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 -- a.k.a. "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. Hell, we're not even carpenters. Two of us took woodshop in middle school, but that's it.
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, the first bikes were made of wood, but the Renovo team only "half-jokingly" claims 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.
Wheeler -- who is neither woodworker nor engineer, but a very advanced tinkerer (he has built composite airplanes and wooden camp kitchens as an entrepreneur) -- began to design and build the first prototypes in 2007 with the help of his son. He built the first 12 and then set up shop in Portland, Ore., where today a CNC machine can build up to 1000 frames per year. But 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 cabinetmakers 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, but 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.
Watch Kirsten's feature-length documentary on tiny homes, "We the Tiny House People: Small Homes, Tiny Flats & Wee Shelters in the Old and New World."