It’s not the material

Wheter it is bikes, skis, amplifiers, fountain pens or cameras, enthusiasts always obsess over the material. Not surprisingly, because better material means better quality, right? Well… partially. But not quite all the way.

The aluminium bike

When I grew up, bikes were made of steel. Steel comes in many gradations, the lowest being FE360 or as we were taught in college, “PBS” which is a Dutch abbreviation that can be politely translated as “UGS” or “Urinals grade steel.”

Back in those days, when men were Men and we walked every day to school, barefeet, in snowstorms, and we liked it, the more expensive racing bikes were made out of the exotic light-weight aluminium. Of course, those bikes were more expensive, but they were stiffer yet smoother, etc.

Over time, aluminium trickled down the production line to cheaper bikes. Nowadays, it is known as a material that is cheap and durable, but also known for “a harsh ride.” Have the physical properties of the material changed over time? No. What changed was with how much care the product was made.

Race bike

The big misconception is that it is the material that makes the difference. “Made from expensive materials. Must be better.” No, since it is manufactured with more care, the product is more expensive. And at that higher price, you might as well use more expensive materials that make it even better. But the material follows the quality, not the other way around.

Is gold a better material for pen nibs than steel? Not really. And in the end the tip that is touching the paper is different material anyway. But, if you’re making a $200 nib you might as well gold plate it for an additional $20 and give your customers a reason your high-quality nib is so expensive. Even though the material has little influence on price, and is actually inconsequential for quality.

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