LIANE HANSEN, host:
With all the attention focused on eco-friendly living these days, more people are noticing the benefits of bamboo. It's renewable, strong, versatile and used in a range of products from flooring to cutting boards.
Independent producer Jon Kalish found some do-it-yourselfers in New York City who are using bamboo to make bike frames.
JON KALISH: The Bamboo Bike Studio is run by three men in their late '20s who know a lot about bamboo and a lot about bicycles. On a cool autumn morning, two of them are looking for bamboo to harvest in a dense grove near New Brunswick, New Jersey.
(Soundbite of cutting)
KALISH: They're carrying a caliper to find stems that are an inch and a half inch thick and a small Japanese pull saw to cut them. When they find stems that are the right thickness, they tap the bamboo to make sure it's not too soft.
(Soundbite of tapping)
Mr. JUSTIN AGUINALDO (Co-Owner, Bamboo Bike Studio): If the bamboo is too watery, it's not as dense and it's not as strong.
KALISH: That's Justin Aguinaldo, an earnest young man who makes his living as a bicycle messenger. He's joined on this bamboo harvest by Sean Murray, a former schoolteacher whose voicemail greeting makes note of the fact that he's living the dream of making bikes with his friends. Murray finds these bamboo patches by reading online gardening forums.
Mr. SEAN MURRAY (Co-Owner, Bamboo Bike Studio): One story I've heard a lot is I got some bamboo a few years back as a
KALISH: That's Justin Aguinaldo, an earnest young man who makes his living as a bicycle messenger. He's joined on this bamboo harvest by Sean Murray, a former schoolteacher whose voice mail greeting makes note of the fact that he's living the dream of making bikes with his friends. Murray finds these bamboo patches by reading online gardening forums.
Mr. SEAN MURRAY (Co-Owner, Bamboo Bike Studio): One story I've heard a lot is I got some bamboo a few years back as a decorative plant, and I still like the bamboo, but it's starting to crawl into my neighbor's yards. There's a kind of urgency brought on by the protests of their neighbors, you know?
KALISH: The two bamboo bike makers cut green bamboo stems in three and five-foot lengths and filled the trunk of their small sedan before heading back to their bike studio in Brooklyn.
KALISH: In the bamboo bike studio, a homemade oven is used to bake the bamboo after its outer skin has been treated with a torch. Then the brown bamboo stems are made into frames by first connecting them with a sawdust and resin mixture. The joints are then wrapped with a thin, ribbon-like carbon fabric that soaks up epoxy. After the epoxy dries, the bike's joints look like they've been wrapped with black electrical tape.
Mr. MURRAY: This is a little lumpy right here, so I'd like to see that smoothed out.
KALISH: Last weekend, two people in their 40s, both self-described tinkerers, spent close to $1,000 to make their own bamboo bikes. For that fee, they got the bamboo frame, all the components needed to make a multi-gear or single-speed bike, and expert guidance.
Ms. SARI HARRIS: This seemed just perfect. Like, I wanted a new bike 'cause my bike is over 20 years old. I really wanted a lighter bike.
KALISH: Forty-year-old Sari Harris is an information architect who designs interfaces for mobile phone apps. Harris was looking for something more than just a new bike.
Ms. HARRIS: I could change a tire and that's it. So, part of me is like, wow, I could make the frame and then, because I'll put all the components on, I'm going to learn a lot about the mechanics of how a bike works and maybe how to tune-up my own bike.
KALISH: Engineer Marty Odlin was supervising Harris' work. Odlin estimates there are now close to 80 bamboo bikes on the road that were built in his Brooklyn studio.
Mr. MARTY ODLIN (Engineer): Everyone that leaves the studio says, like, wow, my bike is my favorite object now. They have such a connection to this thing that came together under their own hands. They may not come here to have that connection to their bicycle, but that's what they leave with. Everyone leaves with that.
KALISH: The Bamboo Bike Studio has drawn amateur bike builders from as far away as California and England. Alexis Mills, a bicycle messenger in Ottawa and his 61-year-old mom, a doctor, came and made bikes. Back in Canada, Mills quickly found that people who ride around on bamboo bikes get a lot of questions about their wheels.
Mr. ALEXIS MILLS: The ride itself is really smooth. Like, it eats up a lot of the vibrations of the road. I wondered if it might be too flexible or too mushy, but it's not. It's really nice to ride.
KALISH: Interest in bamboo bikes is growing. A company in Colorado says it will start shipping bamboo bikes in the spring that cost $1,300. But engineer Marty Odlin says the bamboo bike makers here in Brooklyn believe in doing things a different way.
Mr. ODLIN: There is a concern that bamboo bikes become, like, this fad. And we could sell a whole bunch of them for a whole lot of money to a whole bunch of people very quickly and then nothing after that, right? It becomes a fad and then it dies out. We feel like we're building something with more enduring value than that.
KALISH: And these bamboo bikes really last. Odlin and his two partners have all ridden thousands of miles on New York City streets. Their bamboo bike-making classes in Brooklyn are filled until April.
For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.
HANSEN: And you can see the bamboo bikes at our Web site, NPR.org.