This unique handmade wooden bicycle, made in the UK from sustainably-harvested local hardwood poles, demonstrates a potential opportunity for sustainable woodland products using the traditional technique of coppicing.
Over the years, we've seen the development of a number of different types of wooden bicycles, which seem to be dominated mostly by bamboo-based frames, with a few outliers made from wood 'products' such as plywood, or built with exotic and specialty hardwood boards, which is not exactly sustainable or affordable for a lot of cyclists. And while bamboo appears to be a near-perfect renewable material for the goal of building strong, light, and flexible bike frames, it really only makes sense, environmentally-speaking, to use it in areas where it grows naturally, and to not ship it across the world as a bicycle frame.
One social enterprise is exploring another source for wood for bike frames, and one that can be locally-harvested, sustainably-managed, and is completely renewable in a relatively short period of time. To demonstrate its solution, BEAMZ has built a prototype of a wooden bike, using hardwood poles from local indigenous tree species, and harvested by coppicing, not cutting down a full-grown tree.
Coppicing is an old technique for managing woodlands and harvesting usable products from the forest, and one which is well-suited to homesteads and DIY-ers, as it can be used to readily produce hardwood poles for a variety of uses, from tool handles to fence posts to charcoal production to furniture-making. Quite simply, when many varieties of hardwood trees are cut down to their base, they send up new growth from the stump or roots, which can then be re-harvested when they reach the appropriate size. By managing forests through coppicing, different areas are cut over each year, and this cutting rotation, which gives each area time to regrow, allows for a near-constant supply of raw materials from the woodland.
The Betula bike frame and forks are made from coppiced birch poles, the handlebars are made from willow, and the frame is held together with hemp fiber and "a bio-derived resin," with a Shimano derailleur for the drivetrain and disk brakes on both front and rear. The bike weighs in at 11 kg, and is said to have "handling characteristics comparable to high performance bicycles of conventional materials."
This 10-minute video from WoodlandsTV offers a look at the work of Nick Coates, the man behind the BEAMZ concept:
I was intrigued by the bike, so I emailed Coates to find out more details about it and the BEAMZ project because I thought it was significantly different from other wooden bikes, and because the project seems to have potential as a replicable model for other local forestry-based enterprises.
First, he offered some clarity about BEAMZ as an organization:
BEAMZ is a community interest company with the objectives of:
1. Reducing energy demand to within the level that can be supplied by sustainable means
2. Supporting wildlife diversity by providing a financial catalyst to bring woodland into sustainable management.
3. Providing "high wellbeing" local jobs by satisfying a local structural requirement using local materials worked by local people.
He also offered a great perspective on our cultural and commercial move away from wood and toward more 'modern' materials, which BEAMZ will offer an alternative to:
"The history of wood is that each time a new material became available, including imported wood species as well as metals, plastics, and composites, a campaign of marketing hype was used to switch demand away from the local material, leaving this valuable resource unused."
As far as the wood used in the BEAMZ bikes goes, Coates says:
"The wood used is entirely natural in origin, the growth of the trees has not been managed or optimised for the purpose. This is firstly to demonstrate that this natural material is quite usable and secondly because the timescale involved in creating wood from managed sources is quite high, although much shorter than conventional forestry. Part of the future development will be investigating potential improvement to the material perhaps including the growing of custom shaped poles, or limiting the branching on sections of the pole (as is done with willow for cricket bats) provided such development is compatible with the objectives above."
And of course, I was very curious to know about when and where these sustainably engineered bikes would be available, to which he replied:
"The earliest bikes for sale will be available in the spring. These will be sold as part of a crowdfunding campaign to users who will agree to act as "beta testers" for BEAMZ. Bearing in mind that due to the nature of the material each bike will be unique, these early serial number, limited edition bikes are expected to have considerable future value. They will enjoy a high degree of manufacturer support which will permit us to collect maximum feedback."
Coates also mentioned that the price and full details of the crowdfunding offer have yet to be decided "but will be quite high," and that BEAMZ will also be branching out (his pun, not mine) into the use of pole wood for other structural uses in the near future. According to his view, the way to a truly "meaningful scale" of this project will come through using "many local branches" to handle large-scale production, and one of the aims of BEAMZ is to create "high quality work opportunities for craftsmen" of the type which have been on the decline in many countries in recent years.
Check out the BEAMZ website for more info.