So in this article I want to begin with the “how” part. If you have read any of my other articles you will know that I truly believe the bike is a utilitarian machine. It is easy to work on, fun to customize, and even more fun to ride around. Sure there are plenty of carbon fiber and graphine compound frames out there that cost more than your first born but you shouldn’t let that intimidate you.
Step 1: The Frame
Unless you know how to weld and have all the necessary jigs for bike building; the frame is something you will have to buy either new or used. Sometimes the classifieds or your local co-op are good places to start looking for frames. You need to make a choice on what kind of bike you want to build and buy accordingly. You should look for something your size of course and judging against the past bikes you’ve owned this should be relatively easy.
Besides the size, you want to make sure the frame is not bent, rusted, or broken in any way. When dealing with steel, bending is more likely to be the case, but even then still unlikely. Aluminum and carbon fiber tend to have more catastrophic failures and will be easy to see with the naked eye. If you can, try to make the bottom bracket threads have not been stripped or damaged as well. This kind of thing can be fixed but it will add unnecessary cost to the project. Many times used bikes will come with a myriad of parts still attached to the frame.
Buying a frame new is the only way to ensure that it has not been crashed. For aluminum and carbon frames it is the only way to really know the mileage and age of the bike. Most manufacturers have a frame or frame and fork option on their website store.
Step 2: The Fork
Just like with the frame you need to know what kind of fork you want. It should match the type of bike be it road, bmx, mountain or everything in between. You should know what material is best for how you want to ride and it needs to have the right clearance for the types of tires you want. Some manufacturers are now doing offset or tapered headsets in which the top race (headtube race) is smaller in outside diameter than the bottom race (crown race). It is critical that you find a fork that is compatible.
In choosing your fork think about frame material. Carbon fiber is light and strong. It will dampen the hardness of the road beneath you. Aluminum is light and rigid. It can sometimes amplify those bumps in the road but it is cheaper than carbon fiber and most mid to upper level road bikes are made out of aluminum. Steel is heavier and suppler than the other two. It is cheaper as well. It is often the go to for touring, fat tire mountain bikes, and family heirloom road bikes. It is going to outlast you.
If you need rack or fender mounts, you can get them. If you want to run a quill stem make sure you get a threaded fork and headset.
Step 3: The Headset
Briefly mentioned before, the headset is a set of bearings, cups, and races that connects the fork to the frame. It is what allows your front wheel to turn. The races are pressed down onto the fork, the cups are placed into the holes in the headtube on the frame, and bearings fit into these cups. Most modern headset bearings are sealed bearings (they are also usually higher quality than unsealed bearings.)
Sealed means that the bearing inners and outers are press fitted around the bearing balls themselves and usually a rubber or plastic seal is placed on top of the bearing balls so you cannot see them when you look at the finished product. The only drawback here is that sealed bearings are much harder to work on and add grease to over the life of the headset.
Bearings that are not sealed tend to last a little longer because you can clean and regrease them after every season. Notable headset brands include Chris King, Phil Woods, Paul Components, and Cane Creek. Be sure to keep in mind that if you get a tapered headtube that you get a headset that is compatible.
Step 4: The Stem
Sizing and compatibility are also very important here. You need to get a stem that will fit around your steer tube. Modern stems fit down over the steer tube and tighten into place. Often times there will be spacers to raise the height of the stem. The spacers go on top of the headset and then the stem fits down over them.
Then the fork is cut (steer tube is what I use to refer to the part of the fork that is not the actual fork part. It is the long tube of metal the fork is attached to.), and after a star nut is placed inside the steer tube and the headset cap bolts down on top of the stem, sandwiching everything down tight together so your bearings in your headset are flush against their cups.
Make sure you get a stem that will also accommodate the size of handlebars you want to use. There is really no particular order to buy these things in, most people already have ideas about what kind of bars or stems they want to use and then they buy the matching parts after. There is plenty of variety on the bike market to find what you like and what will be compatible.
Step 4 ½: The Quill Stem
A quill stem is an older part from a time when forks and headsets were threaded so owners could remove the play in the fork by tightening down then nuts over spacers down onto the fork itself. Then the quill stem would actually fit down inside the steer tube instead of down over the steer tube like a modern stem.
Quill stems often come in an L –shape with the long part of the L going down into the steer tube. There is a long bolt in the top of the stem that connects to a wedge at the bottom. The more you tighten this bolt the tighter the wedge gets down inside the steer tube holding it into place. I think modern stems and forks are easier to work on but there is a certain classic feel to the quill stem. I have one on my track bike
Step 5: The handlebars, shifters, and brake levers
The handlebars are very important. They can determine the entire feel of how you interact with your bike. Road bikes traditionally have drop bars, mountain bikes usually have flat bars, and touring bikes some hybrid in between. The type of bars will determine what kind of shifters and brake levers you have. Flat bars dictate some kind of trigger shifter and traditional brake lever, where road bars might have you using integrated or bar end shifters and road brakes with the hoods for hand placement.
If you are creative enough, your perfect combination is out there and not that difficult for you or a professional mechanic to throw together. This is evidenced by all the drop bar mountain bikes coming out these days.
Step 6: The Brakes
There are 3 types of brakes out there. Hub brakes; where the braking mechanism is in the hub like drum brakes or coaster brakes. Disc Brakes; which use a disc rotor and hydraulic or mechanical calipers. And rim brakes which use a caliper to squeeze the braking surface of your rims. Hub brakes although not super popular can be fun, but you will most likely go with a rim brake or disc brake.
Advantages of a disc brake are that they have significantly more stopping power than a rim brake. Hydraulic disc brakes are also self-adjusting as your pads wear. Disadvantages are that they are more expensive, not UCI approved (meaning if you wanted to do a sanctioned road race you would be disqualified), and in the very rare case with hydraulic disc brakes, prone to catastrophic failure. I have never heard of a brake line busting but the possibility is always there. Mechanical brakes use a cable which can also potentially snap but that is even more unlikely.
Rim brakes are easy to work on and replace. There are three main models. The regular caliper road bike, light and compact these are what you find on most modern road bikes (read all our road bike reviews here.)
The cantilever brake allows more clearance for wider tires and is a popular choice on cross bikes and touring bikes. The V-brake, linear pull, or side pull brake (all different names for the same thing) is similar to the cantilever in that it gives you more clearance for wider tires but it requires less work. These were common on all 90’s era mountain bikes and many low end bikes today. Once you have made that choice you need to make sure that the frame and fork you get is compatible.
Make sure you have brake bosses for both V-Brake and Cantilever brakes. Make sure you have disc brake mounts on your fork and stays if you want disc brakes. You also will need rotor mounts on your hubs if you are going to run disc brakes. Honestly, if you can afford it, just get hydraulic disc brakes, doesn’t matter what kind of bike you are trying for, the stopping power alone is my number one reason.
Step 7: Wheels and Tires
Wheels are made up of a hub, a rim, spokes, and nipples. Hubs and their quality will determine how light your wheel is and well it will roll. Inside the hub is a set of bearings sitting over your axle. The better the bearings the better it rolls. Most companies have low, mid, and high quality sets. Shimano has Tiagra and Dura-Ace. Sram has rival and every other company has crazy names for their different sets. Look for something you like.
The same goes for rims. Most rims are made of aluminum but carbon is extremely popular with all those people looking to save weight. The important thing to remember for carbon road rims is that traditional brake pads do not work. They generate too much heat from the friction between the pad and rim and end up melting the resin that holds the carbon fiber together. Get carbon fiber specific brake pads.
There are also quite a few different spoke materials and styles. Some will be really sturdy to help you carry that extra load. Some are flattened or butted for less material and better wind resistance. Do some research and find what is best for you. I usually just go with a 32 hole 3 cross pattern. There are so many different options.
Tires are the thing which touches the road, and riders often forget that. Do some research and get the tire you need for the type of riding you want to do. If you want to run wider tires make sure you have the clearance in your frame and fork. Don’t let this be an afterthought. The whole concept of your bike should be in your head when you start buying components.
Step 8: The Seat Post
A 3000 word article could be written about each one of these steps alone, especially the seatpost. First of all, make sure you get the right size that is compatible with your seat tube on your frame. After that it is a matter of the material. Carbon, steel, and alloy (aluminum alloy usually) are the three main materials but there are others.
Carbon is expensive, hard to repair, but really good at dampening the ruts of the road. Steel will not break, is easy to repair, and is inexpensive comparatively. However in can be quite a pain in the ass literally. Alloy is a good in between for all of the factors mentioned earlier. There is also a suspension seatpost that might be worth looking into if you are interested in a softer ride.
Dropper seatposts are also common on downhill mountain bikes if that is any interest to you but I suggest you do a little research before you shell out the cash.
Step 9: The Saddle
The saddle is perhaps the easiest thing to buy that will affect the way you ride. Get something comfortable that you can put some miles. Don’t worry about compatibility so much because all saddles interface with the post the same way and sizing is not an issue. Check out this article I did a few weeks back on how to choose your saddle.
Step 10: The Bottom Bracket
This is where things can get tricky depending on your frame. Especially if you picked up that awesome no name project frame off the classifieds. What is important here is the thread pitch. That means the distance in between each thread in the bottom bracket shell. The shell is where the bottom bracket fits into in your bike. The thread pitch must be the same. There are so many different kinds of measurement standards used over the years that this is actually pretty complicated. There is the Japanese industrial standard, ISO, some French and English standards are different and off course Campagnolo is all kinds of weird.
Once you have determined the thread pitch just buy a compatible bottom bracket that you like. Here you’ll be wanting to get a feel for how light they can be and what kind of bearings they use. The better quality the bearings are, the better your pedal stroke can be.
Step 10 ½ : The Crankset, Gearing
Single, double, triple, and gear inches are things you should be considering. All the types of cycling have their preferred gearings. For example; mountain bikes usually have a really large range of gears especially on the low end so riders can climb all of the hills they face. Road riders usually go with a double in the front and 10-11 speeds in the rear. This is really important because it will determine what you can do on your bike.
I suggest doing some more research on your own because there are many different theories about what kind of gears you need. There are plenty of companies out there making components so you have to make sure that your gearing is compatible with your derailleur (derailer) and your derailleurs are compatible with your shifters. A quick call to the manufacturer can solve your problems. Do not rely on internet wisdom on issues of compatibility.
Step 11: WHY????
So after all that why would you build your own bike? It is the only way to have complete control of what goes on your bike. Sure, you can add new parts to an already complete bike but you won’t learn as much. Building a bike will increase your knowledge of the industry, it will increase your knowledge of the mechanics of bicycles, and increase your confidence in yourself. I have done it. It took time, effort, and it was not cheaper than buying a complete bike but it changed the way I think about transportation and it made me want to become a mechanic which I am today.