Handmade: Porcelain Rocket

Somewhat at odds with my original plans, I now find myself in Victoria, the capital city of British Colombia that’s situated, a little confusingly, on Vancouver Island – not to be mistaken with nearby Vancouver, which isn’t…

What, back in Canada?

Er, yep. For now.

There’s a reason for my about turn, and it’s that I’ve decided to prolong my stay in North America. But for this, I’ll need to renew my US visa. As per usual, this was a last minute decision, so with only a few days left before it expired, a helping hand was required to cover the 900 mile, triple-state traverse to the Canadian border. Enter the virtual bulletin board of Craigslist, where 75 bucks in gas money earned me a rideshare all the way to Port Angeles, a lonely harbour set dramatically at the foot of the verdant Olympic Mountains. From there, it was just a short hop across the Salish Sea, from Washington’s Olympic peninsula to British Colombia, on a ferry that neatly depositing me in downtown Victoria.

From past experience, it seems that unusual company is all but guaranteed when ridesharing: on this occasion, the 20 hour road trip was shared with a chainsmoking student of Tibetan Buddhism, a girl with green hair, a Deadhead and, of course, my dismembered bicycle squeezed into the trunk of the Audi wagon. The journey itself proved interminably long but largely uneventful, most likely because it involved four wheels and a motor, rather than two and a pair of legs.

Still, making such an odyssey north did have other benefits. For one, it introduced me to the Pacific North West – a land of ancient, towering redwoods, giant ferns, moss-draped rainforests and, being the middle of winter, permadrizzle. It’s also given me the chance connect again with Scott and Naomi, who have moved to Victoria since I last stayed with them in Banff – back when they replenished me with food in readiness for the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, over two years ago.

During this time, Scott has begun a new business: Porcelain Rocket, fabricators of custom bicycle framebags. Just to recap, stowing gear within the frame of a bicycle makes great use of space and centers weight, allowing for a lighter, rack and pannier-less setup and more technical riding prowess. With the advent of this style of kit available commercially, dirt road touring, or bikepacking, as it’s becoming known, has been flourishing.

In fact, Scott’s distinctive rocket patches have festooned my muddy gear over the last 18 months, as he’s been kind enough to send me various prototypes to use and abuse. Which, in turn, has introduced me to a new world of more remote and challenging mountain bike travels.

While I’ve been out riding, Scott’s been honing his sewing skills… And he’s got pretty good…

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Welcome to Porcelain Rocket, aka the Cave. A trained ceramic artist, and something of a rocket when out on his bicycle, Scott’s unusual but aptly-named business has quietly grown within the bowels of a ramshackle Art Deco home, which itself is in midst of DIY upheaval.

The first step to building a framebag is to draw out a pattern of the bicycle frame in question, marking on details such as water bottle mounts and cable bosses. Inevitably each pattern is different, depending on the bicycle manufacturer, the frame’s size, and the material it’s made from.

The pattern is then cut out and laid over the fabric, its tracing forming the main panels of the framebag.

Depending on intended use and aesthetic whims, there are various fabrics and colours to choose from, from the burliest of Corduras for expedition riding to lightest of modern packclothes for ultra endurance racing.

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Snip snip snip. Steadier hands than mine.

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Just in case I might have had aspirations to rustle up my own framebag, I was told in no uncertain words that each pair of scissors has its own purpose. Of the four, these are the fabric shears. Woe betide anyone who confuses them with the snippers for cutting plastic.

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Work begins by lamplight…

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Scott’s machines are all second hand – this one is an old straight stitcher from the ’70s. His bartacker came out of the Dallas Cowboy’s uniform shop – unfortunately not the Cheerleaders’.

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Vrroooom, vrooom…

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Time for some zips. These fellas are known as ‘Number 10s’, and they’re the big daddies of the zip world.

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One side completed. This one has a dual compartment and is built with extra tough fabric.

Each panel is lined with a piece of foam, to help provide structure and protect innards. Although these black and white shots don’t show it, this particular liner is actually a tasteful shade of Hot Pink…

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Take 5. Kaboom calls for a break.

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Then it’s back to the sewing machine to work on the other side, which features a shallow map sleeve and a see-through storage compartment.

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This done, the spine of the bag is then traced out onto a ballistics fabric, chosen for its high abrasion resistance.

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Velcro strips are sewn in, to secure the bag in place within the frame.

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Each one is carefully positioned to avoid cable bosses and stops, which have been marked out by the frame’s pattern.

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Back to the machine once more…

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Sewing in the main construction stitch – suddenly, it’s starting to take shape.

Corner and intricate stitches require working the machine manually.

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The framebag’s still inside out, but almost there. Note the massive, padded flair at the front for extra storage capacity.

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Excess fabric falls to the ground as the bag is trimmed, and then finished with seam ribbon.

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And last but not least, the moment of truth: the ‘rabbit out of the hat trick’. Scott grapples with the framebag to turn it the right way round.

Framepack builder cradles finished product. Job done.

A final splash of colour… The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. It’s a perfect fit!

Notes:

For more details on Scott’s fantastic work, check out Porcelain Rocket and his Flickr page.

The images were taken using a Micro Four Thirds Lumix GH2, with 28 and 40mm pancake primes, at 800-1600 ISO. Scott’s little sweatshop is all but devoid of light, especially away from the work lamps, so I processed the images into black and light using Lightroom.

39 thoughts on “Handmade: Porcelain Rocket

  1. Jordan

    Hey! I live in Victoria and must say it’s the last place I expected you to turn up! I’ve really been enjoying the blog. It sounds like you’ve got some great friends here but don’t hesitate to ask if there’s anything you need. Enjoy your time in town and keep up the great work.

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Thanks for your message Jordan. Victoria seems like a great place. I headed out and rode the Hartland trails today, which were amazing. Definitely will be back there. Then planning a ride along the Galloping Goose, before I take the ferry back to PA. Any recommendations for Victoria would be appreciated!

      Reply
      1. Jordan

        For food, I’d check out Daidoco (Japanese deli focused on local ingredients. lunch only and the usually run out of food, so get there early) or Hernandez (traditional central american food. at times eccentric but very affordable).

        Victoria has a relatively strong craft beer scene for a small city. Be sure to check out the Canoe club if you’re looking to grab a pint. Driftwood and Phillips are both great breweries and are widely available locally.

        I’ve always been partial to the Lochside trail over the Goose as it’s so easy to do a big loop around the Saanich peninsula and loop back into town but both are great options.

        If you’re in town for a while longer and wanna check out the Lochside trail or grab lunch shoot me an e-mail. I’d welcome the chance to hear more about what you’re doing!

        Reply
  2. gyatsola

    Great to see Scotts new workshop! I love my Porcelain Rocket kit, you remind me, I want to order some for my road bike too (thats the thing about custom bags, you keep wanting to order more as you think more about what you can do with them).

    Reply
  3. Andi

    Love you blog … Especially for the high quality pics and nice to read articles providing serious experiences and reviews instead of blah. :)

    So you finally got an upgrade on your camera setup? Looking forward to read of your experiences on the gh2.

    So long, Andi

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Thanks Andi. Although the GH2 seems like an awesome little camera in many ways, I’m not quite totally sold on it, mainly thanks to its plastic build. It also seems to have really slow write speeds. Although I don’t have it anymore to compare, it feels slower than the GF1 – I think I read the new GX1 is faster.

      My favourite aspect of it is probably the electronic viewfinder – and the sensor that turns the display on and off when your eye is pressed up to it. That bit was fiddly on the GF1 and works really well on the GH2. It definitely seems to be a touch better in low light, which is cool. The larger MP gives a bit more scope for cropping, though the file sizes are massive. I’ve heard the video capability is amazing, and that’s something I’d like to get into.

      I still find myself drawn to my Nikon though, despite its ridiculous size and weight, mainly because the camera is so much more responsive for action photography. I also like to set up the shutter button so it only releases, and another separate button to focus. You can do this on the GH2, but it’s not as easy to use. MFT seems to be limited to 1/4000 shutter speed, which can be a pain in bright conditions as you loose out on some of the depth of field control.

      I have a few really nice lenses for my Nikon too, and I really miss not having one that’s wider than 28mm equivalent in the MFT system. I can’t quite bring myself to invest in the Olympus 12mm 2.0 (24 equivalent), which looks perfect. I read the build is really good, and the optical quality too. But it’s $800…

      I heard Olympus is bring out a weather resistant camera body with a built in viewfinder. There’s always something new, right? (-;

      Reply
      1. Andi

        Nice to hear as my feelings about this is similar. As a longtime 20D user I don’t want to step down from this nice handling though it is simply outruled by any cheapo compact camera in facts of image quality – especially high ISO shots – by now. MFT seems the way to go at first glance but plastic bodies, hardware speed, handling speed, own lens system or at least adapters and almost same prices as reasonable DSLRs are the turn. I can’t help for having an eye on the NEX-9 though as it tries to eliminate some of this facts, but the price … and E-mount. And as you mentioned super wide lenses. The shutterspeed problem could be solved using ND-filters maybe.

        Guess I’ll wait a little longer until it’s really a topic for me hoping that canon will bring a full-frame in a 550D sized body with a 5D MkII top and back … Or my unknown, super-rich, distantly-related great-uncle bequeathes my a certain sum and I’ll go for the Leica M9. ^^

        So long, Andi

        Reply
        1. While Out Riding Post author

          To be fair to MFT, the GF1 was a super solid camera, and the GX1 looks to be the same. The pancakes I have are absolutely tiny, and not having to haul a DLSR about has so many advantages for day to day riding – plus, MFT is far less eye-catching of travel photography. When you put the two systems side by side, you realise how small and light MFT is, so something is bound to have to give. Being able to fit adaptors for old legacy lenses is really cool too. But I do wish some of the lenses were more affordable.

          ND filters are a possibility – but another piece of kit to fit or remove when needed.

          Talking of the M9, the soon-to-be-released Fuji X1 Pro looks to be incredible…

          Reply
      2. Andi

        Neat tool. Btw, the press release on the X-Pro1 happened to be few hours ago and complete specs as well as tons of pics are online by now. If the picture quality keeps what has been promised I’m nearly sold .. ^^ 100% frame coverage!

        Uhm .. and sorry for the misuse of your thread about one definitely awesome guy and his superb craftsmanship. Won’t happen again.

        So long and may you always be spared from flats and cracks. ^^

        Reply
        1. While Out Riding Post author

          Thanks for the link. I saw the price keeps yoyoing up and down… Please let me know what you think of it! One one preview, I read the autofocus of the pre production one was a bit slow?

          Reply
      3. Andi

        Yeah, read that but i hope it’s really just the preproduction software or anything they’ll fix for the production models.

        Guess they keep up the rumors on higher prices so people will be even more willing to buy it when it’s finally a bit cheaper than previously teased. IMO 1,300 € seems a reasonable price.

        I’ll keep you up to date on any progress. Though it will be mid march when i finally can get my hands on it.

        Reply
  4. markbc

    Hey Cass, surprised to see you’re just over the water from me here in Vancouver. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time in Vic so can’t recommend anywhere to ride. If you like aquariums the little Shaw Ocean Discovery Center in Sidney is nice, the sister aquarium to the Ucluelet Aquarium, halfway up the coast of Vancouver Island next to the open ocean, which we are building for opening this summer. We are super busy trying to get that done.

    I was wondering, does the frame bag make carrying the bike more difficult? I usually like to put my arm in the triangle and hoist the thing over my shoulder, which is something I imagine one might want to do more often in bikepacking terrain. Or have you found another way to carry it?

    Yes, the camera-while-biking issue is one that never seems to rest. We are so tight for space. I think a dedicated blog needs to be set up just to deal with that. On my kayak trip I couldn’t change lenses out on the salt water so I had to bring 4 complete camera systems – one for each lens. A D40 + Sigma 10-20 which is a nice wide angle lens but fairly heavy, a D40x + Nikkor 35 1.8, which is a great little lens, a D3000 + Nikkor 70-300 VR, and D300 + 300 f4 AF-S + 1.4 X teleconverter for wildlife. These covered all my needs but took up lots of space which you have more of in a kayak than on a bike. I since replaced the D40 with a D7000 which is no featherweight either.

    Unfortunately for decent wildlife shots there’s no way around it, you need a big lens, although now with the Nikon V1 I might be able to get away with a small camera, we’ll see. The V1 might be a good replacement for my D40x, and I’ll be able to continue with my Nikon lenses. I’d really like to avoid buying a new lens system if possible. I don’t know if you follow Thom Hogan at http://www.bythom.com but he has lots of good insight.

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      I’d forgotten you were in Vancouver, Mark. Not planning to head over that way at the moment, but will be sure to let you know if things change.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      That’s quite a clutch of cameras! And I thought I was bad whittling down my photographic kit (-;

      I don’t have any issues with carrying the bike as it is. There’s a little cutaway near the seat post for briefly picking it up – like lifting it up a few stairs. Otherwise, I carry the bike from the chainstays stays, hooking the saddle over my shoulder, which works fine.

      Reply
  5. Simon G

    Hey Cass…saw Rob at the weekend and he mentioned that you had headed up North for the visa. Enjoy the Pacific North West whilst you are there…Olympic National Park and Mt. Ranier are stunning. I guess the weather isn’t idea for touring in that part of the world at this time of year (but that has rarely stopped you before). Take Care and Sarah & Noah send their love.
    ///S

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Simon, great to hear from you. Even though the Olympic mountains have been shrouded in snow most days, today they peeked out across the sound, rising up over Victoria. Impressive… Love to the family! Cass

      Reply
  6. Dylan

    Great post—thanks for sharing this.

    I’m a first time viewer, but long-term bike junkie, Interwebz buddy of Vik B, and customer and logo (re)designer of Scott’s Porcelain Rocket.

    …and, camera nerd, to a certain point. Saw your comments about the GF1 and it makes me miss that little monster. I’m trying a Fujifilm X10 this year in an effort to simplify back to one body and one lens. We’ll see…but I heard Panny’s gonna make a big announcement this Thursday at CES…

    Cheers,

    Dylan

    Reply
  7. TravellingTwo (@travellingtwo)

    Did you get back into the U.S. okay? I thought that weird U.S. visa rules meant you actually had to leave North America to renew a visa? Previous cyclists have told me that Canada doesn’t (under U.S. bureaucracy at least) count as another country…

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      I wasn’t too sure it would be ok as I’d heard that too, but it went fine. My case was a bit different in that I do have a 6 month visa in an old passport (the passport was full, rather than expired). I had used my new passport to get in to the US when I flew from the UK to Denver, but was able to re-enter using the visa from the old one when I crossed from Canada. Actually, I really should have used that one in the first place, but I’d thought it needed to be transferred over to the new passport. Apparently not.

      Reply
  8. Kenneth C.

    He has a very nice shop and he knows what he is doing too that always helps lol.If I went to make a frame bag it would look like well I’m not going to say that here lol.Thats why he is making my frame bag for me.

    Reply
  9. Ely Rodriguez

    Thank you for the post. I really enjoy the process pictures and words. I tried making a frame bag similar to this, it is not easy. His construction and materials look great.
    -Ely Ruth Rodriguez (ruthworksSF)

    Reply

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