Saturday, October 02, 2010

Weekend rambling, steel and ti

I get a lot of requests for ti frames, or at least requests for an explanation of why I don't build them. Here's an email I sent back to one such fellow in response that sums up my feelings.

Hi David -

Properly built, ti and steel ride about the same, and can be built stiff, flexy, or anywhere in between. They both last a long time and can be repaired if they break.

Ti, as a material, is about 70% of the weight of steel, but as a complete bike frame, it's not quite that much lighter, because you need to use a bit more of it
(mostly larger diameter tubes) to get an acceptable ride and strength
(steel is much stronger as a material). So in the end, a ti frame is
about 10-15% lighter (a 4# frame in steel would weigh roughly 3.5# in
ti, in other words).

The problem I have with ti, and the reason I don't build with it, is
cost. A good custom steel frame (say, mine) is $1200 plus or minus a little bit. Decent custom ti starts at around twice that much, so you're paying an extra $1000+ for, at most, a half pound of weight savings. That's $5/gram, which is WAY too expensive - if you want a lighter/faster bike, you're better off spending that money on wheels, drivetrain, or other parts, where you can easily cut off several pounds and gain a lot of nice functionality. That cost difference applies for non-custom frames too - a nice non-custom steel will run $500-800 or so (obviously they vary a lot, but I'm assuming you're getting something relatively nice/lightweight), ti will be roughly $1200-1800.

Note that those numbers are for straightgauge 3/2.5 titanium. There are 6/4 butted ti tubes available which will save another half pound of weight, but the cost is astronomical - you will probably pay in excess of $3000 for a custom frame built with those tubes, so you're still basically at $5/gram.

If you're already buying the nicest parts available, then ti makes sense (ie, if you're planning to spend $5k or more). Otherwise, I feel it's a waste of money.

Ti won't corrode, which is great, but neither will steel if you give it even a tiny bit of care (ie, apply some framesaver, don't leave the bike out in the snow all winter). So to me, that's a non-issue. If you spend 5 minutes a year taking care of your steel frame, rust won't be a problem for decades.

Bottom line: to me, ti is not worth the money. I could build myself anything I want, and I ride (and race) exclusively steel bikes. Channeling Stan Lee, 'nuff said.


DavidR said...

Makes sense to me. Well said.

Anonymous said...

That and you don't have the setup to weld it properly.

But I'd suggest if customers really do want it, that's a way to fund the extra equipment/gases you need.

I'd say go for it, Walt. You really should. You are dropping your economics on it, not your customers'.

Steel is great, but so it Ti.

Walt said...

Um, actually, Anon, I have all the stuff. Including probably $5k worth of ti tubing that I inherited a long time ago. Dual regulators, big fat ti tig cups, spiffy purge plugs, the whole deal. Still don't bother. I meant what I said. It's not worth it.

Dan O said...

Well written - and yeah, makes a lot of sense.

Nevada 29er said...

Walt, give the people what they want! From a purely rational standpoint, ($/g) steel is a great value, but when has buying a bike been a purely rational decision anyway? If that were the case we'd all be riding schwinns. You could make the same argument about carbon bikes, but those aren't going away. Ti has a precious metal quality that steel just doesn't have, and although they have similar ride quality, they're not the same. I'd bet you could DOUBLE your orders if you made Ti an option. I'd buy one.

Anonymous said...

The arguments are well laid and hard to refute nevertheless, I would submit my humble opinion that Ti feels different; it is more supple and takes the edge off the ride. For me it's worth the extra cost.

You may counter it is possible to build a steel bike with the same exact ride characteristics, but I have never experienced that. Granted, I've only owed 3 steel bikes.

inthewoods said...

Depending on your creds as a staunch environmentalist, steel is a better choice than titanium due to the reduced need for MIG/TIG gas use. Specifically Helium and Argon are expensive and use a lot of energy to extract, so building Ti bikes has a higher environmental footprint than steel.

In my opinion, it is also great to have someone working in steel who is not a retro-grouch. Walt has been at the forefront of 44mm head tubes, long travel 29er design, tubeless tire experimentation, and probably lots of other things I've never heard of. And he even uses disc brakes these days!

Walt is an ambassador for custom bikes and getting them into the hands of more people. The "supply" of custom bike-builders is relatively small, so if all of them chose to work only / mostly in Ti, then at the margins fewer people could afford the pleasure of a custom bike.

steve-o said...

what if you live near the ocean? i could see that making it worth it. Other than that, i would say i agree 100 percent.