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The Embira Bicycle Frame

Student Design 26 863

Thomas Pascoli Scott is a product design student at Centro Universitário da Cidade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He recently built this wooden bike as school project and submitted it to me in hopes of getting some feedback. I’ll let Thomas explain his idea behind the design in his own words below… let him know what you think about it in the comments.

The point of this product (besides transporting one from a place to another) is to point out that we can reduce our dependence on metals and other non-renewable materials when we replace them with more sustainable ones. The design itself, is the result of an attempt to create a strong structure with an aesthetic form, enabling a greater appreciation of the incredible material that wood is, emphasizing its colors, grain patterns and texture.

In the native Brazilian language (tupi-guarani), Embira means wood fiber. The 3kg frame is structured like a box. The walls are made of 4mm plywood and are structured internally with a simple truss of plywood which is later filled with the *mamona p.u foam for extra strength. No screws or nails are used to assemble the frame, only wood joinery and glue.

Although the main target was the frame alone, other parts of the bike are composed of biodegradable products, such as the Brooks leather saddle and grips. The handlebars were picked up free of charge from a bicycle scrap yard and then refurbished.

Materials used for frame:

Freijó wood
Goiabão wood,
cedar plywood,
Mamona based polyurethane foam
Pva based glue
Old metal tubes (steel and brass)

*Mamona = Brazilian plant which produces oil similar to castor oil
*Embira = native brazilian language (tupi-guarani) word for wood fiber

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  1. Andy Mangold September 9, 2009 at 9:27 pm -  Reply

    Beautiful, no doubt, but I am most curious as to how it rides. I have read that similar wooden framed bikes are like riding "rubber bands" and that they simply aren't stiff enough for the bike to feel substantial underneath you.
    I would love to see something like this produced for sale.

  2. Bryan Willman September 9, 2009 at 10:42 pm -  Reply

    Well, metal can often be reused, recycled, etc. While forrests are precious alive, as well as sources of material.

    That said, a real question is what would it cost? The Renovo (which I hope to ride one day) is quite a costly bike.

    To replace much metal with wood, the cost of a workable bike would have to be quite low (sub $500) because metal bikes in those low prices dominate the market.

    How will the wood be reused/recycled at the end of the bike's life?

    The structure looks well thought out and efficient – how does the bike ride?

  3. thomas September 9, 2009 at 11:33 pm -  Reply

    Hi, thanks for the feed back. Answering some questions about the bike.
    It wasn´t too expensive to make. It isn´t made from solid wood and cnc cut like the renovos, that definately adds to their price. This type uses less wood and more mamona p.u foam (for the core) which is cheap. As far as keeping the price down and using less wood this foam makes the whole difference. No cnc or nothing like that needed, just clamps and normal tools you´d find in a woodshop.
    At the end of the bike´s (frame) life, you could separate the wood from the core and biodegrade (compost) them or maybe have the wood broken down to fine particles to be used in making MDF boards.
    The price. That is a hard question to answer because it is still experimental. But I suppose sub 500dolars isn´t impossible.
    How it rides? pretty well… it feels "softer" than a regular bike because of the flexixbility of wood. Definately a lot more flexy than a regular steel or aluminium frame. I´ve only tested it for cruising. I have still to do some research on it´s strength to impact.

    The most important for me is that
    it was such a good chance to learn about bikes, a thing that I love.



  4. Michael September 10, 2009 at 12:14 am -  Reply

    Hi Thomas i really liked your bike it looks really good.But i wonder if it works normally. Nicholas.D Scott

    Awesome bike Thomas – congratulations! Michael A. Scott

  5. thomas September 10, 2009 at 2:01 am -  Reply

    Hi Nick, how´s it going ?! Glad you enjoyed the bike. It works just the same as a regular bike. The only diference is that I used an old braking system called coaster, which you have to pedal backwards to stop the bike

  6. Andrew September 10, 2009 at 10:03 am -  Reply

    I'm a bit concerned that the sustainability aspect of it is compromised with the introduction of the polyurethane foam. It's easy to say that the core can be separated from the wood laminates, but it's whether that will actually happen at end of life. Unless there's some chemical, thermal or mechanical way to easily design for disassembly, chances are it's not going to happen. Especially given how tenaciously sticky PU is. That's a pretty permanent bond, unless perhaps you're involving really nasty chemical solvents, which definitely defeats the purpose of an eco, biodegradeable bike.

    Steel's the most widely recycled material in the world by a tremendous margin. It's okay if you're doing this from an aesthetic/exploratory/why-the-hell-not? point of view, but I'm not sure it's easy to reconcile this as a sustainable bike. Especially once the cost gets factored in…I think egalitarian design is an undervalued aspect of sustainability.

    Love to see what you come up with next, though.

  7. Erik Orgell September 10, 2009 at 10:37 am -  Reply

    I really like the design of this bike with the exception of the seat post poking through the clean frame, it reminds me of an unneutered dog for some reason.

    How well does a wooden bike age? My main bike is a 8 or 9 year old steel framed Ibis Mojo. Given how much abuse I've put it through, it still rides nearly perfectly. I'd be worried about a wooden or other bio-based bicycle after such a long time. I understand a bike like this isn't made to bash off rocks and bomb down trails but there must come a time when frame fatigue means it must be retired.

  8. GeekGuyAndy September 10, 2009 at 1:36 pm -  Reply

    +1 to Andrew for sustainability. There's no way a wood/PU bike will be recycled properly, especially if it's a small scale production. Great design for a cruising bike, but I hate to see the word sustainable tacked on to everything these days.

    I'd say a regular metal frame bike is actually far more sustainable because the frame can last decades, and a commuting-style bike can be used to replace most trips that would otherwise be taken by car. While a flexy wood bike can get you around, I wouldn't say it replaces too many car trips because I can't imagine trying to add racks, pulling a trailer, or using it for comutting on anything longer than a few miles on flat ground.

    Great design though, just keep it to that and don't try to greenwash it.

  9. Rafael Schoch September 10, 2009 at 2:49 pm -  Reply

    We have to make a decent video of this bike!

    Congratulations and good idea to do a blog of the bike!

    Rafael Schoch

  10. Yokota Fritz September 10, 2009 at 5:01 pm -  Reply

    That's a very sharp looking wooden bike. Well done to Thomas!

  11. Funride September 10, 2009 at 5:05 pm -  Reply

    Oi Thomas, tudo bem?

    I just want to congratulate you for the simplicity of your design and how good it looks. I love every kind of bikes and I would love to own a wooden bike just like yours. Do you think it´s viable to built this type of bike even though I know nothing about wood craft? Do you have any plans to commercialize it?

    Forte abraço,

  12. Thomas September 10, 2009 at 8:35 pm -  Reply

    Hey andrew and geekguyandy,
    I agree with you on the fact that metal generally has a longer life span than wood. But you have to consider the embodied energy of steel is far greater than wood. example: It takes 100 times more energy to produce a tonne of aluminium than it does a tonne of sawn timber. And in the production of the wood frame, no welding is needed, thus, less energy consumed as well.
    Metals, unlike wood, are a finite resource and the mining process produces a number of environmental impacts (erosion, soil contamination etc).

    In the other hand, it is a very empowering material than can be recycled almost endlessly. This bicycle itself wouldn´t be possible without it.

    The point is to make best use of what´s available to us. And I think the reduction of metal is an important step towards sustainable design. This an attempt.

    thanks for sharing your opinion, made me think about a lot of stuff

  13. GeekGuyAndy September 10, 2009 at 10:20 pm -  Reply

    Thomas, it really is a great design. But stop kidding us that it's supposed to be sustainable.

    I do know that metal has a significant embodied energy, and that wood is a renewable resource – I get that. But this is a bike, which will always require many metal parts (chain, fork, handlebars, wheels, spokes, etc.) except in very unusually instances.

    If you made the bike completely of wood I would agree with your point. But instead it includes many metal parts, and instead of a metal frame, there is processed, treated wood, with polyurethane layers between it. Can you tell me what the embodied energy is of PU or how that is more recyclable then metal?

    "It is a very empowering material than can be recycled almost endlessly." Wood itself can be recycled. Although, this bike can't be easily recycled because it's got PU stuck to it, and I'm assuming that plywood has almost no reclaiming value to it compared to metals.

    I agree that we should make the best use of what is available to us. But a less sturdy, flexing wooden frame which can't be easily recycled because it's coated in non-recyclable materials is not the best use in my mind.

    Again, the design is wonderful, but you can't convince me that it is in any way more sustainable than a standard metal bike which can last decades.

  14. Thomas September 10, 2009 at 10:56 pm -  Reply

    one thing at a time. My aim at this point is the frame alone.
    Answering your question. This mamona p.u is vegetal based and it´s been tested for it´s biodegradability, that´s why i chose it instead of regular pu. Just like any other product product, it has to be tested and evolve. I´m not tying to push the idea that it´s green, what i´m saying is the more you use renewable materials and use less of the non-renewable with embodied energy the better.

  15. September 10, 2009 at 11:00 pm -  Reply

    Hey Funride,
    I´m glad you enjoyed it ! this is just a one-off project for now.

    valeu, abraços

  16. Thomas September 10, 2009 at 11:07 pm -  Reply

    Ricardo, If you have a good book on woodworking and some spare time that will help a lot

  17. Spaghetti Groove – Surf Art Moviment September 11, 2009 at 7:36 am -  Reply

    Hey, Thomas
    What´s up?

    It´s a great Idea

    Thanks for helping our planet with its ideas..

    Good Job!


    João Underground

  18. AvgasStew September 12, 2009 at 12:04 am -  Reply

    Bugger sustainability. That bike is nice. I was thinking of something similar – but didn't have the drive to complete it. Kudos to you my friend for doing so

  19. kfg September 13, 2009 at 10:28 pm -  Reply

    I built this back in the 70s when I was a physics student during the first Great Gas Scare.

    Then I built a conventional lugged steel frame, which, as it happens, is sitting right across the room from me right now as I'm giving the bike an overhaul decades later. If I live long enough there's no reason I shouldn't be giving it an overhaul decades from now. There's a 30 year old Peugeot right next to it that I've just finished overhauling.

    There is a *125* year old child's tricycle on the bench over there; and when I'm through with it some kid will be riding it – and them maybe HIS kids.

    Lord only knows where the remains of the "wood" bike are now.

    I ride steel bikes; for all the reasons already listed here by others.

    This wood bike (and mine before it) isn't a wood bike at all; it is a wood and METAL bike; and epoxy resin, and urethane foam, and . . .

    It's very energy intensive, very petroleum intensive and very chemically toxic, but at least it won't have a life cycle anywhere near as long as a steel bike and will be almost entirely non recyclable; so it's got that going for it.

    It's a cool project. I'm glad I did it. I'm glad YOU did it; but you're, ummmmmm, barking up the wrong tree, as it were. There is no sustainability issue with metals that have such a long duty cycle, are being used in the most efficient manner possible and are so easily recycled into as new raw material.

    Let us say the average bicycle weighs 25 lbs. How many bicycles do you think you could build by recycling the steel in just ONE Chevy Big Block?

    How about how many from just ONE industrial beam recovered and recycled from a building or bridge being taken down?

    The problem with metals isn't sustainability, the problem is WASTE, the DISPOSAL of perfectly good "stuff."

    Your bike will do nothing to address this issue and will mean the waste of formerly living entities (which when alive happen to ALSO be atmospheric CO2 scrubbers) instead of lifeless minerals.

    But it IS cool.

    Now go out and build a steel and aluminum bike. Your great grand kids will probably think it's pretty cool to be riding a bike built by an ancestor and this one isn't going to last that long.

  20. Thomas September 14, 2009 at 1:21 pm -  Reply

    I agree with some things you said and disagree with others. My bike does adress the waste of metal issue in a way. The handle bars, and metal tubes used were recovered from a scrap yard. But yes, the durability of wood vs steel is a good point you and others have pointed out.
    Do you have any pictures of your "wooden" bike? I´m curios to see it ?

  21. kfg September 15, 2009 at 6:02 pm -  Reply

    "My bike does adress the waste of metal issue in a way. The handle bars, and metal tubes used were recovered from a scrap yard."

    Well there ya go. My argument exactly. Now go out and recover a steel frame from the scrap yard and put the whole thing back into service for another generation. 🙂

    "Do you have any pictures of your "wooden" bike?"

    In one of those "life events" most of the photographs I took before 1980, including the ones of the bike. have been lost to me, negatives and all (things like that were prone to happen before we could back them up across the Internet). If mine and yours were parked side by side an onlooker would likely guess that they were by the same builder, but that mine was the prototype. I did a cruder job, but mine really did look that much like yours. I was influenced by the Bowden Spacelander. Were you as well?

    Wanna see the pictures of my '68 Triumph GT6 after my brother drove it into a telephone poll? For some reason I still have those. I hope it ended up getting recycled into bicycles instead of just being tossed into the heap to gradually return to unrecoverable oxide. I hate that sort of waste.

  22. kfg September 15, 2009 at 6:28 pm -  Reply

    P.S. I was also influenced by the Marcos wood sports and formula cars of Frank Costin. If you aren't familiar with those you might want to look into them.

    I built a couple of motorcycle engined wooden formula cars (one of them a kind of cross between a Lotus 72 and a Morgan. Why waste a perfectly good motorcycle suspension? I never took any pictures of those in the first place) as well. I really do like wood a lot (see Sloane's book A Reverence for Wood) and think it's often a shamefully overlooked engineering material these days, but there is a place and reason for metal.

    And disposable aluminum cooking foil is a much bigger sustainability problem than a few pounds of reusable and recyclable bike frame.

  23. kfg September 15, 2009 at 9:13 pm -  Reply


    ". . .drove it into a telephone poll?"

    Now THAT I'd like to see. Sometimes my own typos make me giggle.

  24. Thomas September 15, 2009 at 9:47 pm -  Reply

    Hey kfg,
    too bad you don´t have those photos. I would have liked to seeing your earlier prototype. I´m not happy about the way bikes are made today, I think there´s lot´s to be developed still in that area. I´m not ready to settle for metal as being the "best" material out there for bikes and other products that require mecanical and time resistence.
    question: Do you think metal is the most susutainable material for building bike frames?
    The environmental impact of metal production is too great to be disconsidered, don´t you think?
    I know the bowden spacelander, it´s weird and cool at the same time, but I didn´t get my inspiration from it.

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