Bamboo Bike Studio Expanding

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Bamboo Bike Studio Expanding

In MAKE Volume 24, Jon Kalish wrote about Brooklyn’s unique Bamboo Bike Studio. In this follow-up piece, he looks at what the group has been up to since. You may already know Jon from his coverage of the DIY beat for NPR. We’re happy to welcome him to MAKE as a new online contributor. –Gareth

Piper Alldredge, manager of the Brooklyn studio

The Brooklyn-based Bamboo Bike Studio (BBS), where DIYers make their own bike frame out of bamboo in a two-day workshop, is opening satellite studios and branching out into the assembly of steel frame bikes.

A bike building studio was opened in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district in November by BBS co-founder Sean Murray. A total of 42 bamboo bikes have been made there since it opened. (A total of at least 400 bamboo bikes have been made since the organization was founded.) The studio is now run by BBS co-founder Justin Aguinaldo, who is described on the BBS website as a former champion bike messenger. Located at 982 Post Street, the San Francisco studio offers bamboo builds twice a month. And like the mothership back in Red Hook, Brooklyn, it is now offering a workshop where participants either bring in a steel bike frame or purchase an inexpensive one and then proceed to install all the components, including wheels, pedals, handle bars and brakes.

Justin Aguinaldo, manager of the S.F. studio, seen here harvesting bamboo in New Jersey

“This is for somebody who wants the ability and the knowledge to be able to maintain their bicycle independently,” Aguinaldo told MAKE. Adds BBS co-founder Marty Odlin: “It will be a DIY thing. We’re not building these bikes for people.”

Joints attached to the head tube after they’ve been wrapped with carbon fiber soaked in epoxy. Joints will be filed smooth before bike is finished.

Cyclists can assemble a steel bike with a coaster brake wheel set for as little as $400. The studio is aiming for a fee of less than $600 for a single speed bike with caliper brakes. Once you assemble your steel bike at the studio in San Francisco, you’re entitled to lifetime access to tools and a workstation there to maintain your bike free of charge.

Bike builder Sari Harris assesses her frame, which is attached to a custom-made aluminum jig.

The decision to branch out into steel frame bikes, oddly enough, was made in response to the assertion that the bamboo bikes were not totally green because they can’t be recycled. The epoxy used on the carbon fiber joints on BBS’s bamboo bikes isn’t recyclable. “We thought that was a valid criticism,” says Odlin. But the studio is testing bikes made with a bio-degradable epoxy and Odlin hopes that eventually bamboo bikes will be totally recyclable.

“We just love making bikes with people,” says Odlin, 29, an Ivy League trained engineer and former competitive skier. “Any way for people to come in, hang out, build up their bike and be part of the whole thing, we’re open to.”

Odlin designed and built a powder coater for painting steel bike frames. Typically powder coaters cost $30,000, but the BBS version was built for a fraction of that and has a substantially smaller footprint. “We’re hoping that we can sell these to bike shops across the country,” he says. It would be for $8,000. There is a patent pending for the BBS powder coater, which is made of structural tubing.

Bike builders at the BBS studios in New York and San Francisco will pay for the powder coater by the hour. Odlin estimates it will cost $120 to powder coat a bike, though makers who assemble a steel bike at the studio can leave their frame bare, an option Odlin expects many to choose.

In addition to a paint job, bike builders can create a custom head badge for their bike’s head tube, either out of metal or cloth. Odlin, who grew up in Maine, has a lobster on his head tube. Piper Alldredge, the manager of the Brooklyn studio, soaked a cotton patch with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe embroidered on it with the resin used on the bamboo bike’s joints and attached it to her tube.

Earlier this year, three members of the Brooklyn BBS team traveled to Kumasi, Ghana to set up a bamboo bike factory there. The makings of the factory were shipped in a container packed at the Red Hook HQ in September. Odlin, Aguinaldo, and a colleague, Ben Masters, spent two weeks in Ghana in January. The factory is being run as a profit-making enterprise and has about a dozen employees. The exporting of bamboo bike-making technology was made possible by the Millennium Cities Initiative, a project of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. It is hoped that the Kumasi facility will be the first large-scale bamboo bike factory in the world, capable of producing as many as 20,000 bikes a year. The bicycles are intended for Ghana’s rural poor. An initial order of 750 bikes are earmarked for Non-Governmental Organizations in Ghana.

Odlin (in gray T-shirt) and Aguinaldo (in blue T) with Ghanaian bike factory trainees. Standing between two frames (in gray shirt) is BBS staffer Fence Heanue.

In the coming months. bamboo bike studios will open in Alabama and Canada. Bike mechanic Zef Kraiker reports the studio he is opening in the Kensington Market section of Toronto should be operational by the end of August. In rural Greensboro, Alabama a bamboo bike building studio, run under the auspices of a group called Alabamboo, will commence with builds in September. The workshops will take place at a renovated historic storefront in downtown Greensboro, according to Pam Dorr, executive director of HERO, a community development agency in town. Alabamboo is the name that Dorr and her allies came up with to promote bamboo grown as a sustainable agricultural crop in Alabama. Among the bamboo boosters is the former first lady of Alabama, Marsha Folsom. Dorr says there’s enough golden bamboo on the roadsides in Hale County, where Greensboro is located, to build a couple hundred bikes a year.

The Bamboo Bike Studio has been discovered by corporate advertisers, too. Color photographs of the BBS crew wearing Cole Haan footwear as they rode bamboo bikes around their Brooklyn workspace were featured in a company brochure. More recently, Odlin is featured in a television commercial for the HTC Sensation phone. As Odlin appears on screen an announcer intones, “You are the next breath of fresh air.”

Odlin estimates that so far more than 400 bikes made at the Bamboo Bike Studio are on the road. While most of them are the single speed model, which cost $932, are custom-fit and take two 12-hour days to build, it is now possible to spend just $700 to make a bamboo bike with a coaster brake. These come in small, medium, and large. Bike builders can also put on a rear bamboo rack for another $150. And now mountain bikes and road bikes with 7, 10, 14 and 20-speeds — including internal cables — can be built at BBS.

For those who can’t make it to the Brooklyn, San Francisco, Toronto, or Alabama bike-making workshops, Odlin and his colleagues may be bringing the bike building to a city near you. On August 24th BBS’ “Celebration of American Bike Making Tour” kicks off in Rockport, Maine. Over the course of the next eight months, its mobile bike-building workshop in a truck will visit bicycle friendly cities from coast to coast. The truck will have gear to teach bamboo bike fabrication, as well as a mobile powder coater for steel bikes.

From the Pages of MAKE:
Volume 24: DIY Space

Put your own satellite in orbit, launch a stratosphere balloon probe, and analyze galaxies for $20 with an easy spectrograph! We talk to the rocket mavericks reinventing the space industry, and renegade NASA hackers making smartphone robots and Lego satellites. This, plus a full payload of other cool DIY projects, from a helium-balloon camera that’s better than Google Earth, to an electromagnetic levitator that shoots aluminum rings, and much more. MAKE Volume 24, on sale now.


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Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter, podcast producer and newspaper writer. He's reported for NPR for more than 30 years.

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