T H E B I K E R O D & K U S T O M I N T E R V I E W :
SA MMCKA Y:
AL S OKN O W NAS
It seems like only yesterday that the first Firebikes frame showed up on eBay. Since then the distinctive lines of the frames made by Canadian frame artistes Sam McKay and Jason MacPherson have become known throughout the KustomBike world. With the recent announcement that Jay was leaving FB to devote more time to his other interests, we thought this would be a good time to question Sam about Firebikes, and his plans for its immediate future.
Interview conducted by Jim Wilson
Q: Sam, you have a really unique approach to frame design. How did you happen to get involved in creating and selling kustom bike frames? Did you start out modifying stock frames, most people's approach, or did you dive directly into building from scratch?
A: It all started in 1998 Firebikes was born, not as a cruiser company but a BMX company, one frame was made, and nothing more ever became done and it has been passed on to a close pal of mine. Four years later, I saw the Dyno cruisers and thought they were cool. I bought a Taboo Tiki. Well, after getting it, I wanted a Roadster, but none were available in Canada, so I figured, "It can't be that hard, so that's when, one day over supper with Jay, I got out my pic of a Roadster and said, "I want to make one of these." He agreed. Two weeks later, we had two frames which, to be honest, were lame, but a start. Then I showed a few friends and only one was very interested. He is a mortician, but I called him the Morgitition. He said, "Make me one and I'll take it. So back to the drawing board; and we then made five frames, and in honor of him wanting to be the first we called it the Morgitition. Well we thought, "great", but we had two left, so we put them on eBay. The response was overwhelming: "Are you guys making more? Who made it?" etc. Well, we then made five more, and so on. Pretty soon our frames were being bought up all over the USA and overseas. Crazy, but true.
Q: Your current frames are fiendishly complex. What sort of jigging system do you use to hold all those curved tubing sections together for welding?
A: When there were two of us, we started out with an old-school wooden jig that we made, which worked really well and was cheap to build. Really, for anyone interested in playing around with building a frame, this method is better than nothing. Now that there is only one of us building, I'm in the process of making new aluminum jigs with cups for the head-tubes, and bottom brackets which will hold them in place. And different sets of arms for each frame style, with clamps near the welding points of the frame that will allow you to weld the whole bike in the jig without any second hands! The rear end will have an adjustable axle width for those who want to go with a Nexus hub. It's really not that hard to clamp these curved tubes with the new jig. I'm looking forward to building next year's frames. Production will be limited to only 100 Firebikes frames this year, so those who want a specific model shouldn't wait too late. As for custom frames, I love helping people create their dream bike, and with access to a tubing roller anything is possible.
Q: So, until now, it's only been you and Jay building frames; and now it's only you? Even if you're "only" making 100 frames a year, that's a tremendous amount of work, isn't it, what with the work involved in cutting, bending and welding the tubing? And how much work goes into one of those frames after it's been welded?
A: Well, this year alone we managed to make around 100 frames, and our original goal for 250 frames for the upcoming year- 2004, 50 per model. Since it's just me, 100 will be plenty. I'm not sure how many of what at the moment, but some frames will be limited to only ten for next year. I also plan on a series of frames called the Mayday series, my personal line of frame styles, in limited runs of 5-10 only. I love making them so I don't feel the numbers are out of my reach. Most of our frames have been sold in raw finish leaving it up to you to do whatever you like. Some owners have ground the welds, smoothed, added gussets, etc, giving them that personal touch, which I feel is what it's all about with our bikes. The Assman series, which was made very early on, was really only the first bikes we made to come finished. I'm going to make some powder-coat colors available, but I'm sure the majority of those who buy will do their own.
Q: Sounds like you won't have to worry about being bored in the near future. Since your frames have become so popular on this continent and others now, I'd think you might be tempted to do one of those Taiwan deals for manufacturing. Have you considered anything like that; or are you totally dedicated to the idea of doing them all yourself?
A: Taiwan has passed my mind, but I feel that most people would rather have a bike handmade from scratch, which allows me, if I see a way to make it better, I can and will, right there and then. If I was to get them made in Taiwan and something's not right, I just can't change it up. Also, if someone wants a custom bike, say a gusset, built-in fender, or whatever, it can be done. That's what I feel Firebikes is all about. I know when I'm looking for a new bike, I sure don't want one made in Taiwan. I'm not saying they can't make a good bike frame, I just feel there is more satisfaction knowing that the person who makes these bikes loves what he does, and it's not just a regular job. Until a major company offers me a large sum of money for Firebikes, they will be made in house, and remain hand built.
Q: On the subject of hand-building; your frames go for about 300 bucks a pop. Considering the complexity of your designs, and all the hand labor which goes into them, that seems incredibly cheap to me. Just looking at one, I'd assume that it would go for about $500. Has it occurred to you that you could consider raising your prices?
A: Yes, a lot of time goes into a Firebikes frame, and our designs are all original. Indeed, I consider each frame to be a piece of art- no two are truly identical. I know of people having these frames hanging on their walls, like a painting or sculpture, for just admiring their unique lines. Art does cost, and yes, I feel they could sell for more, but whether you hang them up or you build them and ride them, I want them to be reasonably priced so people can afford them. The Mayday series of frames is coming for 2004, which will be way higher priced, but in return comes with original ideas and only a hand-full available, great for the collector; or someone who wants something no one else will have.
Q: We at BR&K certainly go along with all that. I suppose our central concept is that kustom bikes are kinetic sculptures, and that BR&K is essentially an art magazine. Steve Hutchison, of Wild Wheel Werks, just mentioned to me that he loves the looks of your frames, and that he owns three of them. And, as an art graduate, I always like hearing about creative people being adequately compensated for their work. Are you adequately compensated for yours? I ask because many people in our audience would like to do exactly what you're doing, and I'm sure they'd be interested in whether it's possible to make a decent living at it.
A: I feel in a way, that I am making a good go of it with all the positive comments, and seeing how these bikes turn out when finished and assembled, and how proud the people are when they put the final bolt in place. But as a one-man operation now, I have a lot on my plate, building, shipping, painting, etc. It's a lot of hard work for one. I'm looking at it as more of a business now than a hobby, and with a business you have to put in a lot of hours to make it work. If you have the drive and ambition along with a good product most anyone could succeed.
Q: You obviously need a pretty impressive set of skills to handle all the aspects of your business. Is that the result of a formal technical education, or did you work your way up by hands-on, self-taught means, as a hobbyist?
A: In 1992, I got my Business Administration diploma from the University of Regina, but I never really had a job that used those skills I studied. I feel that building cars, and my interests in collecting old bikes in the last 10 years, is what has given me the skills to make these bikes and the skills to handle all the business aspects as well.
Q: Based upon input from other people in similar positions, it would seem that the important skill is being able to run an operation in a business-like way. The design and metal-working skills needed to develop the product line are almost just icing on the cake, if you have the business know-how to start up and keep going. So, you have a new addition to the product line on the way, a production schedule for the next year or so, and you have fun doing the work. Anything else going on that you'd like to share with us? Any new design sketches ready for people to see, for example?
A: I have so many ideas floating around in my head; one is my motorized bike project, with Wild Wheel Werks custom wheels, a 49cc engine to power it, it should be ninja! Also, The new Mayday series, I have one up on the drawing board as we speak, the first of the ten to be made. Make sure to check out the web page www.firebikes.com for new updates.
Q: Thanks a lot for filling us in Sam; we hope things go really well for you. Also, on behalf of our readers, we'd like to thank you for making all those neat frames available to us.