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Published on Jun 11, 2012
When CNC (computer numerical control) technology reached a point where wooden bicycles could be made- at least partially- by machine, Ken Wheeler- who is neither woodworker nor engineer, but a very advanced tinkerer- decided the time was right to start building wooden bikes. Wheeler built the first 12 and then set up shop in Portland, Oregon, where today, a CNC machine can build up to 1000 frames per year. Though the automated part is only the beginning. Once the frames come off the machine they need hand-crafted finishing work. At first Wheeler tried employing cabinet-makers to smooth and perfect the bicycles, but "that didn't work" so he turned to artists and today many of his employees moonlight as sculptors. This dependence on crafters makes wood a demanding material, but the extra labor pays off. While wood lacks the structural firmness of carbon fiber, Wheeler argues it more than makes up for this with its ability to absorb vibration better than carbon, making for a very smooth ride. Also, given the wide range of woods to choose from- Wheeler has identified 53 different hardwoods qualified to be used for bikes-, wooden bikes can be more closely-tailored to individual riders and their riding styles. Wood also withstands impact very well. Wheeler showed me a test block where they'd dropped a weight on frame tubes. The steel and aluminum tubes had obvious dents. I had to look closely to see the mark left on Renovo's wood composite. A crafted bike is also a more expensive bike (at least 4 thousand dollars for just the frame), but Renovo cycles are comparablely-priced with high-end carbon race bikes. Some professional riders have made the switch to wood. Even Robin Williams is a fan and a frequent visitor of the Sausalito showroom. What makes a wooden bike truly magical is its ability to outlive us. When you crack a carbon-fiber bike, it's usually time for a new bike and perhaps, a stint on bustedcarbon.com. If you bust a wooden bike, it can be mended and can recover most, if not all, of it is original strength. There are no dents that can't be refinished, so timber-built two-wheelers can be, in Slow Design parlance, heirloom pieces. "You can pass them along to your grandkids," hopes Wheeler.