Case Study: Three Stars Cycles
The Sound a Torch Makes
Story & Photos by Aaron Smith
"People don't think about how noisy the process is."
- Josh Kruck
And he's right.
I'm sitting on some old, wooden stairs. The kind of stairs you find in many older homes, leading to a semi-finished basement. They creak a bit when I shift my weight, while I jot notes down and try to take it all in. It's a little dark, with fluorescents providing harsh light over the chest freezer, spreading it's way to light the rest of the room. The stairs come right down the middle. I imagine many basements in this area look a lot like this, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find a torch and frame jig in any of the neighbor's.
I've come here to meet with Josh Kruck, the founder of Three Stars Cycles. Based in Saint Paul, Josh begins from the most basic of building blocks and sees it through to the very end, chain and everything. Down here many finished frames sit in various states of built/unbuilt - most are Josh's own, created to satisfy his own wants/needs. A Columbus MAX Road Frame sits with just a crank, a red single speed commuter bike missing a pair of wheels; a couple frames for customers hanging up, awaiting parts to come in.
I turn my attention to the workbench and talk with Josh about my own bike he's building up, which now sits in a vice. He sits down, plays a bit with the knobs on the gas tanks and lights the torch. Flipping his glasses down, he places a small ring of metal on the top of the headtube and begins to braze it on. The light is intense, but he's provided goggles so I can see the brilliant light do it's work - it's something else to see metal melting, becoming a part of the larger frame. Just like that, it's done, and Josh is back to filing down the excess.
A skilled hand at work, indeed.
"I take things apart more than I put them together. It's something I didn't expect coming into this."
As he works away at the newly added-to headtube, Josh mentions this off hand. Just as before, it's something I didn't expect to hear, but it's true. The image of the silent Craftsman working away to create a thing of beauty has been largely washed away - it's a much louder art than I expected. He eyes his work like many other artists I've met; with a healthy dose of skepticism. Doubting one's own ability might be just as important as confidence; you're always your worst critic.
Mr. Kruck came into this business as many other's of the so-called 'Third Wave' of bicycle builders did. He took classes offered by another local frame builder in order to make a bike he felt he couldn't buy from off the shelf. After playing around and improving frame by frame, he expanded and offered his services to close friends who were looking for something a little different than a store bought frame, more of a personally tuned ride. Never intending this to be a full-time endeavor (he has kept the day job), he's kept production down. His attention to detail and insight into personal riding needs, however, still remains strong. The assessment I obtained to get the numbers for my new frame allowed me to go back and tweak my current bikes - leading to a much better ride quality. The man knows bikes.
How I came to meet Mr. Kruck was through a ride I put on early in the season as kind of a Almanzo Prequel. He showed up with one of his own works (a lovely tan gravel 'monster') and proceeded to do amazingly well, despite the less than stellar weather. It's this knowledge of local roads and rides that leads him to be an ideal Minnesotan builder, as he chooses to build only for those in the area he currently lives in. Truly a much more personal experience than picking up a stock bike from your local LBS.
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