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Bike frame builders are constantly on the lookout for materials that will make a bike faster, lighter, more durable, and more sustainable.
Steel has been used to make more bike frames than any other material. David Woronets, owner of Zen Bicycle Fabrication based in Portland, OR, believes that working with steel “is equal to working with aluminum” in terms of ease and familiarity. Because the building process is not as involved as that of other metals, Zen Bicycle Fabrication can make bigger orders for a variety of different bikes, completing a custom steel frame in just three to 10 hours. But steel is far from being the only material used for bike frames. Bike frame builders are constantly on the lookout for materials that will make a bike faster, lighter, more durable and more sustainable.
Long-Lasting and Strong Titanium
With over 25 years of experience, 15 of those in building with titanium, Chris Dekerf ships customized road, mountain and commuter bicycles far from Dekerf Cycle Innovations’ Richmond, BC location.
Coming from a welding background, Chris chose to work with titanium because of its practicality. While some bike frame builders choose to focus on aesthetics, Dekerf focuses on function first and foremost. Titanium is extremely light, extremely strong and completely inert. Because of these properties, a titanium bike is very easy to look after. “A titanium bike frame does not require any paint or finish, requires no special care and could be the last bike a rider ever needs,” Dekerf explains. Titanium has an infinite fatigue life and won’t change over time.
Despite these useful properties, it’s not easy to build a titanium bike frame. Dekerf explains that depending on the frame, building a titanium bike can take anywhere between 20 and 100 hours to finish. What is most time-consuming is the special welding technique required to prevent oxygen from contaminating the titanium. Dekerf’s craft technique requires that the inside of the titanium frame is filled with argon gas, protecting the metal from becoming brittle.
Beautiful Wood Frames from the Wet West Coast
After searching for the perfect materials for airplanes during his aircraft design years, Ken Wheeler explains he discovered that “bikes and airplanes have the same requirements.” Wheeler, owner of Renovo Cycles, based in Portland, OR, found that the properties of wood make it ideal for bike frames. Wood is light, stiff and able to absorb vibrations, great for a smooth ride. The additional bonus of a wood bike frame is that it is easy to repair.
While bike frame builders moved away from wood frames in the early 1900s, recent craft techniques and finishes have allowed wood bicycles to make a comeback. Wheeler needs to measure each piece of wood before he makes a custom frame in order to determine that the flexibility and strength of each piece is suitable for the frame. He then hollows out the wood, sourced from all over the world, using a computerized router. ‑is craft technique and the high-end polyurethane epoxy finish are both recent innovations that allow wood bike frames to be lighter and more durable than before.
Renovo produces a variety of practical bikes, and each frame is completely unique. Customers choose the kind of wood they’d like their frame made of depending on what they want the frame to look and feel like. The unique design of Renovo also makes them aesthetic heirlooms.
Magnesium for Smooth and Responsive Rides
Paketa Bicycles, based out of Boulder, CO, chooses to make custom bike frames from magnesium. Not only is magnesium stiff and strong, it is also unbelievably light, weighing 50 percent less than titanium.
What’s special about magnesium is its high damping capacity. Damping is the rate at which vibrations are absorbed, meaning the frame absorbs most of the vibrations from the road before they reach the rider. The resulting ride feels snappy and responsive without feedback.
Paketa produces custom-made, high performance road, mountain and tandem magnesium bikes, which are sold throughout North America and will last riders anywhere from eight to 25 years.
Durable and Creative Bamboo Frames
Hoping to eventually build bikes that are completely local, Al Roback and the Grass Frames team source their bamboo from Chilliwack or California, and the hemp from Hungary, China or France. Despite being made from fast-growing renewable materials, these bikes aren’t just sustainable; they’re also practical. Bamboo is strong, flexible and absorbs vibrations, while the hemp and eco-epoxy wrapped around the bamboo frame for protection and durability has “spider-silk properties,” meaning it holds up better than fiberglass.
While butting is impossible with bamboo, the tubes have a natural strength from the lignin arrangement at a cellular level. In terms of the craft technique, the material selection, cutting the selected material down to size and taking out the nodes is not the hardest part. What’s most time consuming during the building process is wrapping the entire frame with the protective eco-coat. Depending on the detailing desired by the customer, each semi-custom frame takes anywhere from 40 to 100 hours to complete.
Karin Olafson has contributed to local and national publications and is currently researching an article for Triathlon Magazine Canada. Her writing includes opinion, culture and sports pieces.