In August of 2011 I posted an article on bamboo bikes and we received an email from a reader cluing us in to a bamboo bike maker who lives in Thailand. I thought it would be cool to learn more so I fired off an email with the hope of getting a response.
Tell us a little about your background. For example, what did you study in school and can you share some career highlights? Also, what is your biking background?
I did vocational training through high school and into my late teen years, in the drafting department detailing Craftsman power hand tools. Michelin America's Research and Development Corporation recruited me from there. I began designing and over seeing the fabrication of minor testing machines and equipment used for testing different products that were used to go into tire building.
A few years later I was moved to a different design department that was responsible for the exterior of the tire; shape, markings and textures, tread patterns and modeling some tread specific properties. In 1994 I went to France for a year, as the representative of the US design team, to share our criteria and methods, and learn the European methods. The company was developing our CAD software, and wanted to make sure that it would work well on both continents, and it was my responsibility to work with the programming team to define and validate the program.
My last 7 of 25 years with Michelin, I worked in a state of the art tire building facility as a design engineer and project manager for 2 tire lines. Both emphasized aesthetics and high performance, while demonstrating the abilities of our robotic method of building tires. One is still performing well and bringing substantial revenues into the company. It was in this capacity that I was awarded a dozen or so, patents.
Why did you pick Thailand and what was the motivation behind building bikes? Did you have previous experience with bike building, repair, etc?
In 2005, my wife and I decided it was time to invest our lives in eternal values instead of temporal. This direction lead us to be house parents at an HIV/AIDS home for orphans. This disease is a big problem in Thailand, and we came here to help. After a few years, we were trying to find direction to help alleviate the social concerns we recognized here.
With my engineering and problem solving training with Michelin, it was clear that we could be more effective on a larger scale if we addressed the issues at more of the root cause level. So we were looking for a small, cottage industry, of sorts, that we could use to make something that the locals could identify with, but that the western world would pull and demand. This concept could help in so many ways, if we could pull it off.
When did you have your first experience with a bamboo bike?
My daughter and I were keeping track of the many ways that the locals here used bamboo in their everyday lives, with the intentions of writing a book of the many uses of bamboo. I was on a bike ride in mid 2008, and saw scaffolding erected out of bamboo in preparation to build a very tall concrete water tower. It was at that time that I was given the idea of using bamboo to build a bike. So upon my return home, I put my research and development hat on, and found out that it was not an original idea, but that many had it before. I found patented versions in the late 1890's, military guys building and racing them in the 1940's, and a west coast guy building and beginning to market them in 2005.
For those not familiar with the geography of Thailand, tell us about where your operations are.
Our shop is in the northern most city of Thailand, called Chiang Rai. It is very rural here, and a lot of needy people living in the mountain villages.
Tell us a bit about your operations. How many people work with you? Do the people that work with you have particular training or skills that were important when hiring them or do you provide the training?
We currently have about 8 apprentices in the shop. They are from several different people groups and all bring an element of family to our shop. Their history is different as well. Some are here as leaders and some are with us for re-habilitation. Each are used at their capacity, and are given constant mentoring for better skills and opportunities. All are paid at or above fair trade wages (except for me :) ).
The company here, is owned by 2 Thai nationals and myself. Our vision for the company is that no one get rich, but that everyone has the opportunity for a better life. We teach the importance of quality. This is directly evident by the high end frames we hand craft. This is also bridged to life applications and the importance of making quality choices in life.
How many bikes do you sell in a year and what country is your biggest buyer? Are you happy with your size or do you want to grow?
Our volume grows by a factor of about 4 every year, and I hope we can continue this trend. This means that we can help that many more people/families/villages/communities as time goes by.
How old is the bamboo you use to build the bikes? Do you grow it yourself or do you buy it from individuals or companies? If you buy from others, how do you choose who to buy from?
The bamboo poles need to be 3 to 5 years old for optimal strength and physical properties. We go out to the bamboo fields and cut it ourselves. This can only be done at the proper time of the year. We are very selective and cut about 4 stalks out of a cluster of about 50 to 80 stalks. The bamboo we use was planted around the perimeter of a very large fruit orchard for wind break and privacy.
From start to finish, how long does it take to build a bike? (not including the time to grow the wood).
Once the bamboo has been harvested and treated, we are ready to build bikes with it. Each frame takes about 3 to 4 weeks to make it through our shop once it is started. It is completely hand made. Our builders and apprentices have all been trained on site, and typically have no prior experience in anything like this, other than the the obvious daily familiarity of handling bamboo. The concept of highly engineered products and working with carbon fiber is completely new to them. Our processes and methods are designed to be easily reproduced and established at remote locations.
Is there any special care a bamboo bike requires?
We use a moisture barrier/ UV protectant polyurethane to finish the frames. This delivers a frame that needs cared for about like a carbon fiber frame. It can also be refinished like a piece of furniture, or touched up if scratched or marred. The bamboo is very crash resistant, and can usually continue to be ridden even if the crash was severe enough to crack the bamboo.
What is the most common question you receive regarding your bikes?
Is that really bamboo? Is it strong?
Are there unique challenges in building a bamboo bike that traditional bike builders do not face? And looking at it from the other perspective, does bamboo bike building have an advantage over traditional bike building?
Yes, the different properties of bamboo and carbon fiber (or other fiber for that matter) pose quite a challenge for bonding the joints. It takes much more than aerospace developed epoxy resins to deliver a joint that will stand the test of time and the rigors that a flexing frame go through. We are able to apply many of the experiences learned in the tire industry for bonding dissimilar materials to form a functional composite, and make it last for many many years. This engineering delivers a frame that has passed the European Standards for fatigue endurance and impact resistance.
In addition, the fact that no 2 pieces of bamboo are exactly the same, dictate that it is most efficient to build the bikes by hand, and that it is very labor intensive. This is a benefit for us, as we are trying to create jobs for many folks. This is also why the big companies will not likely use this method.
My assumption is that most of our readers, like myself, have never had an experience with a bamboo bike. What are three things you would share to educate a bamboo neophyte?
Strength – Stronger than steel. Tensile strength of our bamboo is stronger than many steels used in bike frames.
Ride – As smooth as Silk. The mechanical properties of the natural composite are not only strong and stiff, but they also absorb the vibrations generated by the road surface. This delivers a very responsive frame while at the same time a very smooth and quiet ride. Some riders claim that they are less fatigued at the end of a long ride, and therefore perform better overall.
Beauty – Each frame is handcrafted out of select bamboo. Therefore each is a handcrafted piece of art, beautiful in itself, even if you never took it out of the living room.
Do you have any collaborations with other companies, organizations, causes?
Yes, we have several connections to others. The Nazarene Compassionate Ministries helped us get off the ground a few years back. Another group collaborating to improve the Business for Transformation abilities has been helpful in developing our way forward. And then there's Velo Bear LLC in South Carolina who helps us in distribution and dealer networking. A university in the US has assigned 3 of their senior engineering students to work on some development this year. We hope to continue to develop this opportunity. Other organizations use us to either further develop and support leaders or mentor those in a rehabilitation program.
Did you keep the first bamboo bike you made?
Yes, and I have one of each year/genration along the way.
Do you think there will be a day when major brands that sell millions of bikes per year roll out a bamboo line? And in your opinion, would it be a good thing for a major brand to use bamboo?
Yes, I think the major companies will indeed roll out bamboo frames. Laminated bamboo tubes can be machined to be identical in size, making it feasible for them to deliver a bamboo frame for their clientele. I think they will miss an opportunity if they do not add it to their line.
I am going to assume you have left over bamboo from making the frames, if so have you found uses for the leftovers? Perhaps hacked items to put on the bikes or associated bike products?
Oh yes, nothing goes to waste in an economy like this one. For example, they use rice chaff to burn between stacks of handmade clay bricks to cure them. We use the rafters of these brick baking houses for the smoke treatment stage of processing our bamboo. Our scrap is used for tools, tests, tooling needs and other shop uses. Some makes it to furniture, the rest goes into the burning process to cook the bricks, where we smoke our bamboo, or to cook food.
How often do you ride? Preference for on or off road?
I ride my road bike at least once a week, and I use the Hilltribe for errands and quick rides as frequently as I can.
What is your coolest bike experience ever?
The maiden voyage of the first bamboo bike I made. You can see the video of that bike on YouTube.
Our best video is the one my sons just made for the WebbWorks Monsoon CX.
It's dinner time in Thailand, what is your favorite meal and where do you go to get it? And what do you wash it down with?
Quay Tieow Moo Dang! This is a rice noodle soup, with a thin broth and thinly sliced seasoned pork loin on top. Cha yen (thai iced tea with milk) which is almost a desert. But the real desert is Kaow Niaow Ma-muang, sticky rice and sweet mango with coconut syrup drizzled over it.
What is your number one piece of advice for someone visiting Thailand for the first time?
Come prepared to visit our shop and meet the builders that will be producing your bike.
Is there anyone special you would like to thank or give some credit to?
I am a Christian, so I want to thank God, The Creator for this opportunity to serve creatively, here in this land. I also want to thank Khun Siam. He is an artist and a bamboo guru extraordinaire! He taught me everything he could about bamboo in my early development days. He helped us to discover the right species for our bikes.
My wife, sons, and daughter, family and friends who encourage me to keep going, and to those who have tried to discourage me. They too, have given me motivation. Michelin RnD Corporation for investing in me for the 25 years. Not only do we implement many lessons learned there, but we also put quality as the highest priority of our products. We want our WebbWorks brand to be synonymous with quality (handmade) bikes.