Friday, October 14, 2011

Supporting the USPS one letter at a time

Mark Norstad of Paragon Machine Works is the man when it comes to machining cycling parts however, around our house, he is simply known as Natalie's dad. Natalie is the other half of an ongoing pen-pal relationship with our Olive. The look on Olive's face when she receives "real" mail is priceless. We figure that the girls are doing their part to save a portion of the 3,635 post offices that are facing closures. I can't seem to convince Olive to ask Natalie to sneak in a Ti dropout or two in the letters. Here is a great article by Adam Hunt and Dirt Rag featuring Paragon Machine Works. We look forward to seeing the Norstad's around the camp fire at Salmon Lake I mean Heaven on Earth.

Words and photos by Adam Hunt

You may have never heard of Paragon Machine Works. That’s okay, they’ve probably never heard of you either. Chances are if you’ve purchased a bike from a custom frame builder, you are already using some of their products.

Paragon Machine Works doesn’t make bicycles; they make the things that make bicycles better. Take a gander at their website and you’ll see an array of tantalizing little tidbits that will send any bike geek’s heart a flutter. Few of us will ever need Paragon’s bottom bracket heatsink and purge fitting tool but dang; it’s so beautiful you may want one anyway.

Situated in a residential area in Richmond, California, and downwind of the massive Chevron refinery, Paragon Machine Works has become known as the premier American manufacture of bicycle frame building parts and the go-to people for custom made bottom brackets, cable guides, headtubes and dropouts.

Starting as a single man operation in 1983 with a single lathe and a mill, Paragon’s owner, Mark Norstad, has specialized in small parts manufacturing geared towards custom bike builders and smaller production companies. A quick look at Paragon’s web catalog reveals the breadth of Mark’s offerings: titanium bottle openers, bottom bracket shells made out of aluminum, stainless steel, steel and titanium, brake mounts for both disc brakes and cantilevers, dropouts, including sliding dropouts and hinged dropouts with integrated disc mounts, headtubes and a range of frame building tools.

Initially, Norstad planned to be a “job shop” for local companies in need of machining work. At first work was slow and irregular. One year he declared “zero” on his tax return. Luckily, Norstad was in the right place at the right time. In the early eighties the Northern California bicycle scene was starting to take off. Builders like Steve Potts, Charlie Cunningham, Otis Guy and the Koski brothers were working in Marin County, Keith Bontrager was getting rolling in Santa Cruz, Tom Ritchey in Palo Alto, Ross Shafer, Bruce Gordon, Scot Nicol and Jeffery Richmond were also making names for themselves in nearby Sonoma County. Norstad became the “go-to-guy” for small frame building parts.

Norstad considers himself a machinist first, and a bike person second. His business isn’t limited to bicycles. Paragon Machine Works has also made equipment for motorsport, the solar industry, viniculture and capturing methane from landfills.

Norstad was keen to show Dirt Rag some of his new stem front plates, head tubes, and BB30 and PF30 bottom bracket shells. Norstad said Paragon’s stem plates help frame builders make custom stems quicker. Custom front plates engraving is also available. It is good be able to offer custom builders multiple options now that bottom bracket sizing is once again in flux.

One of his latest projects was designing his own version of a pivoting disc brake dropout. Some small builders such as Todd Ingermanson, of Black Cat Bicycles and Rick Hunter of Hunter Cycles, had become dissatisfied by either using eccentric bottom brackets, sliding dropouts or trackends as a way of tensioning chains on single speeds with disc brakes. They were already been experimenting with their own pivoting dropout design. Norstad said he was approached by Hunter with the idea of having a custom dropout of his own design built but was surprised when Norstad showed Hunter a dropout he had made independently of the two frame builders.

According to Norstad, the benefit of a pivoting dropout is that it maintains a constant distance between the rear axle and the disc brake pivot, and, unlike trackends, it doesn’t require any loosening of the disc brake caliper to take off the rear wheel and lastly, unlike an eccentric bottom bracket, pivoting dropouts don’t raise or lower the effective bottom bracket height of a bike or affect the a rider’s position.

Norstad said there are so many Paragon Machine Works design knock-offs bubbling up from the Far East that he occasionally answers angry phone calls from customers who bought a bike constructed with these imitation parts that called to voice their disappointment in them. Norstad is keen to point out his products generally don’t got to manufactures in Asia and what these people were really complaining about was the poor fabrication of these hastily made lookalikes.

Making high dollar bike frames is a gamble. Making high dollar bicycle frames in a recession even more so. Like many others, Norstad has felt the pinch. Some of his non-bicycle related contracts have evaporated, leaving hid business with an uncertain future.

Searching for more contacts he took some of Paragon’s handiwork to the recent North American Handmade Bicycle show in Austin, Texas. Norstad was surprised by the result—a flood of new orders. When asked what he attributed the surge of orders to he was at a loss to explain. He’s just happy they are they are coming in.

5 Questions with Mark Norstad

DR: How did you get started?

MN: I started taking machine shop classes when I was twelve years old.

DR: What’s the best part of your job?

MN: Seeing something made with your own two hands.

DR: What’s the toughest part of your job?

MN: Being a boss.

DR: Outside of bicycle parts what other things does Paragon Machine Works make?

MN: We’ve done couplers for heavy earth moving equipment, some work for a solar company, transmission parts for VW and some stainless steel work for methane capturing from landfills but with the downturn or recession or whatever you want to call it all that’s all dried up. Thankfully there are a lot of people buying custom frames out there and that’s what’s keeping us going. We’ve had a real surge in orders after the last North American Handmade Bicycle Show but I’m not sure what to attribute that to.

DR: What are your interests besides bikes?

MN: I made a jet boat out of a Yamaha jet ski. It’s super loud and obnoxious and it’s a great deal of fun. Because jet boats don’t have a propeller you can run them at full speed in about a foot of water. It’s like singletrack for boats.

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