Monday, February 23, 2015

A very organic approach to engineering, bamboo bicycles...

The back story, my Christmas present this year (from the current wife) was a two-day workshop building a bicycle, from bamboo! A pretty niche idea but I'd enjoyed making my fixie (click here for that tale) so much last year that Mrs Stuffy felt that I'd like this. 

Bikes made from wood? I admit that it took me by surprise but apparently bamboo is a very strong and light material and anyone who has seen it used as death-defying scaffolding in the far East knows how much load, stress and movement it can bear. The company,, sell kits (for home assembly) and also coached sessions in their studios in increasingly trendy Hackney Wick. 

So I researched (well I googled 'bamboo bikes') various possible bikes and despite the obvious challenges, and the relatively small number of examples I  decided to build a mountain bike, no real logic other than the amount of MTB bits I had lying around and a fortuitous, for them, marketing email from Chain reaction cycles offering a half price groupset. For the uninitiated that's the brakes, gears, pedals, cranks and chain, all designed to work together. A few late night drunken internet shopping sessions later and I had a bulging box of bits, saddle, handlebars, forks, wheels and tyres. 

The workshop itself simply delivers (hopefully) the frame, 7 pieces of bamboo, custom designed to fit my bodily dimensions (normally a secret between myself and my tailor). These bamboo bits are bonded together with delightfully gloopy mix of hemp and epoxy resin to make a structurally sound bike frame capable (allegedly) of taking my not inconsiderable weight crashing down a hillside. Making it pretty and adding all the expensive metal and plastic to turn it from bits of wood into a rideable bike is phase two of the project.

Day 1

Thus it was that I arose at silly o'clock and schlepped on a Saturday morn to a chilly space filled with bamboo bikes, bamboo bike frames in various stages of construction, there I found two couples (dad&son and sister&brother) of similarly slightly bemused punters and James, our coach, instructor and bamboo evangelist for the weekend.

James had prepared aluminium jigs to hold the bamboo elements in the right place based on our physical dimensions and the type of bike we'd each selected. The other participants had opted for simpler challenges, road bikes, and James cheered me up by congratulating them on their wisdom in not taking on the technical challenges that I'd accepted. So far, so bloody typical,sorry, so good.

We picked out various lengths of bamboo, learning about fibre lengths, nodes, strengths and weakness and using various saws, knives, drills and jigs I then chopped pieces out of my fingers, thumbs and forearms until we had something that looked a bit like the pre-printed scale drawings we were supposed to be working toward. 

Maybe it's James' laid back approach, maybe my choice of bike but it turned out to be a far more flexible and organic process than a classic engineering one, solving challenges and redesigning bits of the frame as the practicalities caused a series of minor compromises. 

The others rushed on, unhindered by the need to consider fat tyres and disc brakes but by the end of day one we'd all assembled our frames, tacked together with glue, tape and in my case wishful thinking. Off home to shower off a bucketful of sawdust, stickiness and sweat, a sustaining supper and a good nights sleep.

Day 2
and a beautiful sunrise as I headed into London

So,here I am in sunny, chilly Hackney just a stones throw from the Olympic Velodrome, on day two of the bamboo bicycle workshop, the day which I like to think of as Gloopy Sunday. 

The areas where the lengths of frame join are to be held together and reinforced by strips of hemp cloth saturated with epoxy resin, the basis of fibreglass. This layering and wrapping is similar to the process of making bikes and cars from carbon fibre, similar I think in the same way that TeamBreakfastBike working up an appetite on a Saturday morning is like Team Sky attacking the Tour de France.  

The glooping, wrapping, slopping, sliding, slicing and taping was pretty much full-on all morning, but by late lunchtime we'd jointed all of our frames. We made a cursory attempt to lessen the amount of gum on clothes and skin and then strolled into the Arctic winds to a local Hipster hangout the Crate Brewery for some excellent pizza and engaging chat whilst the miracle of exothermic chemistry turned our squidgy matting into rock hard lumps of plastic and cloth ready to be sanded, smoothed, filled, sanded, filled, sanded, smoothed, polished, painted and lacquered.

The BambooBeast (as I've provisionally named it) is now back in my workshop, ready for the next phase...

I really enjoyed the two days with James and the team and I'm looking forward to the next week or two of organic engineering... 

Watch this space...

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At 10:33 pm, Blogger Steve Behr said...

Look forward to seeing it out on the Common soon...


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