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Learning to build wooden bicycles…

Riding bicycles and building them are two very different things. While riding the bicycle is all about enjoying the ride or getting the most out of it for transport, amusement, and competition; manufacturing a bicycle requires paying attention to specifications, and being aware that any error may spoil the final experience or in the worst case, be a safety hazard. This knowledge makes building a bicycle a more serious undertaking than simply riding one.

A BIT OF HISTORY

In initial attempts at building bicycles, wood was used as the main component. In Germany on June 12, 1817, Karl Drais invented the precursor to the bicycle, later named “The Draisine” (see Figure 1), he was able to travel 8 miles in less than an hour. Its appearance somewhat resemble the bicycle as we know it today (Hadland and Lessing, 2014) although the Draisine was propelled by the rider placing their feet on the ground.

Figure 1. Draisine by Karl Drais

It wasn’t until November of 1866 that the pedals first appeared on rudimentary bikes, but they were attached to the front wheel as per the patented design of French US immigrant Pierre Lallement (Hadland and Lessing, 2014). Even though those early designs incorporated some metal parts, the frames were made of wood. These became known as “Velocipedes” (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Velocipede by Pierre Lallement

WOODEN BIKES:

There is plenty of information online about bikes and their history, design, and manufacturing. There is also an interesting trend, or counter trend depending on how you think about it, of wood bicycle frame and even wheel manufacturing. Since the first bikes, or precursors of bikes, rolled out of craftsman inventors shops in North America and Europe, there has been a steady progression in design and manufacturing that make use of every more exotic materials and manufacturing processes often with the goal of cost reduction, uniformity of product, and mass sales. However the return to wood being used for frame construction, we find bikes, at least some of them, have come full circle.

On YouTube there are quite a lot of videos available documenting the recent rise in wooden bicycles, though I could not find any that were purely instructional in nature. I did however find interviews with the creators of these modern marvels of old tech. If one watches closely, many hints as to how modern wooden bicycles are made can be gleaned from the interviews and tours of shops. What I learned in particular is that in order to manufacture frames using wood, you can’t simply cut designed from solid pieces of wood, the frames have to be built using laminates of various grains and types of wood. The reason for this is because wood is highly variable in its qualities even within the same species. In order to build a well functioning wooden bike frame, the various grains of wood and properties of strength must be considered in order to create a bike frame that is laterally strong and able to bear the load of the rider efficiently.

In the videos we see that the manufacturing of modern wooden bicycles requires both the tools of old and new manufacturing techniques and products. In order to design and build a wooden frame, craftsman must devote considerable time and effort to the laminating and shaping of their frame designs. This process can be greatly sped up using CNC technology and power tools, but the final finishing touches, the work that makes frames beautiful, must be done by hand using tools we’ve developed for woodworking over the centuries. The one invention of just the past decade or so has been the improvements in glue technology, a key ingredient when laminating wood. Without this improvement perhaps wooden bikes would still be a relic of the past.

In order to build a wooden framed bike, one must have lots of knowledge of bike frame design. The internet does provide some handy info on bike frame designs, chiefly from high end bike bike companies that share plans and schematics of the frames they produce. Such things as tube lengths, head angles, stand over height, wheelbase, etc., is readily available on their websites. However, one could simply copy the geometry of any standard steel, aluminum, or carbon framed bike they currently own.

When it comes to working with wood however, the abundant information related to bikes online is insufficient. In order to work with wood, to choose the right types, to select the right grains, and ultimately produce a thing of beauty, anyone wishing to build their own wooden bike must have hands-on experience with and an artist’s understanding of wood and its properties. In one video, Ken Wheeler (2012), the owner of Renovo tells the story of failed hires saying that first he hired cabinet makers to work for him, but they could not produce the frames and in the end he had to hire artists to do the frame finishing procedures. One step in frame design that I found interesting and potentially the most difficult to achieve was that frames are hollowed out. This in itself may not seem like a daunting task, but given the effect thickness has on tube strength, lots of trial and error would likely have to go into getting this step right.

I have been involved in the biking industry for years, from building bikes from parts at a pro shop in Germany, redesigning a component on Rockshox forks, to designing mountain bike parks in China. When it comes to bikes, I practically live through them. I have also tried my hand at frame design and am an avid enthusiast of frame design evolution over the years. Still, this background is not enough for me to make use of the information available online. The construction of wooden bikes is simply too much of an art, years of learning, and craftsmanship. However, I grew up around wooden boat builders and come from 4 generations of wooden fishing and sail boat manufacture. Though I am no boat builder, I do have quite a bit of knowledge taught to me by my father and grandfather in regards to manufacturing with wood, and I am familiar with many wood working tools. My brother builds model airplanes and has an engineering business and has in his possession a CNC machine. Were I to embark upon building my own wooden bike, I am sure I could make use of my prior knowledge of bicycles and wood, skills working with wood, and my brother’s high tech equipment.

In regards to teaching other how to design a frame, I believe the internet offers plenty of useful information. As far as constructing wooden bike frames, I believe the internet wouldn’t be so useful. There are just too many steps in the process and too many considerations involved to adequately teach anyone using online resources. In addition, in order to build a wooden bike, prospective builders must understand wood. I think anyone who currently builds musical instruments from wood, builds airplanes from wood, or builds boats from wood and can ride a bike could set out to make their own bike if they used the information available online… and had a 1000 hours to spend on their first one (Thompson, 2015).

Drais, K., picture of Draisine by Karl Drais. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/
commons/c/ca/ZweiRadMuseumNSU_Draisine1.JPG

Lallement, P., picture of Velocipede by Pierre Lallement. https://connecticuthistory.org/wp-
content/uploads/2014/11/LallementVelocipede-610×468.jpg

Thompson, M., 2015. Building a Wooden Bike from Scratch – Fettlers – Chapter 1. Posted by: Red Bull on February 5, 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=
xhP12IOeMGQ&t=18s

Wheeler, K., 2012. Why hand-crafted, high-tech wooden bikes give a better ride. Posted by: Karen Dirksen on June 11, 2012. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=
TBC7NEJwZ5U

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