Waterford, WI USA
by John Trusky
photographs by Peter DiAntoni
In the the bigger world of craft frame builders, Dave Wages is likely not a name at the forefront of the public's thoughts. Not saying he doesn't deserve to be, but when compared with the many established builders he and his company, Ellis Cycles, are relative new comers, still designing, filing, sanding and brazing his frames in his cramped basement in Waterford, WI. Yes, the same town that gave birth to the venerable Schwinn Paramounts that are still being sought after today. His story begins at Serotta, carries through to Waterford Precision Cycles, and near 10 years later to his basement. He's soft spoken, lacking the braggadocio that one would expect to come with one who has at the last two NAHBS taken home a prize for Best Lugged Bike in 2009 and followed up with Best in Show in 2010. To that end, saying he has skills is rather redundant. Both winning bikes utilized Reynolds 953 stainless tubing, a tube set that is notorious for being difficult to work with, further showing his prowess in the shop.
When asked if frame building was something he wanted to get into from a young age, the answer is similar to a lot of people's. It began with being a bike geek and drawing frames up in notebooks, taking art classes in high school, some civil engineering classes and ceramic material science classes in college while riding, racing, and working in shops the whole time. Then a position opened up at Serotta in the QC/packing department, arguably the keystone from 'then' to 'now'. It was there that he met Dave Kirk, a builder he still looks up to and admires to this day. "He got me 80% of the way there. He took me aside and made me watch as he finished and prepped one side of a frame for paint and then had me duplicate his work on the other side. I still call him to this day if I have a question about something." After a decade in and out of Serotta Dave went on to work at Waterford Precision Cycles before jumping ship to chase his own dream. We sat down with him to find out some of what makes him tick, how he sees frame building, and the overall industry.
Is there a frame that you want to make that no one's come to you about?
I've sorta been tempted to build a time trial bike. I was always obsessed with the funny bikes when they first started coming out in the 80's. It was just a clean design, purposeful.
I agree. There was just a look to them like a hot rod, a clean aesthetic.
Yeah, though we know now it wasn't the best way to accomplish the end goals. I think that there are a lot of different builders out there who are just trying to do some crazy things and add some fancy doodads to their bikes. I hope that even when I do a fancy bike that it's a purposeful design, that it's integral to the bike.
Have you ever done fillet brazing?
We used to do a lot of it at Serotta. That's where I learned the whole process, and I maybe did one or two bikes at Waterford. At Serotta, when we had bikes that were really large, they just outgrew the lug set. And even some really small bikes. It simplifies some aspects, but then you have all the finishing work to take care of.
How about the black art of TIG welding?
I did a little bit at Serotta. To me TIG welding and brazing are very much right brain/left brain. With brazing your moving the torch around all the time and adding wire but with TIG welding you're holding really steady and adding the wire in. I get the feeling I could do it if I spent the time at it, but it just never really appealed to me the same way brazing does.
Do you see a place for any of the new standards that have come around, your BB30 or 1 1/8 steerers, in your frame design?
I kind of have the luxury of being able to take the wait and see approach, to see what standards are going to end up as the standards. With BB30, I could do it, but I'd have to get a mill, and the design would have to provide a real benefit over what's already out there. You know, there's this thing where everyone thinks stiffer is better in all aspects of bike design, and that's just not true for a bike that you're going to be out on for four or five hours at a time. The 1 1/8 thing is interesting as there just aren't a lot of lugs out there designed for it, but it makes a lot of sense especially in cases of really big guys. In a lot of cases you can actually make the fork lighter due to the steerer tube having a thinner well.
What's your favorite tube set to work with?
All the new tube sets are much harder (surface hardness)... If I had my choice I'd build a bunch of bikes out of the old Columbus SLX tubing. It's so forgiving, super easy to file...it was just so much easier to build with. You didn't have to be as exact because you just go back and cold set it. Nowadays, the steel is harder so you have to get it right, you can't just go back at it without worrying about rippling something. You know I think the whole thing with the steel bike revival is that people started pulling these old road bikes out of the shed and converting them to fixed-gear or single speeds and discovered how nice these old bikes ride. They just don't beat you up.
What builders out there do you respect?
Mostly the guys that have been out there before me. Dave [Kirk], he's been super helpful. And Peter Weigel, he's just amazing and immaculate, and he's the most approachable guy. If you met him you wouldn't even think he's this amazing frame builder because he doesn't put on any airs. I hopefully will be able to keep up with him on that.
That's interesting. I think most everyone we've talked to has mentioned him.
Peter's the most laid back and super supportive of the guys that are doing the right thing and for the right reasons. That's what the young guys need. They don't need to figure out what little doodad they're going to put on their bikes to differentiate themselves. They need to know how to design a bike that's solid and straight. There's a reason bikes are designed the way they are, because they work. When you start getting too far out into some of the funky designs, they just don't function properly.
I look at some of those [funky] builders, and think that it's fantastic they have the skills to do this, and the nut job tendency to actually do it. I look at most frame builders the same way. I mean, there aren't a lot of you out there that are making a solid living solely off of building...
Yeah right now I'm working two days a week at Ben's, but I think the fact that I started off four months after the start of the biggest recession in 50 years didn't help much. But the fact that I'm still here...
And bringing back two NAHBS awards...
I can't complain about that at all. But getting back to what you were saying about being at the fringes, I look at the bikes that are being ridden in the Tour de France and the guy who goes out and plunks down the eight grand on one of those, he's not being well served by that bike. You know, it's great that he has a 15lb bike, but what's the point if it hurts him too much to ride the thing more than 15 miles? That's what's being marketed to these guys.
I think most of the major companies are trying to address that, with the taller head tubes and slacker angles.
Yeah, but every company tries to slam the tire into the seat tube and then run triples on it. So you can't run a tire larger than say a 23 or 25, and now the bike also has cross-chaining problems too, because they wanted a tight chainstay.
What other problems do you see?
Carbon forks. Seems most companies are just using one or maybe two different offsets on their forks and then changing the head angles. So the people on the ends of the size spectrum get these bikes that don't handle as well as they could. Especially shorter people. I think they more often end up on a bike that's just too stiff most of the time.
Yeah, I've bumped into that when helping friends build up bikes.
I can understand, but even some of the small builders only offer one or two rakes for their forks. Anytime I get a bike built for a shorter person and they ride it, they freak out on how the bike doesn't feel like it has them sitting too forward or too far back and also that it doesn't feel like it's trying to throw them to the ground.
What was the most challenging bike for you to build?
I think the 29er I just finished. It was a lot of handwork, working with the bilaminate sockets. That or any of the [Reynolds] 953 bikes. Stainless is just hard to work with. It doesn't soak up heat the same way, and it seems like the braze happens at a higher temperature, so you're always flirting with the edge that the flux is working without burning it. And stainless bikes, any flaw will be visible. It's not something that can just get covered up by paint.
Ok, what was the bike that just got you all jazzed up about?
You know it's funny there are just some bikes I'll get a groove on. I like simple road bikes or track bikes. There aren't a lot of braze-ons or cables, and I always sweat the little details because I feel that those bikes are the purest form of the artistry of building bikes because they are so clean. You can always tell when I'm working on one of those bikes because there won't be any real in between pictures on my blog.
Do you have a favorite bike you've made?
I don't know, it just keeps changing. I guess right now it'd be the white bike (see centerfold) partially because it's mine and also because this was the bike I was always dreaming of and drawing when I was in high school. So I guess I'd say that one, but there are some others that I've thought have been pretty damn cool.
Any shout-outs, thanks, pats on the back?
Probably the top guy would be Dave Kirk. I hate to keep saying his name because he is a competitor but I wouldn't be where I am today without him taking the time with me back then, Or Ben [Serotta] and Richard [Schwinn], they've been really helpful. And Ben's Cycle...I mean I started a business right at the start of a recession, and they've been super supportive of Ellis Cycles since its beginning.