped out to one of a handful of painters nationwide that are capable of delivering a reliable and high-quality paint job.

Unfortunately that last step is often one of stress and frustration for both the builder and the customer — who has likely been waiting months or even years for their frame. Frames sometimes don’t get painted within agreed upon timeframes and often, even when they do, the quality of the paint does not live up to the standards of the builder.

“I know that finding a reliable paint situation is the Holy Grail.”
— Sacha White, framebuilder

Sacha White of southeast Portland-based Vanilla Bicycles knows this situation all too well.

As someone who builds arguably the most respected and sought-after frames in the world, he says the paint situation has long been “a source of great tension.”

With so much demand for his frames (his current lead time is five years and he’s stopped taking orders for now) and a brand built on exceptional quality and a positive customer experience, White decided he could no longer rely on someone else to manage such an important part of the process; so he decided to take the situation into his own hands.

Back in June he quietly launched Coat, a custom paint shop located in a non-descript industrial building off Powell Boulevard in southeast Portland.

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Luciously painted dropouts.
CoatCustomPaintShop-2.jpg

Kevin Sparrow preps a frame.

White hired master painter Jason Varney to build the shop from the ground up. Varney brought eight years of experience with Spectrum Powderworks (based in Colorado Springs, Colorado), but more importantly he brought a reputation for quality and reliability.

During a visit to the shop last week, Varney told me he was “ready for a change” and moved to Portland in April specifically for this opportunity.

CoatCustomPaintShop-8.jpg

Varney, and assistant painter Kevin Sparrow (a former messenger who also publishes Cog Magazine), have painted about 50 frames since June. Since opening, Coat has only dealt with the existing backlog of Vanilla frames but White says he plans to take on work from other builders soon.

White says the plan is to perfect and refine the process before accepting business from other builders,

“We plan to take on new clients one-by-one. I want to take care of each of them, and be cautious to not take on more than we can handle. Coming from a builder’s perspective, I know that finding a reliable paint situation is the Holy Grail.”

White and Varney also plan to offer high-quality, custom powdercoating. White is a proponent of powdercoating because he says it will allow them to, “do the same, high-quality custom work people are used to seeing in Vanillas, but it will be more durable and sustainable.” White adds that powdercoating creates less waste and uses less solvents than the liquid paint process used by many framebuilders.

With White’s dedication to quality in every aspect of his work and a local and national boom in demand for custom frames, Coat seems poised to become a major success.

For an up-close look at more Vanillas and other handmade bikes, don’t miss the North American Handmade Bicycle Show coming to Portland this February.

For more photos of my visit to the Coat paint shop, check out the gallery.

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

17 Comments
  • Avatar
    Peter December 17, 2007 at 4:30 pm

    i\’d like to see what goes into building a custom frame vs. any non-custom frame vs. handmade vs. machine-made.

    not hatin, but doesn\’t seem like making a frame should take \’months\’. i mean, months of one human\’s labor? does that mean a custom frame is 1,000 man-hours of work?, and therefore will cost $10k-$30k?

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    toddistic December 17, 2007 at 4:49 pm

    THOSE TRACK DROPOUTS ARE SO SEXY!!!!

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    chelsea December 17, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    well…technically they are not dropouts but yeah, really gorgeous!

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    Lynne December 17, 2007 at 5:16 pm

    A custom bike… as I understand it, it isn\’t the actual ASSEMBLY that takes so long. There is the design part, which takes a whacking long time. Stock frames are already designed, the tubing lengths are known and can be procured in quantity, etc, etc. Heck, if the quantities are large enough, there are probably brazing robots to do much of the assembly work.

    Disclaimer: not a frame builder by any means. I do a type of design for a living, and it always takes a long time. Never quite spot on the first time, lots of iterations, lots of \”oh we need it to do THAT\” later on in the process.

    Once the requirements are fully understood, the design is created, and the stakeholders are happy, THEN we can chunk our end product out relatively quickly. But it often takes years to get there.

    I have no problem understanding and accepting that designing and producing a custom bicycle frames takes time.

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    Cøyøte December 17, 2007 at 5:44 pm

    I have always found Mr. White\’s bikes cocky. I kinda like cocky, and it kind of pisses me off. Those dropouts are are perfect example.

    However……I always enjoy seeing his bikes around town. It is super that they are built here. The painting is shop is a great addition.

    If I could offer one word of a advice, I would say \”GunKote\”. It is an astounding coating for bicycles and components.

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    Crash N. Burns December 17, 2007 at 6:38 pm

    \”Class Act Coatings\” for me, and nothing else.

    Crosswhite Industrial complex. Johnson Creek.

    Arguably the best powder coater in the northwest. Possibly second only to Spectrum (mentioned above) in Colorado.

    Please don\’t go there. It\’s my secret.

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    J.M. December 17, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    Lynne, #4

    I think it\’s all the hand filing/lug work that Sacha does that is really time consuming. I can only compare it to jewelry making. There are other builders that weld the same tubes in custom geometries in a fraction of the time. Still hand built custom bikes, but not buotique.

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    joel December 17, 2007 at 7:37 pm

    peter – its all about the level of detail, and obsessive perfectionism. whether it be simply hand-made rather than machine-made, or custom rather than stock, its all in the details, whether those be in the amount of time spent with the customer determining their needs and desires, drawing up the plans, doing the basic tube mitering, cutting and finishing lugs, brazing or welding everything together, final cleanup and prep for painting, the paint work, and then final assembly and pick up or shipping. (and that isnt even getting into the customer changing their mind in the middle of all this…) even within the world of custom bikes, theres levels of this – on one end there are builders who put together clean, basic bikes – and then there is sacha, who pretty much is the other extreme of willingness to do super-insane custom work that some builders cant or wont do. in the end, they are equally good bikes, of course, in the eyes of their respective owners and builders – but odds are the one with tons of little bits of detail work took twice as long to build, or even more, if nothing else out of sheer time involved to figure out how youre going to do the crazy thing the customer wants…

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    Cecil December 17, 2007 at 8:31 pm

    Peter, as someone who has been waiting months (as patiently as I can) for a hand-made bike, I can tell you why mine is taking so long: because my amazing bike builder Natalie is building me a bike that will be more than just a way for me to get from here to there. She is building me a bike that I can ride every day in every condition. She is building me a bike that will take me from Paris to Brest and back to Paris in less than 90 hours, and from Portland to Salem and back to Portland in a slightly shorter time. She is building me a bike with a front rack that will carry primary and secondary lights AND a swell bag, and a rear rack that will carry enough gear for bike camping and allow me to open a bottle of beer on the fly without having to use my teeth. She is building me a bike that I can take apart and put in a suitcase. She is building me a bike that will be the color of flowers picked from my back yard by my niece when she was 2 years old. She is building me a bike that will not be ashamed to sport tweed mudflaps. In short, from its headset spacer bell to its bubinga fenders, she is building me the bike of my dreams (and believe me, I have some vivid bike dreams). Heck yeah, it\’s worth the wait.

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    Anonymous December 17, 2007 at 9:46 pm

    Cecil, you might just be my favorite person ever right now.

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    Sacha White December 17, 2007 at 10:01 pm

    I don\’t think Jonathan meant that months of work literally go into each frame, but rather it takes months to complete the whole process including: customer/ builder conversations, fit session, design, building, parts ordering, designing paint schemes, painting, final build etc.

    During the time that this is happening, work on other bikes is being done as well, plus everything that goes into actually running a business(which is over half of the work that a framebuilder does).

    Straight forward race bikes take me about thirty hours to build and more complicated builds ie; custom racks, internal wiring for lighting, hand built stem etc. just add time. It is super rare that I spend over a month (straight) building a bike
    but it happens.

    Cheers,

    Sacha

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    Steven J. December 18, 2007 at 3:12 am

    I\’d sweep Vanilla\’s floors just for a chance to work in the environment.
    and I was a metalsmith for 20 years.

    Go Sacha!

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    Bikealicious December 18, 2007 at 7:28 am

    I love seeing people so inspired and passionate about what they do. We live in one freaking amazing community.

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    Bill Stites December 18, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    Whoa – I just had to respond to #6, and provide a little balance.

    I have been using Del occasionally for years, and while he is an amazing powdercoater when he\’s \’on\’, I\’ve gotten a lot of disappointing work out of that shop.
    Seems to be a function of lack of quality control.

    I also have been treated rather disrespectfully – and have heard this from other framebuilders – and will suffice to say that I will never return to Class Act Powdercoating.

    I am delighted that someone of Sacha\’s abilities and integrity will be bringing such services to the fore.
    I\’ll expect to pay a good price, \’cause you\’ve got to pay for quality.

    Your secret is safe with me.

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    Tony Pereira December 19, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    I\’m looking forward to seeing what Jason and Kevin can do with my stuff. They are great guys.

    Peter,
    For an idea what goes into the actual building of a frame \”by hand\” take a look at this photo set:
    http://tinyurl.com/2sjy4n
    That\’s a pretty straightforward mtb. Took me about 30 hours to build.
    -Tony

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    Opus the Poet December 19, 2007 at 4:42 pm

    Well, I am a frame bike builder, and while building the frame can be done in a couple of days, depending on the desired method of joining, fitting and then setting up the jig for the frame can take weeks. And since I also build recumbent bikes and trikes, just deciding on what vehicle the customer needs can take years. Throw in parts SNAFUs (almost all the really good Ti framemaking parts come from China), and the customer\’s needs changing during the design process (like going from a racing vehicle to a grocery getter/tourer) and yeah, it can take a couple of years to build a fully custom, one of a kind Human Powered Vehicle.

    Opus

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