(Originally published in the Rivendell Reader, Winter 2001, used by permission)
To arrange a custom paint job, Call Joe Bell:
JOE BELL is exceptional in more ways than I’ll think to mention here, and his work and ours are linked tight. We’re almost half of his business, and there’s nobody I trust more with our frames. His decal placements are so perfect that you never notice them. The seat tube diamond is always where it ought to be, just above center on the seat tube. When the downtube decal placement gets tricky because it runs over the edge of a water bottle braze-on, rather than mess up the location by even a quarter of an inch, he’ll make sure the decal lays down over the corner, perfectly. He places decals by eye, not by measurement, and he’s never off. He’s painted more than 500 frames for us, and the few times when there have been issues, he’s never tried to squirm out, but has always said, “Send it back, I’ll redo it”—not an easy thing to say when you’ve got more than a day’s work into a frame already. We pay the highest prices, but get the best service in the world for it.
Despite our being his best customer, he doesn’t kow-tow to us or give us cuts ahead of one-time customers; and he is always direct and immediately honest. His prices go up every year, and are not negotiable, and he doesn’t dance around money talk—it’s always, “We gotta raise prices again, so get ready,” and that’s it. He’s humble and I’ve never heard him say a bad word about his competitors. Rather, he says, “They’re capable of the same thing, it’s just a matter of taking the time, and we charge more because we take the time. But they can do it.”
You’d think, after painting so many bikes over the years, and dealing with so many indecisive-yet-superpicky customers, that he’d get tired of the whole process. It hasn’t happened. He still cares so much that he’s refused to not paint in window cutouts, even when we and our customer have requested they be left plain. “The frame doesn’t look finished that way, and it makes me look bad. You’re getting the window fill whether you like it or not, but I’m charging you for it.” On the surface, that attitude seems outrageous, but the fact that he cares so much about his work gives it a whole different spin. He’s a craftsman with a lot of pride who knows what looks good and wants you to have it. Over the years there have been two or three times when we’ve had to get a bike painted in a day, and JB and crew always come through for us. Joe,and his two-man crew of Ralph Lowe and Rob Roberson are part of what you get when you buy a Rivendell, and we’re all lucky to have them.—GP
RR: How old are you, and how long have you been painting bikes?
JB: I’m 44, and I’ve been painting professionally since 1978.
RR: When did you paint your first bike, ever?
JB: Around 1969 I think. I was in the 8th grade. It was a Schwinn Sting-Ray that was pretty beat up from hard use, so I stripped it down and sanded it as smooth as I could, and poofcanned it black with white decals purchased from the local Schwinn shop. No clear coat. There may have been some runs in it. I watched my brothers restore a ‘53 Chevy, and learned some prep technique from them. I had several Varsitys, a couple of Continentals, Super Sports, a Sports Tourer, a Superior, and a Super LeTour—the whole range of lower end Schwinns.
I bought them used, took them apart, painted the frames, shined up the parts, then put them back together. I’d make them look racy by removing the spoke protector, adding alloy handlebars and SunTour bar-con shifters, things like that. They looked real clean when I was finished, and I had no problem selling them.
RR: How did you come to bicycle painting?
JB: I had painted several of my own bikes in the garage next to the water heater in the early 70’s. I later stumbled into the coolest pro shop in San Diego county, called Casa De Oro cycles. It was owned by Bill Holland. Soon I was hanging around there so much they had to hire me or charge me rent. I became head mechanic pretty quickly after that. Bill was already refurbishing bikes as a side business. I remember you could get your Paramount painted with Imron, lugs masked, original decals, clear coats and full braze-ons for about 95 bucks!! Anyway, after about three years, Bill sold his bike shop and asked me if I wanted to paint bikes with him. Not having anything better to do, I said, sure! Why not? And we were off and running like a herd of turtles.
RR: Who taught you?
JB: Bill showed me the basics of how to get the job done and helped me along whenever I had a problem. After that, I just gained experience. Years later I learned some techniques from Brian Baylis that we still use today.
RR: So.. .you’ve been painting bikes about 22 years professionally. How have your skills or styles or techniques changed over the years? Let’s say, arbitrarily, that you’re a 10 now. What were you when you first opened up your shop, and was it just experience or technology that brought you along?
JB: I’d say I was about a 4. Bill Holland would be a better judge of that. For me, I believe it was mostly experience and paying attention that brought me along. There have been a few technological innovations along the way, such as high transfer efficiency spray guns that spray more paint with less overspray; paints with different kinds of color effects, and better quality sandpapers and buffing compounds, but for the most part we’re still doing it the same way now as 20 years ago.
RR: When you look at a bike, do you look at the paint first?
RR: When you look at the paint, what do you look for? Color, style, detail? How much can you tell about the paint job just by looking at it?
JB: I look at all those things, but the painter’s eye always hones in on the gloss (or lack of it). You can tell a lot about the painter’s attention to details and how much he or she cares about the work, but you can’t know everything about the frame by looking at the finish. A good paint job can hide a lot of sins on a frame.
RR: Rivendells aside, what’s the most requested paint color and style for either repaints or custom jobs?
JB: We probably do more reds and blues than any other color, but I think those are always going to be the most popular. Candies and fades are pretty common but every frame is different. There is no production painting going on in our shop.
RR: What kind of bike do you ride, and how is it painted!
JB: It is a steel frame Bill Holland made for me in 1987, I think. It is a nice blue candy pearl with cream pearl Nervex Pro lugs that have been heavily romanced by Baylis. Lugs, crown, bottom bracket and bridges are all contrasted in the cream pearl and it has lots of cutouts in it. It was a collaborative effort with Baylis sprucing up the lugs, Bill making the frame and I did the paint. It’s retro-classic with Campagnolo Super Record components on it. I’m used to the old Campagnolo parts.
RR: Do you get bored painting single colors, or the same Rivendell style over and over again?
JB: No. I’m the detail guy so I don’t squirt the majority of the colors anymore. The nature of the work is tedious, so it’s important to stay focused on the work at hand.
RR: Is there a particular style of paint, or color, that you just don't like?
JB: No, I don’t think so. Nothing that I really can’t stand. Almost any color looks good once the decals are applied, trim is painted and clear coat's laid on. Clear coat is the painter’s best friend.
RR: What do you like the most?
JB: I think I gravitate to well done simple stuff with original decals but I also like some of the flashy pimpy looking things, too. I like clean masking, British style paneling, sharp pinstripes, nice blends. About the only thing I don’t like is sloppy work.
RR: How old are your children, and do they have JB paint jobs on their bikes?
JB:My daughter Dionna is 13 and my son David is 8. They have stock bikes purchased from the bike shop, and haven’t trashed them enough to need new paint. I don’t like to sacrifice a new paint job just for the sake of changing the color or to put my initials on it. My children have many interests, and are not as enthusiastic about cycling as I am. That may change in the future, but I’m not pushing them.
RR: I’ve heard that Imron is illegal in some places. What’s the story there, and how often are you checked out, environmentally?
JB: I think each geographic region has its own timetable and environmental rules about VOC’s (volatile organic compounds), but the rules seem to be changing all the time. I’m classified as a small parts painter and I believe I fall under less stringent guidelines than the auto body painters. As far as the paint itself goes, DuPont makes a low VOC Imron, but I’m a creature of habit and I’ll continue to buy the liquid death as long as I can get it.
Bicycle painters are generally adaptable, though. When everybody has to use latex semi-gloss, I’ll figure out a way to make it work. We get inspected once a year by the county HazMat division and the Fire Department comes by to look around, also.
RR: What kinds of paints do you paint with? Compare the durability of different styles or brands of paints. Pearls, solids, metallics.
JB: There are many cheaper alternatives out there that will look good, but may not hold up as well in the long run. I want the best looking, longest lasting paint available; and for me it’s Imron, the standard by which all the others have been judged for many years. I’m not saying all the other paints out there are junk (most of the big paint companies have good quality urethanes that work fine), I’m saying Imron has been the best for me. Durable paint doesn’t guarantee a durable paint job, though. So much of it is how the frame is prepped before painting. Still, we use DuPont Imron, the best quality polyurethane enamel around. You can’t get it in lots of places, and it’s also very expensive, up to $250 a gallon, for a special red. It’s formulated for tough hard use and not much care, so they use it for aircraft, trucks, heavy equipment and bicycles. It only comes in solids or metallics so we use mostly House of Kolor kandies and pearls for the custom colors, but we mix those with Imron for increased durability. I believe the solid colors are the most durable with metallics running in second, but I can’t back that up with hard numbers, just observations. Pearls are something that gets added to clear to create a different look. I don’t think it affects durability.
RR: It seems to me that solid colors look thicker than metallics. Are they thicker, or is that just an optical illusion?
JB: Metallics usually have a lot more clear mixed in the paint so the solid colors actually do have more..uh, solids in them but painting technique can also determine whether a finish looks thick or thin. But it’s the preparation of the frame and skill of the painter that lays down the paint not too thick and not too thin. And there is a fine line between too much and not enough.
RR: Powder coating is more durable. What do you think about it? What are its limitations? Do you get requests for it?
JB: Powder coating is a good, durable paint for many types of metal finishing, including bicycles. I don’t offer it because I don’t have the equipment. The bikes I’ve seen come in for repainting that are powder coated have been rather thick looking. That’s okay for TIG-welded frames, but not for fine lugged ones. The details get lost, and you can’t see the lugs as well.
One way powder coaters save time and materials is by omitting the primer (powder coating doesn’t require it). But the thing is, primer is crucial to corrosion resistance. I’ve seen powder coated bikes come in with no outward signs of rust, but when the frame was stripped you could see rust crawling around everywhere under the finish. The paint held together well, but a little chip in the paint had left the door open for rust to move freely underneath it.
Wet paint lends itself to custom colors, decals, fine masking, and more intricate work. The gloss is always better with wet paint. I think powder coating is a good reasonable finish for mountain bikes, beater bikes, and general use stuff. I just don’t recommend it for really fine lugged frames. Sometimes people call me looking for a finish for $150 or less, and I steer them to the local powder coater.
RR: On customs, how do you go about matching samples? What kinds of things have people wanted you to match?
JB: Matching samples is an art in itself because auto paints don’t always translate well to a pantone chip, piece of cloth or a photograph. I just start mixing paints together to see how close I can get. Paint also dries to a different shade, so I just do the best I can and ask my customer to be flexible. I try to get people to pick a color from the book if they can, but many folks have a tough time deciding what they want (we call this Color Choice Paralysis, or CCP). I understand this because throughout the custom frame process the customer usually has minimal input on the specifics of the building of the frame. The color is the only part he or she has to decide on, and with so many choices available it’s easy for CCP to set in. I try to help and let them take as long as they need to pick a color. It’s important to make the right decision here because the color of the bike can affect how a person feels about their bike. I’ve had people ask me to match jerseys, photos, small chips of paint, fingernail polish, cars, even a volcano video.
RR: How common is it for a customer to just not like his paint job, and blow up?
JB: It’s never happened. Over the years there have been a handful of times when the color wasn’t quite what they were after, and asked if I could give it another go. I always take good care of my customers and it’s important to me that nobody leaves dissatisfied, so I resprayed those few but made sure before the second time around that we knew exactly what we were going after. If any step in the process goes awry and has to be redone, the profit goes out the window. It’s real tight. The customer must leave happy though, because that is how you get a good reputation and that’s the best form of advertisement.
RR: A Rivendell takes eight and a half hours to paint, which seems like an incredibly long time. How does that compare with, for example, a normal pro bike paint job?
JB: In our shop we spend a good deal of time on preparation and sanding between clear coats, but our treatment of the head tube area and cutout windows is fanatical, and I think that’s what puts the distance between us and most of the others out there. Many painters aim to pass the “five foot test,” meaning the frames look great from five feet away. On the Rivendells, we shoot for the five inch test.
RR: Fine, but how long, do you think most custom paint shops spend on a frame?
JB: That’s a hard question to answer. I’ve never worked in any other paint shops. I think the best of them probably spend about the same amount of time as we do, for their best finishes, but I’m not really sure. I think it just boils down to how obsessive you are about the details, and that’s a personal thing with me. I don’t pay any attention to the time involved, I just keep at it until I’m happy with the result. An interesting side note to all of this micro nit-picking is that without my glasses, I’m legally blind.
RR: I think sometimes that your reputation makes life hard for us, though. People think, “JB paint job equals total, absolute perfection,” and then if there’s a dust spec that someone sees, it just stands against the rest of the perfect paint, and they say, “Aha! What are you going to DO about it?” meaning, “Are you going to repaint it in a day or give me a massive refund!” And, you know, it puts us in an awkward position. There’s so much good there in the paint and underneath it, but the focal point becomes this tiny little dust spec that’s at 3:30 on the top tube, about five inches in front of the seat lug. It’s rare, but it happens once in a while. What are your thoughts on dust specs? I mean, at some point, don’t even you say, or feel like saying, “It’s just a spec of dust, we are only human”?
JB: I know my brochure says, “Paint for Perfectionists,” but in the paint world, perfection is a relative term. There are only degrees of relative perfection. I’ve never painted an absolutely perfect frame, and any honest painter will tell you the same thing. All we promise is that we will make our best effort every time we stand behind the spray gun. Fighting dust is the biggest problem in our shop. It’s almost a full-time job keeping the place clean. There has been a lot of construction going on next door this past year, so the problem has been worse for us lately, but it’ll get better. The dust nib in the final clear coat can be sanded with 2000 grit sandpaper and rubbed out with some polishing compound. It’s my job to inspect the frames and make sure the tubes look and feel good. The dust nibs do not affect durability, but sometimes I miss one—sorry. Nobody’s perfect. If you see one of these dust nibs, tell the customer there’s no extra charge for it! I do feel constant pressure to maintain the high standard that I’ve set for myself, and as our reputation spreads, it seems tougher all the time to do that. It’s a burden, trying to live up to people’s expectations, but I know that if I’m happy with a frame, most everybody else will be, also.
RR: The decal on the frame says JB, but you don’t do all the work yourself…
JB: Right. I have two assistants, each with a different role. Ralph Lowe is the guy who squirts colors and does the hand sanding between those coats. He gets frames ready for me to do the decal and detail work. His job is critical because those final clear coats are how we’re judged by the customer and anyone else who knows what to look for in a paint job. He had no real painting experience when he started out as a prepper with me about ten years ago, but now he could be the front-line painter in any shop in the country. Ralph asks the pertinent questions and notices everything. Many times he’s spotted a small boo-boo or some other detail that got passed over in the process and we’re able to take care of it before the final clear goes on. He likes the low-stress environment here, the flexible work hours, casual dress, paint your wife’s garden table, Heinekens on Fridays, small perks like that. My other guy is Rob Roberson, who does all the prep work to get the frame ready for topcoating. Rob seems to like it because he’s good at it, and he’s a bicycle frame wizard. He has the best natural eye for alignment that I’ve seen, and he’s also a builder with tons of experience at Masi, Ibis, and Hooker. He does all my frame repairs and braze-on work on the frames that come to us direct for repaint or fixing. Rob’s a lifer here, too.
RR: How do you train painters?
JB: I ask them if they have a wife and children to support, and if they do, I tell them they should try another line of work. I’ve had lots of people work with me over the years. Almost all of them had no prior experience, and I just show them how I do it, and have them go to work. I tell them always to ask questions if there is any doubt about something. I’m here and that’s part of my job. The real key here is to try and keep the people you’ve trained. High employee turnover is bad for any business.
RR: Do you have any bad memories of painting bikes?
JB: Most of the bad memories don’t involve painting, but chrome plating. With the paint itself, experienced painters don’t get too worried when little problems pop up, because it happens all the time. The best painter is usually the guy who’s best at fixing mistakes. I was a little anxious when Richard Sachs sent me a frame to paint 14 years ago. He'd never heard of me, but sent me a frame on the recommendation of Baylis. He wanted his usual red paint job, but the red is a special brew that only a few painters know about, and it can be tricky if you’re not used to it. I decaled it, trimmed it, and was ready to put clear on it, and when I did, the clear just fish-eyed over every square inch of the bike. There was no way to save it, so I just stripped it and started over. I told Richard the story, and he was amused, but we haven’t had any problems since. Another time we painted a Merckx frame, but forgot to add the braze-ons the guy wanted; but didn’t forget to bill him for the braze-ons. He was less amused. Those glitches don’t happen often. Most mistakes happen when you’re hurried. I don’t want to talk about it any more.
RR: Which other painters do you think do an especially good job?
JB: Let’s see. ..how many of my friends can I get in here for a plug? Actually, I don’t get around that much, so I only really know what I’ve seen at trade shows, or in chance meetings. Most of the good painters are the ones who’ve been at it a while, of course. Baylis, Tom Kellogg, Bryan Meyers at Fresh Frame, Alan Cline from Co-Motion, Peter Weigle, and the guy who paints Glen Erickson’s frames does nice work, too. Jim Allen has been around since the stone age; and Cyclart has been doing cool stuff for many years. If I left anybody out, sorry— your payment didn’t arrive in time.
RR: Now that so many expensive bikes don’t require paint, how is that affecting your business? What were your peak years for bike painting, how many did you paint, and with how big of a crew, and what’s it like now?
JB: I haven’t had any problems finding bikes to paint; there’s plenty to go around. The only bikes that don’t need paint are titanium. Most carbon fiber frames need some sort of cosmetic assistance. Many people like the utilitarian aspect of Ti frames; they can ride ‘em hard and put ‘em away wet. But after a year or two of the dull grey look, people bring them in and say “make it candy apple red!” Colors convey emotion. People will always want to paint their bikes because it’s eye candy and can be interesting and a personal statement. My best year was 1999. We painted 385 frames with four people including myself. We had three people last year and painted 60 fewer frames. These may seem like small numbers to some people, but every frame is different and there is no way to crank out one-offs on a production line. I’m trying to streamline a few things to become more efficient but there are some things that will never get faster unless I start cutting corners, and I refuse to do that. It’s what sets us apart from the less expensive painters.
RR: Aside from us and Richard Sachs, who else sends you bikes to paint, regularly?
JB: Mostly individuals who want something they can’t get from the factory or bike shop. A few bike shops around the country send me repaints on a semi-regular basis; Turin bike shop in Illinois is probably the most consistent for me right now. It seems that if you get a service manager who knows his stuff and sticks around the same shop for a long time, he or she can bring more business in. I can’t completely count on bike shops for business because of the transient nature of bike shop personnel, so I accept work from anybody who calls me. I don’t have a website. I also paint for a few small hole-in-the-wall framebuilders who appreciate what a decent painter can do for the appearance of their frames.
RR: How much of your work is restoration of old classics, and how much is new bikes?
JB: Half of my business is new bikes thanks to Rivendell; the other half is everything else. I get a few classics in and they are fun to do but I don’t restore them to look exactly like they did before. Sure, I’ll paint it the same color with original decals, but they look cleaner and glossier than they did new. Some enthusiasts call it over restoration, but I’ve seen plenty of original work with orange peel clear, thumbprints and crooked decals. I don’t do that.
RR: What do you see as the future of expensive, painted bikes? Or, another way to put it—how nervous are you about the future—in two, five, and ten years, for instance?
JB: I think there will always be a market for a high end custom painter like me who only paints 300-400 frames a year. A good reputation will always get you work, but I’ve never been more uncertain of my future in this business than I am now. The cost of doing business in California is frightening for a small business owner. Rents, energy, materials, fees and taxes are all climbing faster than I am able to keep up with. People who work with their hands are slowly being shoved into the poorhouse and it’s too bad because the world needs art and craft and beautiful handmade objects. Without it, all we will create is a blizzard of worthless paper and neurotic self loathing human beings. I got into painting because I love to ride bicycles and work with color and my hands. The years have blown by quickly and I now have a wife and two children to support. If I had a crystal ball back then and could’ve seen the difficulties with running a small business today, I would have chosen a different path. I’m too old to get retrained now and nobody would hire me anyway, so I will continue to try to make ends meet.
RR: Do ever get to relax?
JB: I am most relaxed when everybody leaves the shop, the phone stops ringing and I am by myself detailing and coloring bicycle frames. I love it and that is what I know how to do best. That’s what keeps me going. END