An admitted shoe geek waxes philosophical about running, triathlon, and life in general.
Comments welcome!

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

I can’t get no…. Satisfaction

When I'm ridin' round the world
And I'm doin' this and I'm signin' that
 -- Mick Jagger

They say that beauty is only skin deep (whoever “they” is). And when it comes to framebuilding, the skin is truly what strikes the customer first. No matter how good the workmanship, how tight the miters are, how smooth the joints, if the skin (the finish) is ugly, it doesn’t resonate with the customer.

I have chosen to have my standard offered frame finish for Mjolnir Cycles to be a one-color powder coat, which is included in the base price for my work. It’s durable, not too costly (more on this later), and complements a fillet brazed joint well. While a wet paint application can offer a lot of options for multiple colors, it’s expensive.

Over the last five years I’ve had one local powder coat company do all my customer work*, outside of the few customers who wanted a specific multi-color scheme (and paid the difference for the more expensive finish). The first job I had them do was the frame I made for my wife. It came out nice, but it took three times as long as they originally said, and the end cost was more than the verbal quote they gave me before I handed over the frame to be coated. But the price was right for this job.

Since that first job with them, their price has nearly tripled, with the continued trend of final cost being higher than the verbal quote. Yeah, yeah, get it in writing before hand. But should I really have to?

This led me, on my most recent build, to seek out another powder coating operation.

Their over-the-phone quote was half of the first coater, and they came recommended by loads of reviews, so I decided to give them a try.

As with most powder coaters that operate on any large scale, they were located in an industrial warehouse mall-type complex. When talking with them, I shared why I had sought them out, and they agreed that my previous vendor was known for some shady dealings. I selected the color from the wall of samples, left the frame and a copy of my reseller permit (so that I don’t pay them the sales tax – I collect that at the time of my sale), with the agreement that they would have the frame ready within 10 business days.

I got a call four days later saying it was ready. Okay, nice. That was on a Friday, and I couldn’t pick up the frame until the following Monday.

So I picked the frame up, gave it a cursory look – it’s powder coat, after all, it should be uniform and smooth. Paid the man, put it in my car and drove home.

Bringing the frame into my shop, I took a closer look at it in the full light of day. I noticed a wavy area on one joint, apparent with the brighter light and high gloss of the finish. Then I saw a gap in another area. Then some pits. Then some thin spots. Then some more waves…

So instead of being a week ahead, I’ll need to do some sanding and touch-ups, which will likely be another week behind. The saving grace on this is that I was going to be adding a fade color to the powder coat base anyway, and these areas fell at least close to the addition, so I can include them and not really affect the end product. But still…

With these frustrations, and the issues I’ve had with rattle cans on my own frames, I had started to explore adding frame finishing to my quiver of skills. I looked at air brushes and the requirements surrounding building a finish booth for wet paint application at home. The guns themselves were quite reasonable – just a low few hundred dollars. But the paints, ventilation systems, fume reclamation, air filters, clean-room needs, curing oven… It all added up to several THOUSAND dollars before I even shot my first job. And I would have essentially had to build another shed on my property, which would have meant a building permit – a long process by itself, and I have a visceral aversion to government oversight of what I can and can’t do on my own property like that.

So I turned my eye towards what it would take to do my own powder coating. The cost of the paint (powder) applicators is actually lower than for the wet paint guns, with fewer headaches and clean up. The cost of the powder is lower than wet paint. There are no environmental impacts – no harmful fumes or chemicals, and clean up entails sweeping up any errant material off the floor. That clean up can be minimized by a low-draft filter system utilizing things like a PVC and cardboard, duct tape, a regular furnace filter, and a shop vac. But the big cost of the powder coating operation is the oven.

No getting around it, in order to do powder coating, you need an over than can reach and maintain 400F. That’s what activates the powder to become a uniform plastic coating (not really plastic, but you get the idea). And your regular old kitchen oven is a little on the small side for fitting a bike frame.

Purchasing an oven of the appropriate size would run several (and several more) thousand dollars. But… I can make my own, to exactly the size I need, using a scuttled double convection oven with the controls, and metal sheet and studs with rock wool insulation. A G and a half, at the outside. Hey, I saw it on Youtube, so how hard can it be?

Please don’t think I’m really taking a cavalier an attitude towards this project as the last sentence implies. It’s a big undertaking. But it will pay for itself in short time. And might even grow into its own revenue stream outside frame building.

Maybe I can get some satisfaction.

*For my personal frames I’ve done regular old Rustoleum rattle can paint jobs. With some care and a lot of work and a lot of coats, they’ve come out looking decent, but not very durable. But I’ve grown very frustrated with the can tips clogging and losing pressure over time.