April 12, 2013 6:09 pm

FT Masterclass: build a bamboo bicycle

Using a cheap component that nature provides ready-made, Rob Penn finds an affordable way to create the kudos of a bespoke frame
Rob Penn and the finished article©Tara Darby

Rob Penn and the finished article

“If you can build an Ikea desk, you can build your own bicycle frame with bamboo,” said James Marr, co-founder of the Bamboo Bicycle Club, when I voiced the tiniest of reservations about putting together a bicycle mainly made of bamboo – and then riding around on it on busy streets. Putting aside the thought that assembling an Ikea desk is not exactly known for being stress-free, I allowed Marr to reassure me that even my clumsy hands would be able to cope. Better still, should I be worried about the actual theory behind the practice, he let me know that both he and partner Ian McMillan are engineers by profession.

The club runs weekend courses teaching people how to build frames and has helped to create dozens of bespoke bamboo frames. Using bamboo to build a cycle is hardly new, however. During the great British bicycle boom in the 1890s, several manufacturers turned to this natural engineering wonder. Recently, there has been a quiet renaissance in bamboo bicycles. Several companies – such as Bamboo Bikes in Yorkshire and Zamboo Bikes in Zambia – make them, taking advantage of bamboo’s strength, durability and flexibility, and the fact that it comes in ready-made tubes.

The advantage of building one’s own bamboo bike is, of course, that you don’t just get a frame: you get a bespoke frame, the Holy Grail for serious cyclists. A week before the course, I’d emailed James my height, inseam, torso and arm length. We then had a consultation about the style of bicycle I wanted – a classic roadster. Using a 3D design application, James simulated the bike and produced diagrams showing my perfect frame size and optimal geometry.

The drawings were on the table when we met at the studio in an east London warehouse, early one Saturday morning. Two other debutant frame builders were already poring over their angles. Adrian, a businessman, was building a touring frame for a London to Paris charity ride. Amy had designed a hybrid, for zipping around her home city. As a design and technology teacher, she also wanted to broaden her manual skills.

The first job was to set up a makeshift jig on our worktop, according to the dimensions of our frames, using a tape measure, clamps and the aluminium inserts for the bottom bracket and the headset. Next, we picked out our bamboo tubes.

The bamboo is imported from China and Colombia. “At first, we struggled to find material good enough for our purposes, but now we have a dialogue with the importers and we hand-select it, ” said Marr, 26. “The bamboo tubes vary in diameter and wall thickness, so you make a choice determined by your weight and the style of bike you’re building. We can advise on that. Then there is an aesthetic choice. There are subtle variations in colour and you may want to align the knobbly rings or ‘nodes’ to improve the look of the bike. You’re on your own with that.”

I chose a dark brown bamboo tube, cut my first rough length and began the process of mitring and measuring the tubes. Much of the work is done by eye, with simple tools. Marr and McMillan, 25, bustled between the three of us, intervening at crucial moments to keep us all on schedule. By lunchtime, the front triangle of my frame – the top tube, down tube and seat tube – was in place. By 6pm, the rear triangle – the seat stays and chain stays – were fitted and it was all tacked in with a bit of glue. The frame was effectively complete. The hours had whistled by and I’d even overcome my lack of manual dexterity.

“The process gets progressively more difficult as the weekend goes on,” McMillan warned, “but there’s a lot to get through so we can’t let anyone go too far off-piste. At the same time, we’re open to new ideas – people bring their own concepts and almost every course throws up something new.”

On Sunday we glued the frames. For four hours, we wrapped strips of hemp webbing coated in marine-grade epoxy resin round the points where the tubes meet. It is a fiddly job, but the more conscientious you are, the stronger the frame will be. Finally, we bound up the bulbous hemp and resin joints with electric tape to compress them, and retired to the pub while the glue dried. As the light faded outside, we returned to the studio and picked off the tape to reveal the finished frames. It was a moment of profound delight, to hold aloft a weekend’s work – a bicycle frame.

A week later, I was back in the studio with Marr, to lacquer the frame and build it up into a complete bicycle. We fitted the bottom bracket, chainset, cranks, chain and pedals. We cut the steel forks to length, pressed the headset cups in and attached the handlebar and stem. There was a bit of bodging to do: the forks I’d ordered didn’t fit, one of the resin joints touched the chain and needed sanding, and we had to drill a hole in the brake bridge to mount the rear brake. I know my way around a bicycle (I rode one round the world a decade ago), but I was glad Marr was at hand.

“Some clients take the frame away at the end of the weekend and either finish it themselves, or ask a friendly local bike shop to help. Most people come back here though, which is great. It means we get to see the finished bikes.”

I fixed the saddle to the seatpost, tightened the brake levers and pumped up the tyres. The final job was to wrap black leather tape round the handlebar. A tap with a rubber mallet and the bar-end plugs were in. My new bike was ready to ride. I wheeled it to the road, swung a leg over it and pushed off, thinking about the miles of pleasure ahead, on a machine I’d made myself.

Postscript: The final cost of my bamboo bike was £420 for the course, including all materials and tools to complete the frame, plus £459 for everything else. I’ve been riding it for two months now and I’ve lost count of the times strangers have asked me about it. I’ll admit to being terrified the first time I went down a steep hill, but the bamboo tubes and my handiwork with the glue remain sound. The bike is light and flexible and rides really well.

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The Bamboo Bicycle Club runs two weekend courses a month; details at www.bamboobicycleclub.org.

Rob Penn is the author of ‘It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels’ (Penguin)

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