I occasionally ride with a guy who’s a machinist and is obsessed by titanium. As you’d expect from a guy of that description, his bike is like a half titanium cyborg of a bmx with all the usual suspects like spindles, axles, pegs, bar ends, bolts, cranks, but also a stem that he’s chopped out of a solid ti block complete with a Transfomer logo milled into the front of it. It’s not lighter than an alloy stem – he just a titanium nut.
My point here is that there’s something about titanium that gets a hold on people. It could be that it’s used in jet engines and spacecraft and just about any self-respecting high performance machinery, or it could be that metallic white freshly machined look that it has raw. I myself have been known to shell out Ebay dollars on off-cuts for future projects that are still in the future and I just like that you’re holding in your hand a piece of metal that looks heavy, but feels light. It’s like magic, although “excellent strength to weight ratio” may be a slightly more accurate technical description.
So if you’re a machine head, chances are you like titanium. Combine that with the fact that if you ride bikes, chances are you’re conscious of the weight of your whip and then it’s clear that there’s a bmx market for the stuff. Of course it’s been played with it before – think RNC, Knight, Brand X – but you’d have to say with limited degrees of success.
Hold on a minute! This ain't the same ol' same ol'. The fact that this BlueSix upgrade decreases the weight of a pair of Odyssey PCs while simultaneously increasing the potential colour combinations, means that it's impossible for anyone to convince me that it wont be a winner.
But the current titanium-man-of-the-moment is Charles Chappell. You’ve probably heard of BlueSix Bikes – he’s the man behind it and is definitely doing things a little differently. The name BlueSix says a lot in that it sums up his idea to simplify and standardise the tools you need to work on your bike by designing hardware upgrades that all use a 6mm allen key. On top of that he’s going outside your standard stem and crank bolts and doing product specific upgrades for parts like the Gsport Ratchet and KHE Geisha freecoaster. They’re all CNC machined from Ti6Al4V titanium alloy, are available in anodised colour variations and look the goods.
Charles was up for answering a few questions about BlueSix and he’s dropping some new product as well, so if you like your bike tight or light, read on:
Jeff: Hey Charles, thanks for being up for saying a few words and showing us some of your new stuff, could you just start us off with a basic run down of how and why you started BlueSix Bikes and the idea behind it?
Well, I've aspired to start a little bike company since I began riding at age twelve. I have always had fun modifying my bike and drawing up new ideas for parts. I guess I felt it was time to fulfil my childhood dream.
The idea behind Bluesix is to make your bike exactly how you want it. What I like about bikes is they are half way between a skateboard and a car. You can ride it and have fun doing tricks, but you can customize it like a car. I just wanted to focus on upgrades and small specialty parts that add the finishing touch.
The official finishing touch
Doing titanium bolts and hardware is pretty specific and at the high end, price-wise, when it comes to bmx parts, but it seems like there’s plenty of people keen to lavish hip pocket love on their bikes.
I don't think the prices are out of reach for most people. I mean, there are plenty of people that buy new frames or parts just to keep their bike fresh. A 20 dollar axle bolt isn't much compared to a 300-400 dollar frame. I just think that people have a hard time justifying a 20 dollar bolt when they usually cost 3 bucks. Bluesix may not be for everyone, but there are people out there that understand how much goes into a Bluesix product and are willing to pay a premium price.
You like? Pay the premium and ratchet your Ratchet up a notch
Generally speaking, how’s business? Can you tell us what kind of volumes you’re pumping out? What’s your big seller and which colours are people most into?
I keep busy. There are some products that collect dust, but some of them are gone as soon as I get them. I work with very small volumes, anywhere from 25-500 units depending on the product. Stem bolts sell the fastest with crank bolts close behind.
As for the colors, Raw Ti is the most popular. I sell quite a bit of Gold, and Stealth Grey would sell a lot if I could recreate it.
I think I’m right in saying that you do all the machining yourself (?), in your apartment (?). Could you tell us a little about your set up – how big / small it is. You’ve obviously got a lathe in there, but any other machines that you fire up of an evening?
I do not do the production work myself. I would go insane if I attempted to manually machine every bolt on my mini lathe haha. I have a few manufacturers that I work with. The titanium stuff is made overseas to keep the stuff affordable and the aluminum stuff like the 7075 washers and Geisha conversion collars are made here in Lawrence Kansas by a local machine shop. I looked into getting the Ti stuff made here in the states, but it would not be possible to offer the current prices or the warranty.
The Geisha conversion kit: I told you this was more than just some fancy titanium shit
Collars made in the US of A, bolts in the PP of C
I have a small room in my apartment that I call “The Lab”. It's not quite big enough to be considered a bedroom, more of a study room. I have a 7 x 12 mini lathe that I use to modify stuff, make prototypes, and small runs of simple stuff like spacers and adapters. I have a lot of fun with that thing and I am always buying new tooling for it. I'm not sure how my neighbors feel about the noise, but I haven't gotten any complaints. I have a milling attachment for it, but I haven't gotten much use out of it so far because it takes so much time to set it up. I have an anodizing station that I set up and one of the cool little machines I have is an ultrasonic cleaner. I was talking to an engineer at work when I first started anodizing and told him about how I had to clean each bolt individually with a rag and acetone. It was time consuming and the colors didn't come out very consistent. He told me about his anodizing experiences and gave me a line on an ultrasonic cleaner that uses ultrasonic soundwaves to thoroughly clean all the microscopic crevices, and I can clean a bunch of bolts at the same time. My life has been much easier since.
Straight out of the lab: Some new stuff from BlueSix. "Clear mouldings + anodized titanium upgrades = positive consumer response" - Jeff 2009
Anodizing titanium – is it exactly the same process as anodizing aluminium?
Titanium anodizing is quite different than aluminum anodizing. Basically the way aluminum anodizing works is colored dyes are absorbed into the small pores in the surface of the metal. Titanium anodizing doesn't use dye at all. The colors are dependant on the thickness of the oxide layer which is determined by the amount of voltage applied. For example, Blue is about 30V, Gold 60V, Purple 75V, Green 100V. You can get a whole spectrum of colors and shades. The way it works is the light is reflected off of the surface and the different wavelengths are perceived as colors through the human eye.
These anodized titanium crank bolts are actually all the same colour. It's just them damn wavelengths fuckin' with your eyes' perception again!
People can get pretty tense and opinionated about light weight parts and although the shouting has (mostly) died down and just about everyone at least considers the weight of their bike, even if they’re not obsessed by it. Do you think people are into BlueSix upgrades more for the way they look and the dialled detail that they bring to your bike or the performance factors like the weight and the 6mm standard?
It depends on the person. Some people have fun with finding ways to see how light they can get their bike, but I think most people are into Bluesix because the stuff makes your bike easier to work on and the stuff looks awesome.
To the standard questions now - well, they’re standard for the one interview I’ve done so far, but anyway… In your opinion, is there something that BMX design needs more of?
I think bmx is evolving in the right direction. I would like to see more focus on standards. We need to decide on one bottom bracket size because I've seen a few of my friends get a new frame and had to wait until they got new bearings to ride it. I guess companies would sell less bottom brackets, but it would be easier on the consumer. Also American companies need to go metric. S&M/Fit knows what's up because they switched their stems to metric so people don't have to use a 1/4” allen key anymore. Now Profile needs to follow and make it easier on everybody. I watched one of my friends search through a tool box trying out each size allen key in his profile cranks. I told him it was a 7/32” and he didn't have the right size so he ended up riding with loose cranks. I hooked him up with Bluesix bolts so he doesn't have to worry about it now.
6mm is the new 7/32”
Something it could use less of?
What are some of the other BMX companies, or brands outside of BMX, whose design and / or outlook you appreciate?
My inspirations stem from my favorite companies when I was young; VG made all kinds of little parts that made the bike come together as a whole, and Brand X produced lots of Ti stuff that made people drool.
I look up to Chris King and Thomson for their high standards, Tree for how much thought is put into their products, Fly for being innovative and changing the standards, and G-sport for making strong and reliable designs.
Brands outside of bmx that I find inspiration in are VW, Lamborghini, and BMW.
So it’s all going along smooth and you’ve got some new products in the works. How far do you want to take it? Would you move outside doing only Ti stuff and maybe move on to doing hubs or other parts? What about going outside the bmx market – those roadies seem like they ain’t short of a buck?
The sky is the limit. I didn't plan on starting a bolt company, or making so much titanium stuff, it just happened. I just went with it and people kept requesting different bolts, so I made what they wanted. I've been putting in a lot of time in designing parts like stems and hubs, but it will be a long time before they are ready because I like to take my time and make sure it comes out exactly how I envision it. I want to work with team riders and make stuff they like. My dream product is a freecoaster that doesn't suck. I really want to offer affordable grade 8 steel versions of the bolts. I'm going to interbike this year so hopefully that will open up some doors for me.
As far as venturing outside of bmx, I would like to make stuff for all kinds of bikes since I love riding anything with pedals, but I don't really have any plans for it right now because I have so many ideas for bmx.
In the case that you picked that the Odyssey PC upgrade at the top of the interview was shown without bearings or bushings... That's because it's still in the prototype phase. Charles is currently messing around with needle bearing and plastic bushing combos, but here's the inspiration - a bent stock PC spindle. So he's beefed up the Ti and, of course, it'll come 6mm equipped
Shout outs? Final words of wisdom?
I would like to thank my mom for everything. She would always keep me busy with projects and taught me how to make stuff. My wife Rachel has helped me so much with Bluesix. Without her none of this would be possible. Shout outs to all my homeboys; Na, John, Daniel, Goldfanga, Abe, T-Love, Damon thanks for the solidworks help, Kyle, Dave, My nephew Chris the pigeon man, Dirty Joe, Lucas, Ben, Wiley, Mo, Adam, my team riders Jon Saunders and Big James, Tom from Empire thanks for generating a huge spike of interest, Rayn from Danscomp thanks for the technical help, Brian from Re-cylery thanks for hookin it up, thanks to everyone that has bought a Bluesix product I really appreciate your support, and of course thanks to Jeff for this interview and letting people know what Bluesix is all about.
Final words of wisdom: Life is short so keep it real and do whatever makes you happy.
... you can't fault that, but you can head over to BlueSix if you want open your wallet for any of the stuff above.