So if you’ve been following along via Flickr and Instagram and reading along here via the 44HQ blog, you’ll have taken note that I’ve been working with and working towards offering Titanium as a companion material to the tried and true offerings in Steel. At first, I was hesitant to share my work and journey as I quickly began to realize that not only were potential customers really excited about the prospects about offering Titanium as a material choice but they were willing to wait until it was made available. Pretty much any time I’d share a little sneak peak at what I was up to, I’d get a lot of dialogue, questions and inbound emails asking “When is it coming?”… Meanwhile, I still am building Steel bikes for clients and noticed a dip in orders as a result. I’ve been really open with my process and sharing the behind scenes here at 44 Bikes and felt it wasn’t true to form not to share the process and journey working towards Titanium. So I made a conscious effort to move forward as I normally do with my process. Dip in orders as a result damned. But it was to be a long road of challenges, problem solving and lots of learning with vital advice from peers. Ironically, I have never ridden a Titanium bike with the exception of pedaling an older Litespeed around a bike shop (inside mind you…). None of my friends had one. No one I knew had one. No one I knew had friends that had one. And I was never really in a financial position to invest in one. My experience with Titanium as a material was extremely limited to my dabbles with it as a Goldsmith. (I made a money clip out of scrap my professor and one of my mentor’s at Penn State gave me and that was a piece of scrap he had been using when he was learning how to anodize it…). So basically I had no experience riding it. No experience working with it. Ground zero. From my internship days at Bicycling Magazine, I had acquired a box of tubing that they had used for a photoshoot long before I arrived and my Design Director too for that matter on an article on materials. In there were a few lengths of Titanium. So I’d been carting these tubes around since 1998 / 1999. I cleaned up a length, made some miters and tried my hand at a few fusion passes and filler passes with a handful of 6AL4V-ELI .045 filler rod (10 rods to be exact…) I had acquired from UBI’s webstore. It immediate became apparent I did not know what I was doing. Well I did know what I was doing to a degree but I was literally working in a vacuum. I needed some starting points and some guidance. I’m a firm believer in that you don’t have to know it all, but rather you really need to know where to get the answers. So I got on the phone and spoke with some fellow builders’ who I am lucky to call friends who primarily work in Titanium. Sean at Vertigo, Tyler at Firefly, Rody at Groovy as well as Darren at Crisp. I also exchanged a bunch of emails with Aimar at Amaro who was basically going through the same process as well as Mike at Zanconato. Everyone was super generous with their time, expertise and knowledge sharing. I’m really lucky as I said to call this bunch friends and colleagues. After a bunch of back and forth and time on the phone, I was a lot more prepared to head back out to the shop with points of reference and starting points for machine settings, technique, prep, methodology and process. From here, it was just time to figure out what worked in my shop space and what worked for me. I’ve been taking meticulous notes and as Mike Z says “Never skip a step”. This is key as if there is a mistake, which there is and has been and will be, you can retrace your steps and hone in on what went wrong and how you can improve that step in the process. And I’m very process driven. After a few test welds things started to fall into place: Not perfect but not too bad (I am my own harshest critic btw). From here it was time to start figuring out tooling deficiencies. My starting point was like starting to build a house: You need to lay the foundation before you even think about putting the roof on. What was holding me back was the available information was mostly oriented towards high speed machining applications in modern CNC machining. I needed information that was centric to tried and true manual machine applications. A bit of hunting and asking the right people the right questions and a colleague happened to have a copy of a 1965 Nasa Technical Memorandum for the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama entitled “Machining and Grinding of Titanium and it’s Alloys”. This is a 131 page bible in pdf form of all things Titanium. Just what I needed and an incredible resource for mill speeds and feeds among other points of reference. (Thanks Mike!!) So this set me off with my best foot forward for process and methodology when it comes to machine set up. And that immediately began to reveal deficiencies in my tooling. So back to the drawing board on my main tube mitering set up (backing plate thickness to be exact): Back to the drawing board on my chain stay set up (rebuilt from the ground up): Back to the drawing board on my BB Sub-Assembly Jig (rebuilt from the ground up): Bending dies? Bending technique? More ground up development: And that’s not all. Every single step of the way I’d work, make some adjustments, hone one aspect only to find another deficiency and of course that meant “Well… looks like I’m making ANOTHER tool for that.” Purge fittings were no exception. Titanium loves to attract oxygen and it’s not a good thing. You’ll go from “hey this is going smoothly!” to “shit. I just blew that..” So it can go from good to bad in the blink of an eye which is why not skipping any steps is so vital with this material. Here’s just a taste of what all I made for purge set ups (Paragon’s 68/73mm purge fitting to the left and then all the others to the right are mine so no bottom bracket is left un-purged): And this was constant. This was fit in between client work. Nights. Weekends. Whenever I had spare time, I’d be in the shop inching my way forward. The first test weld happening in the fall of 2014. By mid 2015 I was starting to accumulate the necessary tools, knowledge and honed the process enough to start thinking about making some mock front triangles out of Titanium. A phone call to Mark at Paragon Machine and he provided me with enough scrap head tubes and bottom brackets for many tests to hone settings and technique: Oh. I also needed to make round parts too… So a lathe purchase was in order sooner than later and my good friend Phil helped me pick up my South Bend Heavy 10 this past winter: But since around 2012, I had been treating all work in steel like it was titanium. All of my welding and back purge set ups as well as welding technique were performed as if I were working in Titanium. Why would I do this? Well there’s some tangible reasons for this that make the work in Steel that much better but it was really so that I would get into a routine with my methodology. Literally “how” I weld is second nature now and when I started welding mock front triangles, this was all second nature when it came to weld sequence and positioning so I was only building on what I already knew and was doing naturally. That paid dividends: Late in 2016 and I was finally at a point where the vast bulk of the tooling I needed to build a working prototype was in place. I was fairly confident in my settings and set up. I was fairly confident and feeling much more comfortable with my process and methodology as well as just settling into a rhythm with the material. It was no longer precious but just another material with different demands. That also meant developing an entirely new methodology for making my chain stays too. Here’s that new tooling: So I’ve set out to build 4 prototypes. 2 Huntsman’s and 2 Marauder’s for a start. I just completed the first Huntsman a few weeks back and moved on to and finished the first Marauder prototype this past week. I started with these two builds as they are the least complicated to make for one. So I can concentrate on geometry and ride characteristics and make any adjustments or add to any of my tooling needs (of which I’ve come up with a few more I need…). All that work. All that prep. All that time became an investment that realized itself with these two working prototypes: The plan is to build and ride these first two through the fall and into next spring. From here I’ll have vital information from that time during R&D to make any adjustments, tweak spec’s, hone process and then make the second 2 prototypes. Why this kind of time investment? Well, the competition is steep. Those few who offer Titanium have been doing it for a long time and have, in some cases, thousands of frames under their belts. I don’t want to do this half way or skip any steps. It has to be on par with what is already available from the likes of Firefly, Moots, Seven, Crisp, Vertigo, Mosaic, Steve Potts and a few others. I still have a long way to go but as they say practice makes perfect. And yesterday? Well not only did I have a sleepless night Friday to wake up bright and early Saturday to build up that Marauder SS, but it was an auspicious occasion simply for the fact that all that time, research and knowledge was in sharp focus as I stepped onto that first prototype and started pedaling away from the shop on that first ride. A first ride not only on my first Titanium mountain bike I had ridden, but literally the first titanium bicycle I had ever really had a chance to ride. A bittersweet moment that was realized from old fashioned hard work, dedication and persistence: I had a ride route from 44HQ which I can add to or subtract mileage depending on how I was feeling which is about 12 miles. Well, I was having so much fun I decided what the hell and ended up riding over 20 miles. It’s about a 5 mile pedal from the shop doors to the first trail head via dirt roads. That allows for a good warm up but also just to feel out a prototype and make any adjustments to set up in those initial miles. The bike is exactly the same as my steel Marauder SS. The only thing different is material and a few “educated guesses” on tube diameter choice in key locations. The ride was really interesting. The material really sings. Power through the pedal is instantaneous (those .875″ formed chain stays are laterally STIFF). The front triangle is noticeably stiffer holding it’s line and plowing through tech. With a few tweaks to the suspension in order post ride I think to make up for that slightly stiffer front triangle vs. the steel version. But those seat stays? I decided to make this one with a set of .625″ O.D. stays. They’re stiff but have this snappy resiliency that’s very unique. Not too soft or rubbery but rather buttery smooth in nature. I decided halfway through the ride I wanted to head over to another trail head and tackle more tech to put the bike through it’s paces. I was having such a blast. I also picked to make this an SS option because anything wrong with the bike will rear it’s head fairly quickly as you are dedicated to that one gearing set up. And noting that the bike hadn’t flown apart yet, it was time to start cranking it up a bit. Here’s where all that time and work pay off and it’s when you get to open the throttle up a bit and let it hang loose. Making something with your own hands and that object then transporting you at speed? That’s pretty awesome I have to say. The pedal home ahead and I was flying pretty high. My legs were burned up pretty good by the time I reached that last climb up to Old Temple Road (it’s a wall too…). I’m about to head out for another test ride. I’m excited for the future here at 44 Bikes and I’m looking forward to making everything “just so” before I open up Titanium as a material choice for my clients. Thanks for everyone’s patience and understanding as I dial in this material. Rest assured I’m close and things are going to start to fall into place rather quickly this spring and summer for a potential release early fall of 2017 (fingers crossed everyone). Till next time, keep the rubber side down and hold fast. It’s going to be one heck of a ride. Editor’s Note: You may have noticed that this first Marauder prototype is in it’s raw state. I’ve left it that way on purpose. I’ve given the frame an overall brushed finished but I’ve left the welds largely untouched. There’s some straw discoloration in some spots which is acceptable. It’s far from perfect but it’s a starting point. This also gives me a living record so when I make additional prototypes I can look to existing product to note where I need to make improvements and hone my technique.