Building a mountain bike
Progress so far
The project so far - Wheels mounted just to get an idea how it looks (they'll need to come off for additional work)

Step by step
   Part I - Introduction - 11/26/2006
   Part II - Frame, Headset, and Fork Decision - 11/26/2006
   Part III - Time to start building (sort of)! - 11/26/2006
   Part IV - Wheels and tires - 11/30/2006

Other interesting items
Recipe for a bicycle (i.e. the parts as we build)

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I want to build a mountain bike
Can a guy with absolutely zero mechanical skills build his own bike from parts???

Part I - Introduction

As the title states, can someone who hurts himself with tools really do this? Furthermore, once he builds it, can he ride it without it disintegrating or exploding due to the workmanship of said guy with no mechanical skills? Stick around, because we're about to find out!

Before we start, I need to establish a couple of things:

1) I really do have zero mechanical skills. I'm an Information Technology professional by trade, and I have plenty of witnesses who can vouch for my complete lack of mechanical aptitude. The closest I have ever come to trying something like this was maybe hanging a shelf in my garage. Power tools are an absolute no-no for me. Luckily, building a bike typically doesn't require power tools.

2) I will be building out of parts, not building from scratch. If you came to find out how to weld a frame, look elsewhere. Sorry, but all the parts I by will be pre-manufactured. I know my limits.

3) I will be building a hardtail bike and not a full suspension rig. It shouldn't be much more difficult, but I want to keep this as simple as possible. Besides, I like the looks of hardtails anyway. For the unitiated, a hardtail bike is a frame that has a rigid rear end, as opposed to being hooked up to a suspension device of some sort. For comparison's sake, if you buy a bike at Target, etc. it is almost always a hardtail.

4) I will try to pass on what I learn. Hopefully, this site will be helpful to SOMEONE besides me.

So, why build a mountain bike when I can just go to a local bike shop and buy a new one? Good question! I'm not totally sure myself to be honest, other than it sounded like a fun idea. Seriously, I listed the reasons for building a bike on my own and not building one. Here is what I came up with:

1) You do not build a bike to save money. You would think you save money in the end by doing it yourself? Think again. Most of the high-end bike builders out there are buying the same parts I am, but they are getting much deeper discounts on those same parts because they are obviously buying in bulk. Any cost savings in assembling, etc. doesn't even begin to cover the price difference. As I look over the list of parts that I have amassed for this project, I estimate I probably spent $500 more than a similarly equipped bike in a bike shop. That doesn't include another $200 or so in special tools that I had to purchase.

2) You do build a bike to because you want an education. I always wanted to learn more about how all the parts of a bicycle are put together, so I figured what better way than to build a bike myself? I can honestly say that I learned quite a bit during my research phase about the mechanics behind a bike before I ever turned a wrench. As I began to put the parts on, the education definitely continued.

3) You do not build a bike because you want one in a hurry. If there is one thing I have learned so far, building a bike takes PATIENCE. Patience to perform all the research necessary before purchasing parts, patience as you're putting things together, and most importantly, patience to take a deep breath and figure out how to fix something that you didn't correctly install the first time. If I have one piece of advice regarding bike building, it is to take your time while doing this. If you need a bike that works perfectly immediately, go to a local bike shop (NOT a department store)..

4) You do build a bike because you want to pick out the exact parts. Another benefit of building a bike is there are no upgrades. Usually, when people buy a mountain bike, the first thing they do is start upgrading specific parts on it to their liking. By building a bike, you get to pick out exactly what you want from the very start.

5) You do want to build a bike because it's kind of cool to say you built your own bike. At least I think it is!

Part II - Frame, headset, and fork decision

As mentioned above, I decided right off the bat to build a hardtail bike, so the very first choice to make was which hardtail frame to buy. Like most people who know mountain bike materials, I knew my choices to be steel, aluminum, or titanium. Since titanium was out of my budget ( hardtail titanium frame starts at around $1,500) and the vast majority of bikes today are made from aluminum of some form, I figured I would look at through the dizzying array of aluminum frames on the market. Frames in this category came in all price ranges, from $99 up to $1,400. In the beginning, steel just seemed to be too old-school and too heavy for me to consider it.

To make a long story short, I eventually went with a steel frame (surprise). There were several factors that went into this decision, but I think the big selling point for me was the fact that steel is supposed to be a slightly softer ride than aluminum. No, it won't be a full suspension bike, but a little software would be nice. I also really liked the looks of a particular steel frame - the Zion 660. After reading some very favorable reviews of the frame on both and in Mountain Biking Action, I decided what the heck. At $250, the frame was a relative bargain as well. It is a little heavier than an aluminum frame, but still at only 4.5 pounds, it was still light enough for me to build a sub-30 pound mountain bike.


The headset (the two parts labeled "King") has been pressed
into the frame and the Thompson handlebar stem mounted.

Another factor behind my decision to go with the Zion frame was that it was manufactured to accept mostly "standard" sized parts. During my research, I found that there were some oddball sizes here or there on different frames and some of the frames didn't accept certain parts that I wanted to use. One of these parts is a headset.

In the case of a bicycle, a headset is the part that connects the steering column (which is part of the fork), to the bicycle frame. In the case of headset manufacturers, there are three or four of them, but there is one that is the undisputed leader in making durable high-quality headsets. You pay a little more for a Chris King NoThreadSet, but once again, nearly all reviews indicated you were definitely getting what you paid for.

While the headset decision was a no-brainer, the fork decision was exactly the opposite. The frame manufacturer recommended a fork with travel between 80mm for racing use and 100 mm for cross-country use. Since I wasn't going to be racing, I went for the more plush 100 mm end. There was considerable difficulty in choosing a fork, though, because each fork had its share of good and bad reviews. Given that the fork was likely to be the single most expensive item on the bike, my decision as to which fork was even tougher. Once you buy a fork, you can't return it because you will already have cut the steering tube to your bike's length.

In the end, I shortened my list to three or four potential candidates and read all the reviews again. Everyone has great experiences with these forks and everyone had horrible experience with these forks. My decision wasn't getting any easier. Finally, fate stepped in. One of my finalists was featured as part of the review Zion bike in Mountain Bike Action. Furthermore, it happened to be on sale for $75 off the normal price at one online retailer. I jumped on the sale and had my fork in hand.


Part III - Time to start building (sort of)!

After a quick purchase of a Thompson stem (to attach handlebars to steering tube), I finally had enough materials to build something. However, in reading through a couple of books, I discovered that as much as I wanted to build the bike, there may still be some things that were out of reach for a home mechanic. Two of these were reaming and facing the head tube, and facing and chasing the bottom bracket shell. The head tube is where the steering column is attached to the frame and the bottom bracket shell is basically where the cranks attach to the frame. Obviously, both of these areas see the most force exerted from a rider. As such, their tolerances must be fairly exact to avoid any issues further down the road.

The tolerances are achieved through the reaming, facing, and chasing processes mentioned above. Since I had no idea what these terms meant, I did the perfunctory research on them and here is what I now know:
Reaming: The process of reaming a tube ensures the insides of the tube are perfectly round and are the necessary correct diameter for accepting another part (in a bike's case, the head tube should be reamed to accept the headset).
Facing: Facing involves cutting both ends of a tube so that those ends are perfectly parallel to each other. That way, any parts attached, will also be perfectly parallel to each other.
Chasing: Threads are chased in the bottom bracket shell to ensure the threads conform to the specific angles required for the part being threaded in.

I did a quick search online for the tools to do this stuff and my heart nearly stopped after looking at the prices. A reaming and facing tool was around $400. It was at this point that I realized I would have to swallow a little bit of pride and have a bike shop do this work for me. Since the frame was going to be prepped, I decided to also have the shop press in the headset and install the fork and stem.

You may think I'm whimping out a little bit by having the bike shop do the headset, fork and stem. Maybe. But since they were going to prep the frame and do the other stuff for a meager $35 total, I decided to take them up on the offer. As I mentioned above, the fork steering tube has to be cut to the exact length for your frame. If I messed that up, I was out $400 for a fork. That made my decision a lot easier.

I gave the shop a very specific set of instructions for what I needed done (ream/face the head tube, face/chase the bottom bracket shell, press in headset, add nine millimeters of spacers between headset and handlebar stem, install stem), and they followed them to the letter. The end result of their work is in the photo below. From this point on, it will be all me... until I mess something up and take it back to the shop for them to fix.

To be continued...

The frame, with the headset pressed in (the headset is the two small rings of silver above and below where the frame meets the fork), spacers installed above the headset and handlebar stem mounted. The white on the frame is nothing but protective cardboard.

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