Lugged-Steel

I have an irrational fondness for lugged-steel bicycle frames. I say irrational because, with the advancements made in metallurgy, today’s production TIG-welded frames are very nearly the functional equivalents of production lugged-steel frames, a fact that hasn’t always been the case. For much of the 20th century, lugged frames were preferable to welded frames because the method for joining lugs to tubes (brazing) was easier on tubing than high-temperature welding. This gentler method made possible the use of lighter, thin-walled tubes. Now, modern tubes are available that are not negatively affected by the high temperatures introduced during TIG welding, so sadly, the need for lugs has been made moot in most practical applications.

I say “sadly” because none of this has diminished my love of lugs, something that runs much deeper than any pragmatic consideration. Lugs, to me, will forever represent quality and craftsmanship in bicycle manufacture (this is most likely due to the fact that I grew up during the heyday of the lug in the 1960s and ’70s). The elegant lines of a finely cut lug hark back to an era when hand craftsmanship was the rule, and things such as lugs held aesthetic as well as practical value. And even though there are some gorgeous TIG-welded bikes being produced today, a weld will never speak to me in the same way as a lug.

The bright side of this story is that there is a virtual renaissance in lugged-steel frames happening among small custom builders. The downside is that bikes from many of these builders are priced well beyond what many people would consider reasonable for an everyday utility bike. There are still a small number of what can loosely be considered “production” lugged frames on the market, though these are still beyond what most people would think of as “budget” priced, due mostly to the fact that even in a production setting, lugged construction is more labor-intensive than welding. Whether a lugged frame is worth this premium depends upon the individual; it certainly is for me.

37 Responses to “Lugged-Steel”

  • @johnfriedrich says:

    I hear what you’re saying, and to a point I agree. One of my favorite bikes to ride is my Bridgestone XO-2, which is probably one of the best attempts at creating the ultimate all-rounder.

    That being said, I don’t see what the problem is with the decline of lugs. I don’t necessarily believe that the superior strength of lugged frames is important. Aesthetically lugs are pretty but they are not a required ingredient to a bike that has a lively, soulful ride. There are many, many fantastic bikes made of a variety of materials that ride well and are robust enough for everyday riding.

    It could be because I didn’t grow up with lugs, most of my formative riding years were on American aluminum. Or it’s because as a mountain biker I view a well-engineered suspension system with the same eye that someone else might view a well-crafted steel frame. I sure don’t know.

    I do see lugs as something special. But I harbor no resentment over tig-welded frames. Kinda like how I’ll accept a utility beer like a High Life as readily as I’ll accept a craft-brewed microbrew. As long as it’s a bike and it’s getting ridden with a bit of passion, I’m happy.

  • eddie f says:

    I find myself these days with three road bikes; a lugged coupled Rambouillet, a fillet braised custom Steve Rex, and and off the rack amazingly nicely done tigged fame and lugged fork from Gunnar. Each is done really nicely and each has its own sort of aesthetic. And I do tend to agree, lugs are good to the eyes. My Rambouillet has a ton of paint chips touched up, but the basic beauty of the green paint set off by cream accents still makes it a looker. I guess I could say steel is real.

  • Ted Johnson says:

    They do have a classy, aristocratic look to them, don’t they?

    I feel the same fondness for fillet-brazed frames. Schwinn frames from 1938 to 1978, to be specific. I don’t imagine I’m alone. But I keep hoping to find an old Schwinn 10-speed at a garage sale belonging to someone who doesn’t know what he’s got.

    Here’s a nice article:
    http://www.sheldonbrown.com/schwinn-braze.html

  • eddie f says:

    one more thing. The tigged joints on my Gunnar have no bumps to be seen so it is fine in its own way even when compared to fillets. Or is it filets?

  • Rick says:

    @johnfriedrich: you nailed it–lugs are special, but don’t necessarily take anything away from anyone who makes their bikes without them; in the end, if you get a bike that speaks to you, fits you perfectly, and does well what you ask of it, how it’s put together, and what it’s made of, means little in the end. However…

    @Eddie f, I’ve had two bikes in the last 15 years–a Waterford and a Rivendell–and I agree: steel IS real! LOL!

  • Rusty Wright says:

    The grammar nit in me sends a small thank you for using “negatively affected” instead of the tiresome and improper “negatively impacted.”

  • CedarWood says:

    …and when the early morning sun grazes a Chicago Schwinn lugged mixte painted the color of molten moonlight, it can be breathtaking…

  • Doug R. says:

    Old friend, let the masses ride the new bikes. They are great, I even own some Aluminum and carbon bikes. However, I share your love of the Lugs and steel! Like so many have mentioned above, my Rivendell and Waterford bikes are to die for just looking at them on the racks. I cannot help but marvel at the craftsmanship of my old Raleigh International and Professional! I recently contracted Steve Rex to make me a steel bike and he contacted me one day just to come down and look at the stainless steel lugs he has made for my bike. OMG! I am trying not to “explode” waiting for it all to come together, but if those lugs are any indication of the quality he is putting into the rest of my ride, I may never recover!! LOL! peace, Ride real, ride steel! Dougman : )

  • Jason says:

    Could we get a list of these custom builders that you speak of?

  • Doug R. says:

    @johnfriedrich, This may sound strange, but I used to teach with a John Friedrich at Arden middle school? Please ignore if this is not you? Thanks, Dougman

  • George S says:

    You’re not alone. Something about those lugs gets me, too. I’m sitting here looking at two of my steel bikes right now. One is a custom randonneuring bike from Independent Fabrications which is great to look at and performs like a gem. It was well priced for what it is, but let’s just say I won’t be buying another one any time soon. I’m also looking at a 1980s Nishiki I salvaged from the junk one day and converted into a single speed training/commuting ride. I couldn’t have paid less for it, but those fancy lugs really class up the place.

  • RDW says:

    Something about the way a nice lugged frame looks, nothing else quite like it. I love my Co-Motion (no lugs), it’s a beautiful bike and rides great, but there is lust in my heart when I see the pictures of your Sam Hillborne. I can see a Riv in my future someday…

  • Moopheus says:

    I wanted a lugged-steel bike when I went looking recently, but it was not to be. The closest I could find that had all the features I wanted was a Koga-Miyata, but the cost of importing was crazy. I just couldn’t make it work in my budget. Fillet-brazing is nice too, but even scarcer among production bikes than lugs. And even among welded bikes, there are clearly different levels of care being taken by the builders: as Eddie F saw, the welds that come out of the Waterford factory are much nicer than what you get on, say, a low-end Trek. Like everything else, it comes down to quality control, speed, and economy. I suppose it’s possible someone could work out a less labor-intensive method of making lugged frames for a mass-production bike, but I don’t really see it happening.

  • Pete says:

    I think it’s great that the art of lugged steel frames is alive and flourishing, and that some builders have even figured out how to deliver them at an “affordable” price (like the Sam H.)
    I also think that it’s terrific that technology has evolved to the point where a lot more people can afford a pretty nice TIG bike.
    Heck, I even like the fact that companies like Linus make good-looking Chinese-made hi-ten bikes for $400. Anything that gets more people on bikes is good by me.

  • Ryan says:

    Count me in as one who prefers lugged steel frames and quill stems.

  • Alan says:

    @Jason

    “Could we get a list of these custom builders that you speak of?”

    The list is long so I’ll just mention a few that quickly come to mind. Others will probably chime in with their favorites.

    http://vanillabicycles.com/
    http://www.ahearnecycles.com/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/49353569@N00/
    http://www.richardsachs.com/
    http://www.rivbike.com/ (Rivendell offers production and custom luggged frames)

    Alan

  • Androo says:

    Maybe it’s that I’m young, or because I liked cars before I liked bikes (now largely to the exclusion of cars), or that I was trained as an industrial designer, which does interesting things to one’s aesthetic sense, but lugs hold no real allure for me. In fact, there are times where I much prefer the look of a TIG bike to lugs because it imparts an uninterrupted sleekness, like fillet brazed frames, that gets muddled up by the involved curves that lugs need to reduce stress risers. That white Handsome Devil you photographed, or an aluminium Cannondale are good examples. Carbon can also be absolutely stunning because the designer has complete control over the bike’s form.

    Disclaimer: I own a vintage lugged Italian, a cheap-and-clean commodity TIGged steel commuter/tourer, and an oversized aluminium Trek mountain bike with gussets and welds like a stack of dimes, and I appreciate each in its own, very different way.

  • John says:

    I agree that whatever you ride is fine, as long as you’re having fun. That said, I too have a special affinity for lugged steel and quill stems. I’m saving up for what I hope will be my “dream bike.” A Sam Hillborne is definitely on the list, but I’ve also been looking at the Soma Stanyan and the VO Rando. Does anyone have any insights on these two lugged frames?

  • Sharper says:

    @Moopheus:
    Are you looking to buy new or have you given thought to picking up something old but modifiable?

  • Alistair Williamson says:

    John asked about VO and Soma lugged frames

    I recently noticed a maker – Traitor up in Washington – with a new lugged frame ($500). Chrome fork and even has internal hub gear cable guides.

    http://www.traitorcycles.com/Bikes_Luggernaut3spd.cfm

    There must be 20+ frame makers in Portland and most of them do fine lugged frames.
    For the ecovelo asthetic besides the amazing vanilla, I like MAP http://www.mapbicycles.com/index.html lots of practical beautiful bikes.

  • Rex says:

    I used to drool over lugs but we’ve gone through a breakup. I finally came to accept that it will be years before I could justify the expenditure on even a modestly priced lugged frame like a Sam Hill. I’ve revived a couple of old lugged bikes and will retain a fondness for them but I’m tired of repacking bearings and 27″ wheels with the widest available tire being 32. On top of that I realized that I’ve never been struck by the aesthetic thrill of a lug while I was actually riding so if there are nice TIG’d frames out there for half the price I’m pretty sure their lack of lugs won’t prevent me from enjoying the ride. The pragmatist in me extinguished the last of my lug crush. My new Cross Check should arrive tomorrow or Thursday and my (lugged) ’74 Fuji S10 is going to a family member who needs a decent every-day bike.

  • Pete says:

    @Rex-
    I certainly don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. I don’t know if Alan will ever do a post entitled “TIG at My Heart Strings” but this site certainly sings the praises of all sorts of bikes for normal riding, especially Surley’s.
    Myself, I was very much looking at a Surley (LHT or Crosscheck) and even a Civia Bryant frame for the bike I’m now building. In my case, I never thought I’d be in the “boutique” frame market either, but I realized that if all the other components are the same, the difference in total cost is really only the difference in the frame. Once I was committed to a $1500 bike, it wasn’t that hard to talk myself into a $2100 bike. Of course, having never spent more than $200 on a bike before this, that first step was a big one!

  • Rex says:

    @Pete,

    Of course that’s true about Alan and the site. I never thought it was a lugged lovers exclusive club :-)

    As for $1500 vs. $2100 you are correct but my budget was $1000 and the complete build Surly offers was appealing to me so I brought it in at $1150 with tax, plus $100 store credit toward subsequent purchases. It’s been a long week and it’s only Tuesday, but with a little luck I will be riding it by Thursday or Friday.

  • patrick says:

    Lugs can be pretty sexy, but I think I’m in the “if it does the job, it can do it for me” camp. Most custom shops will join tubes for you in any way you see fit, some ways are more expensive though. But if you are willing to forgo the lugs you can get a custom frame pretty cheaply.
    Lugs aren’t inherently better anyway, and they get in the way of design (fixed angles and tube diameter). Therefore I think a locally made tig job is way sexier than a production lug job.
    by the way, I’ve heard that it’s easier to replace a welded tube than a fully lugged one.

  • Alan says:

    @Patrick

    “By the way, I’ve heard that it’s easier to replace a welded tube than a fully lugged one.”

    Conventional wisdom says otherwise, but it probably depends upon whether you have a torch or a TIG welder in your shop… :-)

    Alan

  • Andrew says:

    I’m not sure, but just puzzling things out based on what I know, I feel like welding might be easier. If, for instance, you crumpled your downtube, I’m not sure how you’d replace it on a lugged bike except by melting out all the brazing material at the bottom bracket lug, and in both head tube lugs so that you could pop off the whole head tube in order to sleeve in the new downtube and braze it all together. If you were welding, you could just grind off the old welds, miter the new tube, and weld it in.

    Anyone know anything about the actual process involved in repairing a frame? This kind of thing really fascinates me.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    I think that a preference that is both symbolic and aesthetic is not necessarily irrational. It would be like my saying “I have an irrational(?) preference for skirts, even though modern society has made wearing skirts unnecessary for women”.

    But anyway, lugs… My love of them comes from a different place than yours, because I was not even born until 1979 and in the ’80s bicycle construction was not on my mind. I did not even know what lugs were until about two years ago. But when I did become aware of them for the first time, it was a pivotal and memorable moment. I knew right away that I loved them, and that this was how bicycles were “supposed” to be made, and that I wanted all my bicycles to have them. The history and construction I learned about later. But my initial response was very visceral.

    Lugs need not be fancy for me to love them. I love the pretty lugs on Rivendell frames and I love the plain lugs on Pashley frames. Super-elaborate lugs with celtic designs and clovers and stars and moons are over the top for me, and some of the jagged-edged lugs you see on mass-produced ’70s bikes are not so great either. But a modestly attractive, quality lug is a beautiful thing.

    Oh, and don’t forget fork crowns!

  • Jonathan says:

    I have a friend who welds with a torch (ie not TIG), and he says replacing a tube from a lugged frame is very simple. By trade he is law professor and pilot — so welding for him is very much a part time hobby.

  • Fergie348 says:

    I like the look of lugs but I will probably never have another lugged steel bike. Here’s why.

    My commute takes me on a ferry. The ferry travels through salt water to get me to/from work. My bike sits outside, sometimes pretty well protected from salt spray, sometimes not depending on the boat. I’ve had two lugged steel frames that I’ve lost to rust because the lugs act as a nice salt water sink. I have TIG’d frames that are much easier to maintain and that have not rusted as the lugged ones have. If I ever got another lugged steel frame, I’d have to keep it off the ferry, thus it wouldn’t get ridden very much.

    In an extreme fit of pique, I bought an aluminum cyclocross bike to commute with but I don’t like it much. The ride of steel, titanium or carbon is much superior to aluminum, IMO.

    I guess my ideal frame for this commute might be bamboo or other hardwood. Maybe someday..

  • Moopheus says:

    “I guess my ideal frame for this commute might be bamboo or other hardwood. Maybe someday..”

    I have to agree with this…in fact, I spent more than a bit of time trying to figure out if I could afford a Renovo, which would completely obviate the whole lugged/welded question. Maybe after we rebuild the shed and might have room for more than one bike each, I’ll do it.

  • Doug R. says:

    Chime: http://www.rexcycles.com/ : )

  • Mark says:

    I thoroughly agree with you. Lugs aren’t entirely necessary in this day and age, but they certainly tend to be an indication of a good bike, and in my opinion, they are one of the few things in life that are as practical as they are beautiful.

  • randomray says:

    I have a great bike with an aluminum frame and carbon fork and still like my steel , lugged San Remo better . Frankly I’ve seen some high end welded bikes that look like crap .

  • Androo says:

    For those interested in the repairability discussion, Dave Moulton’s blog has a really informative piece on this:

    http://davesbikeblog.blogspot.com/2007/02/abandon-or-repair.html

    Turns out that lugged steel frames with a tube removed are flexible enough that you don’t need to remove additional joints as I’d expected – you just spring the frame apart, slip in the new tube, re-braze, and bob’s your uncle.

  • Bill says:

    Chiming in on lugged frame builders:

    Mercian in Derby, England has an extensive line of lugged frames with stock or custom geometry and quite good pricing compared to many custom builders (we in the US don’t have to pay the British VAT). Their website now features an online frame builder that lets you spec and price a frame exactly as you want it. Fun stuff!

    http://www.merciancycles.co.uk/

    Other US builders offering lugs include Waterford, JP Wiegel, Richard Moon, Columbine, Bob Brown, Capricorn, Davidson, Hampsten, Yipsan, Chris King/Cielo, and Jeff Lyon. There are lots more! See this list from Henry James, who sell lugs to builders across the country:

    http://www.henryjames.com/blocator.html

    Many of the Italian builders still have lugged steel in their lines, too, including Bianchi, Colnago, Pegoretti, De Rosa, Torelli, Mondonico, Tommasini, and Cinelli.

    My own stable includes two lugged steel bikes, two TIG’ed steel, and one lugged carbon fiber. It’s all good! I’d love to have a Renovo, too, gorgeous stuff.

    Bill

  • EcoVelo » Blog Archive » A Few Random Thoughts on Frame Materials says:

    […] times in the past I’ve mentioned that I prefer lugged steel bicycle frames over all others. While this still holds true, I like to acknowledge the fact that we all have […]

  • Ramona says:

    Also very nice lugged hand-made frames available from:

    http://www.mothattack.com

    Probably in the very expensive category, but worth the money. I also love lugged frames, and my favorite bicycle ever is a Lotus Unique (not sure what year, but not recent). And now I ride a Fuji Touring bike – because it came along at the right time for the right price and is good at its job.

 
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