Words and photos: Ben Brashear
Ron Andrews is quickly moving around his basement workshop. Short-cropped gray hair extends beyond his Bula hat. His hands, when they are not reaching for a square tabbed washer or a length of quarter-inch tubing to build his water bottle cages, fold into the front pocket of his hoodie. The words “Lighten up Pal” appear in bright yellow across the back, a reference to the weight savings of the titanium he builds with, but also to the way he approaches his designs.
“Making cages goes back to about ’91,” he says, “It kind of happened by chance.” He picks up a long length of quarter-inch titanium tubing, left over from the aviation industry, and extends his hand out toward more than 300 cages hanging from a large roller rack. “We used to have a guy that could crank out over 100 cages in an hour for five hours straight.” Andrews smiles as he feeds the length of tubing into the first bender.
A lathe and mill, among myriad tools, hardened steel pivots and scrap metal have all helped Andrews design and create the one-off custom tooling required to assemble his water bottle cages and toe-clips he has been selling as King Cage since 1993 from Durango, Colorado. “I don’t use CAD. I hand draw my designs but I can’t draw in 3D, so I kind of envision what I need to make and then start shaping and milling parts,” he says.
It takes Andrews about a week to build and perfect a new tool whenever he wants to produce a new style of product. And judging from the pile of toe-clips, handlebar bells that double as shot glasses and the massive fat bike bottle cage sitting on the finishing station, he does it quite often.
Andrews quickly pulls the handle of the bender and the tubing yields to the machined steel roller and takes on its first bend of several. He moves on to the next tool and the next until, in just over a minute, he has formed a complete water bottle cage with only the two ends to be welded together. “You have to make these parts, you can’t buy them,” he says, commenting on each bender.
His acumen for the machine arts is not by chance and despite the apparent ease and fluidity of which he moves through his shop Andrews’ ability comes from a lifetime of training and experience— from putting himself through college building a fusion reactor at MIT to a job at Yeti Cycles that finally landed him here in Durango.
“I had machine shop class in high school and at the time managed to hook up with a guy at Fat City Cycles, which was a funky little shop with a cult following. I started on the sandblaster to pay off a road bike,” Andrews says.
Fat City Cycles, located in Somerville, Massachusetts, and founded in 1982 by Chris Chance, was mainly producing road bikes at the time. Chance was brazing all of his frames until, as Andrews says, “a dude on a mountain bike that could weld” showed up. The road bikes were quickly moved aside to make way for some of the East Coast’s first production- made, steel mountain bikes.
During his stint at Fat City Cycles Andrews honed his chops for designing, welding and bending fixtures. The fixtures he made allowed for quick, accurate and efficient assembly of a bicycle frame and its necessary components.
“The fixtures would spin and rotate and were set at a specified measurement for each part,” he says. It was the time and devotion to accuracy he put into building the appropriate tooling that allowed the workmen to complete a job without having to worry about the complication of design or measuring.
Andrews prides himself on sourcing all of his supplies and tubing from within the U.S. Even the unusable scrap tubing from King Cage is sold to the Alpacka Raft company in Mancos, Colorado. It’s all about efficiency.
By this point, Andrews has walked from one end of his shop to the other, working his way from the pile of tire levers to one of many “junk drawers.” He smiles and pulls out several titanium whiskey flasks that are about the size of an energy gel pouch. “They slide right into your jersey pocket,” he laughs.
He continues to pull out a miscellany of belt buckles stamped using cogs and lengths of chain that served as awards for the Silverton WhiteOut Fat Bike Race. He built a rolling lemonade stand to help benefit Durango DEVO—a nonprofit bike program for area youth. He built hand railing for Three Rivers Brewery in Farmington, New Mexico. And for customers, he’s welded titanium bicycle fenders, custom bike frames and handlebars that double as whiskey flasks. It is clear that his passion and imagination are what drive his business.
“You know,” Andrews says, “it all starts in these junk drawers kind of by chance and then that idea—it really becomes something.”