Why Build Your Bike?




The easiest fix is not always the most satisfying. Yes, we all have heard hard work "builds character," but it also can impart tangible skills and mechanical knowledge. That's why when my bike was stolen from out front of Popular Mechanics' building in midtown Manhattan, I knew replacing it would take more than just a trip to the bike shop. I decided to start from scratch -gather the parts, get the tools, and learn how to build a proper replacement.

All the effort may seem like a waste. It won't save a buck -building a bike will probably cost you about the same if not a bit more than a factory-made bike. And it's not for time or ease -since you have to order or find all the parts separately and you will need a wide variety of specialty tools the bike won't come quickly or easily.

I had no previous experience with bike building, so I went to find some help for this project. I walked half a mile from my house in Brooklyn, down the street and under the Manhattan Bridge to Recycle-A-Bicycle, a non-profit organization that runs a full-service (and reasonably priced) bike shop that fixes up donated and new bikes and sells them back to the public. I was looking for frames and/or guidance for the build and, fortuitously, Recycle-A-Bicycle had both. They have classes and volunteer sessions for students in six New York City Public Schools that teach bicycle building for credit or to earn bikes. On Thursday nights, when I would end up toiling on this build, there is a session where volunteers work on customer's bikes under the guidance and supervision of Joe Lawler. For four Thursdays, I worked with Lawler, gaining calluses ratcheting bolts, cutting metal with a hacksaw and pinching fingers between tire and wheel, as well as adding grease stains to my work jeans.

If you're new to bike building, there are a lot of subtleties that will be missed in this instructable. Get someone with some bike shop experience to help you along the way. Besides, you might be able to borrow some of the special tools you'll need from them.

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Step 1: Anatomy of This Fixie.

A fixed-gear bike (fixie) isn't just for a velodrome-riding pro, nor is it only for the city-riding courier. A fixie is quick, agile and requires an entirely new outlook on just how to ride a bike (forget coasting). It's made for sprinting, so it's great for the short hauls and a little painful on anything over 10 miles. And, yes, my courier-riding friends, that is a front brake you see attached to this bike (fixie's tend to be brakeless). However, I call it the "oh sh*t handle," and, I promise, I rarely use it.

Step 2: Forks

Put the top and bottom cups onto the front bracket of the frame in order to attach the forks. You need to get the brackets tight in the frame. Quite simply, this tool is a large spindle with a double bolt and washer on one end (to stay in place), and a single bolt and washer on other end (for tightening). Make sure to grease the bearing cups.

-Put the washer cup on the forks. Special Tool: We used a pair of handle bars to fit over the top of the forks and act as a hammer (and hit it hard).

Step 3: Stem

Put on the stem with two spacers on top of the fork (with excess stem on the forks showing through). Use an allen key for this.

Step 4: Cut the Fork

Mark excess fork stem with a sharpie, take off the stem and put the fork in a vice grip (make sure to pad the forks).

Cut to size with a hacksaw with an even cut.

Step 5: Set Star Nut Into Fork Tubing

After cutting the excess fork, you’ll need to place the star nut (attaches top of the headset to the forks) inside the fork tubing. A star nut setter can be found in a bike shop.

Step 6: Put the Stem Back On

Fit the stem back on, making sure to have the fork align flush with the top of the stem (extra spacers may be needed) and tighten the side bolts followed by the top bolt that screws into the star nut.

Step 7: Bottom Bracket, Crank Arms and Chainring

Get a sealed bracket to last longer and without the need for upkeep, with no need to clean dirt and dust that gets into unsealed brackets and may grind the bearings. Grease the bottom bracket and bike case, place bracket in chamber and tighten. Here you will use a bottom bracket ratchet that can be found in a bike shop.
Put one crank arm onto the chainring, greasing each individual screw. Tighten with an allen key.
6b. Place arms on slightly lubed bracket and tighten hard. Here I used a hexagon shaped ratchet and a wrench on the other end to get the crank arms on.

Step 8: Handlebars

I found used handlebars, cut them from their original ram's horn shape into bull horns. To cut, mark one side where you want the cut. Keep in mind that you will need to wrap and put end plugs into the bars and stay perpendicular to curve of the bars when marking with a sharpie. Then take a hacksaw to the bars and file them down. After one end, make an even cut on the other by using a piece of string to measure the exactly distance from the cut to the base of the bars.
-Place the handlebars in the center of the stem (hiding the rough, machine-marked middle) and tighten.
-Wrap the handlebars with cork tape. Wrap slowly and tightly like a baseball bat or tennis racket continuing until they are hanging over. Then tuck the excess wrap into the end, put the plugs in tightly with a wooden mallet. Note: You may want to wait to wrap the bars in order to place brake levers (see brakes) or gear shifters (not done in this build).

Step 9: Freewheel (on Rear Wheel)

As you see, this wheel offers two options. On the right side is a fixed cog where a lock will be attached. The fixed cog does not move so that when the wheels are in motion, the cog must spin. The left side of the wheel has threading on the hub where a freewheel could be attached. A freewheel allows for coasting, which means that it does not need to rotate when the wheel is moving (and so you don't have to pedal while the bike is in motion). For multiple gears, a larger, multi-level freewheel is required for the chain to move back and forth on when gears change.

First, put on the sprocket as tight as possible going one direction with the tool gripping onto the teeth of the sprocket. Here I used a shop-made chain to go over the teeth of the freewheel. After that, put the lock on the freewheel going the opposite direction using a lock ring tool that fits around the ring to tighten it and keep the freewheel in place.

Step 10: Wheels

Get sealed, already made wheels and you will be able to skip what can be the most difficult step in bike building. If you want to be able to build your wheels, spoke by spoke, and then "true" the wheels so that they are evenly distributed.

Put tape around the wheel starting from valve hole around the wheel and back to the valve hole. Make sure it's tight and even for both wheels.

The most common part of building the bike (but not the easiest, by far) is putting on the tube and tire. Here's a tip: First put half of the tire's lip on the rim, then put the tube into the tire, valve first- and work the other half of the tire on from the valve, ¼ way down each side on the valve's half, and then the other ¼ way down each side on the opposing half. To take the tire off again, start at the end directly opposite of the valve and reverse the process. Note: Make sure the tread is facing forward when putting on the tire for the rear wheel. New tires will be more difficult to put on than those you've had a chance to stretch.

Step 11: Chain

To fit a chain over the chainring and freewheel, you should use a chain tool to take the chain apart and snap it back together after it is properly fit.

-Measure the chain to length with the rear wheel tightened in the middle of the back bracket. The chain should be taut with a little bounce. Use the chain tool to remove the pin halfway out of the chain, take out the unnecessary links and click the links back together (this part is not as easy as it sounds and you may end up with sore fingers) and place the pin back evenly into the chain with the chain tool.

Step 12: Pedals and Clips

There are plenty of options with pedals -you can choose clip-ons with special shoes, cages, flat pedals, or clips to slip shoes in (shown here). Make sure you look for the 'R' and 'L' (Right and Left) on the end of the pedal so that you don't strip the threads when placing them on the crank arms. Put a bit of grease on the threads and tighten the pedals.

I chose metal clips with a leather strap for the long-lasting materials. Put them on the pedals and screw them in. So that the small screws don't come loose, after tightening the cages, put a bit of rubber cement or superglue around the edges of the screw heads.

Step 13: Brakes

A fixed-gear bike does not necessarily need brakes, although you may want rear and front brakes for safety.
First put the main brake screw through the fork. Then adjust the pad so that when they are closed they clamp on the rim of the wheel. Use a brake clamp to make sure the brake remains tight on the rim.
Place brake lever in a comfortable, easy to reach spot on the handlebars (typically, left is front brake, right is rear brake) and tighten.

With cable housing, measure the length between the brake and lever with a slight curve in the housing and cut with heavy duty wire snips. Place the cable housing into the lever and brake.

Cut a slightly longer piece of wire and feed it through the cable housing with the plugged end on the lever side and the bare end through the brake. After feeding it, pull hard on the wire and cut about 1½" from the clamp, tighten the clamp with an allen key and put an end cap on the wire with needle-nosed pliers. Take off what you are using to tighten the brakes and adjust the clamp and wheel as necessary to make sure the brakes are perfectly centered.



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    66 Discussions


    I still have to wonder how you lot manage to go through so many bikes for any reasons other than fashion, I charge around on a 9 year old raleigh mounatin hardtail w/ front forks all original parts, 9 years and only now am i doing anything to it (rear hub is shaking like hell when I chase racing bikes (and win because they're rich people who assume they're better than a trampy 17yr old) however I love the it's a year old get rid culture as I get enough free parts (soon have a full functions bike with a 10hp engine and 21 gears (oh yeah!!!) figured out the value and hills should be ok in the lowest front set, I assume my peak torque is no more than 154lb/ft I think.

    6 replies

    I have two bikes and there's a few more "lying around" I have an ancient "Orbita" mountain bike and a Giant e-bike (I do a *lot* of km per week) and I'm looking at either getting a new bike or the relevant bits because I flipped my Orbita into a ditch and when I took off the pedal to beat the bent gears back into shape, I screwed up the thread in the pedal axle. I am morally opposed to buying a new bike if your old one works and isn't an amazingly out-of-date, heavy, hard to pedal mess


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Yeah, who needs a new bike every year? I have a 12 year old raleigh hybrid I got in england with no suspension, front or back, and possibly the most uncomfortable seat I have ever sat on. But its still a great bike. I love raleigh.

    Sometimes the old tech is not a great idea, high performance riders need (at least some) of the new technology otherwise the bike would probably disintegrate under the conditions. ever been to Whistler or another bike park? also some people enjoy racing (non-proffesionaly, or semi-pro) therefore they need the new tech in order to be competitive. Not everyone rides there bike just around town.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Vanity is a sin! lol I promised myself years ago to never buy a new bike again.

    most people that know that have fixies buy old (and i mean old like 70's and 80's) race bikes to turn from crap to a fixie. each bike has it's own purpose, i would never think about riding my mountain bike on even a 10 mile bike ride when i could ride my fixie with much more ease. why would you use a fork for soup when you could more easily use a spoon? same idea.


    Old bikes FTW! I'm rocking a 22 year old mountain bike and a 30 yr old road bike, both are all original parts. I couldn't tell you the make or model, though.

    The best combo of bike building and ease of doing so, is probably ordering a bike.Like from Chain reaction or another site. That way you get all the parts you need and the specialty tools won't be needed because the derailuer and cranks are already assembled, you only need to put the bars wheels seat exc... on. You get to have some fun putting it together and also get a perfectly good bike out of the deal for the same price as buying from a shop.


    12 years ago

    If you are reading this in the SF Bay Area, check out Cycle Recylce in San Rafael, or Pedal Revolution in San Francisco. They are both community non-profits that have loads of random parts and a willingness to help you figure out how to complete your project.

    4 replies

    8 years ago on Introduction

    I recently got an old 60's Schwinn Collegiate for college (I thought it was appropriate) and got all the parts and rebuilt it from the ground up. It is definitely a fun project and really makes me feel more attached to my bike. Originally I was just doing it to have an ugly, old looking bike to avoid it becoming a target for bike theft, but it has become much more than that.


    9 years ago on Step 4

    Backyardwrench is right: don't cut the fork right away. Additional spacers can also be used above the stem. You can experiment with different heights by moving spacers above or below the stem. Start with a fork length about two inches higher than your saddle. Just cut the steerer longer than you think you'll need. You can always make it shorter later.

    A better way to cut the fork steerer tube is using a pipe cutter. It's fast, clean, and makes a perfect 90 degree cut in the steerer.


    9 years ago on Step 1

     I took my fixie 15 miles each way to school, with hills, five days a week. If I ever switch back to gears, I'll miss the fix.


    12 years ago on Introduction

    Nice bike. I'm working on converting an old Schwinn Varsity road bike to fixed gear at the moment. It's heavier than my mountain bike, so I'm not sure what it'll be like at the end. I'm trying to get all the terminology and what not down before I take it in to the santa cruz bike co-op thing, and this helped a lot.

    2 replies

    I've ridden a Fixie that was built on a Schwinn Varsity with all the braze-ons ground off.
    It could have used a bigger chain ring (I like 52t on front, the Schwinn Varsity only had something like 38t or so)  but overall it wasn't a bad ride - you'd be amazed how much of the weight on those old Varsities was the derailleurs and the steel handlebar stem.
    Still, I know I'd rather ride my aluminum frame with a straight front fork.


    12 years ago on Step 1

    If you're going to build a bike, why not make it one that you might want to ride further than the local latte bar. C'mon, convince me that fixie riders aren't just fashion victims (like the guy I breezed past today painfully toiling up a pretty moderate hill on his fixie _mountain bike_. Purleese).
    Frinstance: how are you going to haul kids and groceries and trailers with that thing? Real bikes haul stuff.