Bespoked, a celebration of handmade bicycles and those who make them
Darrell McCulloch of Llewellyn Custom Bicycles in Brisbane, Australia is a master framebuilder who started out as an apprentice at the age of 16, back in 1979. With a wealth of experience he combines traditional frame construction methods with contemporary design and materials, creating bespoke steel bicycles that are functional, durable and stylish.
Words: Poppy Smith - Photos Jim Holland and Ben Broomfield
It’s 6.30pm in Brisbane, Australia when I Skype Darrell McCulloch a.k.a. Llewellyn Custom Bicycles. I’m greeted with a very cheery “Good Morning!” (it’s 9.30am my time). Dazza’s good, very good. He’s done a day’s work, has showered and eaten and is looking at pictures of steam locomotives while he waits for my call. Steam locomotives are an obsession of his, he’d move to the UK in a second if someone would pay him to.
He’s been working on one of his top-end Lucentezza models today. The Lucentezza is his “Sunday Tuxedo” frame, so called because of its bling: mirror polished, hand shaped, stainless steel lugs. Darrell only makes one or two Lucentezza’s a year because the hours and hours of sanding work to get the mirror polish is physically painful. It takes around 250 hours of work to make the frameset and stem - just polishing the two handlebar stem lugs takes nine hours alone. The post-paint de-masking and finish polishing takes two full day’s careful work. It’s this level of finish that has won Llewellyn Bicycles numerous international awards.
“People think I’m mad, but I sell them,” says Darrell. “One year I did five. I did not enjoy that. By the time you’re done with the job you don’t want to see it any more. I need a break. It’s not until I see it later on, being ridden, that I get a sense of satisfaction. At the time it’s just so demanding.”
When I ask what the difference is between his Signature model, which takes around 40-50 hours of work, and the Lucentezza model, Darrell openly says that most of it is just bling: “It’s no different [in performance] than a Llewellyn frameset with all my signature details, it just has the hand-cut shaped lugs in stainless steel and all the mirror polishing” - a detail which frame connoisseurs appreciate. However, most of his customers request the Signature frameset, because, at 4,500 AUD (approx £2,000 for international orders) it’s a more affordable option than the 10,000 AUD (approx £4,700) Lucentezza.
Darrell does everything bar the paint-job himself. It’s all his hands. Even the wheel building and bike assembly, which he likes to take a lot of time over - greasing every nut and bolt, even pulling apart the hubs in case the factory hasn’t greased them properly. His wife gives him a hand with web stuff, but everything else is one man working on his own.
I ask if he likes this solitary working life, if he’s ever considered taking people on? He says he likes working on his own because he can fuss over some details, disappear sometimes to look after his mother, not have to worry about paying wages. About 30 years ago he did consider setting up a small-scale production and employing people, but decided against it because he liked being able to disappear to Europe for six months of the year when he was a mechanic for the Australian national team. He would go off and work with the national team, living in Italy or Germany, then come home, work at Hoffy Cycles (where he started as an apprentice in 1979 age 16) a few days a week and framebuild the rest of the time – “the best of both worlds”.
These days he builds full time in a workshop under his house, which he’s done since 2000. His prize procession is his 300kg cast iron inspection table, the first thing he got when he decided to go out on his own as a framebuilder. A great believer in tolerances and the engineering side of framebuilding, Darrell originally made his own jigs before upgrading to an Italian Marchetti jig.
Under his house also lies a very extensive little machine shop, which houses milling machines and a “very nice” English Myford lathe, with which he makes a lot of his own fixtures and occasionally some precision tooling. Darrell’s a great believer in acquiring tooling and making fittings and jigs to improve the accuracy of his work. Some steps he still does by hand, like mitering the seat stays. He says he hasn’t drummed it down to the lowest common denominator because it gives him flexibility in design.
All Llewellyn bikes are made with lugs that Darrell designs and sells to framebuilders across the world. The commercial products on the market didn’t fit with what he wanted to do, so he designed and started producing his own sets of lugs. He’s currently working on a new lug design to bring to Bespoked next year, so far he’s spent a couple of hundred hours working on the CAD design.
He says: “A lot of people look at it and go “that’s a lovely lug”, but they don’t quite know what they see in the beauty. But there is that little ratio [the Golden Ratio 1.618] which I have on the wall that gives you the ratio of beauty in architecture and even in bicycles. I don’t delve deeply into it, but there is a reason why you have a concave, constantly changing radius to a point of a lug, it looks nice and elegant. But to spend the time filing and shaping and ensuring the fit-ups of the frame are good takes time and that’s reflected in the price [of the frame].”
Darrell’s main aim is to ensure that every bike he builds is durable, well aligned and long lasting. “So that for each year, your bicycle gives you greater value.”
He has a little saying: “I’m blending the best of traditional frame construction and design with the best of contemporary design and materials. This is the direction of my work and art (I call it art because there are things I do that are for cosmetic reasons that is bordering on art). So what I want is a bicycle that gives you many years of enjoyable riding so with each passing year your Llewellyn bicycle gives you greater value, thus you cherish your Llewellyn. This is my desire and goal.”
I ask how many frames he makes a year. “Not enough” he says. “I finish each day feeling that I haven’t done enough. I finish each week feeling like I haven’t done enough. I end each year feeling like I have never done enough.” He says this is due to obsessing too much on some details. “I could drum the frame quality down and halve the labour time and I could probably sell it for the same price, no one would know, but I can’t do that. My grandfather once said to me “Don’t rest until your best is better”.”
And then there’s the small matter of running your own business. “You’ve got to answer the email, fix the printer, compressor blows a gasket and you gotta knock off the afternoon running around getting spare parts to fix it. There are always those sort of things. And then you’ve got to devote time to doing 3D CAD work for a new lug project...”
I ask what his favourite part of being a framebuilder is. “Going to the bikes shows. Meeting the other builders is fantastic. I’m flattered that so many have been following my work for so long. It almost makes me feel like I need to act responsibly and tutor correctly, I can’t always be a grumpy curmudgeon. I genuinely want to see the bespoke independent framebuilders prosper and grow stronger. We have a place.”
Read more about Darrell McCulloch of Llewellyn Custom Bicycles in Framebuilder of the Week