The Greatest Unknown Frame Builder - An Interview with Bill Stevenson
by Russ Howe
Unless you are an avid cyclist living in the Pacific Northwest you may not be
familiar with Bill Stevenson. Yet, you are probably familiar with his work. Bill
designed and built frames for Gary Fisher, Ross Bicycles and Alpinestars USA.
Additionally, Bill built Albert Eisentraut "Limited" frames in the early
seventies. No longer content to be a product manager and designer for others,
Bill is now producing the finest custom frames available. The change is that the
Stevenson name graces the downtubes, and it is doubtful he will remain unknown
Bill Stevenson started building custom frames over twenty five years ago. At the
age of twenty, he took up cycling and worked in a local bike shop as a mechanic.
In 1971, he took one of Albert Eisentrautís frame building classes in Olympia,
Washington. Excelling in the class, Albert offered him a job on the spot. In
1972, he worked the Albert Eisentraut in Oakland, CA. He brazed frames while
other workers completed the clean-up. This "apprenticeship" lasted only six
months, as he returned to Washington and continued to build custom frames at his
In 1985, Bill embarked on an "around the world" odyssey that would last seven
years. The first stop was Ross Bicycles in Allentown, PA., where he was hired as
the primary designer and product manager (Tom Kellogg and Jim Redcay preceded
Bill as Rossís Signature Custom frame builders). Eventually, Ross transferred
Bill and his family to Taiwan so he could supervise production and quality
control for Rossís mass produced frames. This experience gave Bill a unique
glimpse of the industry that most small custom builders never see. How many
builders can say that they once rejected 3,000 frames in a single day?
What interested you about frame building?
In 1970, I ordered an Eisentraut frame and I waited two years before it arrived.
I can remember taking the frame out of the box and being completely floored by
the level of workmanship and sheer beauty of the frame. The lugs were paper-thin
and the frame really had a unique style all of its own. I built the frame up and
took it for a ride, and was again, completely blown away. The bike rode so well,
it seemed that all I had to do was "think it through a corner" and it
automatically did what I desired. After this experience, I wanted to be able to
make people feel great about a bike the way I felt about the Eisentraut.
You began as a "Roadie" and ended up designing mountain bikes for Gary Fisher,
How did that transition occur?
Prior to 1980, I had done some contract building (fillet brazed Mt. Tams and
Comps) for Gary Fisher. In addition; I began to experiment on my own by building
a couple of mountain bike frames and riding them in the Capital Forest (near
In the fall of 1985, I went to work for Ross Bicycles to run their Signature
department. This was kind of a Schwinn Paramount-style operation inside a mass
production factory. One of my main responsibilities was to provide frames for
the Ross Pro team which was one of the first professional off-road teams. Even
my first mountain frames were much different than what was being made in
California at that time. I immediately kicked the seat tube and head tube angles
up about 3 degrees and added radical things like toe clips. Being a roadie, the
slack seat angle hurt my knees and the wheel flop of a 68 degree head angle was
intolerable. The bikes worked better and the racers loved them. These
modifications impressed the Ross management and they began to realize that I
might have talent outside of brazing. I eventually ended up designing most of
the frames in the Ross Line, including BMX and Freestyle. I was sent to Taiwan
for a year to help Ross move their production there. I gained some background in
Quality Control Process Management and Fixture Design. It was an early stage of
the Taiwan Bicycle Industry and we constantly "pushed the envelope" for what
could be done there.
That led to my job at Gary Fisher (another story), which led to Alpinestars. Iíd
become a "hired gun" product designer/product manager. But to answer your
question, I was still a "roadie" at heart. I appreciate the opportunities and
design challenges that mountain bikes have provided. In fact, I really enjoy
riding mountain bikes, but building and riding road bikes is my first love.
What is your focus now?
I still consider myself a commercial designer and builder. Currently, my focus
is on custom road frames. I guess a simple answer to your question is that I try
to "focus" on the bike we are building at the time. These are predominantly made
utilizing fillet brazed construction, as this is the method most often requested
by our customers. Thatís fine with me as I enjoy designing and building this
type of frame. At the same time, I have recently built myself a lugged winter
training bike utilizing hand cut lugs.
Certainly, one of the most attractive parts of custom frame building for me is
the diversity of projects. Also, there is the satisfaction of providing
customers with a frame which fits correctly and is designed for their intended
use. In fact, in many ways, the ultimate satisfaction is riding with the new
frame owner and finding them riding faster and more comfortably on their new
In your sales brochure, you write " we covet our retro
status". What is your Retro status and how does it apply to your frames?
Frankly, I find this whole "Retro" thing a little upsetting. Much of what is now
being called Retro was the "latest and greatest" when I started riding! But
seriously, my preference is to take that "Retro" style and update it with better
tubing, such as Reynolds 853 or True Temper OXIII tubing, and investment cast
lugs. A recent customer had always lusted over a Cinelli Supercorsa when he was
young. So, I built him a frame using a Cinelli fork crown and lugs with True
Temper OXIII tubing. I drilled holes in the lugs, had them chromed, and attached
the seatstays in the Cinelli fastback style. The customer loved the bike and I
was confident that I was able to blend the best of technology with a classic
style to provide a great riding bike. Having ridden good frames in the early
seventies, I know what was superior about those products and concepts. I have
continued to build and ride into the 90ís and know what and where improvements
can be made. I donít think we should honor or prefer something just because it
happens to be old. Many thirty-five year old frames and components were mediocre
at best. At the same time, the seeming inability of some riders to survive
without being the "newest and greatest" is hardly healthy. Just as an example,
my "daily rider" is built of a prototype True Temper tube set and has 1971 Nuovo
Record derailleurs. Both provide superior performance. In my opinion, honoring
the history of cycling is laudable but copying the equipment and style of
another time without thought or consideration is foolish.
How has your technical background enhanced and/or influenced your frame
I come from a family of engineers and architects. From an early age, it seemed
natural to conceive, design and fabricate projects. My formal education
naturally veered in that direction. I hope my informal education is continuing.
The most ringing condemnation I can imagine is, "He had thirty years experience
but didnít learn much after the first year." I think my formal background in
engineering and Bio-mechanics gave me a structure on which to hang the
information I collected as a cyclist, mechanic and frame builder. I also think
it reinforced the concept of process. In other words, to reach a successful
conclusion to a project, you must follow certain steps. When designing and
fabricating a bike frame the steps include, measuring the rider, computing tube
lengths,and choosing materials. Even the tube joining method, fillet brazed or
lugged, is based on rider size and the intended use of the frame. The next step
is creating a full sized frame drawing and finally, building the frame. In our
business, the customer is a part of the whole process. Personally, I canít
imagine skipping a step. Most unsuccessful frames that I see are not a result of
fabrication errors but rather the result of conceptual omissions or mistakes.
Simply following the traditional methods of engineering and manufacturing hardly
seems unusual, but my experience in the bicycle business leads me to believe it
makes us unique.
What is your sizing procedure?
My sizing system is based on the Italian Cycling Federation,
C.O.N.I., method. Over the years it has evolved a bit and I have modernized it.
In other words, by measuring inside inseam, torso, and arm length and
multiplying those measurements by a percentage, we can develop a seat and top
tube measurement. I feel the method is more accurate because my method gives an
exact number, not what I consider a useless range (2-4 cm) as with the C.O.N.I .
method. I consider it modernized in that it takes into account the trend towards
shorter seat tubes and longer top rubes over the past 25 years. In addition, my
preference is to use a Serotta sizing bike to act as a proof of measurements, to
help establish seat tube angle, and to come up with stem length. In many ways,
the method has evolved to the point where the only similarity it bears to the
original is that it is based on measurement of body parts!
Who has influenced your style?
When it comes to influences, I think they come in positive and
negative flavors. I have had a lot of shop experience, so Iíve had the
opportunities to see a large number of bikes. My focus is to avoid problems I
have encountered on other peopleís frames. The shop that I have been involved
with for much of my professional life is "The Bike Stand" in Olympia, WA. We
once imported Jack Taylors and Mercians, directly. In addition, we sold Cinellis,
Colnagos, etc., as they were available. Our main line of frames were Eisentrauts.
I personally assembled and test rode all of the "high end" frames that we sold.
This gave me the opportunity to appreciate the positive and negative aspects of
some of the most respected frames of that period. Relatively early on we
purchased a Campagnolo tool kit and frame alignment equipment. Frequently, I
found myself performing what should have been the final manufacturing steps, and
dealing with conceptual problems. At about the same time, after a two year wait
I received my own custom Eisentraut and retired my Mercier 300. I was riding a
great deal and the Eisentraut was a revelation both from a performance and
aesthetic standpoint. The lugs were paper thin, everything blended together,
and, of course, it had the Eisentraut Seat Stay Attachment. Viewed objectively,
the frame was exceptional for the period. At the time, it was outrageous to
think that American frames could compete with the European ones. It completely
changed the way I thought about frames. It was American and every part seemed
perfect. Filed, sanded, polished... a whole new style. Not a derivative of the
style of Cinelli, Masi, or anything else, but rather a unique American style
Another significant influence was Spence Wolf. I met Spence a few times and I
was always impressed at how meticulous he was in setting up a bike. Spence would
tie and solder most of the wheels he built and I gleaned much from him such as
what gauge wires to use, how to build better wheels, how to set up a bike,