Paragon Machine Works is one of the best known names worldwide for metal parts needed by frame builders as they assemble a frame. Yet when it first opened its doors for business, Paragon, which has its base at the northeastern end of the vast San Francisco Bay, might very well have gone in a different direction and not have become the international frame builder parts powerhouse it is known as today. Company founder, Mark Norstad, tells the story.
“When I started the company in 1983 it was a one-person job shop. The idea was I’d take on anything that came through the door, and the first thing that came through the door was bicycle dropouts. So that was a happy accident. Being in Marin County at the start of mountain biking… People were building bikes and they needed custom machine work.”
Although bicycle parts became an increasing part of Paragon’s work, the company has always remained a job shop, with work as diverse as making tubes, valves and bottle caps for a company in DNA synthesis, a submersible pump for landfills, wine making equipment, and even a special locking fasteners to keep nuts and bolts tight, but as time went on the company found itself concentrating more and more on bicycle work.
In 2008/9 when the Great Recession hit, Norstad recalls “All the job-shop work disappeared, and it was the bike stuff that financially got us through that. It was an eye-opener, I saw there is a real market here. That changed our focus and we’ve pursued the bike stuff more, and it’s paid off. It seems possible to me that high end bikes are more recession proof than many other manufacturing industries. If somebody has $10,000 to buy a custom bicycle, they have that kind of money no matter what the economy is doing. That’s what I saw, at least.”
Today Paragon has 12 full-time employees, including Norstad and his wife Donna. He provides parts to a wide swath of frame builders, mostly in the USA, but also the United Kingdom, Australia, across Europe and even a couple in Japan. This makes him a leading expert on what the industry is doing.
Among the newer products produced by Paragon recently are flat mount dropouts with rack eyelets for fenders and touring bikes. “That may not sound like an earth shattering thing, but if you use disk brakes and have fenders or pannier racks on your bike, it’s an important feature.”
Another product that Paragon has recently added is the low-mount dropout. The enables a disc brake caliper to be mounted between the seat stay and chainstay, which is arguably the best place for it. “We’ve had that for a long while in the 10mm size, but recently we’ve started making it in 12mm,” says Norstad. These are available from Paragon in cro-moly, stainless steel and titanium.
The industry-wide move to the 12mm thru axle standard is noted by Paragon as still one of the strongest trends. And linked to this, he has recently moved the 10mm dropout onto Paragon’s list of inactive products. Other than that, Norstad says, the big thing is disc brakes on all kinds of bikes.
Back to the dropouts, though, “There are lots of 12mm axles on the market now, but the dropouts to receive them are still evolving. We’re developing a 1.5” circle, which will make the dropout lighter. But also a smaller diameter part requires less machining so we can sell it for less. So it’s going to be lighter and cheaper.”
Norstad reckons a bike made of steel or titanium will never be as light as a carbon bike, but he’s doing what he can to narrow the gap. And to think he could’ve ended up making pumps for landfill sites.