Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood near Lake Olmstead, Nate Zukas’ backyard workshop is usually in high gear.
Surrounded by vegetable gardens, beehives, some rabbits and a dozen chickens, the 250-square-foot outbuilding sits in a back corner of the lot serving as a one-stop shop for Zukas’ custom bike frame-building business.
HOW ZUKAS GOT STARTED: Zukas, who is 5-foot-7 but has long arms and legs, has been an avid cyclist for nearly three decades. He said it has always been difficult to find a standard bike that adequately fit his needs. Tired of adjusting bikes he bought off the showroom floor, Zukas decided to build a steel frame for himself four years ago.
Zukas, a self-proclaimed do-it-yourselfer, spent hours studying on the Internet and practicing before he bought his first frame jig, a piece of equipment that is instrumental in building custom bikes. His first customer, a friend and fellow rider, came shortly thereafter.
It was at a cyclocross race in north Georgia where his business took off. A racer inquiring about Zukas’ custom bike became a new customer on the spot and word of mouth quickly followed.
WHO HE BUILDS FOR: Many Zukas Cycles customers are local or live in metro Atlanta, but some are from as far away as Canada and Australia, Zukas said.
Zukas’ most recent project, a baby blue frame accented with thin, hand-painted orange stripes and Zukas’ namesake, will soon be sent to Dallas. The cyclist paid $2,250 for the custom dirt road bike frame, Zukas said.
His customers aren’t novices to cycling and are educated in the sport, often having at least two to more than 20 years of experience, said Zukas, whose full-time job is head mechanic at Andy Jordan’s Bicycle Warehouse.
In the past four years, Zukas has built between 50 and 60 steel frames for customers.
Zukas said he relies on his Web site, Facebook and other outlets as sources of free advertising. He posts pictures of each project underway on Facebook and image-sharing sites Instagram and Flickr.
“I think I wouldn’t exist if the Internet didn’t exist,” Zukas said.
HIS STRANGEST REQUEST: Not every order submitted to Zukas is intended for a cyclist with two legs.
Zukas said his most memorable request came from the Atlanta-based owner of Norman the Scooter Dog, a Briard famous for setting two Guinness world records, one of which was fastest 30 meters on a bicycle by a dog.
At first he thought it was joke but after talking with Norman’s owner, he learned she wanted a lighter bike frame that would fit her dog better. Ultimately, the deal fell through.
“That’s by far the craziest,” he said.
HOW EACH FRAME IS BUILT: Every part of the frame-building process is done in-house.
After receiving an online contact form and getting the customer’s measurements, Zukas uploads the information into a computer program that helps him design the frame. He then gets to work constructing the bike, which goes through a frame jig, drill press, sander and many other pieces of equipment.
Painting and adding the finishing touches come last. Zukas opts to stencil and hand-paint details onto the frame instead of using decals and stickers.
The goals are to make the frame safe, comfortable and aesthetically pleasing, he said.
“They really get into the color of everything,” Zukas said of his customers. “It’s got to be a certain blue or something they haven’t seen.”
The entire process takes 40 to 50 hours to complete, and Zukas said he devotes most evenings and days off from his full-time job on his small business.
HOW LUCRATIVE IS THE BUSINESS: While Zukas admits custom-frame building is his passion, there also is money to be made with the business.
Though he pays for product liability insurance, materials and to annually renew his business license, there is still room for a profit. Zukas charges $1,750 to $2,500 for each frame.
Zukas also has a competitive advantage, being among a small group of similar frame builders in the region. He said there are about five other such businesses across the Southeast but pointed out that frame building is much more popular in Mid-Atlantic and Western states.
“It’s a pretty high turnover for what I do,” he said. “So considering that I’ve lasted this long, I’m pretty happy about that.”