How to Make a Bamboo Bike


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Some people are tinkerers — they whittle tiny statues from pieces of wood or bars of soap or knit baby booties.

Michael Mann leaves these folks in their own sawdust and yarn scraps. He’s built a 17-foot kayak from light wood and industrial-sized cheesecloth and recently put the finishing touches on a bamboo bike.

“It’s partially about sustainability,” says Mann (GRS’12), who finished the bike last month. “But it’s really about utilitarianism and being able to build and repair things by yourself.”

A doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences department of geography and environment, Mann says his creations come from the enjoyment of working with his hands, with an added bonus that they help save the environment.

His idea of building a bike from bamboo evolved after seeing one online. Although several Web sites featured such bikes, he couldn’t find a site dedicated to step-by-step building instructions. So he improvised, which spawned his blog documenting a process of trial-and-error.

In a basement workshop lit with a single LED bulb, Mann spent hours after school and on weekends working on the bike. A rickety folding table, scattered with cans of epoxy and random tools and gadgets, served as his workbench.

Being a soup-to-nuts type of guy, Mann hunted for a local bamboo source and found one in “a generous fellow’s backyard” in Jamaica Plain. He spent three months firing and drying his harvest, only to have two-thirds of his poles split.

It was just one of several bumps in the road. Mann returned online and ordered three pretreated, eight-foot-long black bamboo poles, and from January to April he sliced, mitered, and sanded them into a bicycle frame. He then joined the poles using hemp fiber and epoxy.

Before the bike’s parts could be glued together, every bamboo surface required sanding to the grain. Mann credits his Dremel handheld sanding and mitering tool for saving countless hours of work. Without the gadget, he says, “I would’ve been sanding until I was 90.”

A frame of PVC pipe stands on a chunk of plywood. Mann used this jig to align his bamboo bike, the hardest part of the job. He was able to use BU Bikes’ truing stand to center the wheels.

Mann stands in his backyard beside his new bike (his third bike, but first made from bamboo) on a sunny afternoon in early May. The bamboo poles shine with a natural glow, their sheaths spotted like the elegant legs of a giraffe. The bike is beautiful and quirky.

The Connecticut native points to those parts he was unable or chose not to make: cork handles, a seat post, front fork, wheels, pedals, and an eight-speed gear hub — among others.

Saving money wasn’t one of Mann’s goals: the bike cost almost $800 to build. He says he couldn’t resist souping it up with a fancy back wheel and an internal gear system.

The bike rolls smoothly along as Mann pedals down a side street in his Brookline neighborhood. He hopes to use it for all his commuting and has already shown off the bike to friends. His idea is to encourage others to be handier — even if it means merely patching jeans or baking a loaf of bread.

For a guy who’s already built two modes of transportation, what’s next? Mann answers easily: another bamboo bike.

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday. Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

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