When woodworker Barret Werks looks at the thousands of acres of native bamboo growing around his home city of Honolulu, he sees bike frames. Lots of them. That’s because he’s worked out a way to skip man-made frame materials and make an aesthetically pleasing, bump-absorbing bike frame out of a single shoot of Hawaii-grown bamboo. The resulting bike is lightweight, strong, and above all, beautiful. And, given the acres of bamboo available for harvest around his city, he’s not likely to run out of the naturally renewable, fast-growing material anytime soon.
Barret isn’t the only bike-builder using bamboo in his frames, but with their koa-wood accents, leather hand grips and sleek components, his made-in-Hawaii bikes stand out from the crowd.
“Bamboo is sometimes considered this cheap material; some people think it’s great, others think it’s junk,” Barret says. “But if you accommodate for its weaknesses and make it work for you, bamboo can do some really amazing things that wood just can’t.”
Such as, transform into a bike frame.
From Furniture-Maker to Bike-Builder
Barret grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but after spending several years working on organic farms around the world, he settled in Hawaii. There, he began fusing his interest in working with sustainable materials with his love of woodworking. He opened Werk Arts in 2009, specializing in stools, doors, tables, cabinets and other custom furniture pieces crafted from largely local materials, such as koa wood. As the business grew, he continued to experiment with different combinations of wood and materials — including bamboo.
“When I first started using bamboo, hardly anyone here was working with it,” Barret says. But with the native plant readily available for harvest (a permit is required), Barret had plenty of raw material to experiment with. Through trial and error, he learned the grass’s quirks, and how to use it in his work to take advantage of its natural strength and beauty.
A former mountain bike racer, Barret had worked in enough bike shops to see potential in using bamboo as a lightweight, strong frame material. He also wanted to build up his furniture-making business, and thought that showing up with a bamboo bike might be a fun PR trick to help bolster business.
Putting the Prototype through the Wringer
Barret had plenty of experience building bikes from the ground up, but crafting an actual frame from scratch was another matter. He got started by cutting apart an old Specialized mountain bike frame, using the tried-and-true geometry to guide his first attempts. After some trial and error, he finally came up with a prototype he deemed worthy of testing in a more thorough fashion.
One of the most intense — and most fun — races in Hawaii is the “24 Hours of Hell in Paradise” mountain bike race. An endurance race held in the Kaaawa Valley (where Jurassic Park, Godzilla, LOST and many other films were made), the 24-hour race featured what Barret describes as “some pretty rugged terrain.” He decided to enter — and to ride his bamboo bike.
“The course is so steep and rocky that you can’t even walk down parts of it,” he says. “So I figured if I could test a bamboo bike on that kind of terrain, I’d feel pretty confident making a road-bike version to sell.”
That was in October of 2015. The bike made it through 24 hours of racing with no issues, giving Barret valuable insights about how bamboo could work in a practical application. He knew he wanted to tweak a few things — the first bike felt too flexible, and he’d used bamboo that he felt was a bit too small in diameter — but his very first prototype was off to a strong start.
While the mountain bike-styled frame worked perfectly for bombing down rough terrain, Barret also been hard at work on other, commuter-styled frames designed for biking around town. Earlier that year, he’d entered another bike — this one a fixie — in Hawaii’s Wood Show, an annual juried exhibit on view at the Honolulu Museum of Art. The fixie was selected for the exhibition and went on view September/October of 2015; just one year later, his bamboo 8-speed commuter bike with koa/bamboo accents was awarded an honorable mention in the same show. Clearly, the aesthetic appealed to others, as well.
Harvesting Bike-Specific Bamboo
Barret and his partner, photographer Krystle Marcellus, aren’t the only ones harvesting bamboo from the state lands where it grows near Honolulu. But Barret does have a good eye for when to harvest the plant, which is critically important if you’re going to ask riders to trust their lives with it. Bamboo grows up to five meters a day when it’s first sending its shoots skyward. But if you rely on height as the primary indicator of when to harvest, you’ll often harvest too early.
“Bamboo grows to its full height quickly, but takes about five to seven years to mature and harden,” Barret says. “You have to be able to recognize when it’s reached maturity before harvesting it.”
Barret works with the Department of Land and Resources to ensure responsible harvest, but he and Krystle do the harvesting themselves, driving a truck into the hills, harvesting poles with a reciprocating handsaw, then cutting it into 6- to 12-foot lengths. Those poles are treated to protect against insects, then allowed to air-dry for about six months. Not all woodworkers using bamboo go to those lengths, but it’s not worth it to Barret to cut any corners.
Building a Bamboo Bike
Working solo, Barret can assemble a finished bike in about a week. (Although he’d be able to build more quickly if he didn’t have to hand-build lugs out of carbon or linen fibre to fit each custom-sized tube.) Once built, he adds custom aesthetic details, such as koa-wood seat- and chain-stays, which are stiffer than bamboo. He’s also been switching over from cork grips to ones made of leather; when paired with the bamboo, koa and natural linen-fibre composite for the joints, the Werk Arts’ bike is beautiful.
Currently, you can choose from a fixed-gear/single speed for about $2,100, or a commuter bike, featuring a hand-selected component package in an 8- or 11-speed option for about $2,950. He’s also started offering the “Danish Cruiser” (from $2,149), inspired by a bike-touring trip he and Krystle recently took through Denmark.
Alternatively, you can build your own bamboo bike in one of Werk Arts’ workshops, using materials harvested by Barret. No previous experience is necessary; Barret provides all of the materials and know-how — and it’s a far cheaper option than buying it ready-made. Unsurprisingly, the workshops sell out almost instantly.
“Making a frame in a workshop takes about three days,” Barret notes. “When you’re teaching people to use hand tools for the first time it comes out looking a little less polished than one made in the shop, but it’s always really beautiful, and people tend to be really stoked about building a frame themselves.”
With its slight flex, bamboo frames also make for a smoother, more forgiving ride on the road. Barret is hoping that feel will appeal to other urban riders such as himself. “It’s a commuter culture these days; cities everywhere are putting in bike-sharing programs,” he says. “I just want to build a cooler commuter bike that’s also really beautiful.”