Wood Selection Considerations

by Christo

Our light wood bikes usually have a dark wood middle layer. It doesn't show though in a profile picture so the impression from the picture is of just the light woods. I need to prepare some video that shows more of the contrast. It is hard to get around to this while I am also building bikes and other products. The bikes that look light in the pictures could be called a reverse oreo cookie. the oreo cookie will look dark, but it has a light mid layer. I could reduce the contrast in the two layers and make one that is mostly light or mostly dark. I usually choose two contrasting woods, and the look partly depends on whether it is the oreo or reverse oreo build. If I choose two dark woods, or two light woods, the look will change too, but not so much in profile pictures.

I use mostly domestic hardwoods like black walnut, black cherry, red elm, lacey sycamore, hickory, sassafras, ash, ambrosia maple... than imports like Ebony, Jatoba, Purple Heart... There are several reasons...

  1. I am a wood bender, and the domestic hardwoods are the bending woods. Imports all fail in this regard.
  2. Imported lumber is mostly very heavy and dense. Strong yes, but at a cost of weight. The temptation is to use less of the exotic hardwoods, and maybe make the wall thickness too thin.
  3. Imported lumber does have more choice in dark colors, but it often fades out in UV light. Jatoba loses its red tones. Purple Heart turns to a muddy pale brown.
  4. Imported lumber is often harder to bond due to natural oils in it.

But there are also Hawaiian woods that I'll use from time to time. Currently, I am building a custom frame in Honey Locust and Koa. It will be a shimmery orb of luminous gold. Other Hawaiian wood that will work its way into Renovo's is Hawaiian Milo (very dark), Monkey Pod (very streaky), and Mango (very colorful).

There are a few domestic softwoods that I like to use also. If I am goal-seeking on the lowest possible weight, I will consider using Port Orford Cedar, Alaskan Yellow Cedar, Nootka Cypress, Engleman Spruce or Douglas Fir. All of these are well known by luthiers, and my technique for bike frame building is a little bit influenced by guitar making anyway.

Then there are the reclaimed woods. I have a stock of lumber that came out of the 1880s Macy's building in Brooklyn. I was commissioned to make a seating element for the newly remodeled building. Most of it is old growth Douglas Fir. This is going to find its way into some "city" bikes, though it could go in anything that likes a good story. That building was 10 stories high, and is now 20 stories. That wood that was harvested for this 1880 building probably started growing in about 1530. How is that for history, and a story?

Another reclaimed wood I like to use is old wine or whiskey barrels. This is white oak, which is a bit heavy and dense, so I use it sparingly. But if you want to ride your bike to wineries, this is the wood for you. I hope to co-brand some of these frames with specific wineries or distilleries, and Glenmorangie had co-branded a set one year. They are absolutely gorgeous, and could be set up for road or gravel use. Keep in mind though that there is going to be about a one pound weight penalty in them from the white oak.

Then there is reclaimed pallet wood. Once in a while I get some that I just have to save for a bike frame. Other times, I'll save it to make the shipping crate for you, and I bet you won't be able to throw it out either.

I do like to tell a story through these bike frames. When possible, I track where the wood came from, and how old it is to get a sense of its place in history.