• Reynolds still manufacturing steel tubing components for bike frames (Reynolds)Source: Reynolds
Steel used to be the material of choice when it came to making bike frames and Reynolds Tubing was one of the top manufacturers of the world's steel tubing.
Steve Thomas

16 Sep 2017 - 9:22 AM  UPDATED 16 Sep 2017 - 9:26 AM

Steel was once the automatic choice when you were designing a bike frame. Then along came the mass budget production aluminum frames, titanium and now carbon fibre, but in some arenas steel is having something of a renaissance.

Steve Thomas called into the Reynolds factory and spoke to the factory in the UK to speak with head honcho of Reynolds, Keith Noronha, about the company's role in the early days of the cycling manufacturing industry.

"I don’t know the full history of the company – it’s all a little bit foggy," said Noronha. "We do know that the Reynolds family have been in Birmingham since the early 1800’s, and we believe that they were first involved in nail manufacturing in 1841 in Aston, Birmingham.

"We do know from looking at the patent that Alfred Reynolds and Thomas Hewitt, for some reason, decided to try making a butted cycle tube in 1897, when cycling had only been around for 20-30 years. We have no idea why a nail maker would try to do this, but that fundamental mechanical process they invented is basically how tubes are still butted now."

Butting is essentially a process that gives tubing different thicknesses at points in the frame to ensure the crucial parts are strong whilst less important sections are thinner and lighter. At this point in frame manufacturing, bike frame were mostly brazed (joined together by filler metals, rather than being directly welded) and lugged (tubes connected through socket-like sleeves).

The Reynolds factory isn't still in family hands, they sold to Tube Investments (TI) in 1928, who also own Raleigh, with the family remaining involved in the process until the 1960s.

"Although the tube drawing was moved to another factory," Noronha elaborated, "the original Reynolds factory continued with cycle tubing as their main business, but they also produced tubes for motorcycle frames, and even built high end motorcycle frames themselves, but not bikes.

It's not all about the past at Reynolds however, the quest for improved tubing continues as the demand increases for functional, lightweight material in the cycling industry.

"We’ve invested a lot in high-end materials such as titanium," said Noronha, "and export a lot of butted titanium tubing. We’ve also invested in aluminum-lithium, although at the moment it’s not a commercial success, we’re looking at it as in investment in sourcing materials and technology for the future."

But the focus of the business remains rooted in dependable steel.

"We’ve never moved away from steel, it’s always been our core business. For example, 853 (one of their more popular models) has been around for about 20 odd years now, and our sales of it continue to grow. But now it’s a mixture of export to places like Taiwan, where some manufactures produce high-end frames for major brands, and the smaller custom frame builder has also come back into the market and is using it.

"We’ve definitely seen a resurgence of custom builders. Having visited and exhibited at custom shows around the world where these builders get the opportunity to show off their craftsmanship we can see that steel and titanium is a good place for Reynolds to be right now."

For the bike-building market, steel remains a popular choice, easier to manipulate than other materials and more environmentally friendly.

"There is no doubt that there is fashion element to it, steel making a comeback that is. The characteristics of materials now, and their properties are far more advanced that they were in say the 1960’s, especially so in the last 5 years.

"I would say that 90% of the custom builders are building in steel and titanium, and a few in carbon fibre. I think the reason for this is that you can relatively easily custom build a very strong frame, it can be customised without having to build a new jig (which you must do with carbon fibre).

"The ability to recycle is also very important – a stainless steel frame for example can last for a very, very long time, and ultimately it can always be recycled. Partly due to legislation and partly due to the perceived long life of steel versus the throw away (carbon fibre) angle is also becoming more of a factor within the cycle industry."

In the competitive scene, it has been a long time since steel has been a consistent part of the professional peloton, but according to Noronha, there's always been a 'soft' spot in the bunch for steel.

"What actually surprised me a lot was when aluminum first took over many pro team managers actually wanted their riders using steel bikes for the Tour because of durability.

"A steel frame will never hit the weight mark in comparison to carbon, and carbon is a great material mechanically. But up until a couple of years ago we were working with the Madison-Genesis team, and although the frame was heavier a (built up) steel bike can still easily hit the UCI weight limit, and can easily be as rigid as carbon."

Whilst steel is often considered a relic of the past when it comes to bike manufacturing, it's far from irrelevant even in the modern day industry and will no doubt continue to play a role into the future.