Machinists Turn Wheels of Progress

Brian Spitz works with a block of aluminum

Brian Spitz is a machinist, an increasingly rare job skill in the U.S., and certainly in Silicon Valley. It’s rewarding work, but global economics comes into play here.

As with many machinists, Brian has a close connection to cycling. A bike is a relatively simple machine. With the exception of the chain, the aspiring machinist could fashion an entire bicycle. Today there’s a modest industry of U.S. built bike components.

I’ve known Brian since his days as an eager teen working at Palo Alto Bicycles. As a mechanic, he quickly took an interest in frame building. It wasn’t long before he found out about Peter Johnson, a well known machinist and frame builder in Redwood City. “I would hang around Peter’s shop and watch him work,” says Brian. “He never tried to hide what he was doing. He’s why I’m a machinist today.”

Peter Johnson -- racer, frame builder, machinist

The machinist is crucial for building the things that make the world go round. Every part starts with the machinist, who fabricates from raw materials the prototype, which will be duplicated hundreds, thousands, or millions of times over. He works with expensive, computerized machinery that control the machine to drill or cut with incredible precision.

I visited Brian in a San Jose industrial area, a mishmash of warehouses filled with machinery and raw materials. Brian and co-worker Harold Wheeler, also a cyclist, were working on blocks of black acrylic. Jets of water cooled the drill bit as it cut the hard resin. A lot of the work machinists do in Silicon Valley is done for companies in biomedical, solar, computer, and other technology industries.

When he built frames, he lived at home and worked out of the garage. Frame building has never been a way to get rich, but machining is in strong demand in the markets he serves. He loves his work and the freedom it brings, something cyclists know only too well.

Brian still rides his bike to and from work, an easy two-mile commute. He fondly recalls the days when he could ride up Old La Honda Road with the best of them. In one memorable ride, he raced Dave Faust, an accomplished Category 1 racer, and won handily in 16:20. “I thought Dave was saving himself so I rode as hard as I could the whole way,” Brian recalls.

That was then. Today, Brian’s Spitz Design & Machine is building the parts that will make the world a better place to live. We wish him well.

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