i've got it covered - spectrum powder works

cielo top tube

while i am on the verge of declaring 2010 the year of the handbuilt steel bicycle frame, (because i can: you know i'm right) following on from 2008 being the year of the handbuilt wheel, there is an aspect of this contemporary flurry of lugged or tigged steel to which scant regard is seemingly paid. visit any framebuilder who will let you interfere and ask inane questions, and the paraphernalia of the industry is all too apparent in the surrounding space. gas tanks (scary), workstands, a fascinating array of bicycle tools, and rack upon rack of steel tubing. if you arrive at the right time, you may be witness to a skilled demonstration of the brazing art of the man (or woman) behind the mask. explore the vast area inside the chris king plant, in the cordoned section that is cielo, and you'll see egg cartons bearing seatstay end caps, machined fork crowns and engraved dropouts. what all this has in common, of course, is the dull sheen of steel; builders mainly inhabit a grey world, illuminated only by the flame at the end of a gas torch.

the consumer, that's you and me, has a desire for colour in their life, preferably shiny colour: standing out in a peloton has its own importance at whatever level. the bigger players have their own paint shops in-house, but then economy of scale makes allowance for this. the little guys - and cielo is still small enough to fit this description - farm their steel work out for a bit of colouring. there are a number of facilities offering such a service across the united states; there's even coat in portland, a subsidiary, to all intents and purposes, of sacha white's vanilla cycles. but the bare frames emanating from the cielo builders head south to colorado to spectrum powder works. if you're like me, you'd probably also ask the question, why?

cielo dropout

"basically spectrum powderworks is a custom high end finishing shop located in colorado springs, colorado. their primary service is powder coating, but liquid painting and ceramic coatings can also be provided if required. powder coating is a finishing process applied electrostatically; the dry coating is sprayed on by a gun that also applies an electrical charge as the powder exits the tip, helping transfer efficiency. the frame is suspended and electrically grounded, ensuring an even coating. a fancy way of saying it's a lot like baby powder that gets a charge to help it go on, reducing waste.

"the two major determining factors relating to the durability of powdercoating are surface preparation and curing times/temperatures. spectrum go to great lengths to ensure that both of those bases are totally covered. if powder is applied to an improperly prepared substrate or under-cured, its durability can be inferior to that of a cheap enamel.."

at this point, the more intense or demanding customer may well start to question the viability of powder-coating a frame. the cielo currently residing in thewashingmachinepost bike shed is a deep, but subtly sparkled black; but it's a single colour which is likely a fairly easy ask. but suppose the finished design calls for differently coloured panels; on the downtube or seat tube for instance. a modicum of masking would render this a none too difficult process for a regular paintshop; how does powder coating cope?

lettering mask

"the industrial benefits of powdercoating are legion and well understood, but spectrum have been able to incorporate a uniquely artistic element into the equation. most other powder shops offer simple one or two coat applications. spectrum founder, mark brandt, spent considerable time developing a proprietary dry pigment process by which graphics can be applied to powdercoated frames. using custom cut masks (made in-house by a graphics department), they are able to carefully control the way pigment is applied, resulting in amazing detail, along with fades and custom colors. you name it and you've probably got it. after dry pigment is applied, a clear powdercoat is applied and cured, locking the pigment layer into the matrix of the base coat and the clear coat."

at this point, the required result and available result seem to be coinciding very nicely, and just why chris king are willing to send bare cielo frames over a thousand miles south to satisfy both themselves and the customer. and they're not the only ones: natalie ramsland at sweetpea bicycles sends all of her frames the same distance for the same service. "i love spectrum. i've been working with them for three years now and value my relationship with them immensely. they make my bikes look awesome and are wonderful to work with." a telling testimonial if ever there was one.

we know what the powder coating can do, but how does it transform from bare metal to shiny?

prepped and shot blasted frame

"basically, every frame is prepared, by hand, in a blasting cabinet.╩spectrum use blasting in preference to chemicals for several reasons. firstly, there are no nasty materials to handle or dispose of; secondly, the blasting provides a╩tooth or slight texture to the frame, providing a lot of tiny nooks and crannies to which the powder can adhere. every frame is prepared and coated the same day, usually within an hour,╩virtually eliminating╩oxidation, and promoting durability. it makes little sense to blast a frame then let it sit around and allow microscopic corrosion to start, particularly when dealing with steel.

"after the preparation process, the frame gets a base coat: the first layer of powder. some frames receive one coat and it's all over. the powder is cured in an oven for 20-30 minutes at about 200 celsius, 395 fahrenheit. if there are any logos╩or artwork to be added, that time is cut in half." the more assiduous reader will have already sussed that carbon frames are excluded from this process: that level of heat would probably return you a tin of molasses. carbon frames must thus be the sole preserve of liquid paint. "however one of the most common offerings of spectrum is to powder coat a frame, then match a carbon fork to the powdercoat job. occasionally a frame has to be liquid painted if a customer is particularly specific about colour. powder╩has a lot of positive attributes, but there are some colour limitations; 95% of the time, powders can be mixed╩to match most colors, but mixing powder is not like mixing paint. if you mix black and white paint, you get grey. mixing black and white powder gives something resembling salt and pepper (mottled and splotchy)."

painted frame

like many a business, everything would run smoothly and according to plan were it not for customer requirements. many are happy to give spectrum a general nudge in the direction of their wishes, and leave the alchemy to spectrum, but there's always one (or more) who have a very specific idea of exactly what they want, while others are unhelpfully vague. it pays tribute to the company that a considerable majority of their customers receive a bicycle of which they can be proud, often exceeding any expectations they may have had at the outset.

"after artwork or graphics are in place, a clearcoat is applied. at this point any pearl or flake is introduced," (doubtless accounting for the oh so subtle sparkle adorning the twmp cielo). "adding to the clearcoat is the same as adding to that over a liquid finish, giving a little something extra; a slight shimmer for pearl, or sparkle with flakes. the clearcoat can be full gloss, semi-gloss, or matte. in this manner, any color can be made matte. as this transparent coat cures, it infuses the base coat, making any pigment╩layer (graphics) part of the clearcoat. the frame then receives another cycle in the oven and on removal, as soon as it cools down, it's good to go, with no additional curing or special handling."

cielo down tube

having visited both cielo and sweetpea when in portland, i confess to having been rather confused as to why anyone would wish to ship anything over a thousand miles there and back just for a coat of paint, but having experienced cielo blue in the city and now a black that has all the allure of a clear night sky, i'm beginning to comprehend. applying some muc-off bike cleaner after washing off the grime this afternoon, followed by a modest amount of buffing with a soft cloth, does the soul good as the cielo was wheeled silently into the bike shed. do not, however, gain the impression that spectrum undertake only commercial contracts such as those for chris king and sweetpea: they are just as happy to undertake your merest powder coating whim on that one frame that is the apple of your eye, and some of those sent have been from this side of the atlantic.

you can take my word; i can see my face in the result.

i am eternally grateful to j t evans, co-owner of spectrum powder works for the bulk of this article, and to jeremy dunn for the photo of the un-powdered cielo frames

spectrum powder works | cielo bicycles | sweetpea bicycles


posted sunday 17 january 2010