Issue 20.2: April/May 2017
Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

Wheels of Grass

Story by Kyveli Diener. Photos by Krystle Marcellus.

Bicycle frames are typically made from one of four materials: steel, aluminum, titanium or carbon fiber. But not at Werk Arts in Honolulu. There the bikes are made by a custom woodworker named Barret Werk, who fashions the frames from a material you can grow yourself: bamboo.

“Bamboo is a little heavier than carbon fiber and lighter than aluminum,” Werk says. “In a bike it’s so fast, and it feels so smooth on the road.” Werk makes both bamboo mountain bikes and bamboo road bikes, building them as single-speeds or with eight-speed internal geared hubs. He equips them with disc brakes, as well as koa wood inlays for added strength and beauty.

A lanky and lifelong cyclist, Werk learned woodcraft from the late William “Billy” Parks, a former NFL player and an expert woodworker from Hawai‘i Island, where Werk was living on an organic farm. It was on the farm that bamboo caught his interest. “I think the contact with the land and the raw material on the Big Island gave me a real chance to experiment,” he says. “There are more than a thousand varieties of bamboo, and each one has its strengths and weaknesses. There are some really cool options out there.”

Werk creates more than just bikes at Werk Arts; he also builds custom furniture and cabinetry, using a variety of woods. It’s his bamboo bikes, though, that get the most attention. Yet for all their novelty, there’s nothing new about building bikes out of bamboo. The first patent for a bamboo bike was issued to a British company in 1894, and in parts of Asia and Africa, bamboo bikes have long been seen as a cost-effective means of transportation.

Werk’s bamboo bikes aren’t for the budget-minded. The frame alone goes for $1,500. If that’s out of the question, there is another option, at least for DIYers. Werk periodically leads bamboo bike making classes at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Spalding House. And the modern bamboo joinery techniques he teaches can be used to build all sorts of things with bamboo, not just bikes. “Whether you want to build furniture or get ambitious and build a gazebo, it gives you a tool,” he says. “It starts people thinking of creative ways to build with bamboo.”