In the world of cycling, bike frames made of carbon fiber have taken over the industry due to their light weight and stiffness. To add to that, carbon fibers can be formed and shaped to become more aerodynamic and layered more heavily in stress points on the bike to add more strength to the rider's frame. The last rider to win a major grand tour on a steel bike was Miguel Indurain at the Tour de France way back in 1994! That is a really long time in bike years... While the whole industry seemingly turned their focus to optimizing the carbon fiber build, did they subsequently abandon generations of steel frame-builders and the craft that they perfected?
Even though it may seem like a no-brainer to go carbon, plenty cyclists still go by the phrase "Steel is Real". This phrase is meant to poke at those riders who go with a carbon frame due to its vulnerability to damage if dropped or crashed with. That being said, many cyclists dream bike is one made of steel, and they wouldn't have it any other way.
Though steel is a very durable material that can resist a bit of a beating, a steel frame can flex quite a bit. The flex of steel is a bit of a two-edged sword. While flex in a frame can improve ride quality, especially over bumpy or uneven earth, it can adversely affect the riders transmission of power. This is one common plus (or negative depending on how you look at it) to steel frames over carbon. If you are planning a long bike-packing trip or are touring around on vacation, a steel frame will give you a much more comfortable ride during a long haul.
Facts and a Brief History of Steel Bike Frame-Building
Historically, frames were made from inexpensive carbon steel. The frames most commonly were lugged together. As the science around alloys improved, higher-end steel frames were built from chromium-molybdenum which is more commonly known as Chromoly. The material costs associated with building a steel frame is considerably less than other more "premium" materials which is why historically steel was the way to go.
Since steel is subject to rust, the innovations in frame-building introduced the "lug" to bike builds. A lug is a round piece of thick steel that is formed to fit around the various joints on a frame. These then get brazed to the tube joints. The cool thing about a lugged frame construction is that when a tube on the frame suffers from corrosion, damage or rust, that tube can be removed and replaced without damaging any of the other tubes on the frame. Another huge benefit to brazing is that it introduces less heat to the steel. Less heat means the steel is less brittle and stronger.
Air-hardened steel has since been introduced to steel frame-builds which has made a lugged construction less relevant. TIG and MIG welding are now able to be used without a threat of damaging the tubing. The air-hardened steel actually benefits and the joints become stronger from added heat.
Higher end frames will be TIG welded and more often fillet-brazed together. TIG welding is a more economical quicker method with the tubes all mitered and assembled into a jig until welded together. Fillet brazing is when a fillet of brass is brazed onto the mitered or notched tube joint. Higher-end modern steel frame-builders will almost exclusively use the fillet brazing method. This method creates a smoother more aesthetically pleasing joint.
How can you save weight with a steel frame you may ask? Butted tubing is the answer. A butted frame tube will have a consistent OD (outer diameter) while having a thinner ID (inner diameter) near the center of the tube. The center of the tube can be thinner because there is no risk of burning through it during the welding/brazing process and it the heavier butted ends create a stronger joint. There are many tube manufacturers specific to the cycling industry that have many years of tradition and heritage.
Columbus Tubi is a manufacturer of steel bike tubing located in a province of Milan, Italy called Settala. It was founded in 1919 by Angelo L Colombo, and is still run by the family. Most of the largest Italian bike manufacturers use Columbus tubing in their steel frame offerings (though now dwindling). Well-known frame-builders such as Bianchi, Pinarello and Colnago use Columbus tubing to this day.
The biggest competitor of Columbus is Reynolds Technology. Reynolds has been around since the 1840's and was founded by John Reynolds in Birmingham, England. Reynolds originally made nails prior to entering the bicycle tubing industry, but quickly found his knack in making butted steel tubing. The original name of the company was The Patent Butted Tube Co., LTD., but shortly after was changed to Reynolds Tube Co. Reynolds 531 tubing was its most popular made from manganese/molybdenum, and many steel road bikes are still made with the same tubing today.
Enter Modern Day Steel Frame-Builders
The answer to the question of whether or not this is a lost art? No. Many frame builders are still making quality bespoke steel bicycles today. There has been a bit of resurgence as of late due to the economical price point that you can commission a custom steel bike for, while still installing aerodynamic and lightweight parts and groupsets made from carbon fiber and titanium.
Saffron Frameworks - Woolwich, London
My personal favorite independent frame builder, Matthew Sowter started Saffron Frameworks in 2009. Matthew trained as a welder and brought a more traditional approach to frame building. This coupled with his creative marketing mind delivers beautiful bikes that perform amazingly. Saffron Frameworks has a global customer base of loyal riders. Learn more.
The "Denis" bike by Saffron Frameworks. Constructed with Columbus XCR tubing and silver fillet brazed.
Sklar Bikes - Bozeman, Montana
Adam Sklar is a born maker and this shows in his bike frames. He uses air-hardened tubing from both Columbus and Reynolds and constructs the frames with the TIG welding process. Learn more.
The PBJ Bike from Sklar Bikes
Donhue Bicycles - London, England
Tom Donhue came to the realization that he was born to be frame builder in the middle of the Gobi desert... pretty cool. He is a premium frame builder whose bikes make heads turn. He uses unique features like custom printed lugs and a mix of premium steel tubes from both Columbus and Reynolds. Learn more.
The Donue DSS3 CX/Gravel Bike
Ritte Bicycles - Los Angeles, California
Though not manufactured in the US, Ritte bikes makes a couple really solid steel options. These frames are manufactured in Taiwan. Taiwan has a very high standard of bicycle manufacturing. The frames are designed by Tom Kellogg who has designed World Championship frames. "The Phantom" frame below is constructed of custom Reynolds 725 steel tubing. Learn more.
Detroit Bikes - Detroit, Michigan
As a fellow Detroit-based business, we have to give a shoutout to the Motown. Detroit Bikes makes top-notch affordable commuter bikes in their 50,000 square-foot factory in Detroit. They primarily TIG weld their frames together and construct them out of Chromoly Steel. Learn more.
Detroit Bikes A-Type Commuter