The True Grit of Bicycle Building: An Interview with maker, Thomas Callahan

WORDS: Eric Buron                                                                                       PHOTOGRAPHY: Julien Roubinet

"We think with materials and objects at least as much as we think with words. They are conduits through which we construct our selves and our world."

-Peter Korn

While reading Peter Korn's book, Why We Make Things and Why It Matters, I was given the recommendation by Chris Logsdon of The GodSpeed Co. to look into the work of Thomas Callahan, the founder of Horse Brand Co., a company specializing in hand built bicycles, along with a variety of other outdoor objects.

Day to day, Thomas is in the ongoing process of making objects while simultaneously making a life. I found him at his work space in Brooklyn where, over the course of multiple visits and conversations, he became a clear embodiment of Korn's sentiments that "we are an object-making species." The objects we make and use are intrinsically linked to the kind of lives, communities, cultures, and environments we collectively create and live. 

What is the first thing you remember making?

I went to Montessori school and did a lot of making there. It was only till the third grade but the philosophy definitely influenced my interest in using my hands and doing functional activities. My mom promoted the arts so I did a lot of ceramics and sculpture. Even in high school, I was doing a lot of painting and drawing. I applied to a lot of art schools and ended up going to a liberal arts school and studying sculpture.

After I graduated, I was an artist doing installation, video stuff, for about five years before I made a transition into making and designing; less conceptual pieces, and more product. 

 Thomas Callahan.

Thomas Callahan.

When was the first bicycle that you made?

The first bicycle was in about 2006. I was super into cycling and decided I wanted a really nice bike. Instead of spending money on a frame I decided to spend money on the tools to make the bike. It was one hundred times harder and took longer than I thought, but finally got it done.

 Thomas's First Make: Bike, Age 26.

Thomas's First Make: Bike, Age 26.

Did you buy new parts or did you find used?

I got the tubing from a spot in Italy, from Columbus. Then I built it on an alignment table which is a granite slab, which allows you to build everything in alignment. It’s the simplest way to do it—I used hand tools, hand files, stuff like that.

I made the bike and was obsessed. Then my friends asked me to build them. I had a little website and did that in conjunction with the artwork. Finally, I started doing making bikes full time and from there, maybe three and a half years ago, I expanded; doing other stuff to compliment the outdoors, cycling vibe—motorcycles, camping, knives. We have a hatchet, leather gloves, hats, scarves, stuff like that.

Where does the name, "Horse Brand" come from? 

I thought “Horse” fit because it’s kind of a re appropriation of the old world transport and I thought that there were similarities in the connection that the rider would have for that mode of transportation and the symbol of freedom of movement that that relationship allowed. I’m also super into horses, super into westerns, so it is perfect for me. The last time I’ve ridden a horse was in Mexico.

 Thomas's tools.

Thomas's tools.

What is your most meaningful make so far?

I recently made a knife for my girlfriend and it is pretty much the most awesome thing I’ve ever made. It’s so fucking pretty. It’s a steel knife with a brass handle and blue died maple burl wood. It was hard to make but the motivation was there. The process and the final product came out of wanting to make something for somebody I care about. I think that was really what made it so awesome. And I wasn’t worried about time, I wasn’t worried about my hours or getting paid. It was a nice thing to do, it’s a really important symbol, and it’s for somebody I care about.

What has been your most meaningful mistake?

Taking on too much. Recently, I’ve taken on a big production run that I wanted to do because it symbolized a huge challenge that I’d never done before. We just finished but it basically disallowed me to maintain a flow that I have been on for many years which allowed me to make money doing the things I want to do but also do a lot of research and development for new products.

 Thomas's workspace.

Thomas's workspace.

I like to work on a lot of different things, not just one single thing. Making sure that I have the time and the bandwidth to work on all the different things I want to work on rather than stifling my time with a singular thing. It’s not necessarily a mistake, it’s a learning process, and that was a huge important realization. I’m glad I did this project. What came out of it was great but now I know making more money and product isn’t necessarily the best outcome for me. Maintaining the small scale vibe, and being able to have the time to do a bunch of other things is.

Who inspires you in your making?

I guess seeing what other people are doing and seeing other people who are really into what they’re doing. And of course being able to see these people do their thing on social media, which is kind of a silly thing but at the same time pretty awesome because it makes them accessible. It really drives me. If it’s really rad and special you can see the care and time that they put into stuff and it makes me inspired and motivates me to continue doing what I’m doing. I would say the other people in the bike building community and the knife making community are two of my largest motivators.

 Bike Frame.

Bike Frame.

Is there a good time of day for you to make?

Pretty much all day. I’ve set it up so it’s between the hours of 11am and 7pm. Before and after then I’ve made a slot of time for administrative things and a little time for chilling out. A nice time to do quality work is on the weekend when everything you’re doing is a bonus. A lot of the time I’ll have to work seven days a week, but if I only have five days when I have to work, and then I also come in on a weekend when there’s no pressure. That’s really special.

 Finishing Touches.

Finishing Touches.

What was the last thing you made and why did you make it?  

I just made five knives, two with a fiber glass handle called sea glass, and the other are three reclaimed Coney Island boardwalk handle matters, some of which are going out to customers and some of which are just preemptive product for future sales.

 Thomas's last make: knives.

Thomas's last make: knives.

 Horse Brand Co. painter, Ben, picks paint.

Horse Brand Co. painter, Ben, picks paint.

What do you feel is the significance of biking as transportation?

It’s mainly freedom of movement. It’s such a positive thing to have in your life and connects to feeling good in a lot of different parts of your life. For me, traveling by bike is the best way to get somewhere because I’m able to experience all the different things in between. I’m not limited by anything other than the vehicle that I’m riding on. I don’t have to wait for a bus or train. The absolute freedom of movement to be able to go wherever you want. It’s fully sustainable. It’s great for your body, great for your mind.

 Thomas with one of his bikes.

Thomas with one of his bikes.

What does it feel like to be able to use the thing you make?

Oh, that is awesome! It's the reason I make what I make. Being able to make something, not only for yourself but for a specific person, is such a special thing. In a world of mass produced products, to have something that is made specifically for you, is a special and rare thing.

It’s its own kind of currency in a way. 

Yeah, for sure. I want to make nice, special stuff, you know? Even to make things that aren’t custom, but people know that they’re made by hand. They know the origin of those products, they know that there’s a limited amount of them; and they have a connection to those things. I think that’s an increasingly valuable commodity.

I’m trying to create value in the things I make. I make them for people. It’s special for me and in turn I think it’s special for the people I make the bikes for. It’s just amazing and that’s why I continue to do it.

 Thomas tests one of his motorcycles.

Thomas tests one of his motorcycles.

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