There exist only a few companies that have dramatically altered the path of the cycling industry all on their own. On the mainstream side, there’s Stella Yu of Velo Saddles, whose company manufactures virtually every OEM and aftermarket saddle you’ve ever seen, and whose guidance has changed how every major bicycle brand specs their components. If Velo was to suddenly shutter its doors, the industry would be crippled.
On the handbuilt side, there’s Mark Norstad and Paragon Machine Works, a company you may not have even heard of. But just as Velo is a silent pillar in the mass-produced world, Paragon is a critical component of the custom industry as the primary producer of a huge range of titanium and steel frame parts. If a builder doesn’t use Paragon parts now, they probably did at some point. And just like Velo, the repercussions of Paragon shutting down would be severe and widely felt.
As is the case with many success stories, luck, hard work, and valuable mentors all played key roles in Norstad’s rise to humble prominence. But perhaps more deserving of credit was a cannon — and a big bag of gunpowder.
Mark Norstad was, in many ways, a typical teenager in the 1970s. With a world of opportunity ahead of him, he was, in effect, the captain of his own ship, with the entire ocean in front of him; he just didn’t know which way to turn the wheel. But on one summer day, when his family was visiting some friends on their farm in central California, a cannon changed his life forever.
This was no little toy cannon, mind you, but rather a fully functioning replica of what pirates shot from ships on the high seas, or what was aimed at foes during the American Civil War. You could actually load it with gunpowder, place cannonballs (or whatever would fit, really) into the barrel, and then fire away. And fire away those kids did.
“The guy there had this black powder cannon,” Norstad recalled. “And he gave us a pound of black powder and said, ‘Here’s the cannon, and here’s some fuse; go and have fun with that thing.’ It was just seven kids and a cannon, and we basically blew up the whole pound of black powder, just shooting the cannon all day long.”
Naturally, Norstad found the cannon to be immensely fun. The noise. The smoke. The sheer power. Blowing things up. What more could you want?
But what he actually found more fascinating was that the thing wasn’t bought at a store somewhere; the family he was visiting had it made.
“When the day was over, I asked the guy, ‘That was the coolest thing; where did you get that?’ His answer was, ‘I had a machine shop make it for me.’ I was like, ‘Wow, machinists can do that? That’s what I want to do; I want to make cannons.'”
On that summer trip, and perhaps mostly in hindsight, that cannon became his guiding light — his North Star on the ocean.
Slowly finding purpose
Norstad was just about to enter high school the following autumn, and as fortune would have it, the school offered a course in machining, in which he promptly enrolled. Over the next four years, he learned the basics of the craft: turning, drilling, milling, cutting speed and material feed rates, rough and finishing cuts.
With his other requirements fulfilled in the prior three years, machining was how he spent most of his senior year. The chips were flying, and he was happily making things hour after hour. And while he clearly had found something he enjoyed doing, the idea of doing it for a living still hadn’t occurred to him.
“I had no real plans of what I was going to do after high school,” he said. “I was out sick one day, but the machine shop instructor from the local junior college came around and tried to recruit people. My younger brother was in the class that day and he said, ‘You’ve got to see the stuff these guys are making. It’s so cool.’ Based on that, I signed up at the local junior college for machine shop classes. In two years of junior college, I learned more than I had in the previous four in high school.”
Norstad got a job at a local machine shop shortly after, and as it turned out, CNC-machining was just starting to become more commonplace. Once the sole domain of military and government contractors due to the initially exorbitant costs, computers were finally coming down in price, and smaller shops were able to tack them on to their machines.
“That was really sort of a good place to be, because I not only got a lot of exposure to manual machining, which is where everyone starts, but I also got exposed to the early job-shop CNC stuff, and it was really fun. I really learned a ton in the time I worked for that shop, and that was three and a half years. I finally left that shop to go back to school, just because I wanted to take fun classes. I took art classes, I took French, I took English, all just stuff for the fun of it.”
Lots of skill, but still no firm direction
Norstad was enjoying feeding his brain, and had become a fairly proficient machinist. But that said, there was still — at least to him — no obvious direction in which his life should take. There were plenty of things that interested him, but a career? That was still uncertain.
Then again, his father was following a rather unconventional and adventurous path of his own, and the younger Norstad perhaps didn’t feel the pressure to get his life in order. When Mark and his three siblings were still relatively young, their father stepped away from a secure job as an architect and pursued his passion of becoming — of all things — a potter. That business proved very successful, to the point where it outgrew its original location and needed to expand.
His father bought a piece of property in Richmond, California — northeast across the bay from San Francisco — designed the structure (he was a trained architect, after all), and then Mark and one of his brothers built the building themselves. That project took about a year, but once that work was done, he found himself again trying to figure out what to do next.
“It was kind of a loose end, after building this building, and having gone back to school,” Norstad said. “I went back and visited my old boss at the machine shop. There were two partners, and one guy was kind of a crab. I walked in the door, and he scowled and said, ‘What do you want?’ The other guy said, ‘Come on, sit down. Let’s talk for a minute.’ So we talked for a while about what I had been doing, and what was going on, and he said, ‘Have you ever thought of starting your own machine shop? You’d be good at it.’ Honestly, the thought had never crossed my mind. It was never anything I had thought of.
“Here’s the thing,” Norstad continued. “I always felt I was pretty good as a machinist, but I had no idea how to run a business. But based on that, I went out and bought a lathe and a mill on credit, and I had no work for the machines, and my thought was that no matter how bad it gets, even if I get no work at all, I can still just get a job, and I can make the payments on the machines, and they’re not going to get repossessed. So I bought the machines, put them in my folks’ basement, went out looking for work for one day, and got enough work, met enough customers that that got me going.”
One of those customers would ultimately set Norstad’s direction in stone.
“The very first job I got was from TrailMaster Bicycles, one of the early pioneers of mountain bikes. They were building bikes soon after Joe Breeze built his first batch, in kind of the same timeframe as when Mert Lawwill was doing the Pro Cruiser. And so, these guys were trying to update their whole bicycle line to try to get current, and they wanted a new fork dropout. They said, ‘Here’s a sketch, can you make this?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure I can make that.’ So I did it, and that was sort of the first bicycle-oriented stuff I did.
“It was just a really natural fit for the machine shop, and being in Marin County at that time. People would want something custom for their bikes, and a lot of times it was just one guy who wanted one part to try something out, but I was there, and I was starving enough where I would take on any job I could get. It really took off when Gary Helfrich [founder of titanium frame pioneer Merlin Metalworks] showed up one day. I think it was probably two years to the day when his non-competition agreement with Merlin expired that he called me up and said, ‘Hey, I hear you’re doing bike work. Can you do some stuff in titanium?'”
Norstad’s constant need to tinker and experiment thankfully found him learning to machine titanium well before that time, so he was already well familiar with what was required to do the job properly. And word quickly got around.
“In 1992, I got this fax from Italy, from De Rosa, asking, ‘Can you make this dropout for us?’ I had no idea how De Rosa found me — there really was no Internet back then — or how they even got word that I was doing titanium stuff, but it was really interesting that it was such an odd thing to be making bicycle parts out of titanium that people would go internationally to find people to do the work.”
Business steadily grew from there, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Paragon Machine Works employs over a dozen people, and offers nearly 100 different dropouts, along with other frame fittings and parts such as housing stops, bottom bracket shells and head tubes, brake bridges, and stem components. In addition to titanium and conventional steel, the company has a healthy collection of stainless steel bits, too. And whereas once the business was primarily a job-shop that only did bike work on the side, frame parts now comprise the vast majority of the orders.
Norstad’s contributions to the sport were more formally recognized with an induction into into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 2017.
And amazingly, the building in which Paragon Machine Works operates is the same one that Norstad, together with his brother, built with their own hands decades earlier. And those first machines Norstad bought on credit back in the day? They’re still in use (and paid off).
It would seem quite strange that Norstad would find a niche machining metal bicycle frame fittings, but these days, he certainly owns it. Despite the success, though, he’s still supremely gracious, and more than willing to help others find their own path in the business.
“Mark is a dear friend and I would not be where I am without him,” said Drew Guldalian of Engin Cycles in Wissahickon, Pennsylvania. “He has helped me get to this point and, without him, I question if I would have been able to get over some of the hurdles that presented themselves when working with titanium and making bicycle parts. If I had to venture a guess, there is not a single person that is making bicycles that is not at least using a single part from him.
“With titanium, I think the industry would never have gone where it is without Mark. He is a pioneer in making titanium parts affordable for companies that would be priced out of the metal without him. So many people rely on him and his ability to adapt to the industry. He is always paying attention to the trends. Many take it for granted.”
But what about the cannon?
Norstad did eventually make a cannon of his own as he originally intended, but it was several years after he set out to do so. With his four years of high school machine shop class rapidly coming to a close, Norstad realized that he very likely would no longer have access to the equipment needed to make such a thing. But even those four years of training didn’t prepare him for such a large and unwieldy project.
Ironically, given the direction Norstad’s life ultimately took, the cannon he built for himself wasn’t even machined; it was cast from various hunks of brass that he “appropriated from various sources.”
“Let’s just say it was old government installations that were all over the Bay Area,” he said. “They were just abandoned, so every toilet fixture had a bronze or brass flush valve on it, every sink had a brass valve or something like it on it. These were abandoned government installations that were just absolutely derelict, where people had come in, smashed the toilets and broken the windows out, so I don’t feel like I was really being much of a thief. Nowadays, it’s really frowned upon to go and scrap out stuff like that, but in the context of the time and the condition of the building, I don’t think it was so bad.”
And once the cannon was finished, what do you think Norstad did with it?
“So anyway, I got this cannon made, we loaded it up with black powder and shot it off, and it sounded just like the ones we used before. Pretty much every time we shot the thing, the cops would come around and say, ‘Hey, did you hear some big noise?’ and we were like, ‘No, I didn’t hear anything.'”