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I Built a Bamboo Bike

with the Bamboo Bicycle Club London

· Bamboo Bike

Back in August 2019, I wrote a blog post on my plan to build a bamboo bike. At the time, the workshop with the Bamboo Bicycle Club was fast approaching and I had a zero-waste bike ride in the works, too. However, as happens with a lot of expedition plans, time eroded the resolve of some of the participants and this has been put on hold. But, I still built my bike and I have some plans in the works to take her on some eco micro-adventures.

In total, building my beautiful bike took me four and a half days at the Bamboo Bicycle Club London workshop in Canning Town. This wasn't all in one go. Life after my first two-day workshop was crazy, as in my day job we were launching our biggest project yet. After completing the basics of the frame in the first two days in August, I returned in November to finish it off.

Made to measure

One of the most amazing things about building your own bamboo bike is that you make it to fit you perfectly. Before the workshop, owner James asks you to send over some key measurements and the type of bike you want to make, then he does the maths. There is some very basic measuring and working out to do on your first day, but James has definitely done all the heavy lifting and is on hand to prevent you messing it up when you get started.

After an explanation of the different parts of the frame, it was time to choose the bamboo. There are so many considerations here. You pick your pieces based on the guideline sizes for the different parts of the frame, but also for your future use (in my case, something a bit denser and suited to stand up to long-distance journeys) and finally for the end look you want. Bamboo comes in far more different colours than I expected, so there is definitely a creative element to this part too – mixing and matching potential options until you find your perfect fit. I chose speckled pieces, while most in our small workshop group picked lighter smooth cuts.

Time to get hands on

Once you had your bamboo, it was time to start the real work. I'm not a newbie to workshops – I actually did 'Resistant Materials' as one of my GCSE subjects at school – so drills and saws don't faze me. But, after spending so much time choosing my bamboo, I was worried about not measuring correctly and having to replace pieces (see my concentration face below). The first two days involved a lot of measuring, cutting, drilling and glueing.

Once everything was cut to size and secured it in place on the jig (a whole day's worth of work!), it was time to make the joints. This is done through a process of wrapping hemp soaked in epoxy glue carefully around the joint areas. This is then left to harden. I finished this at the end of my second day and reluctantly had to leave my frame for several weeks, while I tackled a busy work and personal life.

Returning to the workshop

When I returned to the workshop in November, I needed to immerse myself in the finishing and that means one main thing: sanding. Ideally, you sand down your joints into a very, very, very smooth surface. To do this you start with rough surfaced paper (and an electric sander), and use finer and finer paper by hand until it's as smooth as a pebble. The better you wrap the joints in the first place, the easier the finishing process. I wasn't that great at the wrapping so I had a lot of sanding to do. Turns out, I really hate sanding. I spent a day and a half hating my life and seriously doubting my choice to make my own bike. When you finish the first stage of sanding, if you discover holes created by your shoddy wrapping, you then have to use filler, wait for it to dry AND THEN SAND AGAIN. I have mostly erased it from my memory.

It's worth noting that James was very tolerate of my moaning during this stage. In one memorable moment, he told me that some people find sanding a very 'mindful' process. I didn't know who those people were, but I hated them.

After deciding that if I continued sanding I might kill someone, I reviewed my joints and decided that I was happy enough with them to move onto the next stage. This involved spraying on a base layer and then my chosen joint colour. I picked the cyan-type colour from a colour chart prior to the workshop – just one more way you can customise your bike!

When this had dried, I lacquered the whole frame including the bamboo, which helps to weather protect it but also gives a shiny finish. I choose to have some decals added – with my website address so if I decided to do a long-distance ride people could follow along and the Bamboo Bicycle Club logo on the front – the lacquer also helped to fix these in place.

Just add components

The workshops (and home-build kits) are designed for you to build a bamboo frame – what you then add to it is up to you! 100% of the components on my bike were suggested and ordered by James at the Bamboo Bicycle Club. You can be as hands on with this process as you like, but as someone who has only had off-the-shelf bikes before, I felt more comfortable explaining what I needed and then putting my trust in an expert. I understand that it is possible to use components from other bikes (maybe one you already own), but you need to mention this early on as the bikes are made-to-measure so this needs to be taken into account at the planning stage.

I might not have chosen the components, but I was hands on in putting my bike together. One of the major reasons I wanted to build a bike from scratch was so I knew how it was put together in case I needed to fix it on a long-distance journey. I wasn't interested in learning everything about all bikes, I just wanted to know how to maintain my own.

The beauty of building

Betty, the Bamboo Bicycle Club dog

When I first booked the Bamboo Bicycle Club workshop, I did not realise how much I would enjoy the process and how proud I would feel rolling my bike out of the building at the end.

Things I learnt:

  • It's hard work, but it's not hard. We are so divorced from where everything comes from, we think that building things is a mythical thing that only geniuses can do. When broken down, every step was actually simple and achievable. 
  • Building things is great. The process of building things with my hands made me so happy. It was just brilliant doing something tangible away from a computer screen.
  • I appreciate my bike more. I have far more affection for the bike I built than any other bike I have owned because I know how much blood, sweat and tears I put into it. 
  • Putting something together means that you'll know how to take it apart. I'm now far more confident in my problem solving skills if anything goes wrong. I'm not a mechanic, but at least I'll know where to start.
  • It doesn't have to be perfect to be a huge achievement. Looking at my bike joints now, I'm proud of how much work I put in – I'm not worried that they aren't the smoothest joints in town.

Drum roll please...
here is ERICA, my very own, hand-built by me, bamboo bike.

Now it's time to plan some adventures...

If you'd like to build your very own bamboo bike, you can do so at workshops in London, Munchen and Amersfoort or you can order a home-build kit to complete at home internationally.

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