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A Heart of Metal chat with Matthew Sowter, founder and frame builder at Saffron.

Hi Matthew, let us start from the beginning…

Saffron has been going since 2012, so we are in our twelfth year of existence and I have been building frames for the last 14 years, but I still kind of consider myself as a new builder. I don’t see myself as somebody who has got centuries and centuries of experience and see Saffron as more of a new school of builders; not burdened with the weight of tradition but more going in the direction of finding the best solution for a particular type of riding. This leads me to a better description of Saffron in our current format – which will change at some point – we rather look at the individual and we then decide what is the best type of material to pick for them and for the particular ride that they are doing. This comes from when I used to race bicycles, road and cross country, and I remember this frustration once I walked into a bike shop needing a pair of gloves – my hands are a size large – and the guy at the shop said ‘we have these XXL gloves.. but they will work perfectly for you’. Which seemed at the time such a wrong way of doing things. That memory really stuck with me, so I started Saffron on the premise of looking at what is best for you as a rider and only then creating something that is specific for you, opposed to having a large pair of hands and wearing an XXL pair of gloves!
We have traditionally worked on not holding any stock of tubes, dropouts, paint, or anything else along those lines. This allows us to start with a blank canvas when designing our bikes.
Each rider is an individual, they all have different aesthetic tastes but also physical differences and that’s about understanding the person who is purchasing the bike from us and then creating a bicycle that is perfect for them. So that is a snapshot of where we have been for the last 12 years but actually this year and in the next couple of months we are changing our structure. With the 14 years of experience I have had designing and making bicycle frames at Saffron, we have come up with three made to measure models each designed for a particular type of riding. So, instead of making a stock model, we still look at the individual to see what is the flexibility of their muscles, the handling ability of the rider and so on, then we will use a set of tubes for a particular type of riding and then make a bicycle which is based upon that type of riding for that particular type of rider. So, all the angles and length of tubes are still dialed in for each rider’s position. There will be no stock sizes, it’s still a custom service. We will still be offering what we do now, starting with a complete blank canvas if this is what you require.

You know, by having all of that experience of working with mainly Columbus tubes, and understanding how those tubes work in a manufacturing sense, but as well as in a riding sense, from feedback of riders, from the feedback that I have from riding the different tube sets, I now have a precise idea of what is best for a particular type of riding. And so it’s kind of just using a great amount of experience to find something that is best for a particular type of riding, but still cooperating the riders with the length of the tubes, the angles and so on.

But still it must be feasible and sustainable for you too

It’s something that needs to work for us financially but also in terms of satisfaction, as I want to be 100% proud of every little thing that comes out of our workshop. And so it’s quite exciting to be able to develop something that is 100% Saffron opposed to 50% and 50% the rider, if this makes any sense. And so there is a little bit of anticipation of joy over the things that we created and potentially we will sell in these three models.

When did you start working with Columbus, since the beginning or later on?

Right at the beginning, I started building frames in 2010, I worked for two years for Enigma Bikes, working on steel, and I used almost exclusively Columbus tubing. My relationship seems to last since the beginning of my frame building experience. But it’s not by habit that I continued with Columbus. My reasons for using Columbus, are at least a couple. There is a big variety of tubes. So how we have been working up to now, finding the exact tube for that particular rider, there are more options within the Columbus range than in any other range of tubes, which gives me the flexibility of being able to choose exactly what I want. I also think that the consistency of the tubes is really good. I know that I ordered like 20 top tubes in XCr with a 31.7 mm diameter and I know that the butting profile is going to be exact through all of them and I know that the diameter of the tube is going to be consistent and this helps me when I am not having to make fine adjustments just because the tube is not perfectly accurate, so this makes the process much easier to me.

You know that consistency is one of the three words frame builders use when we ask to define Columbus in three words.

Yes, and I would also add the progressiveness of what you do at Columbus, with looking at different ways and different shapes and using different materials and maybe different heating processes getting different characteristics for your tubes. It seems to be always moving, never stagnant. It might seems a little bit misleading but predominantly we produce in XCr and the reason is a higher Chrome content in your XCr in comparison to other stainless steel tube sets; that leads back to the consistency of the stainless steel that I really enjoy working with. We fillet-braze our frames with silver and this is kind of a unique selling point, we don’t TIG weld the frames which would be far more economical for us to do but for us to have the beautiful integration from one tube to the next is really important and using silver is a not more even expensive in material as well as labour but we find that we get a much better product. Because stainless steel is a fragile metal when heat is introduced to it, the consistency of the stainless steel allows us to use the silver of the fillet brazing in a better way. You can imagine if the content of the stainless steel as in the Chromium was inconsistent, when we are melting the silver and joining the tubes together, we would not have the consistency of what we do when it comes down to fillet brazing the frame in silver.

This is actually a bit of a contradiction because the frame we have chosen to talk about is not from stainless steel. It is actually a mix of different materials that we have chosen on that particular frame. We have used Columbus HSS for the head tube, Columbus Zona for the downtube, 35mm of diameter, Columbus Life top tube and Columbus Zona s-bends on the seat stays and chain stays.

What kind of frame and bike is this? Does it have a name, the name of the owner or what?

Currently we use the name of the owner, which in this case is Stefan, and he lives in the mountainous region of Wales, which is not like the Alps, it is more like hills in comparison to where you are in Italy. The idea of the frame is very much an all purpose frame and it is set up for gravel racing, adventure touring off road and also some road riding as well. We have used a Columbus Futura Cross+ fork which allows us to switch the rake depending on the type of riding that the rider wants to do. The bike has an integrated dynamo light system and the fork allows us to run the cables internally; we have got some pannier mounts and some bottle mounts on the leg of the fork which open up the possibilities of carrying more gear; we obviously have got a disc brake and it’s really nice it can run a 180 rotor which guarantees a better stopping power under a heavy load which is very good when you are going down a descent carrying 30 or 40 kilograms on your bike. We also have mudguard mounts

Which are the reasons why of your tubing choice?

So, I chose the Zona downtube because of the thickness, the strength and flexibility: it has a thicker wall thickness which helps with the overall strength of the tubes; 35mm diameter to allow a little bit of flexibility of the frame, especially for when riding off-road.
The Life top tube brings the weight down: there isn’t a huge amount of force that is going through the top tube so we could make it light.
The Spirit HSS for the seat tube: it’s only buttered at the top and allows us to put the aluminium shim into the seat cluster: when we are doing the pinch bolts there is heat that goes into the top of the tube while you are fillet-brazing the top tube and the seat stays to the seat post and so the greater wall thickness around that area allows us to have less distortion within the area. So when we re-mould the seat tubes with the aluminium shim, the structure of the tubes keeps its state. This also allows us to use a 27,2 seat tube which is important because my aim is to keep the rider as comfortable as possible, while a larger tube would be stiffer.
The reason why we used the Zona S-bend seat stays and chain stays is for having enough clearance for the 42mm tires.
The pinch bolts are more for an aesthetic reason than for functionality.
We used the T47 bottom bracket so we can run internal routing for hydraulic brake which runs from the top tube all the way out to the chain stays but also we have internal routing for the dynamo light that runs to the permanent rear light.

Wow it’s a living catalogue of Columbus tube sets!

Well, this really describes what we do, that we don’t look at just one tube set but we really do look at the individual and the type or riding and we mix exactly what we feel is best. This is a good illustration of all the individual tubes that we would select for an individual.

And do we at Columbus make any custom tube for you? 🙂

We feel that the Columbus range of tubes is big enough. And also, the way we have been working until now, on one off frame, makes little sense in producing very few pieces of a custom tube. In all honesty we have never been looking for something that is not in your tube range.

What is unique in Stefan’s bike – well the word unique might not be proper as I believe that originality in life is now almost impossible to come by, everything has already been done before and especially with bicycles, but something that we do do and is kind of signature, is an integrated pinch bolts into the seat stays: the clamping mechanism for the seat post is within the seat stays. And actually Cinelli was one of the first companies to do this integrated pinch bolts (in the Supercorsa model ndr). But ours is slightly different, and we make it by altering the top section of the seat stays: we put a slug of stainless steel inside the top of the seat stays and when we finish the frame we machine the thread into the seat stay as well as for the clamping mechanism of the bolts. Afterwards what we do is cutting the top of the seat tube to run on exactly the same line as the seat stays to get this clean finish.

Which is amazingly beautiful..

Thanks, in my approach to the design of the bicycle frames, the number one concern is that the rider gets into the perfect position on the bike and it handles exactly the way that the rider needs the bike to handle, then we approach the aesthetics of the actual frame. As well as when it comes to the paint, when you look at our bikes from a distance, they can almost look understated but when you go up and look a little bit more at the details, at a closer distance you can see all the details and the quality of work.

How many people work at Saffron?

It’s three of us: Rob Flowers here does all the marketing and the design for us, a very important part of the process. Russ Burton deals with all the organizing and scheduling and ordering and customer interaction. He allows everything to run smoothly. And me, I am the only one who does the frame building.

Where are you based?

We are in London, based in the borough of Greenwich for the last 8 years.

How does it work, do your customers come to the workshop or how?

We try to encourage the customers to come in but over the 50% of the bicycles we make goes outside of England. Sometimes we do have customers coming in, some come to collect their bicycle – even from Florida or so. Even people in the UK, you know after Covid some people are comfortable sitting on a zoom call instead of coming to the workshop. Of course for me it’s a nice way to start the process if somebody comes to the workshop, we can sit down and I really can get the best understanding of who they are, what type of rider they are and what kind of riding ability they have. There’s a lot more that can be picked up by sitting with someone than through an email or a video call, through the body language and their reactions and interactions.

How long does it take from the first contact with your customer to the moment he or she can ride it?

That depends very much on the availability of components and how long our waiting list is. Currently there is an eleven month wait.

Anything we did not mention that is important to you?

It’s very labour intensive to make a bicycle frame and it’s not easy to convey that we often choose the most difficult way to create the best possible product and this is also quite difficult to communicate to the public. Just to give an idea, just to fillet braze the frame with silver, the price of silver only is 650 pounds for 1kg of silver, it’s not cheap, then if you choose let’s say XCr tubing, that are also very expensive so just the time consuming process of fillet-brazing the bike and then making sure that all of those fillets are super smooth to have that beautiful integration from one tube to the next, we are talking about two days of work to have something accurate to that standard, in addiction to TIG welding a frame – you TIG weld a frame and you walk away and it’s good – sometimes it gets really difficult to communicate to the outside world the process we actually go through to make something that we feel is aesthetically and practically pleasing to each rider. So that is a challenge that we have and occasionally we have some open days when we can take our customers through the whole process, to have them getting the real sense of what goes into a custom frame.
We have an open day coming up on the 9th of March, where we will have someone talking about the fitting process, frame design, techniques and materials we will be having our painter talking about what it takes to paint a Saffron. These events give people the opportunity to get a better insight into a custom frame. In this day and age we rarely get the opportunity to fully understand what goes into the things we buy let alone touch and feel the raw materials that make up our possessions.