Custom bike frame builder going ‘Strong’

Carl Strong builds custom bike frames in his shop off of Mendenhall Street in Bozeman.

By SAM BROWN/Montana State News

Dedication and patience are only a few of the skills needed to master a craft. Carl Strong, of Strong Frames based in Bozeman, is no stranger to the time one must devote to become a professional. Carl has been building custom bike frames in Bozeman since he set up shop in a shed behind his grandma’s house in 1993.

Since then Strong frames has been in and out of different shop spaces but the philosophy has always stayed the same – to build quality custom bike frames with attention to detail.  Today Strong Frames is situated in a small warehouse with polished concrete floors in the historic district of downtown off Mendenhall Street.

Carl Strong’s lean athletic build is a product of the fact that, not only does he love building bikes, he loves riding them too. Behind his thick black Oakley glasses that double as eye protection from flying metal shavings is a man who voices dedication to providing the best possible handmade bike frames for his customers. Working with a variety of frame materials including carbon, titanium and steel, Carl provides his customers with options to suit their needs.

Carl says he takes a much more personal approach to the building process, looking past the technical aspects that are important in building a frame. He says he develops a relationship with his customers using their riding history, preferences, riding style and even personality to tailor the bike to their specific needs. This, he says, has helped him stand out from other custom bike builders. Although custom bike builders are few in number, theirs is still a competitive market. 

Raised around cycling, Carl says he knew that he wanted to pursue a career in bikes. Picking up a welding torch for the first time in high school shop class, Carl began to create parts he couldn’t find or afford.  This was the beginning of Carl’s love affair with metallurgy.

Graduating from Montana State University with a degree in business and marketing, Carl landed a full-time job at University Athletics.  Using weekends and nights to perfect his craft, Carl slowly began to gain experience. Using a gas welder in the beginning, Carl traded his torch for a TIG welder he bought from a machine supply company down the road from his shop.  Carl has abandoned gas welding and all the frames made in his shop are TIG welded.  A welding process that is more flexible and versatile.

“TIG gives me the versatility I need to work with all the materials I use, titanium, steel, aluminum and steel, whereas gas welding can only do steel,” explains Carl. The man who sold it to him came around on his own time and taught Carl how to use the machine, a learning experience Carl says he is eternally grateful for.

After a few years of collecting tools and machinery Carl was ready to commit.  In 1997 he had enough frame orders to make a decent living and quit his day job.  After buying a house with a barn in the back, he moved his shop and lived above it, renting out the house he bought to support himself.

During this period the business really started to grow. The Internet was taking off and Carl credits his businesses growth to it.  Once he moved his shop again to a commercial space, Strong frames started to make money and actually began to feel like a business.

Carl makes about 60-80 frames a year.  Customers who order a frame can expect to see it in about three months, lightning speed when compared to other custom bike builders in the US.

And there is a demand for custom-built frames.

Vanilla Bikes, based in Portland, Ore., has a five-year waiting list. Richard Sachs, one of the earliest professional frame builders, isn’t even taking orders anymore. Carl is satisfied with his frame output and avoids lengthy waitlists. “Ten years from now I want Strong frames to be right where it is today,” Carl says.

The size of Strong Frames has fluctuated throughout the company’s growth.  In the beginning it was Carl and a few friends. Over the next few years, the company gained a few employees and even ran a bike shop.

In the end Carl brought the company right back to where it started with just him building bike frames.  His wife Loretta helps with ordering and business logistics.  He says running a small operation ensures quality control and great customer service.

Custom frame building is a small market in the U.S. and each company needs to be different in order to stand out.  Customers have different needs and expectations when they are looking for a custom frame builder.  Although, in a sense, these builders are competing for customers, they also need to find a balance between competition and sharing ideas and techniques.  This industry thrives off of new ideas and interaction among other bike builders, sometimes its difficult where you draw the line between being competitive and a supporting member of the small custom frame building scene.

“We are all competing for customers in a sense, but all of us are unique and our personalities have seeped into our building processes.  A custom bike frame is a work of art and each builder is unique and specific for each customer,” says Carl. “This helps the competition aspect of the business balance with the importance of sharing and interacting with other builders.”

There are three other custom bike builders in Bozeman, which is a lot, considering there are no more then 40 professional frame builders in the U.S.  Strong says he maintains great relationships with them; Dave Kirk of Kirk Cycleworks was actually an employee of Carl’s in the early stages on his company.

Carl Strong says his frames are much more then welded tubes of metal; they are extension of his customer’s body. Carl has established an illustrious reputation in the custom frame building market.  His attention to detail and untraditional interaction with customers has set him apart from other builders in the industry.

Getting to know his customers on a personal level allows him to tailor the bike to their exact specifications, he says, many of which the customer may not even know they need.  This approach to frame building has had an impact on his customers who are Carl’s only form of “advertising.” He is confident that word of mouth is the best way to advertise his company.  After almost 20 years of building bikes, Carl’s name has gained reputation is the custom bike-building world.

Edited by Mary Koppy

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