Riding the pine

In his southeast Portland workshop, Ken Wheeler makes serious road, touring and mountain bikes — out of wood.

Skeptical engineers and cyclists scoff at the idea, but Wheeler and his company, Renovo Hardwood Bicycles, are slowly proving them wrong. For 31/2; years, he's been rolling out his tailor-made, hollow-framed wooden bikes — the only ones of their kind, he said — converting cynics along the way.

The idea of a wood bike is nothing new, but they've been clunky or dangerous in the past, not meant for constant pounding. Engineers have argued that because of wood's properties, it can't make an effective bicycle frame like metal can.

But to Wheeler, wood is an ideal material for building custom bikes because of its stiffness and natural shock absorption, a bike's two most important qualities.

"It's the smoothest ride of any bike, coupled with stiffness, which we can vary to suit the rider," he said. "A lightweight person needs a less stiff frame than a heavy person. We can tailor to the exact body type."

It took Wheeler a year and a half to get the process down, and he acknowledges it wouldn't be possible without computer technology. After the wood is carefully inspected, each frame is designed on a computer, then sent to a computer-controlled machine that cuts two mirror-image halves. The two pieces are bonded together, sanded and laminated.

Even the species of wood is customized. Purpleheart is stiffer and works better for heavier riders. Sapele is more flexible, better for a lighter person.

"Most people who make steel bikes never have to think about this; it's all engineered and laid out for them, but it has to enter our minds," Wheeler said.

In his office, Wheeler pulled out the third edition of "Bicycling Science," first written in 1974 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor David Gordon Wilson. "The most-used design book in the industry says you can't make a wooden bike," Wheeler said.

Wilson argued that metals such as carbon fiber and aluminum work because their fibers are helical (think of a double helix; the fibers wrap around), so they carry a load with equal strength in all directions. But wood's fibers are linear, so Wilson argued they can't carry a load in the same way, that wooden bikes can be made but not effectively.

He was wrong, Wheeler said. "You have to have a larger tube size and more material — enough material to carry the load." Thicker tubes of wood also make the frames sturdier, so they withstand fatigue and pressure tests better than thinner metal frames.

"It's fun to convert skeptics," he said. "It's fun when they ride one: 'It's light! It's stiff! I had no idea.' "

The frames run $1,500 to $3,000 and take a few months to arrive after ordering. Customers have been annoyed by the long wait, but the pricing seems to work in Wheeler's favor: "These are expensive bikes. When we say our bikes are smoother than other bikes, our customers have ridden all these really high-end bikes, so they know the difference."

"If anything, I think they're underpriced," said Dave Guettler, owner of Southeast Portland's River City Bicycles and an enthusiastic woodworker who took a Renovo bike on a 50-mile test ride. "If I could justify it in the least, I would buy one." Guettler said he stocks bamboo bikes in his shop: "They're light and responsive — not like this, though."

The company has developed a local following as cyclists discover that the wooden bikes aren't just artistic conversation pieces. Marc Gaudin, a Renovo customer and owner of the Joinery, which sells handcrafted wood furniture in Southeast Portland, bought a Renovo bike last summer.

"I thought the bike was the most beautiful bike I've ever seen, and it rides nicer than my $7,000 carbon-fiber bike," Gaudin said, adding that he logged about 3,000 miles on the Renovo before he injured his neck.

Wheeler, who in his former life designed and produced composite airplanes, isn't an avid cyclist or even a woodworker; he was intrigued by the idea of reviving wood as an engineering material.

In fact, the name Renovo is Latin for "I renew," Wheeler said. "I liked the concept because we kind of renewed wood for bikes."

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