Want to Save a Tree? Buy a Wooden or Bamboo Bicycle

Renovo Wooden Bike photo
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Photo via Renovo.
At last count, Portland had 3 dozen small-scale bike frame builders - everything from Sasha White's beautiful Vanilla Bikesto Joseph Ahearne's sturdy and cheerful cycle trucks. The "buy local" mentality in Portland helps create a small but dedicated market of consumers willing to pay more for a locally-produced bike. But Renovo Bicycle's Ken Wheeler says while local is great, steel and aluminum-framed bicycles are not the greenest, due to the energy intensity of the raw materials. What about wood cycles, which by the way Renovo happens to make?


Photo via Renovo.
Renovo chose wood because of what Wheeler calls its "excellent properties." A light airplane engineer, Wheeler long had thought that wood was a wonderful base material for a bike frame. If you look at the most beautiful and delightful children's push bikes out there, most of them are constructed from wood. And wood was the material used for the very first velocipeds back in the early decades of the 1800's - the frames of the drasines were made from wood. But the old-fashioned bikes had heavy frames, while Renovo hollows its frames.

Magic carpet ride
At the Renovo studio in inner southeast Portland, Wheeler is quick to point out that Renovo's bike frames are NOT handmade in the traditional sense, and couldn't be. They are a combination of "CAD/CAM manufacturing, state-of-the-art bonding and finishing technologies, and old-world, hands-on craftsmanship" as it says on the web site. That last, the hands on craftmanship includes a lot of hand sanding!

Renovo takes sold wood planks (using wood such as ash, fir, bobinga), glues the planks into a triangle shape, then hollows out this rudimentary frame. From there the frame is sanded, and an epoxy process similar to than in high-end boat building is applied to coat and seal the wood. All this means a frame can weigh as little as five pounds. Wheeler maintains this frame can be made as stiff as carbon fiber or better, and with a fatigue life rivaling carbon and better than aluminum or steel. And Wheeler says a Renovo bike with a wood frame will be a better shock absorber than steel, aluminum or carbon fiber.

What about green?
Wheeler is careful not to make an all-out claim for the greeness of Renovo bikes overall - he agreed that a life-cycle analysis of different types of bicycles is urgently needed. And Renovo uses aluminum and steel third party components.

Renovo bikes, he said, are made from "sustainable" (though now FSC) hardwoods as well as bamboo, and use low VOC finishes. What speaks for their sustainability even more, Wheeler explained, is their initial low carbon footprint and their durability. Renovo expects their wooden bikes to last as long or longer than carbon frame bikes, and nicks or dents can be sanded out to make a brand-new looking bike.

So why would riding a wooden bike from Renovo or even Organic Bikes save a tree? Wheeler says it's due to the fact that mining is tied in many cases to clear-cutting, and he gives the example of the Grande Carajas project in Brazil.

And of course, the woods Renovo is using in their frames are a renewable resource, more environmentally friendly in carbon footprint than either steel, aluminum, or carbon fiber, which is made from high temperature processing of propylene. (Though some of the hardwoods take a long time, even a lifetime, to become a mature tree, Wheeler says his experience with light aircraft leads him to believe Renovo bikes will last that long.)

Wheeler has also begun producing a laminated bamboo bike, The Pandurban, shown above and aimed specifically at the commuter market. The internal hub version is priced at $2,150.

Renovo says the Pandurban is a "seriously green" bike, due to bamboo's renwability, its greenhouse gas absorbing capabilities, and its biodegradability.