Ken Wheeler is a fan of any type of wooden craft. He’s owned wooden sailboats, built wooden camping kitchens as a business and loves to point out that the all-wood de Havilland Mosquito– AKA “The Wooden Wonder”- was one of the fastest planes in World War II.
But he didn’t start his wooden bike company- Renovo- because of any expertise working with the material. “We’re not making wood bicycle frames because we’re woodworkers. We’re not,” he writes on the Renovo website. “Hell, we’re not even carpenters. Two of us took woodshop in middle school, but that’s it.”
The original velocipede
Wheeler and company just believe that wood makes an excellent bicycle, but until recently it’s been easier to use any other material. Of course, all bikes used to be made of wood, (including the first- verifiable- bike, the German Laufmaschine from 1817), but the Renovo team only “half-jokingly” claim that “metal bikes were invented because making a wood bike is such a pain in the ass.”
It became decidedly less of a pain in the ass when CNC (computer numerical control) technology reached a point where wooden bicycles could be made- at least partially- by machine.
A professional tinkerer creates a modern wooden cycle
Wheeler- who is neither woodworker nor engineer, but a very advanced tinkerer (he has built composite airplanes and wooden camp kitchens as an entrepreneur)- decided the time was right to start building wooden cycles. With the help of his son- who had 6 months to spare before entering the Marines- the father/son team began to design and build the first prototypes in 2007.
Wheeler built the first 12 and then set up shop in Portland, Oregon, where today, a CNC machine can build up to 1000 frames per year. Though the automated part is only the beginning. Once the frames come off the machine they need hand-crafted finishing work.
At first Wheeler tried employing cabinet-makers to smooth and perfect the bicycles, but “that didn’t work” so he turned to artists and today many of his employees moonlight as sculptors.
This dependence on crafters makes wood a demanding material, but the extra labor pays off. While wood lacks the structural firmness of carbon fiber, Wheeler argues it more than makes up for this with its ability to absorb vibration better than carbon, making for a very smooth ride. Also, given the wide range of woods to choose from- Wheeler has identified 53 different hardwoods qualified to be used for bikes-, wooden bikes can be more closely-tailored to individual riders and their riding styles.
Wood also withstands impact very well. Wheeler showed me a test block where they’d dropped a weight on frame tubes. The steel and aluminum tubes had obvious dents. I had to look closely to see the mark left on Renovo’s wood composite.
Even Robin Williams loves crafted bikes
A crafted bike is also a more expensive bike, but Renovo cycles are comparablely-priced with high-end carbon race bikes. Some professional riders have made the switch to wood. Even Robin Williams is a fan and a frequent visitor of the Sausalito showroom.
Renovo isn’t alone in the modern field of wooden bikes: there are bamboo city bikes, a DIY creation (the Plycycle) and professional timber cycles from the Basque company Axalko (founded by a pair of woodcrafting brothers).
What makes a wooden bike truly magical is its ability to outlive us. When you crack a carbon-fiber bike, it’s usually time for a new bike and perhaps, a stint on bustedcarbon.com.
If you bust a wooden bike, it can be mended and can recover most, if not all, of it is original strength. There are no dents that can’t be refinished, so timber-built two-wheelers can be, in Slow Design parlance, heirloom pieces. “You can pass them along to your grandkids,” hopes Wheeler. Paraphrasing a Fortune 500 executive who was in his showroom recently, he elaborates, “We see that this is the trend. Instead of cheap, throwaway stuff, people want something they can associate with, relate to, that has craftsmanship, handwork to it, something that you can keep and treasure.”
Music credit: “Cannonball” by Paperhand Lincoln