Paul Price, AKA the founder of Paul Component Engineering, was always going to make stuff. Cool stuff. Having gotten his start building and selling skateboards in middle school, and making and installing his first set of cantilever brakes as a teenager, it seems like he was predestined from childhood to one day build a candy-colored component empire.
But it’s evident from speaking with Paul that he doesn’t take his empire for granted for a second, being one of the lone survivors of the slump in the component market that knocked out many of his domestic competitors in the nineties. He’s constantly evaluating himself and his product and always looking for new opportunities for new cool stuff, reserving a whole CNC machine in his factory for new product development at all times. “I ride most mornings. Come up with ideas. Can we make that? Do we know how to make that? There are days where I go for a ride, come up with an idea, get into the shop, and we’ll have a functional part by the end of the day. I think it’s pretty special that we can do that.”
When I visited his factory for a tour, we talked about the stories behind two bikes from his personal collection- bikes he built during critical times in the component company’s history…
BIKERUMOR: So you’ve had one real job in your life. What was your real job?
PAUL: I designed tools when I got out of Engineering school for a manufacturing place in Redwood City.
BIKERUMOR: General Manufacturing?
PAUL: They were a job shop for Silicon Valley. Lots of grinding, broaching… they had this one broach that was two stories tall.
BIKERUMOR: The tool was two stories?
PAUL: Yeah. You’d go up on this ladder and put the part in, and it cut different shapes. I went through high school and college working at bike shops. Probably six Schwinn shops, when there was such a thing- it was a little better than your average shop.
BIKERUMOR: You started in ‘89. Did you mean to get started with bike parts specifically?
PAUL: Yeah, I did.
BIKERUMOR: Which bike part did you think you were going to be able to produce and make any money from?
PAUL: I started with brakes, probably. Well, I made some brakes when I was a junior in high school. Put them on a cruiser.
BIKERUMOR: What kind of brakes?
PAUL: Cantilever brakes. Yeah, they were made out of sheet metal, which my Dad had. He had some tools around. I hacksawed and filed them. Then brazed on some bolts. I think I just used bolts- those were the studs… on some shitty Ross because that was all the rage back then- Cruisers. Before that, in junior high, I had a skateboard company. I made wooden skateboards. I was always going to make something and sell it. There was no doubt about that.
BIKERUMOR: What non-bike parts do you make?
PAUL: Those (Sierra Nevada Condiment Holders). And we make a snowmobile throttle lever. Those are the only two. I just stopped doing outside jobs about ten years ago. If you can put your name on it, the profit margin is way higher. And then you’re making it over and over and over. In job shops, every job is new.
BIKERUMOR: How many unique parts are you making right now?
PAUL: That’s a really good question. I wish I knew. The thing with us that we do… Chris King and White, they kind of make four or five products. We make, like, four hundred. I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing or not, but I can’t stop going on a bike ride and going “I could do this thing better… and I bet ten people would buy it…”
BIKERUMOR: “I could sell tens of these!” It’s the mindset, supporting those tiny markets of tens.
PAUL: We do that and some things stick and some things… last year we got rid of a lot of parts.
BIKERUMOR: So your first shop was in your house?
PAUL: Yeah, it was in my house for a few years. It took over my house. Three bedrooms, and I had the kitchen and a bedroom.
PAUL: Yeah, it was gross. I had a garage with a mill and a lathe and a saw. And then I had polishing- tumbling was in one of the bedrooms and assembly and shipping was in the living room.
BIKERUMOR: So this is your personal shop?
PAUL: This is where I put all my manual machines. This is non-production stuff. Making tooling and prototypes. And all these machines I have a relationship with. I love them all.
BIKERUMOR: Which one do you have more of a relationship with than you use for prototyping?
PAUL: The shaper is pretty good.
BIKERUMOR: And you have the nice vises in here.
PAUL: The good vises. My dream is to add onto this and build a frame shop over there.
BIKERUMOR: You’re going to start building frames?
PAUL: It’s a dream. Economically, it’s stupid. I’m sure you have known many framebuilders. Either you’re one guy making frames scratching out a living, or you’re making 1000 a year.
BIKERUMOR: So let’s talk about bikes. Have you wrecked something you want to talk about?
PAUL: My problem is that I don’t wreck stuff because I’m too much of a wuss. I’m so proud when I break something. I purposefully don’t clean bikes. I don’t maintain them. I don’t do shit, so I can know what happens to people who do that kind of thing to the product. We have a really radical park here with some really technical mountain biking, so that’s where most of the testing happens.
BIKERUMOR: So a technical park for technical testing.
PAUL: A lot of times I hit stuff with a hammer. Like for the quick releases- I use a big wrench, right here. Where’s it going to break? Making sure it will break in a good way- so that the wheel stays on the bike. And so it won’t go into the disc.
BIKERUMOR: How many frames have you built?
PAUL: Somewhere between eight and twelve. My very first one… I took two bikes and some tubing and I held it from the rafters in the garage at my favorite sort of level and I made a tandem out of it. That bike broke immediately.
At this point, Paul pulls down a frame from the wall.
So Phil Wood made this [Mountain Goat] tubing… something people don’t know about them, they were the old tubing supplier for tandems.
BIKERUMOR: This paint job is pretty rad! The art of layering candies like this really went out. This is a very subtle effect that people don’t… it just hasn’t really come back yet. At least not to the extent that it was.
PAUL: [Russ Pickett] started at Mountain Goat. I got a job at Mountain Goat when I first moved to town.
BIKERUMOR: So this is pre-PAUL… you worked at Mountain Goat.
PAUL: Yes. For a year and a half – actually, about a year. I built this.
BIKERUMOR: And it’s not fucked up- the headtube junction isn’t collapsed.
PAUL: You know about these. Yeah, that’s where they go bad. I built this and then Russ painted it.
BIKERUMOR: What did you do at Mountain Goat?
PAUL: Built bikes. My specialty was grinding fillets.
BIKERUMOR: So you were a grinder/finisher.
PAUL: Yeah. I did some braze-ons. And then, Chuck let us use the machinery to build our own bike after we bought the tubing. But these fillets were my pride and joy- this is when I was trying to get my company started. But this one I sold. I was totally broke. I thought, this thing is worth a couple of bucks so I’ll sell this.
BIKERUMOR: You needed to buy machines.
PAUL: I needed to buy endmills. It ended up with this one guy who was a friend of a friend who broke the seat tube. He brought it in and was like “can you fix this? I bought this from you.” And I did this horrible weld, like; just get this guy out of the shop. This thing is so old it’s dumb, get rid of it. Then, about 15 years later, turns out he’s the son of one of my neighbors. He walks over and he’s like “Hey man, I need to buy some Christmas presents. You want to buy that frame back?” I had $100 in my pocket and I gave it to him. I was so happy to have it back.
BIKERUMOR: So this fin didn’t come stock on the frame.
PAUL: Yeah, this guy was jumping stuff…
BIKERUMOR: ….on your beautiful bike.
PAUL: On my beautiful bike! I just welded it and got that guy out of there. Yeah… this was ‘88. I was there for about a year. Learned how to frame build, which was awesome.
BIKERUMOR: But not weld.
PAUL: I can braze pretty well, I can’t weld for shit. Jeff Lindsay [of Mountain Goat], he’s the unsung hero of mountain bikes. He was one of the originals. But nobody really knows about it. He’s in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame Museum.
BIKERUMOR: What is this next one?
PAUL: This is the one that I took to Interbike…
BIKERUMOR: So how long ago did you make this guy?
PAUL: This is ‘99. I built this one too. With this one, I was going to make the super Rolls-Royce of commuters. This was before the “Handmade Bike” thing started happening. Nobody cared. Nobody cared about it… This is the Hippo Dropout.
BIKERUMOR: It looks like a Hippo!
PAUL: I made three sets of those. I never tried to sell them. It was just a fun project.
BIKERUMOR: It looks pretty robust. So why were you compelled to build this particular bike?
PAUL: I love bikes! And I thought okay, if I could get people to ride their bike to work, we could solve the world’s problems. That’s literally what I was thinking. Then I thought, okay, great. But the only way it makes sense for me is if I make a high end one and okay, there are Mercedes and Audis and eighty thousand dollar cars that people drive to work every day and I thought, I’ll design the bike for these people. If they are going to ride a bike, they are going want something cool. The huge flaw in that argument is that they don’t ride a bike to work.
BIKERUMOR: Cause they are driving a Mercedes.
PAUL: Or they live forty miles away in a mansion away from the city. It just turns out that there is no market for this.
BIKERUMOR: Did you ride this?
PAUL: A little bit. It doesn’t ride very well. This was my first one.
BIKERUMOR: Did you want to take this into production?
PAUL: That was the idea. The company was actually somewhat falling apart. I was scrambling for what to do.
BIKERUMOR: Why was it falling apart in ‘99?
PAUL: The mountain bike boom ended. Remember the anodizing and the purple and all that crap?
BIKERUMOR: I meant to talk to you about this. The interesting thing about you was that you were gearing up right in the middle of all that. Where were you? For the small CNC machinists, the world was falling apart people were freaking out.
PAUL: I tried to do a job shop. I got divorced. It was horrible. I was eating ramen. But I stuck with it. Also, I made the first mountain bike single speed hub, and that kind of came out of the wreckage, like the Mad Max. That kept me going.
BIKERUMOR: What did it look like from your end as a component person, because I just remember stuff crashing and I remember what it looked like from the framebuilder’s perspective. Very very few companies like yours survived intact.
PAUL: Well I did derailleurs and that was the peak. When my derailleur came out, that was that was it. And shortly after that, Shimano came out with XTR – the very first XTR. It was weird. I pretended not to notice for about six months but after a while… shit is falling apart here. Then a year later I’m like whoa! Okay! There is nobody else to fire. I can’t sell anything else. We’d better do something around here. It was really scary. This was all I wanted to do. I stuck with it and all those people went away. All the competitors. All those little shops who were like “let’s make mountain bike parts.”
BIKERUMOR: “I have a CNC machine and I know an anodizer.”
PAUL: And they all went away. There were a couple years there where it didn’t matter what you were making, you could make money with it. We made some shit. We made some good products, but some of it was… nobody did any testing, nobody actually rode anything. I didn’t even ride a bike from that period for a long time. Three or four years- when things were really shitty. Then one day I rode a bike again. I was like, “this… is a good idea.”