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A Cyclist’s Guide to Bike Frame Materials: Wood

Wooden bikeEr, pardon, wood? Surely no-one makes bikes out of wood any more.

But, of course, they do. And not just the sorts of people that make dresses out of meat (fireplaces out of cheese, whatever…). Wood is an entirely viable, albeit unusual, material out of which you can fashion a bike.

This post is the fifth in a series that looks at frame materials, and how they are used to build bikes. If you missed any of the earlier ones, they can be found in the ‘Frame Materials’ section of my dedicated page: How To Build A Bike.

Heart of oak

[quote]Treat me nice, treat me good, treat me like you really should, ‘Cause I’m not made of wood, And I don’t have a wooden heart – Elvis Presley, G.I. Blues[/quote]

Wood, as a bike-making material, is slightly different from the other materials I’ve covered in the series so far. It’s unlikely that you will choose wood for your first road bike, or indeed your second. You may well spend your life never having ridden, never mind owned, a wooden bike. Wood does, however, serve a useful purpose in the world of bikes, as we will see below.

Despite the rarity of wood as a material in bike industry, you can make the argument that those who work with it share a philosophy that is not dissimilar to that of builders using steel to craft custom frames. Both disciplines require a skill built up over time. Being hand-built, or hand-crafted, has a cache that appeals to makers and users of an object alike.

History of Wooden Bikes

The earliest bicycles were made of wood. The velocipede was invented in 1817 by Baron Karl Von Drais. It had brass bushings within the wheel bearings and iron rings around the wheels, but the rest of it was formed out of wood. It weighed 22kg, which probably didn’t made it much of a climbers bike (that, and the absence of pedals).

As an aside, and with a nod to the middle-aged men (!) that two centuries later would be riding their bikes in flamboyant skin tight lycra, the velocipede was also known as a ‘dandy horse’, since they were popular with dandies and fops.

It was only in the latter half of the nineteenth, that metal replaced wood as the frame-making material of choice. The invention of the wire spoke tension wheel (where the strength of the wheel is derived from the spokes pulling the rim inwards, rather than pushing it out), spelt the death knell for wood as a mass market bike-making material.

Modern Wooden Bikes

Most people would agree that unless there is a dramatic technological or societal shift, wood is not going to become a mainstream bike-making material in the near future.

The common perception is that wood is too heavy, for an equivalent level of strength, versus other frame-making materials and is not as durable. There is a risk that you set it on fire if your cadence is too high (I might have made that last one up).

That said, there are high-end producers of custom-built wooden bikes, such as Renovo. Renovo claim that their road frames are similar in weight to a quality steel frame and can be built to be stiffer than a carbon frame, but that the key selling point for wood is its natural shock absorbency. This makes it perfectly suited to those looking for a smooth and comfortable ride. Renovo also refute the assumption that wood is a less durable material for bike frames.

The full argument in favour of wood can be found on Renovo’s website along with the pictorial evidence of another of wood’s key attractions. Polished up (and often when unpolished), it just looks glorious. As beautifully-crafted as an antique Chippendale (and I mean an 18th century cabinet rather than a bronzed, all-male ‘dance troupe’).

The Future For Wooden Bikes

Wood is also seen in two other interesting arenas within modern bike-making, which for want of better terms I’ll call ‘Design and Innovation’, and ‘Home-made Bike-making’ (the latter term is my own – hopefully the section below will explain).

Design and Innovation

As a material, wood can be crafted with a few hand tools in a shed. It doesn’t require expensive cutting and welding gear, the kit for laying up a carbon prototype, or a 3D plastic printer.

The low barriers to entry make it an ideal material to experiment with, for entrepreneurs, design students, and anyone else without a million dollar R&D budget.

Bicycle Design is a great website to see the latest cycling design innovations. I have not done a detailed statistical analysis, but a large number of the posts on that site feature bikes made of wood (such as this one and this one).

Home-Made Bike-Making

Many people aspire to build their own bike frame. Unless you have the nearby services of a framebuilder, with TIG welder and jig, this becomes a difficult and expensive exercise. Using wood, and specifically bamboo tubes, offers inexperienced bike-makers the opportunity to build their own frame in as little as a weekend.

‘Home-made’ is a bit of a misnomer, since I’m not really suggesting that anyone with a drill, a Black and Decker Workmate and a timber merchant nearby, can knock up a viable bike frame. But in just a couple of days spent at their workshop, the Bamboo Bicycle Club will help you build a bamboo bicycle entirely to your own specifications.

So Why Might You Choose a Wooden Bike

I’ll assume for the time being that you are not a design student, looking to make his or her name with an innovative design that revolutionises bike manufacture.

The advantages of using wood to build a bike frame come down to:

- the opportunity to build your own frame, without having to resort to a blowtorch and visor;

- wood is a renewable resource that fits with the ethos of cycling as an environmentally-friendly mode of transport;

- it’s a bit (a lot) different (it’s the ultimate n+1); and

- (if you’re persuaded by Renovo’s arguments) it provides the most comfortable possible ride for long-distance and other endurance cyclists.

What Do You Think?

Would you consider buying a wooden bike, or indeed making your own? Perhaps you already own one? Let me know in the comments below.

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Image Credit: Magnetbox

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{ 2 comments… add one }

  • stu s July 3, 2013, 7:15 am

    Worth nothing a Wooden bike was used in the Windsor Tri – see C4 coverage :)

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