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The Return of the Wooden Bicycle

Jay Kinsinger, founder of Sojourner Cyclery makes wooden bicycle frames. Each one is hand-crafted and custom-built to the unique body measurements of the rider. Thus all of Jay's bikes are a one-of-a-kind. The rediscovery of using wood for bicycles harkens back to the earliest days of cycling when many bike manufacturers selected it as their material of choice.

Combing Two Passions

Bicycles have been a lifelong passion for Jay who stated working in a bicycle shop at age 14. Back in the late 70's he recalls buying a steel bicycle frame kit from Proteus that included tubing, lugs and instructions. From there he started building his first bicycle frame.

He has been a wood-worker all his life. I interviewed him while he was in the midst of a restoration of a lake cottage built by his grandfather. Five years ago he combined his hobby of frame-building with his wood-working craftsmanship. ​His first wooden bicycle frame was a labor of love taking over 500 hours to complete. Since then he hasn't looked back

Jay displays a single frame wooden bicycle he built.

The Use of Wood for Bicycle Frames

One obvious question is why use wood as a bicycle frame material since steel, aluminum and carbon fiber all are options. Early manufacturers of bicycles also experimented with wood as a material, several using hickory, Wood provides a smoother ride than aluminum and carbon fiber which transfer more energy to the rider, With wood you don't "feel" the bumps on the road nearly as much. Steel also provides a smooth ride but is slightly heavier than wood. For example, Jay's 61 cm steel frame weighs just over 5 lbs. while his wooden frame of the same size is 4.5 lbs.

Another important advantage of wood is the woodworker can easily customize the shape of the tube For instance Jay can taper the top tube towards the back as the stresses decrease. Like any artisan, Jay continues to improve his craft with each frame and design he builds. Jay's preferred wood is black walnut for several reasons: it is lightweight, strong, stable and easy to carve.

1897 Old Hickory - Built by Tonk Manufacturing in Chicago, this bicycle frame is made of hickory wood. Source: Bicycle Museum of America.

Manufacturing a Wood Bicycle Frame

There are several other wooden frame builders, Jay however is unusual since he is the only person crafting each bike by hand instead of using computer-controlled cutting devices. His primary tools are a jigsaw to cut out the fixtures and a router to sculpt the wood. He changes the router bit based on the shape he's trying to produce with the wood.

The drill bit on the router is used to shape the wood on the frame. Jay uses different bits as he works on various elements of the frame.

The bicycle frames are actually hollow which translates into a lighter bike. Jay makes each side of the frame separately. He then glues the two sides together. similar to a clam-shell closing. Each side is made with 4 layers of wood. Like plywood, the layering techniques adds strength to the frame. For areas of high stress such as the headset, bottom bracket and seat post, he adds steel fittings.

The attachment of the chain and seat stays to the rear fork.

Jay treats the wood with gun-stock oil which has been in use for hundreds of years. He simply wipes the wood with the finish and a rag; no special additives or spraying apparatus is required. Similar to a wooden boat, with proper care a wooden bike can last a lifetime,

​Jay points out the treatment of wood is simpler than steel which requires over 30 different ingredients including solvents, fluxes and various chemicals. He likens a wooden bicycle to broccoli in a vending machine. It may not be the most popular choice but is certainly healthiest.

One of Jay's tandem wooden bicycles on display at the Bicycle Museum of America. the bike was ridden over 2100 miles along the Underground Railway Trail from Mobile, AL to central Ohio.

Riding a Wooden Bicycle

I had the pleasure of riding one of Jay's single frame wooden bikes. The ride quality was smooth which I was expecting. However, I was amazed by the stillness of the ride. Like a hybrid car, the wooden bike makes no sound as it moves along the road. But I wondered, would I use a wooden bicycle for urban riding and bike commuting? No question on the lightweight and durability of the vehicle. And a wooden bicycle is certainly a lower environmental footprint than many options.

My bigger concern was having such a beautiful machine stolen on the streets of Chicago. Jay shared with me that his wooden bikes turn heads wherever he goes. So a rider could expect increased attention. I think having access to an indoor, secure parking option would be necessary before using the bike for urban commuting. That said, there is something beautiful about the aesthetic of a bicycle made from a tree.

Jay's custom single frames typically run about $3,000 plus components while tandem bike frames are $5,000 plus components. Riders interested in ordering a frame can expect a six month wait before taking delivery. In an age of instant gratification this is unusual. But like a fine wine or aged cheese, the quality, craftsmanship and authenticity of the product are worth the time.

Check out Jay's advice to bike riders.


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