Prior to starting Renovo Bicycles, engineer Ken Wheeler hadn’t built anything out of wood since his high school shop class. So when the Portland, Oregon, entrepreneur began building his bike frames out of hardwoods in 2007, many in the cycling industry were surprised. In an era when most cycling manufacturers are producing modern bikes with carbon fiber, it seemed curious for Wheeler to hearken back to a design preference from the 1700s and make bikes using hardwoods.
Wheeler says his interest in wood was reinforced by his experience designing advanced composite airplanes at his former company, Wheeler Technology. “When I began aircraft design, I first studied various materials for aircraft construction,” says Wheeler. “And even though I ultimately used carbon composites for my aircraft, I was surprised to find that the properties of wood were superior in most ways except economy of production.”
Wheeler says his research at the time demonstrated the many advantages of wood as a building material. “Wood excels at damping vibration, has a longer fatigue life than other frame materials and is more damage resistant,” he explains. In addition, Wheeler says wood provides a smoother, quieter ride. As a long-distance bicyclist, the smoother ride was attractive to Wheeler.
His hardwood design was also attractive to German car-manufacturer Audi. The auto giant recently teamed up with Renovo to offer three wooden bikes designed and built in Wheeler’s Portland shop. “Audi came to us and asked if we would be interested in making an Audi branded bike,” says Wheeler. “They felt that Audi and Renovo shared the same engineered design approach,” with the key being a focus on performance, he explains.
This concentration on performance is what makes hardwoods such a compelling material for building bikes, says Wheeler. He claims that the 100 to 200 bike frames he hand-builds each year can be 15 percent stiffer than carbon frames, yet ride more smoothly. This balance is achieved by tailoring each bike frame to the rider. A 275-pound rider, for example, requires a stiffer frame than a 100-pound rider, says Wheeler. When building each Renovo bike, Wheeler chooses woods that complement each individual rider’s weight and riding style. This design method highlights wood’s natural ability to absorb vibration while still maintaining stiffness, Wheeler explains. “The major carbon bike manufacturers have tried to tame the harsh ride of carbon with elastomeric shock absorbers in the frame and fork, but they still don’t equal wood for ride quality.”
And creatively, the options seem endless. Renovo uses 30 different species of hardwood, which makes picking a favorite wood daunting. “Because they are all so different, I have a new favorite nearly every day,” Wheeler says. “It’s impossible to make an ugly frame. But because of the infinite combinations, we see new configurations all the time, and I’m delighted at how often we see a new ‘spectacular.’”
Renovo’s polyurethane-coated frames boast smooth curves, highlighting the wood’s natural colors and grains. A hand-polished piano-finish accentuates the various hues of the up to 48 pieces of wood used for each bike. A birch center may be matched with a wenge pinstripe. An outer layer of bubinga wood displays a tiger-eye quality with a silky luster that changes appearance with direction and light (chatoyance). Dark hardwoods tease the edges of creamy maples. While admiring the bikes, one can draw comparisons to the bold, natural wood finish of vintage Chris Craft boats from the 1950s. There is an elegance to Renovo bike frames that surpasses the more conventional appearances of their carbon and aluminum peers.
Yet the road to success has included some potholes, mainly in the form of engineering challenges, as wood is still in the process of being understood as a manufacturing material for bikes, says Wheeler.
But ultimately, the benefits of wood are worth the design headaches, he proclaims. “I do envy the ease of manufacturing bikes with metals or composites, and I had better training and experience using these materials,” says Wheeler. “But I absolutely love the results with wood.”
So do his customers. Renovo currently has more orders than available bikes. Each Renovo frame is custom and takes about 20 to 35 hours to build, which involves slicing wood strips into planks, finger joining, bonding, machining, sanding and finishing. Once the frames are complete, the wheels and components are assembled onto the bike with the final price tag ranging between $4,000 and $12,000, depending on the parts a customer selects.
When asked how he keeps up with the continual demand for new bikes, Wheeler smiles and refers to one of the secret benefits of manufacturing in Portland. “We have lots of bicycle and craft talent here—and nine months of rain keeps everyone on the job instead of the beach.”