Don Ferris: Fixated on Fixtures
For some people, the word jig conjures images of pubs on St. Patrick’s Day — guys drunk on green beer and dancing to Irish folk songs. To bike aficionados, it’s an integral frame building tool. But to Don Ferris, self-proclaimed geek and owner of Littleton’s Anvil Bikeworks, “a jig sounds like something made out of two-by-fours.”
“The way people think about it, jigs and fixtures are the same,” said Ferris. “A fixture, in the machine shop world, is something that’s more precise. So we call them fixtures.”
The “we” he speaks of is the Anvil Bikeworks staff, which consists of Don, his dad, his wife and six-year employee Blaine Rainey. In a small garage next to his Littleton home, Ferris makes and assembles fixtures, along with numerous other tools that are shipped to major manufacturers and custom builders around the world. Last year, he sold out of 50 fixtures in five months. It’s easier for Ferris to make a list of builders he hasn’t sold to.
So what exactly is a frame fixture? Very simply, it’s a tool that holds all the tubes in place so that the frame builder can join them together. They vary from pricey models (tens of thousands of dollars) used by major manufacturers to plywood versions made by hobbyists. Ferris’ fixtures, the Super Master and the Journeyman, fall somewhere in between.
“A really good builder can build with a file and a vice,” said Ferris. “Once you understand what a tool can do and you understand your own craft, then the tools let you become a more efficient builder. You let the fixture do its job, you do your job and those two things will make a very precise frame.”
It’s obvious Ferris understands his craft. Anvil Bikeworks will celebrate its 12th birthday this year, and while that could have something to do with Ferris’ charming personality or the fact that he’s said to have shared whiskey at trade shows, it’s likely due to his machinist background, his frame building experience and unmatched tools.
“Among frame builders, Don is considered one of the smartest guys in the business. He can make whatever he needs to make,” said Steve Hampsten, co-owner of Hampsten Cycles, a Seattle company that uses Anvil fixtures and tools. The son of a machinist, Ferris learned to weld as a kid and, at 16, he landed his first welding job. After a stint of military service and ironwork for U.S. embassies around the world, Ferris found himself in Antarctica, where in 1998 he met his wife Jill.
“I moved pretty far up the food chain,” said Ferris. I was just at a desk, and I got so tired of it that I quit. I called my wife and said, ‘Guess what I did.’ And she said, ‘I bet you quit your job.’”
Upon returning to the States, Ferris grabbed his bike and headed to Moab for a week.
“I sat out there and tried to figure out what I wanted to do. Jill and I were OK, so I drove out to (the United Bicycle Institute) and took a frame building class. I didn’t really think at that time I would start building frames for a living. I read about it in a magazine or something and thought, well, I have the perfect skill set. But I didn’t. I discovered, just like everybody else, how incredibly hard it was. Most people underestimate it, and I underestimated it myself.”
The challenge of frame building didn’t stop Ferris. And when he couldn’t find the right tools, he made his own.
“When I started building frames, I just didn’t see the tools I felt that I needed, and so I started with a sheet of paper and built my first one.”
In 2000, Ferris brought his frames and tools to Interbike, North America’s largest bicycle trade event with a who’s who of builders from across the world.
“Taking a custom frame to Interbike back then, it was like taking sand to the beach. My frames might as well have been made of Plexiglas because they were invisible. Everyone wanted to know where I got my tools,” he said.
The demand for tools eventually exceeded frame demands, and Ferris stopped building frames altogether. Last year, Anvil Bikeworks gave a home to a sparkling new, 14,000-pound automated machining center. And as always, Ferris makes all but the tiniest parts that comprise Anvil tools. He also incorporates builder feedback into new versions of his products.
“One thing I like about Don’s tools is they’re aluminum and anodized,” said Hampsten. “It’s a nice finish, it’s really quality and there’s no afterthought. It’s the only tooling we would use.”
For all sorts of bike geek and frame fixture info, as well as a few of Don’s musical choices for indoor training, visit www.AnvilBikes.com.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.