How A Titanium Bike Is Made | Moots Factory Tour


– Steamboat Springs, Colorado, population 12,088. A cycling paradise and home to one of cycling’s
true artisans manufacturers, Moots. The grand masters of titanium. Last year they lent me
a Route 45 gravel bike to ride in Iceland. And now we’re here to see how
they practice their craft, how they actually make titanium bikes. There is no denying that
titanium bike frames can be absolutely beautiful. And in this video, we’re going to show you
just how they’re made. So who are Moots? Well, the company is 24 people strong. And at the core is a team
of 17 craftsmen and women who take raw titanium tubing and from it craft bike frames. Some of them completely by spoke. Everything is done in house except for 3D printed titanium drophouse and the carbon fork which is made to their specification in the carbon fiber capsule of Asia. Now Moots was started by
guy named Kent Ericson from a bike shop just down the road which is still a bike
shop to this day in fact. The original Moots bikes were
actually made from steel, but the company swapped
to titanium in 1991 when they were looking for a material with greater fatigue resistance in order to make their
famous YBB softales. They have a low back, and they’re now one of
the longest standing titanium bike manufacturers. It’s seems like a strange twist of fate that I’ve been invited out to see Moots, because actually almost
exactly 18 years ago I knocked on this door, completely uninvited. Yes, I was staying in Steamboat with a national mountain bike team, altitude training, at the world championships which were just down the road. And one afternoon, a little bit bored, I decided to chance my
luck and knock on the door. And would you believe it, they very kindly gave me the tour as they will to anyone these days if you turn up at 10 am
on a Monday, a Wednesday, and a Friday. And here we are, on a Friday morning, ready to take the tour. (exciting music) If they had made that of
titanium, it wouldn’t have rusted. The process starts right
here with the raw materials. This is some of Moots’
considerable stash of titanium. Check this out. Loads and loads of
different tube dimensions, and wall thicknesses here. For obviously different bits of bike from top tubes to chain stays. But also different styles of bikes. Mountain bike, gravel bike, road bike. Different sizes of bike even as well, so you can dial in the
right characteristics for bikes for smaller lighter people and also heavier, stronger riders as well. Cost at this stage for a tube like this is about $28.00 per foot. So this is like $360.00
of tubing right here. The tubes themselves are
sourced from here in the U.S. And they are what’s called 3/2.5 titanium which refers to the alloy components. So 3% aluminum, 2.5% benadium. And it’s also a seamless tube as well, which means that it’s drawn like this as opposed to rolled and then welded. And that, along with the
high quality of the titanium, and the manufacturing
process of the tubes as well, means basically that Moots can make the highest quality bikes as
they can at the end of the day, but the also the whole
manufacturing process is more straightforward as well. From hitting the quality
control at the end right through to mitering and cutting which is the next step. You’ve got your raw materials, you of course now need
a design for your bike. So Moots has got loads of
different stock options, but you can also get
completely custom as well. Of which this is a
blueprint for one of those. And if you look closely on there, you’ll see all the information
that the builders need. So you’ve got the exact
tubes that are being used for each part of the bikes, so the tube dimensions and
also the wall thicknesses. Then you’ve got the lengths that the tubes need to be cut to. And then finally, the angles between all the different tubes because that is where
the mitering comes in. So that’s where the
ends of tubes are shaped so even when it’s not welded, the whole frame fits together
like a jigsaw puzzle. Then you’ll also see in
this one a yellow card. So that follows the frame through the whole build process. And actually ends up with
the consumer as well. And it’s got a track, of which member of staff does
which part of the process. So should you wish, you could come back and meet the person that welded your pride and joy. Probably get a selfie. So behind me, this is all the machinery
for cutting and mitering. But in this room, they also do tube bending which is part of the process, I’ll admit, I’ve not really thought about. But of course, not all tubes on a bike
frame are straight. You’ve got your seat
stays and your chain stays that have got a slight bend in them. And all the tooling here is actually where that is done. So just here, you can see that there is a top tube about to be bent. So this is from one of the mountain bikes, and because it’s a top tube, it’s obviously got quite a large diameter. It’s also quite thick, so just this short length here is about $100 worth of titanium. And I’ve been entrusted with the job of actually putting the bend in it. So the tooling here is
CNC machined in house. Basically, I just have to pull on a lever and it gently bends it into place. So I’m literally just
pulling on this lever, right? Okay. (circus music) Strong stuff. Dusty, am I doing something wrong? Can you show me, can you show me how it’s done? I can’t take handouts. – All the way until it bends. (laughter) – Wow. Fair play. So we’ve just cold worked a top tube. Yes. Each frame’s worth of tubes that have been painstakingly cut, mitered, and bent, successfully I might add, are now in one place and
ready to roll through to the next stage of the process which goes through here. But it perhaps isn’t what
you think it’s going to be. Before the tubes get welded, they need to be completely cleaned. So removed of any kind of oil, be that cutting oil or oil from your skin. Because that would then
contaminate the welds and leave you with something that’s just not quite strong enough. So the tubes get placed
inside of like a wire rack, a bit like a dishwasher, and then stuck in here in an ultrasonic cleaner. There we go, doing it’s thing in there. Once they come out of there, no human is allowed to touch them unless you’re wearing gloves. Now in order to weld the frame, all the tubes have to
be held in the precise locations needed. And that’s done using a jig like this. So you’ll see that we’ve got our seat tube and our head tube on here. And actually the first point
is our bottom bracket shells. So that’s the origin of the whole frame. Everything is built in relation to that. So we can see that our
seat tube angle is set, so the orientation and location of the head tube is set in
relation to bottom bracket. And also the bottom bracket drops, so that is our rear axle there. And then it’s all pieced out, tube by tube, starting with attaching the seat tube to the bottom bracket shell there. One thing I want to draw your attention to at this point, because you can’t actually
see it on a finished frame, is just tightly those
two tubes fit together. The tolerances are unbelievable. I literally can’t detect a single gap between our seat tube and
our bottom bracket shell. And it’s like that on every
single junction of the frame. And it’s not just an aesthetic thing, you don’t want to have to stick a filler in between your tubes. It’s also a strength thing, so you get a much
stronger weld as a result. And also it then saves time later on down the process because actually the frame is built to
much tighter tolerances so it’s less likely to warp. Let’s talk about welding. Titanium is tig welded, which is what you can see I’m desperately trying to do right now. It’s where a tungsten welding
torch heats the metal up to its melting point, in this case 3,034 degree Fahrenheit or 1,667 degree centigrade. In the first instance, the frame is what’s called fused together. So that’s where the two ends of the tubes are literally melted. So when it’s over on the measuring jig, you do what’s called tacking. So because the measuring
jig’s quite restrictive, you can’t do a full pass. But the tacks are strong
enough that the frame has some kind of integrity which means it can then be transferred to another jig, and then a full pass weld will be done. Then you do a second pass, which is where a filler is added, in this case it’s another titanium alloy. 6/4 titanium. Now some manufacturers don’t
do double pass welding. They will skip out the fusion and just go straight for the filler. But doing a double pass makes it stronger and also much more attractive. Now is there one slight thing
that you have to remember when welding titanium. And that is that it’s
incredibly reactive to oxygen. So it has to be welded
in an inert environment. So if you look when it’s on the jigs, you’ll see that the frames are actually plugged with a tube. And inside that tube is argon gas, which is very inert, and then also you’ll see on my torch here that kind of little tube that’s also belching
out argon gas as well. So it means that the
weld can be carried out in atmosphere devoid of oxygen. If you do get oxygen in there, it will contaminate the weld and it will leave a brittle finish which means that after a year or so, your bike might crack. As you can in that case, my weld perhaps wasn’t the best but those are some that
I was practicing earlier. Fresh from the torch, I believe they say, complete with yellow
tickets still attached, if you’re thinking at this point that is pretty much the finished article, it’s a thing of beauty, but it still needs to go
through the finishing process. But before we get there, there’s another really important step and that is to check the alignment. So when you weld a frame up like this, the intense heat that’s
needed to actually fuse the tubes together can cause the metal to
distort ever so slightly and twist. So you need to check the alignment of the frame and you do that on an
alignment table like this one. And so it’s incredibly precise, down to thousandths of a millimeter. And you’ll see whether the
frame is straight or not. Or whether or not it needs
to be washed in cold set. And that’s kind of where
you gently tweak it back and so that it is 100% true. What was the exact tolerances? – 5,000. – Five thousandths of an inch. There you go. To five thousandths of an inch. I mean that’s meaningless to me given that I work in metric, but it sounds really small. Now I don’t know for certain, but that could be a sneak
peak at a future design for the finish there. This little beauty of a frame here is currently halfway through the process of anodizing the logos onto the bike. So you see this incredible rainbow finish. And it’s done first of all
by sanding the tube back, treating it, and then running an electrical current over the tube in the
presence of an electrolyte. And I’m told that you change
the color of the finish by actually altering
the electrical current. And it basically changes
the shape of the crystals and that refracts the
light in a different way. And it’s a process that’s taken literally hours this morning. And we’ve watched quite a lot of it. It’s brilliant. And this is insanely cool. So instead of it being a brand new frame, this one is actually
an old frame that’s in for a refurb. So all the original decals
will be stripped off, then it will go into the blasting room and come back out looking like new. And then get re-checked for alignment just to make sure it’s still 100% true. And there you go, it’s
like a brand new bike even though it’s like, I don’t know, five or ten years old? And this is cool, we get to see inside the blasting room. I feel like an astronaut. Communicating by sign language. (upbeat music) It won’t escape your notice that a bike frame is not just tubes. There are smaller parts on there such as these, which are your cable stops. Or your rear derailleur hanger. All of those things need
to be fabricated of course. So that’s why, on this
part of the shop floor, there are four CNC machines. Because as I said at the beginning, almost everything is done in-house. And so if you look around, you’ll see all sorts of
different components. Including one over here which is a piece of the puzzle that I wasn’t aware of until just now. So this, which has just been CNC machined, is a thicker piece of titanium tubing. And actually, if you look closely on a frame, you’ll see there’s super neat weld here. And so actually you select a seat tube for certain characteristics. And then this is welded on top. You can see it’s got
much thicker walls on it. And that provides a really sturdy junction for the top tube and the chain stays to be attached to. But the diameter of it is inconveniently not the diameter of the seatpost. So this bit is also CNC machined, out of aluminum this time, sacrilegious almost, and then that gets placed
inside that thicker seat tube. And then if we come over this side, we have one of the few bits that’s not made here at Moots. This is made just up the road. This is a 3D printed titanium dropout. Look at that. So that’s where you get a titanium powder made out of 6/4 titanium which is really hard to work but super super strong. And that literally gets printed up layer by layer. Into incredibly complicated shapes. Look at the inside of that. The reason is, so not all Moots bikes have these, but is when Shimano introduced their flat mount disc standard, it turns out that was incredibly difficult to make at the scale that Moots needed of conventional tubes
and then welding that on. So what they did is they
outsourced 3D printed dropouts to their specification, that means that super
complicated shape can be made relatively easily to allow
that perfect placement of a flat mount disc caliper. And it also doesn’t hurt that that 6/4 titanium is super stiff as well. Ah yes, the suspension. This is an exploded view of the components that are inside of that
YVB suspension unit. This, as you can see, is your spring. It’s got an elastomer inside which is also has suspension qualities. And that acts as a bit of a damper. Then you have free load adjustment there, and ultimately that is your slider and that is your nylon bushing
which sits inside the frame. And there you go. Simple as that. If it aint broke, don’t fix it. Making bikes can be a fairly energy intensive process both in terms of human energy but also resources that go into actually making the frame itself. And actually that’s something that Moots takes really seriously from having solar panels on the roof that contribute up to
15% of the electricity required to run the factory, and the factory itself has
been super well insulated against the Colorado winters. And indeed this bin that
we sat next to right now. So in the manufacturing process, that bit of titanium
off cuts are produced. But rather than thrown away, they can be recycled. And they drive them over
to Denver once a month, and they exchange them for a bit of cash which they say is not very much. But enough to keep the employees in beer. Which seems like a good trade. The very final piece of the puzzle, it comes out blasting. It’s ready to roll. You fit your water bottle, you fit your derailleur hanger, your seat collar, and then the piece de resistance, the head badge. It’s screwed into place. The hand painted head badge is screwed into place. It’s cool, isn’t it? If you thought we’re
going to leave you there, then no you are mistaken. Of course the frame might be finished and ready to get boxed up in this section here and sent off to one very happy customer, but this one here is just about to be ridden. Oh yes, they’re lending me a bike. Woo hoo! By the way, you’ll notice there’s a Trek box up there. So I was asking about that earlier. And apparently, there’s a whole load of Moots owners flying into Steamboat this weekend for a gravel race, and Moots very kindly said that they could ship their bikes to them, then they’ll build them up for them so that they’re ready to
roll when they arrive. Kind of cool, if you ask me. Right, let’s go. Joining me out on my
little ride today is Drew, who is the president of Moots. Drew, first of all I want to say thanks so much for inviting us out. – Absolutely. – Secondly, thank you so much
for lending me a bike again. Can I take the opportunity now that I’ve got you out and about to ask you a couple of questions. – Yeah, shoot. – So I’m really intrigued, Moots makes this switch from steel to ti back in the early 90’s. Now I’m really glad that
you didn’t make the switch to carbon fiber but why not? – Well that’s a great question. One that we talk about quite a bit. So our philosophy at Moots
has been really simple. We always wanted to build
the best bike possible in house and bikes that we think are the best ride quality, most durable, and highest performing bikes that we can make that we enjoy riding. And we never changed our mind about titanium. So we’ve seen a lot of cool
carbon bikes out there, we know disrespect for
that would be bad media. But we still feel like we can make bikes that are super lightweight, incredibly durable, fit better than anything else, and ride better than anything else. And so we just never
felt the need to change. – Fair enough. And the other thing is that there’s a lot of talk about modern consumer culture, right? So people buy products that don’t last, and they flip them over and over again, and companies make
products that don’t last. So therefore people buy more of them. How do you guys operate in
that kind of environment? Because titanium by its very nature lasts. The bike lasts a lifetime. We’ve just seen one that’s
in for its 10 year refresh. So how does that work
for a business model? – Yeah, well, it’s kind of an a-typical business model. So you’re absolutely right, we build bikes to last a lifetime. A lot of times when people buy a Moots, they call it their
forever bike to be cliche. But that’s what we do. We’ve always built bikes that we feel have the best durability because that’s what we want to ride on. And we want to pass that along to our consumers. It works out well. Fortunately we have good partners at Shimano, Sram, etc. etc.
that keep making new specs and changing the types of components that people are riding. So even though our frame
could last for 20 years, 30 years, 40 years even, people are wanting to upgrade still for the latest in technology. So, DI2, hydraulic brakes, bigger wheels, bigger tires, all those things, they change as the years go on. So people will come
back and buy a new bike. – Drew unfortunately has
to head back to the office to do some proper work, I on the other hand have no such constraints. So I’m making the most of the opportunity to hit some of these endless gravel roads that surround Steamboat. If you want to see another epic gravel ride, this time in Iceland, but also I bought a Moots, you can click through on the screen now. Otherwise make sure you give this video a big thumbs up. Hopefully you enjoyed it as much as I have.