With an affection for bicycles often comes a love of functional objects, beautifully made things or machines such as the very ones that cut, drill, engrave and measure the raw materials that make up a hand-built rig by ISEN Bicycles.
Andy Matthew's recently visited the ISEN workshop down in Mitcham where they test, prototype, develop and build their custom steel bikes. Andy was drawn to the workshops incredibly equipped machine shop, which might well be the best bike building machine setup in the UK.
ISEN is a combination of award winning UK custom frame builders Hartley Cycles and Talbot Frameworks, coming together to combining hand crafted elements with cutting edge frame building technologies. As a duo they've built bikes for hundreds of riders operating with a small highly skilled team who are involved in every aspect of the complete in house production of every frame to maintain quality. There are four specialised stages of production in the London based workshop, from raw materials to component choices and paint schemes with four people involved in building each frame.
Starting off with the tubes their frames are not not built around a specific tube-set but instead they select the best tubes that Reynolds, Columbus and Deddaciai offer to produce the ultimate custom blend. The tubes are precision cut on the milling machines, with each one setup to perform a specific cut. The machines are integral to the work and with precision being key each machine's unique properties, intricacies and quirks are well known and discussed frequently in the workshop. Equipment choice is very personal and frame-builder's take years sourcing and researching the right pieces and as is the case in the ISEN workshop - often end up create their own custom tools when they simply don't exist.
Once the tubes are cut and sit perfectly in the frame jig the geometry of the bike becomes visible for the first time in its most raw form before welding. All their frames are TIG welded, the most precise method of assembly and the method with which the tubes they use are designed to be at strongest. It then goes through rigorous weld and alignment checks and onto the final touches of adding the bottle bosses, cable guides and the hand formed head-badge. These are attached by soldering with silver to create a seamless transition and create some of their signature features before heading to the spray booth.
The detailed process of turning lengths of steel tubes into high quality frames means that the process is everything. The collective workshop spent years and continues to fine tune its process. With constant QC and alignment checks, machine servicing and workflow monitoring, which all come together to allow them to build frames efficiently and to incredibly high tolerances. From entering the machine shop as a crate full of tubes, braze-ons and checklists, the complete naked frame heads off to the paint studio.