Published in Treadlie Issue 9, December 2012
Kumo is a Japanese word meaning ‘cloud’. Canberra metal worker and renaissance man Keith Marshall chose it as the name for his handmade custom bike frame business, Kumo Cycles, to invoke the idea of gliding through the air, like a cloud, when you hop in the saddle.
“I’ve always had my head in the clouds, I’m always lofty with my ideas,” he says. “I like clouds as an aesthetic thing, they’re mutable and changeable and they’re always dynamic and different, and I like my frames to be like that. Also, I decided that I wanted my bikes to be light and effortless; I wanted them to integrate with the rider without you ever thinking that you’re sitting on a chunk of steel. The cloud part of the logo represents the effortless, airy, floaty ride that you get on the steel, and the lightning bolts are the tempestuous beginnings of the bike in flame and filth and heat.”
Growing up on a farm just outside of Canberra, Keith learned to work with metal by making tools and other bits and pieces needed around the place. At uni he studied a bit of everything – engineering, marine biology – but ultimately decided that the academic way was not for him; he wanted hands-on work. Frustrated by a lack of high quality bike frames that suited his tall physique, and inspired by a trip to Japan where he visited master frame builders, a couple of years ago Keith decided to build his own. It all came together – the theoretical work at uni fed the design and testing process, and the metal work from the farm informed the construction. After building a few bikes for himself and loved ones, a year ago Keith opened Kumo Cycles for business, offering beautiful, sleek, fully-tailored bike frames handmade in his Canberra workshop.
Depending on what the customer is after Keith will use one of two construction methods. The first and most common is a slip fit – steel tubes are fitted inside one another to form the joints, and are then gas brazed with silver and an oxyacetylene torch. “It’s very, very meticulous, it’s almost like making jewellery,” he says. “You’ve got to be really careful, especially if you’re using any fancy steels, like stainless steels, because they just don’t like being heated up too much.” The other method he uses is fillet brazing, in which the ends of the steel tubes sit flush and are welded together to form a smooth surface.
Each bike is unique, made to suit the customer’s specifications, and they often feature special details such as custom airbrushing or the tiny hearts carved into the lugs of his girlfriend’s step through. Keith outsources a lot of the paintwork but sometimes he’ll finish the detail work by hand. “There was one bike which had one of my clouds cut out on the bottom bracket,” he says. “It took about an hour a night for three weeks to do it, it’s so fine – the little lightning bolts are tiny. I like going the extra mile – it’s supposed to be custom, they don’t want something that just looks like a bike off the shelf, so both functionally and aesthetically, I like to machine and hand-make little parts that just make the bike work so much better.”
In his dedication to finding the perfect solution, Keith will sometimes rack up more than a hundred emails to a customer before touching steel. “A lot of it comes out of their personality – I’ll spend a lot of time talking to them and trying to work out what kind of person they are so I can make a bike that matches them.” The result is a functional work of art – beautifully tailored, exquisitely finished and ready for the road.