Joe Bell Interview
(Originally published in the Rivendell
Reader, Winter 2001, used by permission)
To arrange a
custom paint job,
Call Joe Bell:
BELL is exceptional in more ways than Iíll think to mention here, and
his work and ours are linked tight. Weíre almost half of his business,
and thereís nobody I trust more with our frames. His decal placements
are so perfect that you never notice them. The seat tube diamond is
always where it ought to be, just above center on the seat tube. When
the downtube decal placement gets tricky because it runs over the edge
of a water bottle braze-on, rather than mess up the location by even a
quarter of an inch, heíll make sure the decal lays down over the
corner, perfectly. He places decals by eye, not by measurement, and
heís never off. Heís painted more than 500 frames for us, and the few
times when there have been issues, heís never tried to squirm out, but
has always said, ďSend it back, Iíll redo itĒónot an easy thing to say
when youíve got more than a dayís work into a frame already. We pay the
highest prices, but get the best service in the world for it.
Despite our being his best customer, he doesnít kow-tow to us or give
us cuts ahead of one-time customers; and he is always direct and
immediately honest. His prices go up every year, and are not
negotiable, and he doesnít dance around money talkóitís always, ďWe
gotta raise prices again, so get ready,Ē and thatís it. Heís
humble and Iíve never heard him say a bad word about his competitors.
Rather, he says, ďTheyíre capable of the same thing, itís just a matter
of taking the time, and we charge more because we take the time. But
they can do it.Ē
Youíd think, after painting so many bikes over the years, and dealing
with so many indecisive-yet-superpicky customers, that heíd get tired
of the whole process. It hasnít happened. He still cares so much that
heís refused to not paint in window cutouts, even when we and our
customer have requested they be left plain. ďThe frame doesnít look
finished that way, and it makes me look bad. Youíre getting the window
fill whether you like it or not, but Iím charging you for it.Ē On the
surface, that attitude seems outrageous, but the fact that he cares so
much about his work gives it a whole different spin. Heís a craftsman
with a lot of pride who knows what looks good and wants you to have it.
Over the years there have been two or three times when weíve had to get
a bike painted in a day, and JB and crew always come through for us.
Joe,and his two-man crew of Ralph Lowe and Rob Roberson are part of
what you get when you buy a Rivendell, and weíre all lucky to have
RR: How old are you, and how long have you been painting bikes?
JB: Iím 44, and Iíve been painting professionally since 1978.
RR: When did you paint your first bike, ever?
JB: Around 1969 I think. I was in the 8th grade. It was a Schwinn
Sting-Ray that was pretty beat up from hard use, so I stripped it down
and sanded it as smooth as I could, and poofcanned it black with white
decals purchased from the local Schwinn shop. No clear coat. There may
have been some runs in it. I watched my brothers restore a Ď53 Chevy,
and learned some prep technique from them. I had several Varsitys, a
couple of Continentals, Super Sports, a Sports Tourer, a Superior, and
a Super LeTouróthe whole range of lower end Schwinns.
I bought them used, took them apart, painted the frames, shined up the
parts, then put them back together. Iíd make them look racy by removing
the spoke protector, adding alloy handlebars and SunTour bar-con
shifters, things like that. They looked real clean when I was finished,
and I had no problem selling them.
RR: How did you come to bicycle painting?
JB: I had painted several of my own bikes in the garage next to the
water heater in the early 70ís. I later stumbled into the coolest pro
shop in San Diego county, called Casa De Oro cycles. It was owned by
Bill Holland. Soon I was hanging around there so much they had to hire
me or charge me rent. I became head mechanic pretty quickly after that.
Bill was already refurbishing bikes as a side business. I remember you
could get your Paramount painted with Imron, lugs masked, original
decals, clear coats and full braze-ons for about 95 bucks!! Anyway,
after about three years, Bill sold his bike shop and asked me if I
wanted to paint bikes with him. Not having anything better to do, I
said, sure! Why not? And we were off and running like a herd of turtles.
RR: Who taught you?
JB: Bill showed me the basics of how to get the job done and helped me
along whenever I had a problem. After that, I just gained experience.
Years later I learned some techniques from Brian Baylis that we still
RR: So.. .youíve been painting bikes about 22 years professionally. How
have your skills or styles or techniques changed over the years? Letís
say, arbitrarily, that youíre a 10 now. What were you when you first
opened up your shop, and was it just experience or technology that
brought you along?
JB: Iíd say I was about a 4. Bill Holland would be a better judge of
that. For me, I believe it was mostly experience and paying attention
that brought me along. There have been a few technological innovations
along the way, such as high transfer efficiency spray guns that spray
more paint with less overspray; paints with different kinds of color
effects, and better quality sandpapers and buffing compounds, but for
the most part weíre still doing it the same way now as 20 years ago.
RR: When you look at a bike, do you look at the paint first?
RR: When you look at the paint, what do you look for? Color, style,
detail? How much can you tell about the paint job just by looking at it?
JB: I look at all those things, but the painterís eye always hones in
on the gloss (or lack of it). You can tell a lot about the painterís
attention to details and how much he or she cares about the work, but
you canít know everything about the frame by looking at the finish. A
good paint job can hide a lot of sins on a frame.
RR: Rivendells aside, whatís the most requested paint color and style for either repaints or custom jobs?
JB: We probably do more reds and blues than any other color, but I
think those are always going to be the most popular. Candies and fades
are pretty common but every frame is different. There is no production
painting going on in our shop.
RR: What kind of bike do you ride, and how is it painted!
JB: It is a steel frame Bill Holland made for me in 1987, I think. It
is a nice blue candy pearl with cream pearl Nervex Pro lugs that have
been heavily romanced by Baylis. Lugs, crown, bottom bracket and
bridges are all contrasted in the cream pearl and it has lots of
cutouts in it. It was a collaborative effort with Baylis sprucing up
the lugs, Bill making the frame and I did the paint. Itís retro-classic
with Campagnolo Super Record components on it. Iím used to the old
RR: Do you get bored painting single colors, or the same Rivendell style over and over again?
JB: No. Iím the detail guy so I donít squirt the majority of the colors
anymore. The nature of the work is tedious, so itís important to stay
focused on the work at hand.
RR: Is there a particular style of paint, or color, that you just don't
JB: No, I donít think so. Nothing that I really canít stand. Almost any
color looks good once the decals are applied, trim is painted and clear
coat's laid on. Clear coat is the painterís best friend.
RR: What do you like the most?
JB: I think I gravitate to well done simple stuff with original decals
but I also like some of the flashy pimpy looking things, too. I like
clean masking, British style paneling, sharp pinstripes, nice blends.
About the only thing I donít like is sloppy work.
RR: How old are your children, and do they have JB paint jobs on their bikes?
JB:My daughter Dionna is 13 and my son David is 8. They have stock
bikes purchased from the bike shop, and havenít trashed them enough to
need new paint. I donít like to sacrifice a new paint job just for the
sake of changing the color or to put my initials on it. My children
have many interests, and are not as enthusiastic about cycling as I am.
That may change in the future, but Iím not pushing them.
RR: Iíve heard that Imron is illegal in some places. Whatís the story
there, and how often are you checked out, environmentally?
JB: I think each geographic region has its own timetable and
environmental rules about VOCís (volatile organic compounds), but the
rules seem to be changing all the time. Iím classified as a small parts
painter and I believe I fall under less stringent guidelines than the
auto body painters. As far as the paint itself goes, DuPont makes a low
VOC Imron, but Iím a creature of habit and Iíll continue to buy the
liquid death as long as I can get it.
Bicycle painters are generally adaptable, though. When everybody has to
use latex semi-gloss, Iíll figure out a way to make it work. We get
inspected once a year by the county HazMat division and the Fire
Department comes by to look around, also.
RR: What kinds of paints do you paint with? Compare the durability of
different styles or brands of paints. Pearls, solids, metallics.
JB: There are many cheaper alternatives out there that will look good,
but may not hold up as well in the long run. I want the best looking,
longest lasting paint available; and for me itís Imron, the standard by
which all the others have been judged for many years. Iím not saying
all the other paints out there are junk (most of the big paint
companies have good quality urethanes that work fine), Iím saying Imron
has been the best for me. Durable paint doesnít guarantee a durable
paint job, though. So much of it is how the frame is prepped before
painting. Still, we use DuPont Imron, the best quality polyurethane
enamel around. You canít get it in lots of places, and itís also very
expensive, up to $250 a gallon, for a special red. Itís formulated for
tough hard use and not much care, so they use it for aircraft, trucks,
heavy equipment and bicycles. It only comes in solids or metallics so
we use mostly House of Kolor kandies and pearls for the custom colors,
but we mix those with Imron for increased durability. I believe the
solid colors are the most durable with metallics running in second, but
I canít back that up with hard numbers, just observations. Pearls are
something that gets added to clear to create a different look. I donít
think it affects durability.
RR: It seems to me that solid colors look thicker than metallics. Are they thicker, or is that just an optical illusion?
JB: Metallics usually have a lot more clear mixed in the paint so the
solid colors actually do have more..uh, solids in them but painting
technique can also determine whether a finish looks thick or thin. But
itís the preparation of the frame and skill of the painter that lays
down the paint not too thick and not too thin. And there is a fine line
between too much and not enough.
RR: Powder coating is more durable. What do you think about it? What are its limitations? Do you get requests for it?
JB: Powder coating is a good, durable paint for many types of metal
finishing, including bicycles. I donít offer it because I donít have
the equipment. The bikes Iíve seen come in for repainting that are
powder coated have been rather thick looking. Thatís okay for
TIG-welded frames, but not for fine lugged ones. The details get lost,
and you canít see the lugs as well.
One way powder coaters save time and materials is by omitting the
primer (powder coating doesnít require it). But the thing is, primer is
crucial to corrosion resistance. Iíve seen powder coated bikes come in
with no outward signs of rust, but when the frame was stripped you
could see rust crawling around everywhere under the finish. The paint
held together well, but a little chip in the paint had left the door
open for rust to move freely underneath it.
Wet paint lends itself to custom colors, decals, fine masking, and more
intricate work. The gloss is always better with wet paint. I think
powder coating is a good reasonable finish for mountain bikes, beater
bikes, and general use stuff. I just donít recommend it for really fine
lugged frames. Sometimes people call me looking for a finish for $150
or less, and I steer them to the local powder coater.
RR: On customs, how do you go about matching samples? What kinds of things have people wanted you to match?
JB: Matching samples is an art in itself because auto paints donít
always translate well to a pantone chip, piece of cloth or a
photograph. I just start mixing paints together to see how close I can
get. Paint also dries to a different shade, so I just do the best I can
and ask my customer to be flexible. I try to get people to pick a color
from the book if they can, but many folks have a tough time deciding
what they want (we call this Color Choice Paralysis, or CCP). I
understand this because throughout the custom frame process the
customer usually has minimal input on the specifics of the building of
the frame. The color is the only part he or she has to decide on, and
with so many choices available itís easy for CCP to set in. I try to
help and let them take as long as they need to pick a color. Itís
important to make the right decision here because the color of the bike
can affect how a person feels about their bike. Iíve had people ask me
to match jerseys, photos, small chips of paint, fingernail polish,
cars, even a volcano video.
RR: How common is it for a customer to just not like his paint job, and blow up?
JB: Itís never happened. Over the years there have been a handful of
times when the color wasnít quite what they were after, and asked if I
could give it another go. I always take good care of my customers and
itís important to me that nobody leaves dissatisfied, so I resprayed
those few but made sure before the second time around that we knew
exactly what we were going after. If any step in the process goes awry
and has to be redone, the profit goes out the window. Itís real tight.
The customer must leave happy though, because that is how you get a
good reputation and thatís the best form of advertisement.
RR: A Rivendell takes eight and a half hours to paint, which seems like
an incredibly long time. How does that compare with, for example, a
normal pro bike paint job?
JB: In our shop we spend a good deal of time on preparation and sanding
between clear coats, but our treatment of the head tube area and cutout
windows is fanatical, and I think thatís what puts the distance between
us and most of the others out there. Many painters aim to pass the
ďfive foot test,Ē meaning the frames look great from five feet away. On
the Rivendells, we shoot for the five inch test.
RR: Fine, but how long, do you think most custom paint shops spend on a frame?
JB: Thatís a hard question to answer. Iíve never worked in any other
paint shops. I think the best of them probably spend about the same
amount of time as we do, for their best finishes, but Iím not really
sure. I think it just boils down to how obsessive you are about the
details, and thatís a personal thing with me. I donít pay any attention
to the time involved, I just keep at it until Iím happy with the
result. An interesting side note to all of this micro nit-picking is
that without my glasses, Iím legally blind.
RR: I think sometimes that your reputation makes life hard for us,
though. People think, ďJB paint job equals total, absolute perfection,Ē
and then if thereís a dust spec that someone sees, it just stands
against the rest of the perfect paint, and they say, ďAha! What are you
going to DO about it?Ē meaning, ďAre you going to repaint it in a day
or give me a massive refund!Ē And, you know, it puts us in an awkward
position. Thereís so much good there in the paint and underneath it,
but the focal point becomes this tiny little dust spec thatís at 3:30
on the top tube, about five inches in front of the seat lug. Itís rare,
but it happens once in a while. What are your thoughts on dust specs? I
mean, at some point, donít even you say, or feel like saying, ďItís
just a spec of dust, we are only humanĒ?
JB: I know my brochure says, ďPaint for Perfectionists,Ē but in the
paint world, perfection is a relative term. There are only degrees of
relative perfection. Iíve never painted an absolutely perfect frame,
and any honest painter will tell you the same thing. All we promise is
that we will make our best effort every time we stand behind the spray
gun. Fighting dust is the biggest problem in our shop. Itís almost a
full-time job keeping the place clean. There has been a lot of
construction going on next door this past year, so the problem has been
worse for us lately, but itíll get better. The dust nib in the final
clear coat can be sanded with 2000 grit sandpaper and rubbed out with
some polishing compound. Itís my job to inspect the frames and make
sure the tubes look and feel good. The dust nibs do not affect
durability, but sometimes I miss oneósorry. Nobodyís perfect. If you
see one of these dust nibs, tell the customer thereís no extra charge
for it! I do feel constant pressure to maintain the high standard that
Iíve set for myself, and as our reputation spreads, it seems tougher
all the time to do that. Itís a burden, trying to live up to peopleís
expectations, but I know that if Iím happy with a frame, most everybody
else will be, also.
RR: The decal on the frame says JB, but you donít do all the work yourself...
JB: Right. I have two assistants, each with a different role. Ralph
Lowe is the guy who squirts colors and does the hand sanding between
those coats. He gets frames ready for me to do the decal and detail
work. His job is critical because those final clear coats are how weíre
judged by the customer and anyone else who knows what to look for in a
paint job. He had no real painting experience when he started out as a
prepper with me about ten years ago, but now he could be the front-line
painter in any shop in the country. Ralph asks the pertinent questions
and notices everything. Many times heís spotted a small boo-boo or some
other detail that got passed over in the process and weíre able to take
care of it before the final clear goes on. He likes the low-stress
environment here, the flexible work hours, casual dress, paint your
wifeís garden table, Heinekens on Fridays, small perks like that. My
other guy is Rob Roberson, who does all the prep work to get the frame
ready for topcoating. Rob seems to like it because heís good at it, and
heís a bicycle frame wizard. He has the best natural eye for alignment
that Iíve seen, and heís also a builder with tons of experience at
Masi, Ibis, and Hooker. He does all my frame repairs and braze-on work
on the frames that come to us direct for repaint or fixing. Robís a
lifer here, too.
RR: How do you train painters?
JB: I ask them if they have a wife and children to support, and if they
do, I tell them they should try another line of work. Iíve had lots of
people work with me over the years. Almost all of them had no prior
experience, and I just show them how I do it, and have them go to work.
I tell them always to ask questions if there is any doubt about
something. Iím here and thatís part of my job. The real key here is to
try and keep the people youíve trained. High employee turnover is bad
for any business.
RR: Do you have any bad memories of painting bikes?
JB: Most of the had memories donít involve painting, but chrome
plating. With the paint itself, experienced painters donít get too
worried when little problems pop up, because it happens all the time.
The best painter is usually the guy whoís best at fixing mistakes. I
was a little anxious when Richard Sachs sent me a frame to paint 14
years ago. He'd never heard of me, but sent me a frame on the
recommendation of Baylis. He wanted his usual red paint job, but the
red is a special brew that only a few painters know about, and it can
be tricky if youíre not used to it. I decaled it, trimmed it, and was
ready to put clear on it, and when I did, the clear just fish-eyed over
every square inch of the bike. There was no way to save it, so I just
stripped it and started over. I told Richard the story, and he was
amused, but we havenít had any problems since. Another time we painted
a Merckx frame, but forgot to add the braze-ons the guy wanted; but
didnít forget to bill him for the braze-ons. He was less amused. Those
glitches donít happen often. Most mistakes happen when youíre hurried.
I donít want to talk about it any more.
RR: Which other painters do you think do an especially good job?
JB: Letís see. ..how many of my friends can I get in here for a plug?
Actually, I donít get around that much, so I only really know what Iíve
seen at trade shows, or in chance meetings. Most of the good painters
are the ones whoíve been at it a while, of course. Baylis, Tom Kellogg,
Bryan Meyers at Fresh Frame, Alan Cline from Co-Motion, Peter Weigle,
and the guy who paints Glen Ericksonís frames does nice work, too. Jim
Allen has been around since the stone age; and Cyclart has been doing
cool stuff for many years. If I left anybody out, sorryó your payment
didnít arrive in time.
RR: Now that so many expensive bikes donít require paint, how is that
affecting your business? What were your peak years for bike painting,
how many did you paint, and with how big of a crew, and whatís it like
JB: I havenít had any problems finding bikes to paint; thereís plenty
to go around. The only bikes that donít need paint are titanium. Most
carbon fiber frames need some sort of cosmetic assistance. Many people
like the utilitarian aspect of Ti frames; they can ride Ďem hard and
put Ďem away wet. But after a year or two of the dull grey look, people
bring them in and say ďmake it candy apple red!Ē Colors convey emotion.
People will always want to paint their bikes because itís eye candy and
can be interesting and a personal statement. My best year was 1999. We
painted 385 frames with four people including myself. We had three
people last year and painted 60 fewer frames. These may seem like small
numbers to some people, but every frame is different and there is no
way to crank out one-offs on a production line. Iím trying to
streamline a few things to become more efficient but there are some
things that will never get faster unless I start cutting corners, and I
refuse to do that. Itís what sets us apart from the less expensive
RR: Aside from us and Richard Sachs, who else sends you bikes to paint, regularly?
JB: Mostly individuals who want something they canít get from the
factory or bike shop. A few bike shops around the country send me
repaints on a semi-regular basis; Turin bike shop in Illinois is
probably the most consistent for me right now. It seems that if you get
a service manager who knows his stuff and sticks around the same shop
for a long time, he or she can bring more business in. I canít
completely count on bike shops for business because of the transient
nature of bike shop personnel, so I accept work from anybody who calls
me. I donít have a website. I also paint for a few small
hole-in-the-wall framebuilders who appreciate what a decent painter can
do for the appearance of their frames.
RR: How much of your work is restoration of old classics, and how much is new bikes?
JB: Half of my business is new bikes thanks to Rivendell; the other
half is everything else. I get a few classics in and they are fun to do
but I donít restore them to look exactly like they did before. Sure,
Iíll paint it the same color with original decals, but they look
cleaner and glossier than they did new. Some enthusiasts call it over
restoration, but Iíve seen plenty of original work with orange peel
clear, thumbprints and crooked decals. I donít do that.
RR: What do you see as the future of expensive, painted bikes? Or,
another way to put itóhow nervous are you about the futureóin two,
five, and ten years, for instance?
JB: I think there will always be a market for a high end custom painter
like me who only paints 300-400 frames a year. A good reputation will
always get you work, but Iíve never been more uncertain of my future in
this business than I am now. The cost of doing business in California
is frightening for a small business owner. Rents, energy, materials,
fees and taxes are all climbing faster than I am able to keep up with.
People who work with their hands are slowly being shoved into the
poorhouse and itís too bad because the world needs art and craft and
beautiful handmade objects. Without it, all we will create is a
blizzard of worthless paper and neurotic self loathing human beings. I
got into painting because I love to ride bicycles and work with color
and my hands. The years have blown by quickly and I now have a wife and
two children to support. If I had a crystal ball back then and couldíve
seen the difficulties with running a small business today, I would have
chosen a different path. Iím too old to get retrained now and nobody
would hire me anyway, so I will continue to try to make ends meet.
RR: Do ever get to relax?
JB: I am most relaxed when everybody leaves the shop, the phone stops
ringing and I am by myself detailing and coloring bicycle frames. I
love it and that is what I know how to do best. Thatís what keeps me
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