How Big is the Handbuilt Bike Segment? Part II

Last time we worked through the bike picture outline of the bike trade in the U.S. The really short story is that a lot of bikes are sold overall (“a lot” – that is – if you only took “bike shops” as your frame of reference), most of them for kids, most of them comparatively cheap, and most of them sold through the mass market/big box channel. But, most of the money/value made by selling bikes passes through bike-specific shops. Most all of these bikes are sourced in China and Taiwan.

So that’s the outline of the bike trade as a whole. What about the handbuilders?

Although industry statistics are relatively limited in their specificity and precision, they are at least made possible by some industry-level organizations and durable data collection efforts. No such “industry” organization exists for framebuilders in the U.S. As such, I think the best strategy is to generate as many estimate snapshots as possible, looking at the segment from multiple angles in the hope that each of these fuzzy and imperfect images at least helps build a broad composite sense of both the size and shape of the handbuilt segment. 

There is a great deal of debate amongst builders and fans about how to even define a “professional” builder. Is this someone who makes their income from full-time bike building work? Is it someone who carries insurance for their product? Can someone building only a few bikes a month – or even a few a year – while working another, non-building job…but building to the quality standards of the profession…be considered a professional? For now, I will sidestep these boundary-definitional considerations and cast a rather broad net for a first approximation. Ideally we would know the total number of people in the U.S. actively soliciting customers for their bikes, regardless of how many bikes these builders are actually producing, or even want to produce. From there we could figure out their output, revealing the full distribution of builders and allowing us to focus our attention on those doing more, rather than less, building. I will therefore start with the total of number of builders.

A number of fans and builders themselves (as well as those trying to sell products to builders) have made efforts to compile lists of all known builders over the years. These are “crowd-sourced” efforts, though given the intensity of interest by self-selected fans, connoisseurs and the builders themselves, they probably have – if anything – a bias toward over reporting. That is, when lists of builders are compiled there is a tendency to identify and list all potential candidates rather than exclude them. Fan/consumer interest – and builder self-promotion – combined with the list builder wanting to pitch the biggest possible tent and avoid charges of being exclusionary mean that these lists will tend toward the completist and comprehensive.

For my purposes, the problem with lists is that they are only really effective cross-sectionally, not longitudinally (over time). These lists are usually not archived (though if anyone knows where the might be, please let me know!), so that when builders go inactive (a stage in the business life of the segment that is just as important as having new builders come online) they tend to be dropped, with no record that they ever existed. Unfortunately, crowd-sourced builder lists don’t give us much direct insight into arrivals and departures, just the presence of builders at a given time.

Starting from the list maintained by one of the moderators on one of the more popular online discussion forums, and with the help of a research assistant (thanks Molly!) checking for dead links and builders who have gone inactive as well as adding active builders not originally included, I have updated this list (in October 2015). This list shows that there are 258 individual frame builders who appear to have a functioning online presence or have been identified by those compiling the list. To be clear, this includes anyone with a web presence offering to build and sell bikes all they way up to larger-scale primarily production shops (e.g. Waterford, Comotion, Bike Friday, Lynskey). This does not include builders focused primarily on recumbents or trikes. Anecdotally, this is much higher than it seems most people “in the biz” might guess – where the usual guess I’ve heard in interviews is somewhere around 150 builders. Again, though, that 250’ish includes anyone with a website and a picture, so this is a very liberal estimate of the segment size.

Next we can consider the volume of output as sales, but this post seems long enough so far!

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