Located in a nondescript commercial building in Southeast Portland, Renovo Hardwood Bicycles makes some of the
most unique bikes on the road. Their first bike, was a collaboration between Ken Wheeler (owner/mastermind) and his son Stuart. The bike, proved that it was possible to create a wood bicycle using hollow tubes and CNC technology. However, that initial plywood bike performed terribly, being far too flexible. Since the first prototype, Renovo has been continually working to improve their bikes. It is remarkable how far they have come in their very short 6-year history.
Ken, Renovo’s owner/creator, comes from an engineering background. He explained to me that people often assume that a bicycle is a simple, but it is much more. It is very challenging engineering problem! Ken claims that Renovo’s bikes are compliant enough to help eliminate vibration from the road and yet stiff enough to be stable on high speed descents. His bikes are wood because he believes it to be the superior material to steel, aluminum, titanium or even carbon. Ken’s methodical, engineering based approach is very apparent. From the beginning, every stick of wood is tested for moisture content, hardness and deflection. These tests continue through every stage of the manufacturing process. Renovo tests their frame’s stiffness in comparison to other bikes. They test the wood tubes for impact resistance in comparison to other materials. Head to Renovobikes.com/testing/ and you will see deflection tables and their impact test.
The first time I saw a Renovo bicycle was at the Seattle Bike Expo. As an amateur woodworker and cyclist, I was inspired. Clearly I was not the only one. The Renovo booth always seems to get a lot of attention. I make a point to stop by every year and see their latest and greatest creations. I am always disappointed if Renovo does not attend the Seattle Bike Expo.
The idea for my visit to Renovo, like most good good ideas, was hatched over BEERS with a good friend. The conversation eventually turned to cycling. BIG SURPRISE! Somewhere along the line Renovo came up and she suggested that I take a factory tour for the blog. Yeah! A tour for the blog… Riii-ight! The blog. 😉 The next day, I went to the Renovobikes.com and sent them an e-mail. I did not expecting any sort of response. To my surprise, one of their employees, Albert replied within a couple days. Albert said they loved the BUTTCRACK Blog and we set up an appointment for a factory tour and test ride. This post will discuss the factory tour and the next will detail my enjoyable Portland Renovo test ride.
We started with introductions and a look around the showroom. There are some very sexy bikes on display, but the real magic happens in the shop. We were lucky enough to get to see the whole process. Albert’s tour followed the manufacturing process. Everything starts at material storage.
It may not look like much, but there is already a lot of thought in these boards. Renovo tests each one for moisture content and hardness at the lumber yard. Once the lumber is brought to the shop, it is tested again for stiffness (deflection) and compared against known values for the species of wood. Using this information, Renovo can tailor the materials in the frame for the owner. A smaller, lighter rider can get the lighter less stiff species of wood. A big, heavy Clydesdale, such as myself, will get the stiffer, heavier woods. Renovo’s frames are only available in standard sizes, but they customize the wood composition to match the owner’s riding style, weight and desired appearance. Once the materials have been selected, they mill the blanks.
Milling and Frame Assembly
The main triangle (top tube, down tube and seat tube) of a Renovo bike is made in (2) halves that are joined together. The first step of this to mill blanks for the left and right side of the bike to the proper thickness. The individual layers are joined using glue and a very high tech hydraulic press. Once prepared, the sections for the individual tubes are finger jointed together to form the left and right side of the main triangle. Once completed, the main triangle really comes to life in the CNC Machine.
A lot of labor goes into creating a Renovo frame, but what really makes it all possible is the CNC Machine. Think of it as a giant computer controlled router. Each bike spends roughly 3-4 hours in the CNC machine being milled to shape. They start with the hollowing out the tubes. Then Marshall, the CNC operator, flips each half and the CNC machine goes back to work shaping the outside of the bike. The two halves are then epoxied together and heat cured to form the main triangle. Seat and chain stays, made of solid wood members, are also milled at the CNC and are epoxied to the main triangle. Once the frame is assembled, metal head tube inserts, bottom bracket shell and other metal elements are added. Once this is done, the frames are ready for finish.
Left – Blanks to machined main triangles.
Middle – Seat stay held in its final location
Right – Metal fittings, head tubes, bottom bracket
tubes and custom fabricated drop outs.
A good quality finish can make a woodworking project. This is true at Renovo and likely their biggest
innovation. A bicycle has to stand up to harsh conditions. It is subject to heat, cold, sunlight and salt (sweat). The finish in addition to being beautiful, is the bike’s only line of defense against these forces. Each bike requires approximately 9 hours of finish time. Cody, a man who is much more patient than I, sprays the interior of each main triangle to seal the grain. After the frame is glued together, he sands preps and sprays each frame. Then the finish is cured it in a warm room. After the finish cures, each frame is buffed and sanded to eliminate imperfections. If you sand too much, you have to re-spray the entire frame and start over. This is a tedious process. Renovo had two available finishes, satin and gloss. The gloss really makes the wood pop, and is easier to repair, but requires more labor. It is not easy to get such a smooth mirror like finish.
Once complete, components are added to complete the bike. Albert our tour guide is also the shop mechanic. This is another opportunity to customize the bike. The customer gets to choose every aspect, brakes, wheels, bars, seat, shifters etc. You electronic shifting dorks will love that Di2 is now an option for Renovo. Belt drives and disc brakes are also available depending upon model.
So there you have it. A completed Renovo. They only build 100 a year. Ken, the owner, describes them as ‘heirloom quality’ bikes. This description seems fitting. He can recall details of many of the Renovo frames and their owners. Such as where they are from, the materials used, and even how many miles are on a few. He says that there are Renovos with over 30,000 miles on them! Even so, people are skeptical of a wood bike. As a result, he says that his bikes are intentionally over built. They also carry a 10 year warranty. Something that is unheard of in the cycling industry. Of course this means nothing if the bikes do not perform well. Stay tuned for next week’s blog where I review my Renovo test ride.