Manufacturing processes and market trends continue to literally shape the bicycle frame. While not as common as it used to be, the process of butting is still used in the manufacture of bicycle frames. Meanwhile, steel, the long-running workhorse, is being replaced more and more by aluminum—its hardy cousin that grows less expensive every year. So what do you look for in a frame? Is next year's frame necessarily better than this year's?
Striving to shave precious grams from frame designs, manufacturers have employed all sorts of exotic metals and methods. Essentially, though, what you pay for is inversely proportional to the weight of your bike. The more you pay, the less it weighs.
In theory, aggressive angles lead to aggressive ride characteristics. Relaxed angles lead to more casual ride characteristics. Which is best for you? The answer really depends on how much time you spend in the saddle. If you ride a lot and aren't interested in attacking the road or trail, go for a relaxed geometry of about 70 or 71 degrees on the head tube. More aggressive bikes have a head-tube angle of 72 or 73 degrees.
Even with advances in materials, manufacturing processes and design, the best frame tubing for the buck is plain-gauge. These are tubes that don't rely on butting (see below) or oversizing or exotic blends, but are straight and strong and easy to manufacture. As a consequence they are cheaper. Those who are "serious" about cycling may point out that plain-gauge tubes weigh more than butted tubes. This is true, but the difference is sometimes only a matter of three or four pounds. If you're just out enjoying the town or trail and not attacking mountains, then this weight difference is of no consequence.
The goal of any good bike manufacturer is to put the material where you need it. And you need the material where the bike frame undergoes the most stress—at each end of the various tubes. This process is known as butting.
Internal Butting—Looking at the tube, you won't notice butting because it's hidden within the tube. So how do you know if the bike is butted? Bike manufacturers will certainly tell you, as it's a big selling point.
External Butting—The older, more expensive way is to add material onto the outside of the tube. This is rarely done anymore. However, you sometimes will see an extended weld. (See below.)
There are two methods used to butt a frame tube.
Double Butting—As the tube is shaped, extra material is allowed internally at each end of the tube. By increasing these areas of the tube, the overall tube wall thickness can be reduced, thus saving weight.
Triple Butting—To save even more weight, the double butting process is refined by stepping down the material at the ends of the tube. This means the butting starts out in the standard, double-butted manner but then is thinned before stepping down again to the normal tube wall thickness. In a cutaway, the inside of the tube looks like three terraced rice paddies on a hillside.
There are essentially 3 ways to join frame tubes:
Each method has its proponents, yet nearly all but the very high-end bikes use the TIG welding method. This approach is relatively inexpensive and creates a good, solid weld. However, look closely at a bike's welds. You'll see that quality bikes offer a thick, even weld that goes around the entire tube. On department store bikes the welds are thin and spotty, dabbed down generally on the top, bottom and sides, but leaving open areas in between.
Extended Welds—One inexpensive way of adding material to the end of a tube is to simply add welding material. Generally, this is an elliptical circle or a double line extending from the joint to about an inch or so down the tube where it fades out. What's the problem with this method? The heat used in this process can actually weaken the tube. After welding, manufacturers will again heat-treat the entire tube—baking it, essentially—to bring the metal back up to par. While effective, this is a less substantial method than actually building the butting while the tube is being drawn out.