Velocity Bamboo Bike Workshop
‘Anyone can build a bamboo bike frame’. It is with this positive mantra that I completed a 2 day build of a bamboo bike frame, under the guidance of James Marr in his Canning Town workshop at the Bamboo Bicycle Club. Marr set up his workshop 6 years ago after working as a designer engineer in hydraulics and wind turbines. As a passionate believer in trying to understand process, his enthusiasm for learning new skills is infectious. ‘By attempting a new skill, be it carpentry, photography, design, or whatever it is, I can understand and appreciate those who deploy these skills well.’
Working with bamboo, a cheap and sustainable product, accords with Marr’s ideals. ‘We can’t keep shipping stuff everywhere, products need to be built and assembled locally. We can create a bio-composite bike that is sturdy and durable. It is also a customized product, so it is built around the users’ end needs.’ He acknowledges the difficulty of working with bamboo. ‘It is a challenging material because of the inconsistency of the material. Each piece is different, which makes selection of the component parts time consuming, but that gives each frame its unique quality. The personality of the builder also contributes to the uniqueness. Once you recognize the capriciousness of working with bamboo, you can build tolerances into the frame.’
Marr acknowledges that the retail bicycle sector is very competitive with online retailers selling at break even rates. He is not interested in competing with bespoke cycle manufacturers, rather to teach people new skills, in assembly and basic carpentry.
The bikes are available as a kit to assemble and build at home, or as a two day workshop, longer if you are fitting wheels and groupset. So far the Bamboo Bicycle Club has shipped over a thousand kits all over the world.
Working with up to five participants at a time, Marr gives an introductory toolbox talk, outlining the aims and objectives of the workshop. No prior experience is necessary, just a willingness to learn. All participants experience the nature of bamboo and become familiar with drilling, sawing and bonding metal to bamboo using resin fibre.
Prior to the workshop, Marr asks for specific measurements. From these he designs the geometry of the frame based on your preference, mountain, road or hybrid frame. Arriving at the workshop, stations are set up on jigs with metal headsets and bottom brackets. A selection of top, seat and down tubes are made then cut to size and loosely placed on the jig. Seat and chain stays are cut last. A metal set post is inserted into the seat tube. Whittling and sanding the components prior to gluing is a relaxing way to contemplate the build process.
Once the frame is set to the right geometry, the frame is loosely glued using epoxy resin and metal dropouts are attached to the rear stays.
Returning the next day, measurement and cutting of the natural fibre for the bonding of the frame and metal components is the task. The activity resembling a tailor’s workshop, rather than a bike builder’s.
A quick drying epoxy resin is applied to the wrapped fabric around all the lugs. This is the most time consuming process, as the whole join needs to be encased, and the resin spread evenly through the fibre.
At the end of the second day, the frame sits proudly in the jig, looking every bit a proper bike frame. Detaching the frame can reveal the less than efficient gluing and an excess of glue stuck to the frame.
Despite the basic crudity of the finish, Marr is nevertheless enthusiastic about the end result. ‘Don’t worry about that – the frame is going to be sanded and the bond is strong.’ The casual appreciation by Marr is a key part of the process. He knows the product, its capabilities and its limitations.
‘The challenge is to be satisfied with what you do and accepting your realities. I am interested in seeking a solution for every problem.’
Marr seeks to understand the diversity of any particular group, paying attention to those that are not as practically skilled as other members of the workshop. He recognizes that practical skills are diminishing in our society and is keen that we are still engaged with the process of making. Some of his workshops are designed for schools, which allows children to focus on practical tasks. Working with under-privileged children and a mental health charity is a key part of Bamboo Bicycle Club’s ethos. Marr observes, ‘I don’t do things for people, I allow them to develop skills to enhance their lives’.
In the future he would like to simplify the method of frame building and make the process even more accessible. He is working with UCL on modifying his process and reduce the tolerances of the material. A project in the pipeline is a bamboo wheelchair and a prototype has been produced with a charity in Kenya. He aims to produce for the wheelchair for about £150.
Bamboo Bicycle Club’ runs workshops twice a month, with prices starting at £495 for a two day frame build and £695 (plus components) for four days, which enables you to leave the workshop with a fully functioning bike. Home build bike kits are available at £285.