Sunday, December 16, 2012

Chris Kvale

We drove past the Ivy Building for the Arts, a classy old foundry building in stone turned art school or something, but we missed Chris Kvale's shop. I pulled over and gave him a call. Around the back he says. The back looks like a industrial shop area and I find the green door marked Chris Kvale. It is in the Ivy Building for the Arts which turns out to be industrial space converted to artists studios and galleries. His space is in the core of the old foundry and it has that comfortable feel of hand laid stone.When we stepped in the shop it is very different than many shops. This guy has some class, I think. The place looks like a styish living room. A stereo system and bottles of wine on the shelf. Bike art and drawings on the walls.
His color sample rack on the wall adds the colors of the rainbow. He comes out of his paint room, where he is working on painting a frame, in a white tyvek protective jacket. Looks like a lab coat. He gives us the nickel tour and points out his road bike he has in for a clean up.

 He comes to frame building from bike racing back in the 1970's. He says he used to race a wide range of bikes that all had the same basic parts package so he learned how the frames were different.  During the second bike boom, he notes the first was in the 1890's, he was working for one of the Twin Cities first pro bike shops in Minneapolis and they started importing British Lugs, Hayden crowns and other frame building parts. He had a friend who built frames and asked the guy to teach him the ropes. So he started his own frame but soon after his friend moved away. " I had to finish it myself" he says. That was the beginning of a lifetime of framebuilding. 

I asked about fitting and he says he doesn't use a fit kit. He goes for a bike ride with his customer. Makes a suggestion and then they tweek a bit. He thinks you need to be out on a bike before you can understand how the customer uses a bike  and what they need. He rode 7000 miles this year.
I ask about how a new framebuilder gets to know when they are getting good penetration on a lug. Out comes a box of cut-away lugs and he points out where the top tube butts up against the head tube often there is no penetration.
You can't see it he says until you cut it a part. He has lugs from a Gios, Colnago, Masi and dozens more and you can see that not all are well done brazing jobs. A sample with perfect penetration on the lug and the mitre joint turns out to be his work. He says he cuts a window so he can see the mitre joint and then fills it back in after he brazes the joint satisfactorily. He reminds me of Mark DiNucchi and Bruce Gordon because they all three have a passion for engineering quality first and foremost. Many newcomers do beautiful work but not all have the years of experience to back it up.

It is not common for a framebuilder to also be a great painter. Most framebuilders send their frames out to someone who specializes in painting. But Chris does framebuilding, painting and he can electroplate dropouts himself. In the spray booth are his own frames and new and old repaints for others. His paint jobs compliment good lug work and don't bury the lugs in paint. He says it is easier to do with metallics because they are semi-transparent and you can see the edge of the lug through the coating. But solid colors are harder and if he knows a customer wants a solid color he can purposely not file down the lugs as much to maintain the lug lines when he is making the frame.

His frames and his paint jobs are top notch. He only does about 6 frames per year these days so he can get in those 7000 miles a year on his own bike. But that means you have a chance to get a frame from someone whose work is as good as it gets but doesn't require a 4 year wait.

If you are thinking about getting a new frame made you owe it to yourself to give Chris Kvale a call and see what he can do for you.



Gunnar Berg said...

Nice photos. I have owned three Kvales. I'm down to two, one of which is the ivory and blood one in your photo. (I don't want to discuss how that happened.)

biciak said...


I am partial to those colors. You have a very nice frame there!


Gunnar Berg said...

Thank you. I'm partial to the colors too ... of course I picked 'em out.

virag said...

Excellent post on Chris Kvale. His work really speaks to me; I believe that he is definitely one of the finest frame builders in the world today, and custom, lugged framebuilding has never been better than it is in 2012.

biciak said...

I could not agree more and I am encouraged by the new interest in handmade bikes and all the new framebuilders.