Jim Kish has been building frames and bikes for nearly a quarter century. About three years ago, he set up shop in North Carolina after moving around the country, honing his craft as one of the pre-eminent titanium builders in the industry.
RBR’s Paul Smith caught up with Kish at his shop, Kish Fabrication, in Carrboro, N.C., where he hand-builds each custom bicycle to customer specs. In the following interview, Kish talks about how he got his start, why titanium is his material of choice, what customers look for in a custom build, and more.
In addition to building 40-50 bikes a year, Kish is an instructor at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo’s Engineering department and at the United Bicycle Institute in Portland, Oregon.
We’re excited to announce that Jim Kish has agreed to write an occasional column for RBR centered on the topic of bike building. If you have a specific question or aspect of frame building or bike building that you would like to pose to Jim, just use the Contact Us form on the website.
The Jim Kish Interview
How did you start in the cycling industry?
I was training to be a lawyer (Jim laughed at this thought), and I interviewed for a job as a bicycle tour guide working for Bruce Gordon. I didn’t get it straightaway. They told me I was sixth on the list and they could only hire five people…. One of the other people who were offered the job dropped out…and they offered me the job.
How did you get into frame building?
Realizing that I couldn’t be a bicycle tour guide forever, I took a frame building course at the United Bicycle Institute, taught by Gary Helfrich (who later formed Merlin Metalworks and helped form Ibis). After learning with him, I was offered a job teaching frame building. I only had about three years’ experience at that time and wasn’t sure I could do it, but they convinced me that my mistakes were pretty fresh in my mind and so I would be able to relate to someone new to frame building.
How long have you been doing this, and how come you are now building in North Carolina?
It’s been about 23 years now. I started out in the Midwest, moved to Virginia, Oregon and then California for about 10 years before moving to North Carolina about three years ago. I wanted to move back to the East Coast and considered Boston and North Carolina. We visited Boston in winter and North Carolina in August, and my wife decided that she was done with the cold and would deal with the heat instead.
What connects you to North Carolina?
There is a very enthusiastic cycling community here. Word got around before we even arrived and we had folks from North Carolina calling us up in California asking when we were coming — sometimes at 6 a.m.! After arriving I was surprised at how quickly the connections came. You’d meet somebody and they’d offer a suggestion of someone else you should meet — there are a lot of cool little businesses here. It’s been a big surprise to me how big the scene here is.
When making a custom bike, how do you ensure it will fit the buyer?
If I’m building a frame for someone who can visit the shop, it’s smooth sailing. I bring them in, measure them and ask them what they are looking for, what they do and don’t like about their current bike. They typically know what’s wrong and what they want in the frame I build for them. They are typically about 85% of the way there.
For online orders, I have a form that asks them to measure different parts of their body. There’s some redundancy in there so that I can tell if a measurement seems off, then I can ask them to check again. We have years of data from all the bikes we’ve made and can match a customer back against these data points. In all the years of building, we’ve always been able to get a fit.
Why use titanium? What’s special about it to you?
I’ve spent years and years in figuring out titanium. It will last forever. Bikes don’t come back in broken, needing to be fixed. In fact, I’d love to get back the first two bikes I ever made. I know where they are and have offered to buy them back, but those folks love them and want to just keep on riding them. It seems to me like there’s a movement back to titanium. Once it was a space-age material for building, and now it seems to be cool and “retro.”
In fact, I’m in the process of refinishing a bike that I built 15 years ago. Once I get done it will look like new again.
Anything special about your finishing process?
There’s a five-step process we use, which seems to give the best results for us. We wash the frame, bead blast it and the brush it with a nylox brush, getting into all the corners and beads. The last two steps are to buff out the frame with fine scotch brite and then extra fine. This last step gives us our look, and a lot of other builders don’t do this last step.
About 20% of our frames are painted. Most people prefer the look of raw titanium.
How many bikes do you build per year, and how long from an order until a customer has their bicycle?
I build about 40-50 bikes per year, and it takes about eight to 10 weeks from when I receive the order until you have your bicycle. It’s surprising how involved and interested people are in how their bicycle is made, how long they spend on making sure the details are just so. There’s not much else like it. How many people really worry about how their car is built?
With the emergence of electronic shifting, how many of your bikes are built that way?
Only about 15-20% of our bikes are set up for electronic shifting. We can absolutely build frames that support it, but most of our customers are 50, 60 years old and don’t seem to be as sold on electronic shifting. They are people who have been riding for years and have very clear ideas of what they want in a bicycle.
Any desire to grow bigger?
I want to stay the same size. When you order a bike from me and you talk with customer service, you’re also talking to the person who is going to build your bike. I can have a good working schedule and pay the bills. Being bigger means getting more into managing other people, and what I really like is to just build bikes. If we were producing more bikes I’d be spending less time doing what I love, which is building bikes with the dogs around me.
Jim Kish has been building custom frames and bikes for nearly a quarter century. His shop, Kish Fabrication, is located in Carrboro, N.C. Jim can be reached at 805-574-0414 or via his website, www.kishbike.com. Jim writes an occasional column for RBR centered on the topic of bike building. If you have a specific question or aspect of frame building or bike building that you would like to pose to Jim, just use the Contact Us form on the website. Click to read Jim’s full bio.