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13 Comments

culture

Bikes of Bamboo

In a Kensington Market laneway, a fledgling business is making bike frames out of some unusual materials.

Zef Kraiker wanted to build bike frames. He’d been working at bike shops for six years, but no established frame builder would take him on, even as an apprentice.

“It’s tricky, because you really have to have an in with someone, or you have to have some kind of background or skill to make yourself really valuable immediately,” Kraiker said the other day in the converted Kensington Market back-alley garage space that now serves as his very own frame-building workshop. Yes: by opening his own business in December, he has managed, at last, to make himself into a full-time frame guy. But not exactly the type he set out to become.

Rather than using steel or aluminum alloy, he makes all his frames out of bamboo.

“When I first saw a bamboo bike in a magazine, it was just breathtaking,” Kraiker said. “I had gone to school for welding, because I had this goal of becoming a frame builder, and suddenly welding was completely irrelevant. I was more interested in botany.”

The Toronto Bamboo Bike Studio is a small, gated-off area in the corner of a laneway garage, with just enough space for the two metal guides Kraiker uses to shape and assemble his frames out of iron bamboo, imported from the Yucatan.

Kraiker cuts large poles of bamboo down to size using a handsaw and then wedges them between blocks of balsa wood, with the metal parts of the frame lodged inside. (The head tube, seat tube, and bottom bracket all get this treatment.) He shaves the balsa wood down until it’s smooth, and then wraps it with layers of fiberglass, epoxy, and carbon fiber in order to bond the frame together. It’s a simpler process than traditional frame building. An amateur with expert guidance can do it in just a few days. The result, according to Kraiker, is a bike as durable as just about any that exists. “There aren’t many frames that can resist catastrophic failure as well as bamboo can,” he said. “It’s incredibly durable. It has strength characteristics that are equal to—or in some cases exceed—steel. It can be hard as concrete. And it still provides a smooth ride.”

(It’s true that bamboo is extremely strong. In Asia, where it grows in the wild, they use it to build scaffolding.)

There are three other Bamboo Bike Studios in other cities, all of them affiliated with the mother company, which is headquartered in Camden, Maine. Kraiker pays to license the name, and receives training and equipment from the organization.

The whole thing is an outgrowth of a 2008 collaboration between Columbia University and the UN’s Millennium Cities Initiative. The original goal was to invent a method of building sustainable bikes for citizens of the developing world.

The frames Kraiker makes in Kensington Market are certainly sustainable—bamboo is a grass, and where it grows, it grows fast—but affordable to developing-world dwellers they are not. To purchase one outright costs $1,100—or more, depending upon what custom features a buyer requests. For a minimum of $850 (again, depending upon customizations) customers can build their own frames under Kraiker’s guidance, with a kit.

“One of the things I really like about the bamboo bike studio is that now frame building is available to everyone,” Kraiker said. “It’s accessible. You don’t have to go to school for weeks.”

So far, the shop has turned out ten completed frames. If you see someone riding a beautiful bike made of sticks, you’ll know where it came from.

Comments

  • http://downtowntherapy.ca/ Matt

    This is great to see. We have bamboo in our back yard (we also live in the Market) and while it needs to be managed (it spreads virulently), it’s extremely versatile and provides cheap coverage.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t think that weedy backyard bamboo is suitable for making bikes out of. You need something strong.

      • http://downtowntherapy.ca/ Matt

        It certainly depends on what kind of bamboo you’re using in the end. I certainly wouldn’t be interested in building a bike. Now, tomato plant stakes…

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Melinda-Kabat/100000460290234 Melinda Kabat

        Bamboo is extremely strong, especially considering that it is a grass. We have bamboo in our yard as well. It grows extremely fast…we have bamboo that are over 30 ft high. I’ve cut a few of them down, taken off their stalks, and hardened them, and use them as walking sticks. The species of bamboo they are using for these bikes is probably picked because it is harder than other bamboo species.

    • Guest

      Botany nerd-alert: Sounds like you have Japanese Knotweed, an invasive, non-native plant often called ‘Mexican Bamboo’ but not bamboo at all…

      • http://downtowntherapy.ca/ Matt

        Nope. We got bamboo. Grows 30 feet high. It’s still invasive though!

        • Zef

          Hi Matt, I’m interested in seeing this bamboo of yours. I have some tomato plants that’ll need stakes soon :)

          If you don’t mind showing me please email toronto@bamboobikestudio.com

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Melinda-Kabat/100000460290234 Melinda Kabat

          Yep Matt. I have bamboo in my yard as well. Some of them are at LEAST 30 feet high. Yes, it’s invasive, but I find that a positive thing ;) Don’t you love the way the bamboo sounds when the wind blows? Interesting fact about just how fast bamboo grows. “Bamboos are some of the fastest growing plants in the world, as some species have been recorded as growing up to 100 cm (39 in) within a 24 hour period due to a unique rhizome-dependent system.”

          @ Guest…I’m sure Matt can recognize what bamboo looks like. It was used for suspension bridges, and it is still used today for scaffolding. Check out this neat pic of scaffolding on a pretty tall building. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BambooConstructionHongKong.jpg

  • torontocouriergirl

    Way to go Zef!!

  • Steve

    Fantastic stuff, Zef! Very glad to see it.

  • Vous Je

    accessible does not mean here is 850 bucks?

    There are a millions of abandon frames in toronto. Recycle a bicycle!

    • Zef

      I appreciate your comment. Refurbishing used and discarded bicycles is something I’ve been doing for many years, I’ve donated more than a few of them to people in need of a bike that can’t afford one. I still do this whenever possible.

      The cost of the bamboo frame building workshop isn’t cheap but I’ve worked to keep the price as lean as I can.
      That being said my statement about accessibility relates to the fact that if someone has an interest in building a bicycle frame and/or having a bamboo bike, the Bamboo Bike Studio frame building workshop is by far the most affordable means of doing so. Not to mention that just about anyone can build one of these frames in 2 – 3 days with no previous experience required, and now that BBS is located in downtown Toronto the workshop will be more convenient and less expensive to get to for many people that are interested in building their own bamboo bike. Having traveled to New York to build my first bamboo frame (a great experience regardless of the time and cost), I know that building here in T.O. will make sense for lots of people.

      It’s also worth mentioning that aside from the frame building workshop I also teach people about bicycle assembly and maintenance so that they can take the well being of their bicycle into their own hands. I gladly offer my tools, time, and space to any frame builder that wants to roll in to adjust their brakes, true their wheels, or simply give their bike a good cleaning, and my guidance is always available if needed.

  • Lynn Skotnitsky

    Way to go Zef!! That totally rocks! Best of luck to you.