Over the past five weeks or so, I’ve been on a remarkable and fulfilling journey. I’ve been building a bicycle from scratch. And the catch? It’s made from bamboo!
Actually, I can trace the journey back to my teens when I became obsessed with bike frame building, and devoured Tony Oliver’s 1990 book Touring Bikes: A Practical Guide. (I know, for some kids is computer games or football …)
Having been a keen cyclist, but an unfulfilled frame-builder for the past twenty plus years, I resumed my journey in Beijing about four years ago, when I came across David Wang’s Bamboo Bicycles Beijing. Unfortunately, I found out at the start of this year that they were no longer running workshops, but David kindly past me on to the Bamboo Bicycle Club, run by James Marr.
Fast forwarding, I was lucky enough to go on a two-day weekend, intense frame-building workshop in May, at the Bamboo Bicycle Club, Canning Town in London’s east end. Five of us participated in the workshop. An eclectic mix of American (3), New Zealand (1) and British (1)! We all had varying levels of knowledge and experience, and a willingness to throw ourselves into the experience.
James provides the design (based on a nifty pre-workshop questionnaire), all the materials, jigs, and tools, and guides you through the process. But all the building is down to you. You start by choosing the bamboo for the main triangle, then proceed to mitring (shaping) the main joints, and stripping the outer layer off each end, to improve adhesion of the epoxy glue.
You tack (glue) the main tubes in place at the end of day one (beginning of day 2), before selecting and shaping the chain and seat stays. You then proceed to wrapping all the joints in flax soaked in epoxy resin (similar to fibre-glass, or carbon fibre), then wrapping the joints in yards of electrical tape, to compress them.
At the end of the two days you have a complete, but unfinished frame.
For completeness, I’ll point out that there are aluminium parts embedded in the frame: the head tube, bottom bracket, seat-tube insert (for the seat post), and James’ universal rear dropouts. The forks won’t be made from bamboo.
Highlights of the workshop for me included: seeing the crisp shape of the mitre joints, shaving the outer bamboo off each end with a Stanley knife (hard on the thumbs, but satisfying). And, wrapping the joints.
I chose to go back for the finishing and assembly workshop (one or more days, a flat fee). Other participants took their frame with them on the train back to Edinburgh, or had them shipped to far flung corners of the world.
I’ve so far spent two-thirds of a day sanding the joints, and round the headset and bottom-bracket, and finishing the seat-tube. And, a further day staining the joints (Sadolin African Walnut), spraying the fork (“Weissgruen” RAL 841-G / Eau-de-Nil BS …?), and lacquering the frame and forks. I’ve started assembly, and am currently getting help from James to fit my bottom-bracket (which is proving problematic!)
I’ll finish the assembly at home.
I used a brand new donor bike, which is a Planet X Full Monty SRAM Apex 1 Mechanical Disc Gravel Bike with carbon forks. (Which seems mad, but results from crazy Bike-onomics!)
My top tips:
- Get a clear idea of what sort of bike you want before the workshop. Research bike shop catalogues online, read, visit shops, talk to family, friends …
- Set a realistic budget for components;
- Don’t under-estimate the time to finish and assemble the bike. I spent a further 3 (to 4) days achieving a quite basic finish (rough sanded and stained joints, lacquered frame), but you can spend many hours and days sanding and filling for that mirror-like finish;
- Be prepared for challenges (I dropped a cracked my first down tube; and struggled with crossed threads on my bottom-bracket);
- Unless you have the space and specialist tools, do consider joining a follow-up finishing and assembly workshop (1 day or more);
- Don’t rush;
- Do work with the rest of your workshop group;
- Prepare to be tired, sore, but ultimately happy!
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