Compelled by his desire for a custom 29er singlespeed, Todd Ingermanson took up the torch 13 years ago to attempt to build his own. After several years apprenticing with Rick Hunter, he broke out on his own with Black Cat Bicycles and is now building and hand-painting custom to order frames out of his home workshop.
There are two very striking things about Todd’s shop, one being its scale and efficiency. There is no redundancy in machinery; there is a single very nice manual mill, a lathe, and a welding cart. It’s very clean. Everything that isn’t a machine is on wheels. It’s evident that this level of refinement is driven by the second very striking aspect of his operation: its location perched on the side of an extremely steep incline in Aptos, California (my rental car struggled to get up to it). During my visit, Todd and I spoke about his operation, his approach to frame-building, and his Manifesto.
BIKERUMOR: How did you get into frame building? Before being a framebuilder what did you do?
TODD: I worked at bike shops forever and ever and ever. Since I was 13? You’re hanging out at the bike shop and finally the guy hands you a fucking broom and says “do something.” And I was like, “oh sweet! I get a discount on stickers!” I did that. I tried to do other things and tried to get out of the industry.
BIKERUMOR: … it just keeps pulling you back in.
TODD: Well, you know, you have to start over again. You have this bank of knowledge that’s worth something in the bike industry but then I tried to get into custom furniture and it’s like starting all over from scratch again. And you’re starting at entry level shit.
When I was 19 or 20, I moved to Oakland and shortly thereafter got involved in the singlespeed scene there. There were really no choices other than having, like, a custom made bike… but no one was making them at that point. It was kind of before even Spot Brand got together. Nobody was making that, making single speed. If you wanted a production bike, you would cut off the dropout and braze on a new one or something.
Then in 2002, I was living in San Luis Obispo and wanted a 29er but nobody was really making them – in the States anyway. I was like, that’s really cool. I think Surly was making one at that point. And Gary Fisher of course. I kind of wanted a cool bike instead of a, like, whatever bike. So I have a couple friends down there who were frame builders or are framebuilders. And I said “hey, can you help me make a bike?” And they were like “sure!” They lent me some tools. That was it. I probably made 15 bikes by myself and I moved up here and I got a job with Rick Hunter. I kind of apprenticed with him for five years or something like that. Then, at some point you realize that there aren’t that many, especially back then, not many two person shops- a lot of one man shows. At some point you’re like, okay, I need to do my own thing.
BIKERUMOR: You said that when you were looking for 29ers you wanted a cool bike instead of something that was mass produced. It’s interesting that you do your own paint. One of the things you have on your website is that “people have been decorating their shit since the dawn of time” so it’s a natural thing for you to go into that level of detail with your bikes. Like that fucking cubic bike you brought to NAHBS this year.
BIKERUMOR: So I could see that as a driver – did you always want to do paint as part of making bikes?
TODD: When I was in high school I had a really cool art teacher, a couple really cool art teachers who were really active and pretty much let me do my thing. So I got into jewelry, I got into a crazy array of stuff. and I started going to art school but that wasn’t really my thing.
BIKERUMOR: Why wasn’t that your thing?
TODD: Art students are really difficult… to me anyway. I really wanted to get out of my parent’s house and start doing my own thing. And I wanted to leave a lot of things behind, so I thought school was one of those things. So when I started going to school for art, it was one of those things where I got a scholarship to do it, I didn’t really didn’t want to do it, but it was one of those things you should do, that everything says you should do. When I got there I was so overwhelmed I didn’t know how to deal with it… wow, a lot of my personal things here.
I’ve always had that 2D as well as 3D art background. It kind of makes sense to do paint. The first year I went to the Handmade show, I couldn’t afford sending bikes to Spectrum or anything like that. So it’s like, let’s get some Rust-Oleom and see what I can do. So I did that. And people really liked it. So I was like, okay, let’s keep doing that.
BIKERUMOR: Because you have to show up with something. And you make what your consumer wants but when you get to the show, you have to reach a little bit.
TODD: I think so. I very really rarely, except to this last one, ever taken a customer bike. I have always built stuff that I wanted to build- cause. As well as you’re reaching… maybe I can do that, maybe I can’t, you know? It’s always just made it more interesting. So whether the paint works or not, it’s always been up to the customer as far as whether they like it or not. They seem to like it, I guess. I try not to be so paint oriented that that kind of covers a lot of other things. I like to have a nice bike that works whether or not it’s painted nicely. So this is kind of a thing that- Dario Pegoretti for sure was the first guy to be like nah, this is art. This isn’t a stupid bike. This is hard. Definitely following in those footsteps as well as the tradition where a builder also paints everything. That’s how it was done. Ritchey painted everything in house. All the Masis were painted in house. Maybe it’s unique for this time period…
BIKERUMOR: Aside from the paint.. so these are your personal bikes? They are kind of… dull. You don’t do crazy paint for yourself? That’s interesting. So I read all of your manifestos this morning. I love that instead of having “About Me” you have a “It’s NOT ABOUT ME, MAN,” and instead you have a “Manifesto.”
TODD: Everyone wants that, or think that they want that. And when I was writing I was like, this is fucking painful. Write about yourself and not come off as like a prick or self-aggrandizing?
BIKERUMOR: I think the small builder market gets a bad rap because there is a perception that they are cartoon characters with torches.
TODD: Yeah… that cult of personality. Just this weird “this guy’s going to build me a bike and it’s going to be magic!” And it’s like, well, it’s just going to be a bike made by that guy. The whole soft focused black and white focused photography that is so big for frame builders. That was really romanticized and I think that it did us a lot of injustice. It’s just not that. You know? It’s not romantic when I have this dirt on me. My clothes stink.
BIKERUMOR: It doesn’t do the machine justice by any means.
TODD: No, no, no. So yeah, I don’t know. It’s part of me trying to push against that and, again, at the same time, there is this kind of you selling yourself and your ideals and what you do and what you bring to the picture and to the story. So you don’t want to push too hard against that cause otherwise then why would they buy a Black Cat rather than a whatever? So I can’t push too hard.
BIKERUMOR: You have to still stay in the club.
BIKERUMOR: You have an extremely simple shop. And I think it makes sense that you could actually get to a point where you could distill it down to a couple machines through years of refining.
TODD: There is a lot of set up and tear down that goes on with a bike. There are a couple things that are limiting me… like that driveway. I watched the guy that delivered these machines, ‘cause there is no way I’m doing that. The guy was a fourth generation rigger. His great grandfather towed a giant windmill with teams of mules and stuff. And he had this really cool forklift that had no top or cage so he could drive right in here. But I watched him turn the corner and see the hill and his eyes go like THAT. Yeah, so bringing more machines in here- it wouldn’t be a problem, he could do it, just so I get a great deal on a machine; it’s like a thousand dollars just to put it in the shop.
Also, I don’t have a lot of floor space and I work on motorcycles too. So having an open floor plan that moves and has wheels is vital. Being able to pull everything out and throw a motorcycle in. There are a couple tools I would like.
BIKERUMOR: Yeah, it was really interesting to roll up to your shop.
TODD: I just really like figuring stuff out. Like figuring out how to have an s-bend that also has an arc to it.
BIKERUMOR: That’s tight.
TODD: Figuring that out was really hard. I don’t think anyone else is doing that probably for good reason. But I really like doing that kind of stuff, figuring out how to curve butted tubes as opposed to just working with straight gauge tubes.
BIKERUMOR: So you do crazy three dimensional bends like that guy and fillet braze and have partial lugs, and your lugs are different. These are different per bike.
TODD: Slightly different per bike. I have a recipe for how I cut them but it always changes slightly.
BIKERUMOR: Do you do full scale hand-drawings of every bike you do?
TODD: Uh huh!
BIKERUMOR: Do you use the BikeCAD?
TODD: Uh-uh. The full bike drawing allows you to lay the bike on the drawing. A quarter of a degree somewhere, which is really difficult to measure on a jig will completely throw everything off. This height [bottom bracket] is critical but it is really hard to measure because you can’t triangulate it because it already is.
BIKERUMOR: Because of the imaginary features that influence where those points are. It’s not like these are indexed to any hard points. They are floating in space with respect to any components attached. So it’s a pain in the ass.
TODD: Yeah. You can have your jig dialed and you can use your BikeCAD and it will tell you all these numbers and you can put it on your drawing and it will be half an inch off in your bottom bracket height. And that’s huge. And all that is a quarter of a degree up here. And by the time it gets down here, it’s a half inch off. So I tack everything here, put it on the drawing and see. Yep! Or Nope – and break the tack and do it again. When you start getting into that kind of stuff, it really informs the fit because if this is off, your seat angle is off, and by the time we get up here to your saddle you’re off. And by the time you get to your pedal spindle, it goes to shit. So being able to set it on an actual drawing… that’s how I deal with that.
BIKERUMOR: So what kind of volume are we dealing with? How many bikes a year?
BIKERUMOR: Do you build in batches? No? So there is a lot of tear down between processes. It’s not like you set up then do a bunch of chainstays, then…
TODD: You can when you have a bunch of similar bikes coming up that you can kind of bang out in a group. I used to do a ton of 29er single speeds… and I would kind of crank them out. I am doing quite a bit more varied stuff now so that makes doing batches a little more difficult. But I’ve done some production runs, pre-production runs. I’m going to start doing more of those. It’s just so much more efficient. This, as much as you can make more bikes and make more people happy instead of having a two year waiting list. It’s ridiculous. Like we were talking before, in two years somebody works themselves up and their expectations are just totally ridiculous. For two years that they are waiting, it’s going to be perfect and magic-
BIKERUMOR: That’s half the fun!
TODD: I think it would be better to have some production runs because a lot of people kind of want the same thing. So if you can build half a dozen bikes here, and half a dozen bikes here to fill those people’s wants and needs and then you save the custom stuff for the weird shit. And for something that truly does need to be kept custom, then you can make a lot more people happy and make more bikes.
BIKERUMOR: And then Todd’s happy. And the customer’s happy.
BIKERUMOR: So what are you working on here.
TODD: That’s a cross bike. A cross bike for a Rohloff hub, belt drive… worst case scenario. Yeah.
BIKERUMOR: Ha. “Worst case scenario.”
TODD: So I’m like, let’s put some regular derailleur housing routing on there just in case, you know?
BIKERUMOR: You have these discussions with your customers? Like: are you sure you don’t want anything resembling a normal bike? You know when people put a bunch of buzzwords in a blender and you’re like “really? You want that?”
TODD: I think the notion that you can have all these things on one bike and the custom builder who is magic can just make all these things happen. And sometimes they actually… won’t… fit… You have to be careful about it to fulfill what they want but also still end up with a nice bike. Cause with a lot of things, like I want a Rohloff hub and I want a belt drive and I want this 2.0 tire and I want to go on Saturday morning road ride and be quick… and sometimes those don’t add up.
I want this and this and this and this and nine times out of ten and not all of those features are going to fit into a bike that’s going to ride worth a damn. There’s a lot of playing bad cop. But I’ve been pretty lucky in not having anyone being too upset or too angry with not being able to have everything. I think there are a lot of people who want that but when you sit down and say “these are the things we can do within the parameters that will make you want to ride this bike and make a nice riding bike as opposed to just scattergun, PBBBBSSSTTTT, like shoot it all on the bike like a turkey. You’re going to spend a lot of money on a turkey.
BIKERUMOR: Anything else you want to talk about?
TODD: I don’t know. I’m pretty happy with where I am. There are always tweaks, but if you can reverse engineer your life, be like okay, this is what I like and this is what makes me happy, and what is it going to take for me to get to that point, then work backwards to there… that’s what I’ve been working on for the last ten years. And, I’m kinda… here. I’ve got riding right down there. There’s a big park right down there. I kind of do what I want to do and people keep giving me deposits to make bikes, so it’s pretty sweet. I’m kinda waiting for prostate cancer or for the big one- the house to come down. But yeah, it’s pretty sweet.