Build your own bike with the Bamboo Bicycle Club

A wooden bike you have to build yourself? Will Coldwell signs up with the Bamboo Bicycle Club


It's 8am on a Saturday morning and I'm standing in a freezing cold warehouse in Hackney Wick, London holding a hacksaw. In front of me is a sheet of paper covered in angles and equations. Piled around the room are stacks of bamboo. By the end of the weekend, I'm meant to have turned some of it into a bicycle frame. I think of the last time I did woodwork and my fingers go numb.

I'm at the Bamboo Bicycle Club, the country's only bamboo bike building course. Founded a year ago by friends James Marr and Ian McMillan, they have been giving up their weekends to help people bring their bamboo bike dreams to fruition.

Bamboo, it transpires, is not as rickety as you may think. With a higher in-tension strength than steel, natural resistance to the environment and six times more dampening than carbon, the fibrous tubes provide a strong yet comfortable ride. As James explains: "If God designed a plant to build bikes with, it would be bamboo."

Although James and Ian's workshop format is something new (the only comparable business is based in New York), the first bamboo bicycles were showcased back in 1894, made by English company the Bamboo Cycle Co. Recently, no doubt due to the renaissance cycling is enjoying, a growing number of companies have been offering bamboo frames. Panda Bikes, Zam Bikes and Grass Bikes are an aptly named few, although even high-end bike manufacturer Calfee Design has been offering some impressively slick custom models.

The custom-build element of bamboo bicycles is central to what makes them so appealing. What was previously a luxury reserved for those with a certificate in welding or a very big budget is suddenly accessible to anyone capable of using a saw. I can proudly say I am one of those people.

Preparations for the workshop begin a week in advance, with a discussion about what style of bike you want to build. Personally, I feel that any bicycle made out of organic matter should be a laidback affair, something to cruise around on rather than race. I opt for a frame that contrasts with the stiff geometry of my existing one and go for a "Classic English" for an upright, gentle ride. When I arrive at the workshop, the precise list of body measurements requested from me have already been transposed onto a personalised diagram of my frame. This is the plan that I will follow. James, who makes wind turbines and Ian, a civil engineer, have put a lot of effort into simplifying the highly technical process of frame building. Four years of experimentation has also meant they have worked out the best methods for construction. "The first bikes were spec'd on metal tubing and were way too thin," says James, who has been riding his current bamboo bike for over a year. "They flexed all over the place. We've had some ropy rides… I've had bikes fall apart on me.

"When you buy a bike you're so far removed from how it's manufactured," he says. "There's no connection with the frame. By the end of our workshops people become really connected, getting much more obsessive, lining up nodes on the wood… that's really nice to see. I don't want to sell bikes. I've had people offer £1,000 to just buy a frame and I've said no."

The first step is setting up the jig – the structure used to hold the frame in place – then to select your bamboo. Things to watch out for are cracked pieces, knobbly nodes and pieces that are too thin. Of course, finding pieces that are the colour you want is just as important; some people like the frame to be consistent, others like a mix of light, dark or speckled. James and Ian are strong believers in making your bike look exactly how you want.

"But don't get too attached to your pieces," James warns, as we raise our saws. The fibres on the outer layer of bamboo have a tendency to flake off, weakening it and rendering it useless. The rest of the afternoon is spent fixing each piece of the frame into the jig, slotting in the bottom bracket, seat tube and handlebar tube using an epoxy glue to hold it in place until it can be properly bound. The idiosyncrasies of bamboo as a construction material means unexpected adjustments can suddenly become necessary. At one point the coincidental alignment of a kink and a node on my two chain stays (the narrow tubes running alongside your back wheel) threaten to render my frame useless, but luckily, after some careful checks, Ian confirms that yes, there is just enough space to fit a wheel.

Besides, most things can be fixed by a spot of whittling with a Stanley knife. If all else fails you can simply bin it and cut off another length. Spare pieces are turned into pen pots, bike racks and ipod stands. It seems bikes are not the only thing you can make out of bamboo. Joining me in the workshop, which is steadily filling up with sawdust, splintered bits of bamboo and empty mugs of tea, are three others.

Ed Herbert, 26, a software developer from Cambridge with a background in engineering, found out about the workshop just six days previously and signed up immediately. He chose to build a touring bike to take him on a 1,000 mile cycle ride across France.

Also hard at work building a racing frame is Londoner Neil Cummings, 54, a lecturer at Chelsea College of Art.

"It's really interesting understanding more about the frame itself, how the angles of the tubes can make so much difference," he says.

"I've learnt much more about the bicycle and what an amazing thing it is." He looks at his frame, a sticky mess of branches and glue. "It's quite funny to think I'll be riding that." For Tom Brand, 26, an investment accountant from London, this will be the first bike he's owned.

"Riding it for the first time is going to be so different to riding one I bought from a shop," he says. "With that you just think, I just spent a load of money. With this, I think, 'I made something'."

On Sunday morning we return to the workshop bright and early to complete the final process; binding. After a shaky start, we begin to tightly wrap each joint on the frame with hemp soaked in an epoxy resin. It is pretty pungent stuff and very sticky.

After two layers, the binding is wrapped tightly with electrical tape, to keep it firm and ensure a smooth finish. All that is left now is for it to dry. In a few hours I will be an official member of the bamboo bicycle club.

While we saunter to the pub to wait, I take the opportunity to test ride Ian's bike to find out what it's really like to ride. Once I get over the self-conscious delight of the fact that it's made out of bamboo, and stop looking down at the frame and pay attention to the road, it becomes apparent why they love it so much.

It feels just as capable as any bike, but softer, more relaxed. I ride past a group of people who look surprised, but in a pleasant way. It feels more 'hippy' than 'hipster'.

"Every time I get on my bike I can't help smiling," says James.

"It reminds me of when I built it."

Weekend courses at Bamboo Bicycle Club cost £420.00 and include all the materials and tools you need to complete a frame. For more information visit:

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football Polish side was ejected from Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Project Manager - Pensions

£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone