Words: Joe Hall | Photography: George Marshall | Date:
UK Continental rider and constructor Tom Donhou recently relocated his workshop to Hackney Wick (near the Olympic Park) in east London. We paid him a quick visit.
How did you become a bike builder?
I started off with downhill mountain bikes and BMX’ing. I began a career working in product design but found it fairly soul destroying. Then, a few years back I gave that up, travelled to Mongolia with my bike in the back of a truck and rode out across the Gobi desert, through China, Vietnam, Thailand. Eight months on the road gave me plenty of time to think. I actually thought I’d come back to the UK with a business plan for a nine-hole crazy golf course but ended up doing this.
And so you’ve recently moved your workshop from Norwich to London?
Yeah, this is sort of phase two, after a few years of working towards it. There’s just more people into making things in London, more variety, the sheer number of people allows you to do more. It’s also been good to move as I’ve learnt what was wrong with the old place and have been able to make it exactly the right setup. I’m still settling in with bits to be done like installing the brazing hob, tubing rack, all things that make a big difference to the workflow. The big thing is when my spray booth goes in, setting it up exactly how I want. I didn’t just want to move to London to another workshop. I wanted it to be the next stage in the development of Donhou bikes.
It’s a nice bright space.
Yeah, there was formerly a mini-ramp in here so we ripped that out and painted over all the rubbish graffiti. Then a friend came in and built the stairs and mezzanine for me. We moved over a weekend during a really cold snap, going back and forth from Norwich on icy roads. It took about a week to set it up ready for building.
You mention the spray booth, do you see the place as a full custom shop?
I like to offer a fully customised product. From the design, the build, the paint and all the components, ready for the customer to ride. I’d like to think my bikes are modern, understated vehicles. I’m not just a frame builder.
From looking around I can see motor racing is an influence.
Cars have always been a big thing. When I was working as a product designer I was going down to a friend’s hot-rod shop in Gravesend whenever I could and working on things with him. That was my escape. That was where the ideas for the bikes started I think. I own an old ’64 Ford Zephyr which I keep going.
I see there’s a few motorbike parts lying around.
You’ve got Kingdom of Kicks [motorcycle constructor] just round the way, so he comes over here to use my tools… I’m also doing a custom paint job and rebuild for my mate’s motorbike. Motorbikes are nice to mess about with as you don’t need a lot of space like you do with cars. But it’s pricey stuff. You can’t just buy an old Norton Commando and customise it. But old Yamahas are now cool. People have even started to customise old twist and gos, like Honda Cubs, slammed to the ground.
What’s the average time for one of your bicycle builds?
I give myself a two-week window to build it all, paint it, build it up with all the parts. The actual hours of building the frame is maybe a few days but with everything else it adds up. Alex [workshop assistant] helps me wind that in doing prep work, setting things up, helping with anything that frees up my time to focus on the frame building.
Do you think a lot of people want to get into framebuilding these days?
It’s definitely on people’s radar now. I think you’ll see more of it but the reality of it is, yes it’s cool, you’re making amazing things, but it’s still graft. I don’t think it’s for everyone. There’s a romantic element to it but there’s still a lot of work involved; filing, sanding, finishing, brazing.
Anything you want to build that you haven’t so far?
I want to build a ‘klunker’, a throwback to the old-school Schwinn cruisers they used to race downhill in California. I bought this off a bloke in a west London shop [pulls out an old step-through Schwinn frame]. It belonged to his ex-girlfriend, Six Foot Sally.
What are you working on at the moment?
A road bike for Bespoked [Bristol handbuilt show] today. I’ll be doing some bi-laminate stuff [fillet brazing reinforcement sleeves], working on the seat and head tube and then braze it all together tomorrow. It’s a full-on steel road bike with custom rack and disc brakes and a very special paint job.
What is the most common kind of bike you’re building?
A lot of touring bikes, road bike geometry with disc brakes. Partly thanks to the Continental bike [as pictured].
And you use Reynolds tubing?
Yeah as much as possible, I try and keep all the parts as local as possible. They offer a lot of choice and are good to work with, really easy-going.
How has it been riding with the Continental?
Really good. Basically it’s the only time I ride now. All of a sudden there’s a Rapha Continental coming up and I’m like “oh f**k I better get in shape.” Makes me get on my bike a bit more. The first ride in Scotland was amazing. I was worried there was going to be loads of ego but a great bunch of guys to ride with. It’s been an experience smashing across the UK. For the last leg of the Icknield Way in Norfolk we did from Brandon to Hunstanton in two hours and I remember going “this is my third 100 mile day and we’re averaging 25mph, what the f**k am I doing?” Everyone’s tanks were empty by that point.
You’re involved in a special film project at the moment aren’t you?
All I can say is I’m a rider and builder. A Norfolk/ Norwich-based thing originally, almost a farewell. Bitter sweet as I was moving to London the weekend after filming. It’s a bit mental, especially the bike. I’ve been sworn to secrecy so I can’t say… All I’ll say I’m wearing some Rapha overshoes.
See/ hear the Tom Donhou photo film and Continental bike »