Like many artists, Ed Brennan’s work begins with a simple sketch. The lines are proportioned perfectly, intersecting at just the right angles to create what many prize as a work of art: a custom bicycle frame.
In his studio in the Arsenal, Ed begins with a full-size drawing of the bicycle. He carefully cuts and lines up steel tubes on the template. From there, the frame moves to a special jig that keeps everything straight while he brazes the pieces together. Everything is handmade.
The work requires pain-staking precision and patience—traits one might expect from someone who is nicknamed Farnsworth for his “reserved personality, like an English person,” Ed explains. His bicycle frames carry the “Farnsworth Bicycles” label and Ed’s signature.
Bicycles and riding became a big part of Ed’s life when he was a teenager, though he considers building bicycle frames to be a hobby. He has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, and is an arborist by profession. He serves as a community adviser to the Benicia Tree Foundation.
Ed’s life is now a blend of working as a consulting arborist, primarily on development projects, and building bicycle frames. He rides regularly with the Benicia Bicycle Club.
Ed, 65, and his wife, Sally, bought a waterfront condo in Benicia in 2000 as a weekend place but moved from San Francisco to live here full-time a year later. The couple are regulars at Trivia Tuesday at the Rellik Tavern, and Sally works at Christina S on First Street. Ed has two grown children and Sally has one adult son.
How did you begin your career working with trees? When I graduated in 1971, the job prospects for someone in anthropology were pretty much in academia. I spent one year in grad school at Washington State in eastern Washington, and then I got a job doing tree work in Colorado. Back then, if you could walk, you could get a job doing tree work. That was the first in a series of unskilled-labor jobs.
I liked the job and I stayed a couple of years. Well, through a winter. … Then I came back to California and started working for a tree company in Marin. After four or five years, I started my own tree business in San Francisco.
How did you reach the level of arborist? At that time, no one recognized what an arborist was. There was no degree program, and there was a wave of deregulation when Reagan came in as governor. New Jersey and Illinois had arborist licensing, but both were challenged in court.
The Western Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture started its own certification program. I’m a member, and I took the program in 1983 or ’84. I was among the first to take the test.
You learn on the job. Certification requires work experience, which you usually get with a tree company or municipality.
When should homeowners call an arborist? If they have questions about trees in general, call an arborist. I’m not offering them a service, but I can assess the tree and not try to sell them on my services for pruning or anything else. I charge $130 for a homeowner visit. I get called usually when people perceive something is wrong or a tree needs to be pruned, but that’s not always true.
Why did so many leaves change colors so early this year? That’s a sign of drought stress. It’s like an early fall. The leaves are in the act of dying.
What are good trees to plant here? We have such a mild climate that you can pretty much grow anything. Look at what’s doing well and what will fit in the size of your space. You don’t want to plant a poplar that’s going to take over.
What do you do as a community adviser to the Benicia Tree Foundation? They do a lot of grant writing and I review grant applications for them, mostly for what species are appropriate.
When did bicycling enter your life? I started riding seriously in 1963 at age 13 in Sacramento. My neighbor got a new bike and I bought the old one. I joined a bike club and we would race against each other. The Bay Area was a hotbed of bicycle racing in the U.S., but Sacramento was so remote from the Bay Area that we had our own races.
I had a newspaper route for the Sacramento Bee so I was able to buy the bike, but I didn’t use it on the route. I used it to race. I raced for four or five years, then took a break when I was in college. I got back to it when I moved to Marin. I don’t race anymore, far from it.
How often do you ride now? I usually ride Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday with the (Benicia Bicycle Club), but I haven’t been riding much this year. I usually ride with the club unless I have conflicts.
How did you go from riding to making bicycle frames? I heard about this course in Ashland, Oregon, that was offered by the United Bicycle Institute. It’s a two-week course, very intensive. That was in 1998 and I was still living in San Francisco.
I get up to this course and there are people from all over the world. The group is divided into two—each spends half a day in the lab building a bike and half a day in a lecture. These were 12-hour days. I got to be friends with others in my group.
How many bicycle frames have you built? I made two a year for quite a while. I think I’ve completed a couple dozen frames over the years. I’ve got a couple of people who want me to make bikes that I haven’t quite gotten done yet. It probably takes 40 to 50 hours per frame. I do this as a hobby. The last thing I want is a backlog of orders.
Why do you use steel tubes instead of lighter-weight materials? I like the feel of a steel bike. That’s what bikes were made from for 100 years. The older I get, the more old-fashioned I want the bike to be. I think the thing that’s coming in bicycles is getting away from racing bikes with 100 pounds of pressure in a half-inch wide tire to something that’s more comfortable, more like a touring bike.
How many bikes do you own? I don’t really know how many. I use about four regularly, depending on the type of ride. For Bridge to Bridge, I use more of a road bike. I have one that’s more of a winter bike with bigger tires and fenders.
Any suggestions to offer someone just beginning to cycle? People starting out usually don’t want to ride with cars. There’s the State Park where you can get away from cars, or Goodyear Road doesn’t have a lot of traffic. East Bay Regional Parks took over the old road between Port Costa and Martinez and they are making it into a walk/bike trail that should open soon. Once they get that open, that’ll be a good place to ride.
What routes would you suggest for moderate/more advanced riders? The ride to Rockville is good. If you go up Lopes Road, you’ll get there. When you cross 80, it turns to Green Valley Road and that ends at Rockville Road. That’s about 20 miles one-way from Benicia.
You can then take Rockville and that intersects with Suisun Valley Road. If you go on to Mankas Corner, that’s the gateway to Gordon Valley Road. That’s about 55 miles round trip.
Besides riding, what do you do to relax? Sally’s sister has a place in the city that we go to for a couple days a week. We like to go to restaurants there.
What’s next for you? I think I am where I want to be for a while. I’m working part time and doing my hobbies.